Is Immortality Important?
Religion is about inhabiting the eternal in the here and now.
I think I can safely say that as a child my religious life was ruined by the notion of the afterlife. I was obsessed with the fear of Hell. The nuns at my convent school instructed me in the Catholic doctrine of mortal sin, which seemed perilously easy to commit. If you died with one unshriven and unrequited mortal sin on your soul, you would languish in Hell for all eternity. Religion, as far as I could see, was chiefly concerned with “getting into Heaven.” A stockpile of prayers and good deeds could ensure my entry ticket into paradise, but I also resorted to the gaining of indulgences, the wearing of scapulas, and the practice of attending Mass on the first Friday of every month. If you managed five consecutive first Fridays, you were promised that you would not die without receiving the last rites and having the chance to confess all to a priest.
This type of piety seems no more religious than paying into a retirement annuity to secure a comfortable retirement in the hereafter. It is obsessed with self. Religion is supposed to be about the loss of the ego, not about its eternal survival in optimum conditions. It can also feed an attitude of exclusivity. I sometimes think that if some Christians arrived in Heaven and found everybody there, they would be furious: Heaven wouldn’t be Heaven if the elect are deprived of the Schadenfreude of peering over the celestial parapets to watch the excluded unfortunates roasting below.
Eschatology has produced some fearful visions in recent years. The suicide bomber who blasts his way into paradise, expecting to be eternally entertained by 70 virgins, is possessed by murderous hatred and rage. The fundamentalist Christian who eagerly expects to be raptured into Heaven before the Tribulation of the End is assured of a ringside seat whence he or she can watch the suffering of unbelievers during the Last Days. Not all religion is good; there is bad religion in the same way as there is bad art, bad cooking, and bad sex. In fact, religion is difficult to do well and we are seeing a lot of bad religion at the moment. By encouraging a vengeful, exclusive, and superior attitude that sees personal survival as the key issue, this concentration on the afterlife is what the Buddhists would call “unskillful.” It runs directly counter to the compassion that lies at the heart of all the great traditions—including Christianity and Islam. Jung once said that a great deal of religiosity seems perversely designed to prevent people from having a religious experience. These spiteful fantasies about the afterlife are a prime example of this.
One of our problems is that since the Enlightenment we often have a reductive notion of religious truth, which we either see as predominantly notional or equate with objective fact. We regard the myths of our religion as history, imagine that if a belief is not historically, scientifically true it cannot be true at all, and that our doctrinal formulations correspond exactly to an external, even demonstrable, reality. We have therefore lost the sense that when we are talking about God, the Sacred, Heaven, or Hell we are speaking about the ineffable and are at the end of what words or thoughts can usefully do.
In popular parlance, a myth is often dismissed as something that is not true. A politician, if accused of a peccadillo in his past life, will say that it is a myth: it didn’t happen. But myth is not a primitive attempt to write history or science; it is an entirely different kind of discourse that is more than history, more than fact. A myth is an event that in some sense happened once but which also happens all the time. We have no word for such an event, because we have developed a strictly chronological notion of history. But like religion, myth addresses what is timeless in the human condition. It is also a program of action that tells us how to access the timeless or the eternal. And this, it seems to me, is how we should understand the notion of immortality, which has nothing to do with time. Immortality is not an endless succession of moments; it is not everlasting. It is not confined to a posthumous existence in the future. It is an eternal now.
I may have been disturbed by the conventional idea of an afterlife as a child, but I was deeply alert to the possibility of transcendence, an experience that goes beyond the mundane. I longed for what the Greeks called ekstasis, a “stepping outside” of our ordinary existence into another sacred dimension. I wanted to make God and the divine a reality in my own life, so at the age of 17 I entered a convent. This was not a wise decision, but the desire to appropriate religious doctrine and make it my own was sound. If God remains a shadowy, distant, and objective reality, “out there,” it cannot be religious. The traditions tell us how to make the remote, external truths of religion a vibrant part of our internal world here and now.
