Click here for a printer friendly version of this page
First Edith Bruce Lecture on Immortality
March 17, 1998
Hart House--University of Toronto
I would like to thank Edith Bruce and the Philosophy Department of the University of Toronto for inviting me to give this first lecture on immortality. I consider it a great honour.
It is hard to talk about the subject of immortality without referring to death. Death is a reality that, at least for our culture, is very much feared, and I sometimes think that despite the fact that we cannot avoid the subject, we tend not to say more about it than we absolutely must.
Because death is to a great extent an object of fear, talking about it tends to become a rather morose affair. So I think we are all rather relieved to hear people joke about their deaths--as did George Burns, who, when questioned about how it felt to be 96 years old, made the well-known quip, "Pretty good, considering the alternative." Or the great hypnotherapist Milton Erickson, who, when his wife Elizabeth expressed concern about his fragile health during one of his later illnesses, said to her, "Don't worry! Dying is the last thing I am going to do." Then there was Mel Blanc, the legendary voice of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and a score of others, who had inscribed on his tombstone: "That's all, folks !" And Benjamin Franklin himself prescribed a bit of humour for his own epitaph which was to read: "The body of B. Franklin, Printer (Like the Cover of an Old Book, Its Contents torn Out And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding) Lies Here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be Lost; For it will (as he Believ'd) Appear once More In a New and More Elegant Edition Revised and Corrected By the Author."
I hope that this evening I too will be able to avoid the heaviness so often attached to the subject of death and instead approach it with a feeling of energy and curiosity.
Of course one of the reasons death weighs on us is the worry that it may indeed be the last thing we are going to do--ever. But this series of lectures, sponsored by Edith Bruce, looks in another direction and raises the issue of survival of death.
Not everyone believes that we survive death. Not even everyone who has a religious affiliation believes that we survive death. In a poll done in 1978, only 76% of Protestants, 68% of Catholics, and 17% of the Jewish faith expect a life after death (Walter, p. 47).
I grew up as a Catholic in rural Minnesota, and although survival of death was a central article of faith, I came to realize that not everyone in the congregation had the same degree of conviction. Some, like my grandmother, had no doubt about the matter. On the other hand there were those--often men, it seems--who, as they approached the inevitable moment, indicated that they wanted to have nothing to do with the ministrations of the priest, and who revealed that in the depths of their hearts they were not convinced.
We cannot take for granted that someone will have a conviction of survival, even if that person has a religious affiliation. What we believe and how we arrive at our convictions has long been a great interest of mine. For that reason, the full title of my talk this evening is "Life After Death: Conviction and Doubt."
First, conviction. Being "convinced" has an element of being compelled to accept something by the power of argument or evidence. Once we have a conviction, we usually expect that conviction to have the power to perdure, that it would take some compelling argument or evidence to the contrary to dislodge it. So when we have a conviction there is a sense of something being ensconced in our minds, and this usually means there is a certain amount of emotion associated with the conviction. That is surely the case with the conviction of immortality. For here we are saying something very personal and significant. We are saying that our mind or soul or spirit or self, or that certain something that we consider to be the core of our identity, continues after we die.
I would like to tell you about an experience related to me by a friend of mine, an innovative and learned physician, whom I will call Dr. Jack.
Jack tells me that he was in his second year of medical school, when he developed serious bowel trouble. He avoided going to the hospital in order to write his examinations and during that period became more and more ill. Finally, at a friend's wedding he collapsed for loss of blood and was taken to the hospital. There they found out that he had ulcerative colitis and proceeded to treat him with a diet that included a lot of milk. Later he discovered what nobody knew at the time, that he suffered from lactose intolerance and that in fact this is what caused the ulcerative colitis. Because nobody knew what was going on, he kept getting worse. His health deteriorated to the point that one day in the hospital he haemorrhaged very badly. The staff began emergency procedures and quickly realized he was in such bad shape that he was probably not going to make it. Later he found out that when he had haemorrhaged, he had perforated one of the two major abdominal arteries, and that he had also developed a three-inch hole in his cecum (the juncture between the large and small intestine). Jack tells me that people just don't survive this kind of rupture, and that he knows of no case report of anyone who lived through it.
