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How to Overcome the Fear of Death

Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. Image courtesy of Jungto Society

The Korean Seon (Zen) master Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (법륜스님) wears many hats: Buddhist monk, teacher, author, environmentalist, social activist, and podcaster, to name a few. As a widely respected Dharma teacher and a tireless socially engaged activist in his native South Korea, Ven. Pomnyun Sunim has founded numerous Dharma-based organizations, initiatives, and projects that are active across the world. Among them, Jungto Society, a volunteer-based community founded on the Buddhist teachings and expressing equality, simple living, and sustainability, is dedicated to addressing modern social issues that lead to suffering, including environmental degradation, poverty, and conflict.

The following article shared by Jungto Society is part of a series of notable highlights from Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s writings, teachings, and regular live-streamed Dharma Q+A sessions, which are accessible across the globe.

Why do we fear death? The thought that everything will end when we die may trigger a sense of sorrow about others as well as ourselves. These sentiments fuel fear. Our human fear of death has spawned legends and religions that promise a beautiful afterlife, devised to alleviate the terror we feel about the unknown. We feel less fearful when we think that it doesn’t end when we die, that we will live on in some way or go to a better place.

Whether or not the afterlife actually exists is not important. What matters here is that a belief in the afterlife helps us to overcome our fear of death. How empty would we feel to think that our loved ones will disappear completely when they die? Thinking that they are in a better place gives us great comfort. For this reason, instead of asking whether or not life after death exists, it’s better to examine whether or not the belief of its existence is beneficial. It appears to be more beneficial than harmful, so it’s best to accept the age-old methods that humans have established to overcome the fear of death.

Of course, we should refrain from placing too much emphasis on the idea of an afterlife because we know from history that it can also have negative side effects. Some examples include churches demanding large donations in exchange for a “ticket to Heaven” and Buddhist temples overcharging for 49-day prayer rituals for the dead (49 jae: a Buddhist-Confucian ceremony for the deceased). These examples show how religion can take advantage of people’s fear as a means of extortion.

From the perspective of Buddhist practice, fear of death is no more real than a daydream. When our fear of death disappears and we can accept our inevitable demise as part of the natural order—it will become irrelevant whether or not the afterlife exists and whether our spirits will go to a good place or a bad place. When fear melts away, everything that stemmed from fear becomes nothing but a dream. While dreaming, there are good dreams and bad dreams. However, when we wake up from the dream, regardless of whether it was good or bad, we realize that it was a dream. In the same vein, when we grasp the essence of fear, all of the issues that originated from it will disperse like clouds. This is how we transcend life and death. Transcending life and death doesn’t mean not dying. Instead, it means realizing that life and death do not actually exist. The afterlife is a frequently visited topic in Buddhism. According to Buddhist beliefs, people go to paradise when they die or are reincarnated, but this cannot be proven. Every religion has different beliefs about the afterlife, but none of them has been proven. There is no point in debating endlessly which belief is right when all is but theory.

“No matter what evil deeds you have done, bathing in the holy Ganga River will wash away your sins and you will go to heaven upon your death. But if you do not bathe in the Ganga River, no matter how good you have been throughout your life, you will not be accepted into heaven.”

This was a common belief among people in India during the Buddha’s lifetime. Therefore, they washed their bodies in the holy river, and those who had never bathed in the holy river during their lifetime were dipped in it posthumously. They all believed they had to do so in order to enter heaven.

One day, a person who had heard of this belief went to the Buddha and asked if the Brahmans were telling the truth. The Buddha answered with a smile on his face:

“If what they say is true, the fish in the river will be the first ones to go to heaven.”

The Buddha was saying that if a man can go to heaven for being dipped in the Ganga River after his death, the fish that live in the river will go to heaven before anyone. The Buddha’s words help us reach an important realization.

Traditionally, Buddhists believw that the greedy will be reincarnated as swine, the lazy as cows, and the nasty as serpents. But are pigs really that gluttonous? They eat when they are hungry, and they stop eating when they are no longer hungry. They don’t prevent other pigs from eating the remaining food. Humans, on the other hand, do not share the food stored in their homes, even if there is someone starving right before their eyes. People are much greedier than pigs. Similarly, lions are wild and ferocious, but they will not kill a hare that crosses their path when they are not hungry.

We have created an image of a gluttonous pig, perhaps based on the sound they make when they eat, and made them synonymous with greed. There is no proof that a greedy person is reincarnated as a pig. Besides, reincarnation originated with Hinduism, so it’s not originally a Buddhist belief. Over 90 per cent of Korean Buddhists believe in Hindu doctrines that they mistakenly think are Buddhist.

An old lady came to consult me about her worries:

Q: I pray to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the Goddess of Mercy, but I am afraid my prayer will not be answered.

P: What are you praying for?

Q: My granddaughter is a senior in high school. I am praying that my granddaughter gets accepted into a good college.

P: What are you worried about?

Q: My granddaughter is a Christian.

She felt that her prayer would not be answered however hard she prayed to the Goddess of Mercy, a Buddhist bodhisattva, because her granddaughter attended a Christian church.

P: You don’t have to worry at all. The Goddess of Mercy is very kind and generous.

Would the infinitely compassionate Goddess of Mercy care whether a high school senior goes to a church or a Buddhist temple? She wouldn’t be the Goddess of Mercy if she did, would she? Our religious beliefs are limited by our ignorance, and we disparage God or the Buddha by bringing them down to our own level.

Returning to our subject, there is no need to worry about the afterlife. If heaven and hell actually exist, you will go to heaven, not to hell, when you do good deeds. Your future is decided by how you live your life now. Living well today will ensure a better tomorrow. Hoping for a better tomorrow while living an improper life today is like trying to catch a cloud. People who do bad deeds rightly deserve punishment, but when they refuse to accept the consequences and ask to be sent to heaven, they demonstrate a complete lack of awareness. Wanting to go to heaven when they have done nothing to deserve it and refusing to go to hell when they have performed deeds that warrant it is no different from desiring a good harvest after planting rotten seeds.

A true Christian shouldn’t worry about living and dying. Since God decides whether to send someone to heaven or hell, you should just follow his will. If you are a Buddhist who believes in the law of cause and effect, and know that everything originates from the mind, you just need to cultivate your mind without worrying about what will happen tomorrow. Then your tomorrow will be better, so there is nothing to worry about.

See more

Jungto Society
JTS Korea
JTS America
International Network of Engaged Buddhists

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