Thus the Greek Orthodox do not believe that Jesus died to save us from our sins, but to enable us to become divine. Jesus, they claim, is the first fully deified human being, in the same way as the Buddha is the first enlightened human being in our historical era. And what he was, we also can be—even in this life. In their holy law, Muslims have made the historical person of the Prophet Muhammad a myth; by imitating the way Muhammad spoke, prayed, ate, washed, walked, and loved, they appropriate him and identify with him at a deep level, liberating him, as it were, from the seventh century and making him a living presence in the lives of every Muslim. They hope that by modeling their external demeanor on that of the Prophet they will also gain his attitude of islam, a total surrender to God that is the goal of human life.
Religion is about transformation; by ritual and ethical practice we become fundamentally different. Religion is not about preparing for the beatific vision in Heaven; it is also about living a fully human life in this world. By becoming one with these paradigmatic figures, losing our flawed, everyday selves in their perfection, we too can become perfect and inhabit an eternal dimension even in this world of pain and death.
Like any other religious truth, immortality must become a present reality. It is liberation from the constraints of time and space, and from the limitations of our narrow horizons. It involves a profound realization that the deepest core of our being is inseparable from what has been called God, nirvana, brahman, or the Dao. Like any myth, it is a program for action. The traditions teach us how to effect this radical internal transformation; they cannot tell us what this immortal state is, because it is so different from our normal consciousness that it is ineffable, but they provide us with a method that will help us to change. Unless we put that method into practice, we are in no position to say whether we have an immortal self or not. Immortality is not a matter of waiting for the next life, but in perfecting our humanity here and now.
Not many of the world religions are as preoccupied with Heaven, Hell, and judgment as Christianity and Islam; these faiths absorbed much of the apocalyptic vision of Zoroastrianism, which was unique in the ancient world. Many of the great sages were wary of speaking about the afterlife. The afterlife has never been a major preoccupation in Judaism. St. Paul told his converts, “Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what things God has prepared for those that love him.” When asked whether a Buddha who had achieved the enlightenment of nirvana continued to exist after his death, the Buddha replied that this was an improper question, because we have no words to describe this state. It was, therefore, pointless to discuss it. It was far better to concentrate on this world. “Until you have learned to serve men, how can you serve spirits?” Confucius told his disciples, when they asked him how they should approach the gods and the ancestors, who were central to the ancient cult of China. “Until you know about the living, how can you learn about the dead?”
These sages may not have been interested in talking about the afterlife, but they were passionately concerned with the immortality of the self or the soul. But they did not believe that they had to wait until their death to experience this immortality. We had within ourselves the ability to transcend the constraints of time and space, pain and mortality and experience bliss, peace, and an ecstatic serenity here and now. But how did we access this “self “? It had nothing to do with our normal psychic life; this immortal selfhood was not located in our intellect, our thoughts, or feelings, which we often see as the finest and most essential part of us. The self lay behind all these perceptible mental phenomena and was, therefore, very difficult to find.
One of the first systematic attempts to find the immortal self was made by the sages of the Upanishads in about the seventh century bce. They insisted that the atman, the essence of the human person, was identical to the brahman, the ultimate reality. You did not need to worship the Vedic gods, because the brahman, the All, was present in the deepest strata of yourself. The atman was, therefore, immortal, “beyond hunger and thirst, sorrow and delusion, old age and death.” It was “imperishable, indestructible.” It liberated the practitioner from the pain and terror of mortality. But it was hard to find. The atman was not what we call the soul, because it was not pure spirit. It was that which lay behind our mental activity—the Perceiver that enabled us to see, the Hearer that enabled us to hear. You could not define the atman, because it lay beyond our conceptual experience; you could only participate in it after a long process of “self-discovery.” It was not a matter of accepting the doctrine of the identity of atman and brahman, because this notion made no sense unless you put the Upanishadic method into practice, and this meant that you had to dismantle your normal mode of thought, undergo a long, slow training in inwardness, and become aware of the labyrinthine complexity of your internal world.