In the meantime, as the staff was working with him, he felt himself drifting. Although he had been in tremendous pain until then, now he felt no pain. Now he felt himself floating in the room, high up, and looking down at the scene below him. He saw that the intern was working on someone and that he was very worried, and Jack felt sorry for the fellow in his distress. Then Jack realized that it was actually him the intern was working on, and that he, Jack, was seeing all this from outside his body.
At the same time Jack looked up to his right and saw a brilliant light. He says that the best way to describe it would be to say it looked like the sun, yet the light did not blind him as the sun's rays would. The light felt very warm--spiritually rather than physically. He felt as though he was moving toward that light. But at the same time he looked down and realized that he really shouldn't leave his life. You see, during his younger years Jack had had what he thought of as conversations with God, and at this moment, as he looked down, the gist of those conversations came back to him. In those talks his future had been made known to him: that he would marry, that he would have four children (two boys and two girls), that he would be a doctor, and that he would live until at least seventy. (By the way, all of this turned out to be true; but we don't know about the last one yet.)
So Jack realized that, because these things had not yet been achieved, he must go back to living. The next thing he knew he was opening his eyes in his body. Although just before he had left his body he had been in a state of panic from the belief that he was dying, now, on returning to his body he felt calm. He knew everything was going to be all right.
During the experience of the light, one of the things that happened to Jack was that he came to the absolutely unshakable conviction that he would not die--that death was not the end, that he would live forever. This came to him as an obvious and undeniable fact, and from that moment he never again feared death.
Jack arrived at his conviction of immortality through experience. Sometimes people are helped toward their conviction by something called proof. One of the methods by which someone might prove immortality is by showing that, from an analysis of the very nature of things, we must be immortal.
In this regard, we could think about St. Thomas Aquinas who, in the thirteenth century, wrote a treatise on the soul. Here, through irrefutable Aristotelean-based arguments, he showed that the soul survives death and, being incorruptible by its very nature, is immortal. Now this argument may leave the modern reader cold, but at the time of its formulation it was powerfully convincing to those who were exposed to it. For his was what has been termed the "Age of Faith," and for the believer, this proof of the incorruptibility of the soul was not the cold bare bones of intellectual argument, but a firm pillar that could be incorporated into the dazzling edifice of Catholic belief.
We no longer live in the Age of Faith. We live in the Age of Science--or, culturally speaking, in the Age of Scientism. Aquinian proofs for the incorruptibility of the soul no longer touch us. We are affected by ideas that call upon the findings of science and, increasingly, the language of the computer.
It is precisely out of these, our cultural preoccupations, that a recent book has appeared that takes up the issue of immortality in a totally different way. This is Frank Tipler's book The Physics of Immortality, published in 1994. Tipler is a professor of mathematical physics at Tulane University, who, by his own description, was an atheist who gave little thought to questions of theology. Yet, in devising a mathematical model of the end of the universe, Tipler stumbled across what he considered a proof both of the existence of God and of the resurrection of the dead. Quote: "This book is a description of the Omega Point Theory, which is a testable physical theory for an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent God who will one day in the far future resurrect every single one of us to live forever in an abode which is in all essentials the Judeo-Christian Heaven....I shall show exactly how physics will permit the resurrection to eternal life of everyone who has lived, is living, and will live. I shall show exactly why this power to resurrect, which modern physics allows, will actually exist in the far future, and why it will in fact be used. If any reader has lost a loved one, or is afraid of death, modern physics says: 'Be comforted, you and they shall live again'" (p. 1)
How does Tipler develop his proof of God and the Resurrection? He begins with the stunningly naive epistemological assumption that physics studies all that exists, and therefore all true knowledge of everything must derive from physics. If God exists, then He or She is the proper study of physics. Therefore the only possible conclusion, says Tipler, is that theology become a branch of physics.
Putting aside this tidbit which many might find hard to swallow, let us take a look at how Tipler proceeds to prove the resurrection of the dead. His proof of immortality requires us to accept that a human being is a purely physical object, a biochemical machine exhaustively described by the known laws of physics. For Tipler we are living beings, it is true, but his definition of a living being is any being that encodes information with that information being preserved by natural selection. So, he tells us, automobiles are alive, even though their reproductive organs are outside themselves. (I don't know if Detroit's car manufacturers ever looked at themselves as automotive genitals, but the idea draws many images to mind--although perhaps that is better left aside for now.)
