Buddhistdoor View: Death and Immortality

Edvard Munch, “Melancholy,” 1894. From www.edvardmunch.org

The world of dew

Is the world of dew

And yet, and yet . . .

— Issa (1763–1828)

All sentient beings fear death. Many of us have wondered what it might be like to extend our lives beyond the natural lifespan—perhaps forever. One hundred and two years after the last imperial dynasty ended in China, the emperor’s fabled search for eternal life has become a renewed prospect. This time, however, the elixir is not to be found in a Daoist alchemist’s metallic concoction on a remote mountain, but rather with several US-based companies interested in setting up offices in China.

Organizations like the Alcor Life Extension Foundation are discussing the prospects of cryonics with a small number of wealthy Chinese. “Cryonics” sounds cryptic and unappealing, but it is a proposed science to “save lives” by preserving someone’s body after death so that it can be maintained for decades or centuries until a future technology can revive it. This procedure hinges around a different definition of death from what scientists currently define as clinical death: 4–6 minutes after the heart stops beating, the brain cannot be resuscitated.  

Cryonics advocates claim that real death occurs when cell structure and chemistry become so disorganized that no technology can restore the original body. Cryonics aims to prevent this “information-theoretic” criterion of death by preserving enough of a human body’s cell structure and chemistry that future technology will be able to recover it (along with a person’s memory and personality). According to Alcor’s website, the cryonic process ideally “begins within moments of cardiac arrest. Blood circulation and breathing are artificially restored, and a series of medications are administered to protect the brain from lack of oxygen. Rapid cooling also begins, which further protects the brain. The goal is to keep the brain alive by present-day criteria for as long as possible into the procedure.” 

Supporters claim that cryonics is scientifically justified based on the idea that life can be stopped and restarted if its basic structure is preserved; vitrification (deep freeze without ice formation at -120 degrees Celsius) can preserve the structure of the body and brain; and the emerging sciences of nanotechnology and nanomedicine are projected to repair structure at the molecular level. If these bets are correctly placed, cryonics effectively offers immortality.

As yet, cryonics cannot be demonstrated to succeed, even though more than a hundred people have undergone the cryo-preservation process (Alcor does not specify which countries these clients are from). Legally, anyone who pays to be cryonically preserved must still be called “deceased.” But if cryonics was validated, would this change how we understand ourselves? If a person is legally dead but can be preserved, it seems simplistic to call it an extension of life, a delaying of the natural process of decay. It may be possible to defy certain assumptions in traditional Buddhist doctrine. After all, if cryonics “patients” are recoverable after centuries of preservation, then they were never really dead in the first place. Will our beliefs about the Buddhist afterlife process and rebirth have to shift or adjust to new scientific possibilities and realities?

On a practical level, if someone is an altruist, it might be a good deed to extend their life far into the future so they can benefit many more generations. It also seems morally commendable to give an incurably ill person (especially a child) another chance at life, if it can be done. While it might sound self-serving, cryonics is not without its plausible justifications.

However, there is an equally persuasive argument to be made for rejecting the technology’s promises. While every individual’s journey towards death is different (and some are undoubtedly more unpleasant than others), it is not foolish or patronizing to suggest that age or decay has its own beauty.

Death itself can be beautiful (people speak of a “good” or “dignified” death)—tinged with sadness and loss, but lovely nevertheless.

Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s headquarters in Arizona. From South China Morning Post.
The theoretical method for cryonics. From Alcor’s website.

Japanese aesthetics calls this sadness wabi-sabi. One understanding of wabi-sabi (there are many) is that it elicits in us a feeling of gentle melancholy and spiritual aching. Derived from the three marks of existence—impermanence (Skt anitya), emptiness (Skt anatman), and suffering (Skt duhkha)—wabi-sabi insists that nothing lasts, nothing is complete, and nothing is perfect—hence its exquisiteness.

Reliance on cryonics might prevent the Buddhist “suffering” of aging and death, but from the wabi-sabi perspective cryonics actually misses the point: aging and death are to be reflected upon and enjoyed. Like a dusty photograph of old friends who will never meet again or a beloved home vacated forever, the permanence of human loss is a thing of great beauty and meaning.

Buddhists and cryonics advocates alike are not free from the questions that wabi-sabi raises. From a doctrinal point of view, we usually accept that suffering is an existential problem to be transcended. There is no such thing as “good” suffering (although it is commonly taught that suffering and difficult situations can be good teachers). Yet when the Jodo Shinshu priest Issa’s third child, a daughter, died, he wrote an emotional haiku about dew that expressed his true feelings: grasping, longing, and deep attachment (Unno 1998, 165). Rather than being attached to “transcending grief,” he could be his completely “foolish self” within the boundless compassion of Amitabha Buddha. Non-attachment had to be reached through attachment, otherwise non-attachment itself would have become an object of attachment as well.

Perhaps, then, a deeper question is not simply whether we should aim for immortality or make peace with death, but whether there might just be something meaningful—even beautiful—to be discovered in duhkha.


Unno, Taitetsu. 1998. River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism. New York: Doubleday. 

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