In traditional Vedic religion, people had hoped to join the gods in one of the heavens by accumulating sufficient liturgical credit. The Upanishadic sages found this unhelpful, because it meant that you wanted to preserve your present limited, flawed existence. Instead you had to go beyond this limited “I” that is hemmed in by needs and desires, prey to fear and terror, and leave the greedy, grasping ego behind. This was difficult, because we instinctively cling to ourselves, devote immense energy to ensuring our personal survival and think our individuality is worth preserving. The practitioner had to lay these engrained habits aside, so the Upanishadic method did not simply consist in metaphysical speculation. The aspirant had to live a humble lifestyle that was every bit as important as the theoretical theology. One Upanishadic story explains that it took the mighty warrior god Indra over 100 years to discover his eternal atman. During that time, he had to live as a humble Vedic student, collecting the wood for his teacher’s fire, and cleaning his house. Indra, who never stopped boasting about his military achievements, had to give up war, sex, and self-glorification and live a life of nonviolence and self-effacement. And only at the end of this long, patient process did Indra discover what his atman was.
Immortality, therefore, had to be realized in the here and now. It was not easy, but if you persevered you became one with the immortal brahman, and were released from terror and anxiety. You experienced an ineffable peace and bliss, you were “calm, composed, cool, patient, and collected.” You enjoyed what monotheists might call celestial peace.
The Buddha called this condition nirvana. As we have seen, he always refused to define it, but it is clear that it was an experience of what we call immortality. Nirvana was “the unborn, unaging, deathless, sorrowless, incorrupt, and supreme freedom” from the bondage of normal life. He also gave it more positive epithets. Nirvana was the Other Shore, Peace, the Supreme Goal, the Beyond, the Harbor, the Everlasting. But this was not a supernatural state; the Buddha was convinced that it was entirely natural to humanity and that anybody who applied themselves wholeheartedly to his spiritual method could attain it. The enlightened man revealed the full spiritual capacity of the human person, just as an athlete or a dancer displays the physical potential of the human body in feats that are impossible to most of us.
The literal meaning of nirvana was “blowing out.” The aspirant must extinguish the flames of greed and selfishness that imprison us within the ego, so that we cannot look at anything without asking: Do I want this? How can I get it? How will this affect me? By tamping out these “unhelpful” states of mind, the Buddha had achieved the peace of complete selflessness—a state that those of us who are still enmeshed in the toils of egotism cannot begin to imagine. That is why the Buddha always refused to define nirvana. He would still suffer; he would grow old and sick like everybody else, but by assiduous meditation and ethical effort he had found an inner haven, which enabled him to live with pain, to affirm it, take possession of it, and experience a profound serenity in the midst of suffering. Nirvana was thus found within each person’s inner being; it was the still center that gave meaning to life. Once people had learned to access this oasis of calm, they were no longer driven hither and yon by conflicting fears and desires, but they discovered a strength that came from being correctly oriented and beyond the reach of selfishness.
One of the most popular ways of attaining nirvana was meditation on the distinctively Buddhist doctrine of anatta (“no self”). This was not a metaphysical or philosophical belief but, again, a practical program. Anatta required Buddhists to behave day by day, hour by hour, as though the self did not exist. Not only did the concept of “self” lead to unhelpful thoughts about “me” and “mine,” but prioritizing the self led to envy, hatred of rivals, conceit, pride, cruelty, and—when the self felt threatened—violence. The Buddha tried to make his disciples realize that they would be happier if they acted as though they did not have a self that needed to be defended, inflated, cajoled, or enhanced at the expense of others. The texts tell us that when the Buddha’s first disciples heard his explanation of anatta, their hearts were filled with joy and they immediately experienced nirvana. To live beyond the reach of hatred, greed, and anxieties about our status and survival proved to be liberating.