Anyway, Tipler looks far ahead into the future, to a time when intelligent life has spread throughout the universe, while at the same time the universe is reaching the point at which expansion ends and collapse back onto itself begins. By that time intelligent beings will have the know-how to prevent the universe from collapsing evenly. The uneven collapse means the creation of enormous amounts of free energy, which life will be able to use as it wishes.
As the universe collapses it will reach a final singularity or unique state that Tipler calls the Omega Point, which is God. Also, this point is the completion of all finite reality and both contains all space-time and yet is outside of space-time. This means that all the instants of history are collapsed into the Omega point and at the same time, so to speak, all of life exists forever in subjective time.
Got that so far? So we have God and we have eternal life. But how do we have the resurrection of the dead? Well, you may remember that the uneven collapse of the universe produces virtually unlimited energy. Since the Omega Point now has infinite energy and eternal time, it can take its time and play around and do just about anything it wants. One of the things the Omega Point will want to do, says Tipler, is resurrect all individuals who have ever lived.
At the Omega Point there will be a Universal Turing machine, a machine that is capable of emulating or causing to exist within it (not in external reality) all of those machines called human beings that have ever lived. By the sheer "brute force" of computer power, all possible human variants will be emulated. So we are all going to turn up there somewhere as identical emulations of ourselves in an environment identically emulating this one.
But wait a moment, you might say, how does my emulation in a future Turing Machine constitute my resurrection? That emulation may be a machine in every respect like me, but how will it actually be me? Easy, says Tipler. By Leibnitz's notion of "identity of indiscernibles," since there will be no way to distinguish between me now and me then, I will be the same person who now exists.
But I am afraid that right here Tipler slips up. Its that sticky word "now" that he does not explain. It will not be a perfect emulation because "then" is not "now" and so that emulation is not really me--it is just an incredibly good imitation, or I should say emulation.
Although by basing his proof on a combination of physics, computer science, and games theory, Frank Tipler touches a chord in the contemporary spirit, he still leaves many of us unmoved. When he talks about what, in his view, must happen in the far, far distant future, my resulting "resurrection" leaves me totally unconvinced that I, the person living here now, will live again.
But let us put aside that objection. And let us put aside Tipler's philosophical naiveté, and appreciate the speculative tour-de-force he has carried off. Maybe he didn't get where he thought he did, but he sure gives us an interesting ride.
After this Disney World future-ride with Tipler, I would like to talk about another kind of proof of survival. In this case, rather than examining what is and saying that survival must necessarily follow, the prover attempts to show that we live beyond death because we are able to communicate with those who have already passed over. And if they survived, then so do we.
The movement called Spiritualism, begun not far from here in New York State exactly 150 years ago, at its core involves this kind of proof. From the very beginning of Spiritualism as an organized religious movement, its services centred on a procedure in which one or more particularly sensitive people, called mediums, would get up in front of the congregation and, putting themselves in touch with the spirits of the departed present there, deliver messages to people from deceased relatives and loved ones. These messages were meant to show that we do continue to exist beyond the vale, and that it is possible to receive communications from those who have gone before us. Over the years these mediumistic messages have been so convincing that, as a result of them, many have come to believe that indeed we do survive death.
This conviction derives in part from the fact that the feeling or "style" of the communicating spirit seems so true to the personality of the individual when still on earth. And it draws in part on the content of the messages that, in many cases, contain facts that, in the opinion of those who knew the departed, could not have been known to the medium that delivers the message.
The discipline known as "psychical research," which evolved into what today we call parapsychology, grew directly out of Spiritualism. Psychical research refers to the systematic, scientific study of the paranormal. And "paranormal" is the term applied to any phenomenon that in one or more respects exceeds the limits of what is deemed physically possible on current scientific assumptions.
Now Spiritualism produced a lot of this stuff. Mental communication, precognition and retrocognition, clairvoyance and travelling clairvoyance, table tipping, materializations, and so forth, occurred in abundance. And the interesting thing is that although when people think about these phenomena so bountiful in the 19th century they conjure up pictures of paid mediums and stage performances, the fact is that the vast bulk of phenomena took place in the quiet of private homes throughout North America and Europe.
Because Spiritualism produced a great array of paranormal phenomena, and did it so prolifically, it was only a matter of time before some people were going to say, "Let's study these things closely and see if there is anything to them." That is what happened in the latter half of the 19th century, and particularly in 1882 with the founding of the British Society for Psychical Research. The legacy of psychical research is a vast literature that examines both spontaneous and experimentally produced paranormal phenomena. And in my opinion it is a literature that has to be taken seriously.
But I am going to have to move on to its modern form--parapsychology--and say a few words about the implications of the findings in that field. Modern parapsychology for all practical purposes began with the investigations of J. B. Rhine of Duke University who, starting in the 1930's, conducted thousands of experiments with what are today called psi phenomena. These phenomena may be reduced to telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis (which is movement of objects without using physical force).
In the years since Rhine, many experimenters have taken up the challenge of trying to say something useful about paranormal phenomena. In more recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in parapsychology. The quality of writing associated with this resurgence is in my opinion very high, due in no small part to the fact that many of the most recent writers in the field come from a background of philosophy and are doing much more than just amassing more data or commenting on how impressive the data are. Rather they approach the subject with probing questions that do not let the naive believer in the paranormal easily off the hook.
Such a writer is David Ray Griffin whose recent book, Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration (1997), is an excellent example of the work of a thinker who has a positive attitude towards the data of parapsychological research but does not jump to quick conclusions about what it all means. With regard to parapsychological evidence for survival of death, he raises all the right questions. He insists that a rational understanding of survival cannot be based on a Cartesian duality of mind and body, and that if one is going to show that the notion of survival is not a philosophical absurdity, a philosophical alternative must be found. Griffin then proposes a solution to this "mind-body" duality problem with something he calls panexperientialism, based on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.
Griffin is only the latest in a long list of philosophers who have examined the evidence for survival for philosophical cogency. The main questions that arise in regard to evidence that people survive death have to do with whether some other explanation than survival could be found for the data. If, for example, a medium provides information from a departed spirit that could not possibly be known to the medium through any ordinary means--and if fraud and cheating have been reasonably ruled out--does that mean that the medium is indeed in touch with a surviving soul? Not necessarily, say the philosophers. For, granted that telepathy and clairvoyance do occur, it would be possible to say that the medium gained his or her information about the deceased person in that way. Even when the medium speaks and presents the spirit in a style and with an energy that was truly characteristic of the discarnate person, and even if the medium presents information that turns out to have been known only by the discarnate one and not by any living person, there is still a solution that does not included survival--the so-called super-psi theory. This theory proposes that, given the reality of telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and retrocognition, it is possible that the medium has unconsciously reached out and gathered all the relevant information and unconsciously formed a personality with all the characteristics of the departed soul. As incredible as this alternative may seem to some, it is a viable theory, given the reality of psi.
Evidence for survival of death may also come from verifiable reincarnation memories, from possession experiences, and from apparitions. And for many, the high quality of some of the experiences in each of these areas is enough to be convincing. But the philosopher of parapsychology may not be so easily satisfied. For even in the most stunning cases of this kind the super-psi explanation can be applied as an alternative hypothesis to survival.
Now the modern philosophers of parapsychology are not in any way trying to deny that we survive death. They recognize that survival may indeed be the simplest and tidiest explanation for many of the experiences that people have. But as long as the alternative explanation of super-psi will work, we do not have something that can be called proof of survival.
Now this is the question I would like to ask right here. Whether it is the deductive proofs of St. Thomas Aquinas, or the speculative proofs of Tipler, or the powerful evidence of mediumship, reincarnational memories, apparitions, or possession experiences--do any of these things in themselves convince people? Does sheer rational necessity or intellectually compelling argument create conviction? I don't think so. I believe that conviction always has some kind of personal experience at its core. I believe that everyone who is really convinced of life continuing after death has--like my friend Dr. Jack--some kind of experience that makes that conviction possible.
Although not everyone's experience is as dramatic as that of Dr. Jack, some do derive their conviction from this kind of powerful direct knowing. Richard Maurice Bucke, who was medical superintendent of the asylum for the insane at London, Ontario, in his classical book Cosmic Consciousness, describes his own experience (he is speaking about himself in the third person here):
He and two friends had spent the evening reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and especially Whitman. They parted at midnight, and he had a long drive in a hansom (it was in an English city). His mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images and emotions called up by the reading and talk of the evening, was calm and peaceful. He was in a state of quiet almost passive enjoyment. All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-coloured cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next, he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe....Among other things...he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of everyone is in the long run absolutely certain. He claims that he learned more within the few seconds during which the illumination lasted than in previous months or even years of study, and that he learned much that no study could ever have taught. (Bucke, pp. 9-10)
In this category of enraptured knowing we would also need to place the experience of enlightenment portrayed by mystics of many traditions and so well described by those of the Buddhist tradition. The Tibetan Buddhist writer, Sogyal Rinpoche lays out the elements of the path to this enlightenment which he terms as the experience of the "calm and sky-like presence of...the deathless and unending nature of mind" (Sogyal Rinpoche, p. 40) In this tradition, we survive death to live many lives, until we eventually gain the true immortality of full enlightenment.