It is, therefore, impossible to understand the meaning of immortality if we are not prepared to give up the demands of the clamorous, frightened, and greedy ego. It was also crucial to accept the reality of death. The Chinese understood this. The fourth-century Daoist sage Zhuangzi found that once he had appreciated that everything was in constant flux and was continually in the process of becoming something different, he felt an exhilarating freedom. It was futile to try to prolong your life indefinitely. Death and life, joy and sorrow succeeded each other like night and day. When he died and ceased to be Zhuangzi, nothing would change. He would remain what essentially he had always been: a tiny part of the endlessly mutating pageant of the universe. Once they had given up thinking of themselves as unique and precious individuals, whose lives must be preserved at all costs, Zhuangzi and his friends found they could accept their mortality with cheerful interest and detachment.
The secret was selflessness. Zhuangzi taught his disciples to starve the ego. Then they could experience what he called the Great Knowledge, which was free of the constraints of time and space. He told his disciples the story of Ziqi, the contemplative, whose friends had come upon him one day “gazing into the sky, breath shallow and face blank, as if he were lost to himself.” He looked like a different person. What had happened? “Do you understand such things?” asked Ziqi. “Just then I’d lost myself completely.” When we tried to hold on to ourselves, we were alienated from the natural processes of life and death, growth and decay. Because he had lost himself, Ziqi was liberated from the constraints of selfishness. He could now see more clearly than ever before. “Perhaps you’ve heard the music of humans,” he told his friends, “but you haven’t heard the music of Heaven.” When you achieved this larger vision, you heard everything singing together and yet you could distinguish each thing separately. This was the Great Knowledge; it was “broad and unhurried,” while “small understanding is cramped and busy.”
Talented contemplatives could achieve this state of selflessness by yoga, which mounted a massive assault on the ego. But the Buddha taught that it was also possible to attain to the deathless nirvana by the exercise of constant compassion in which you dethroned yourself from the center of your world and put another there. One of the first sages to make it crystal clear that religion was essentially altruism was Confucius, who was the first to propound the Golden Rule some 500 years before Christ. The Golden Rule, Confucius said, was the single thread that ran through all his teaching. When his disciples asked him which of his instructions could be put into practice all day and every day, he replied, “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” This was the virtue of shu (consideration), which demanded that all day and every day you looked into your own heart, discovered what caused you pain, and then refrained under all circumstances from inflicting that distress upon other people. It demanded that people no longer put themselves into a special separate category but constantly related their own experience to that of others.
The Golden Rule became central to all the great traditions, not simply because it sounded good, but also because people found that it worked. It compelled them to “step outside” themselves, and this brought them intimations of immortality. The practice of the Golden Rule, according to Confucius, would not bring practitioners to a place, such as Heaven, but to a state of transcendent goodness, which he called ren, the characteristic of a fully mature human being. Ren, which later philosophers would define as benevolence, was difficult because it required the eradication of vanity, resentment, and the desire to dominate others. It was a lifelong struggle that would end only at death. Confucius, as we have seen, did not encourage his students to speculate about what lay at the end of the Way of ren. You were not going to a place, like Heaven, or to a personal God. Walking along this path was itself a transcendent and dynamic experience, an end in itself. Yan Hui, Confucius’s favorite disciple, expressed this beautifully when he said of ren, “with a deep sigh”:
The more I strain my gaze towards it the higher it soars. The deeper I bore down into it, the harder it becomes. I see it in front, but suddenly it is behind. Step by step, the Master skillfully lures one on. He has broadened me with culture, restrained me with ritual. Even if I wanted to stop, I could not. Just when I feel that I have exhausted every resource, something seems to rise up, standing over me sharp and clear. Yet though I long to pursue it, I can find no way of getting to it at all.
Ren was not something you “got” but something you gave. Ren was an exacting yet exhilarating way of life. It was itself the transcendence and immortality you sought. Living a compassionate, empathic life took you beyond yourself and introduced you to another dimension of existence. The constant discipline of ren gave Yan Hui momentary glimpses of a sacred reality that was both immanent and transcendent, looming up from within, yet also a companionable presence, “standing over me sharp and clear.”
The fourth-century Confucian Mencius also found that the Golden Rule closed the gap between Heaven and Earth and gave him intimations of divinity. It made the practitioner truly humane and brought him into a mystical relationship with the entire universe. “All the 10,000 things are there in me,” Mencius said in one of his most important instructions. “There is no greater joy for me than to find, on self-examination, that I am true to myself. Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to ren.” By behaving as though other people were as important as yourself, you could “close the gap between Heaven and Earth,” and become a divine force for good in the world.