As striking as these experiences may be, convictions of survival for most of us come from less spectacular experiences.
Here I should mention the experience that, more than any other, was for me the basis for my own conviction of life after death. As I mentioned, I grew up a Catholic. As a young man, I became a Benedictine monk and a Roman Catholic priest. Also, in my personal life a number of startling things have happened that indicate to me the presence of a reality beyond the surface of life and an existence beyond this one. But it is not these things that serve as the basis of my conviction. It is neither a learned belief nor the experience of a particular moment that provides that foundation, but rather it is an ongoing experience that comes and goes in daily life. One might think of it as very ordinary, but for me it is the window on immortality. The experience is simply my direct subjective knowing of myself as a living and thinking and willing being, the subject who is the doer of my deeds, the thinker of my thoughts, and the liver of my life and who is not reducible to my deeds or my thoughts or my life. I experience myself as a something beyond all these things, a something that simply cannot not exist, a something that I directly know to be immortal.
That's it. Nothing more. There is no way--that I know of--to directly convey this experience, and there is certainly no way to prove to anyone else that this establishes my immortality. But for me, it is directly obvious, and for me it is enough.
If the experience that lies at the heart of conviction is so varied, is there some essential aspect that is the same for all? I think that maybe there is. Maybe that something extra that converts speculative proofs or impressive evidence or authoritative teaching into conviction is what Bucke called cosmic consciousness and the mystics and spiritual philosophers call enlightenment: the direct experience of the ground of all being, the direct experience of the divine. Maybe enlightenment comes in many forms and in many degrees. Maybe it is not just the skylike radiance of Buddhism or the flame-like brilliance of Bucke. Maybe my grandmother gained her simple conviction of immortality from a lower voltage enlightenment, a soft golden glow that bathed some of her experiences of her church or her family or the world of nature in which she was so at home. Maybe spiritualists experience a certain kind of enlightenment in their encounters with spirits, a light that sustains them in unflinching conviction about the world beyond. Maybe Christians experience a degree of enlightenment through their encounters with the word of God, or with the worshipping community, or with the person of Jesus, and thereby know with the conviction of faith that they will be raised from the dead. Maybe people of all religions experience their form of enlightenment through their prayers, rituals, holy things and holy places and thereby know, with full certainty, that they will live forever. Maybe even Frank Tipler, with his mechanical souls, has gained his conviction of immortality from a kind of enlightenment radiating from the splendour of mathematical computation and scientific speculation, and maybe his way of envisioning life after death should not be any less respected for that.
I do believe it is so. I do believe that we all have the capacity for experiencing enlightenment in every aspect of our lives. And to me, that is the beauty of our convictions. But to me, it is also the beauty of doubt. And it is to doubt that I would now like to turn.
When I told a friend of mine about this upcoming lecture, he wrote this poem:
Convictions of Immortality
My friend will give a talk on this--
He asks us all to share our own.
Some days I live as one
Who'll live forever--
not forgetting death
but linked to presence
beyond that wall.
Some days I live as one
who's running out of numbers
to count my breaths--
not forgetting death
that lake of nothingness.
Some days I live
forgetting | death
lacking all conviction
(Philip McKenna, January 1998)
Doubt is inevitable. It is based on the fact that in this life we do not have direct vision of the divine--at least most of us don't. The world we live in embodies what Buddhists call Maya, the
impermanent, the relative, the incomplete. We are always learning, revising, gradually moving closer to the true reality. But because we are not there yet, we doubt--and so we should.
But there is a kind of doubt that is based on something else. There is a doubt that bespeaks an overarching pessimism, a corrosive hopelessness.
Let me read you part of another poem, "Atlantis" by W. H. Auden:
Being set on the idea
Of getting to Atlantis,
You have discovered of course
Only the Ship of Fools is
Making the voyage this year....