Xunzi, the great Confucian theologian of the third century, agreed. Before anybody attempted to reform society, he believed, he must learn to understand the Dao, the Way things ought to be, with a mind that was empty of self, unified and still. These, he taught, were the qualities of “a great and true enlightenment.” Divested of self-obsession, an ordinary human being could achieve the panoptic vision of a true sage, freed of the constraints of space and time:
He who has such enlightenment may sit in his room and view the entire area within the four seas, may dwell in the present and yet discourse on distant ages. He has a penetrating insight into all beings and understands their true nature, studies the ages of order and disorder and comprehends the principle behind them. He surveys all Heaven and Earth, governs all beings, and masters the great principle and all that is in the universe.
This was a true experience of immortality that made the intelligence of a human being “godlike.” “Broad and vast—who knows the limits of such a man?” Xunzi asked. “His brightness matches the sun and moon, his greatness fills the eight directions. Such is the Great Man.”
The eschatology of the monotheistic religions was strongly influenced by the Zoroastrian apocalyptic vision, polarized in a desperate struggle between good and evil. Judaism has never placed much emphasis on the afterlife, but both Christianity and Islam have cultivated visions of Heaven, Hell, judgment, and eternal retribution and reward in a way that recalls Zoroaster’s frightened and despairing vision. But all these faiths also understand the importance of the Golden Rule and the abandonment of egotism. In the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus made it clear that it was practical charity that would bring human beings into the divine presence at the Great Judgment. When quoting an early Christian hymn, St. Paul told his Philippian converts that they must have the same mind as Christ Jesus, who achieved apotheosis and near godlike status by laying his dignity aside, emptying himself, and accepting the humiliation of death. The surrender of islam demands that we abandon the preening, prancing ego in the abasement and prostration of Muslim prayer.
There is therefore a widespread agreement that the quest for immortality should not concentrate on self-indulgent and exclusive fantasies of paradise but should focus on this world. Just as we experience the divine in our very selves, we can experience the peace and enhanced vision of eternity, freed from the constraints of space and time, in this world of suffering and death. We cannot understand the doctrine of immortality in a purely notional way. We can only achieve true knowledge of our immortal souls by undergoing a long discipline of self-emptying, a training in inwardness and self-effacement, and by the ekstasis of compassion and benevolence. The man and woman who experience immortality and the transcendence of empathy activate aspects of our humanity that all too often lie dormant and become fully humane.
This was the experience of the Buddha. One day a Brahman priest came upon the Buddha sitting under a tree and the sight of his serenity, stillness, and self-discipline filled the priest with awe. The Buddha reminded him of a tusker elephant. There was the same sense of enormous strength and massive potential brought under control and channeled into an enormous peace. The Brahman had never seen a man like that before. “Are you a god, sir?” he asked. “An angel? Or a spirit?” No, the Buddha replied. He had simply revealed a new potential in human nature. It was possible to live in this world of pain at peace, in control and in harmony with one’s fellow creatures. Once people had cut the roots of their egotism, they lived at the peak of their capacity. How should the Brahman describe him? “Remember me,” the Buddha told him, “as one who is awake.”
But this was not simply a private achievement. The attainment of immortality is not merely a matter of personal salvation. In our violent world, when we are seeing so much bad, egotistic, and cruel religion, we should recall the Chinese belief that a person who has refined his humanity in this way can save the world. His compassion would radiate from him, and because he has bridged the gap between Heaven and Earth, he brings the divine into our conflicted, tragic world. “A mature person transforms where he passes, and works wonders where he abides,” Mencius explained. “He is in the same stream as Heaven above and Earth below. Can he be said to bring but small benefit?”
Karen Armstrong is the author of many books, including A History of God; Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths; The Battle for God; and The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. This essay was presented last November at Harvard Divinity School as the Ingersoll Lecture for 2005-06.