Should storms, as may well happen,
Drive you to anchor a week
In some old harbour city
Of Iona, then speak
With her witty scholars, men
Who has proved there cannot be
Such a place as Atlantis:
Learn their logic, but notice
How its subtlety betrays
Their enormous simple grief;
Thus they shall teach you the ways
To doubt that you may believe....
That powerful phrase "their enormous simple grief" says so much to me about the problematic doubt that I am talking about. The enormous simple grief that says there is no such place as Atlantis, that says there is no place of magic, no place of wisdom, no place of light.
Among those who write about and talk about the issue of survival of death there are those who labour under this enormous simple grief. For them every query into the matter is doomed before it starts. For them every question about the possibility of continued existence is based on delusion. This is not the doubt of an inquiring mind. It is the doubt of one who cannot even look at the data because of his or her enormous simple grief. This is the desperate doubt of one who will grasp at any argument, no matter how far-fetched, to discredit those who investigate the possibilities of a something beyond the surface realities of our life.
I feel this enormous simple grief when I read the words of R.W.K. Paterson in his book Philosophy and the Belief in a Life After Death, where he says: "It is comparatively recently that the more advance portions of the human race have emerged from the dark night of superstition, and scientists are rightly cautious lest they inadvertently open the floodgates to a tide of magical, occult, and supernaturalistic beliefs which would threaten our precious and hard-won rationality." (p. 10).
One wonders how anything truly precious in our "hard-won rationality" could be so easily lost. I am put in mind of Nietzsche who, when speaking about people who see themselves as defenders of the truth, asked: "Is truth such a paltry thing that it needs defending?"
It is refreshing to hear someone turn the whole business around, as did Schopenhauer, and say: Were an Asiatic to ask me for a definition of Europe, I should be forced to answer him: it is that part of the world which is haunted by the incredible delusion that man was created out of nothing, and that his present birth is his first entrance into life." (Quoted in Becker, p. 16)
Where has our "hard won rationality" led us in the Western world? To a dogmatically promulgated materialism. And in a society steeped in scientism, our cultural orthodoxy, we are not supposed to doubt the shaky philosophical basis on which that materialism rests.
In a review of Carl Sagan's last book, The Demon Haunted World, written in the New York Review of Books, Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin writes about the fact that we are expected to accept the findings of science on faith, no matter how counterintuitive they may be, and we are expected to do so because we as a culture have a prior commitment to materialism. Lewontin discusses the fact that popularizers of science like Carl Sagan and David Suzuki have devoted extraordinary energy to bring science to the mass public. The problem is that they use rhetoric to convince the public that the public should only be convinced by the facts. Lewontin says they do this "because they believe, like the Evangelist John, that the truth shall make you free. But they are wrong. It is not the truth that makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth. Our dilemma is that we do not know how to provide that power." (Lewontin, p. 32)
I believe that we do have some idea about how to provide that power. It is by paying attention to both conviction and doubt. Neither conviction nor doubt have room for dogmatism. Conviction cannot be imposed or preached. It is a hard-won knowing that can only be personally acquired. Doubt is the recognition of our limitations that keeps us honest in our search for enlightenment.
Sogyal Rinpoche, the Tibetan Buddhist, writes:
There is a story I love to tell about a Zen master. This master had a faithful but very naive student, who regarded him as a living Buddha. Then one day the master accidentally sat down on a needle. He screamed, "Ouch!" and jumped into the air. The student instantly lost all his faith and left, saying how disappointed he was to find that his master was not fully enlightened. Otherwise, he thought, how would he jump up and scream out loud like that? The master was sad when he realized his student left, and said: "Alas, poor man! If only he had known that in reality neither I, nor the needle, nor the 'ouch' really existed." (Sogyal Rinpoche, p. 125)
Sogyal Rinpoche contrasts the doubt of the student with what he calls that "open-souled and generous doubt that Buddha assured us was necessary for testing and proving the worth of the teachings." (Sogyal Rinpoche, p. 125).
I'm with Buddha on this one. I want to have my conviction of immortality, with my own personal degree of enlightenment. But I also want to enjoy my doubts. Surely it is that tension between conviction and doubt that leads us to come together on evenings like this one, and to participate in what shall now be our annual encounters with immortality.