By John M. de Castro
“To rise from history to mystery is to experience the resurrection of the body here now, as an eternal reality; to experience the parousia, the presence in the present, which is the spirit; to experience the reincarnation of the incarnation, the second coming; which is his coming in us.”
— Norman O. Brown
The Christian holy day of Easter is a celebration of the biblical story of the resurrection of the Christ from death. This death was a release from massive suffering inflicted upon him in life and his resurrection was a rebirth of the Christ as pure, everlasting, spirit. Similarly, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, reports experiencing a resurrection while meditating under the Bodhi tree around 2500 years ago, well before the time of the reported resurrection of the Christ. This also released him from suffering and he was reborn as pure everlasting awareness, spirit. Whether these stories are to be believed literally or as metaphors for spiritual awakening may be very important for the deep religious faith of some. But, regardless of their religious contexts the stories can be regarded as a profound teaching regarding existence and our true nature.
The power of these stories are magnified by the fact that death is greatly feared. In fact, humans rank death as their second greatest fear. That fear is based in part of a fear of the process of dying, with possible great pain and suffering over extended periods. Most of us have witnessed such a death and those who haven’t have heard horrible stories. So, this fear is based upon data and can be seen as reasonable, if maybe overdone. But, the fear of death is also based upon an existential fear; the fear of extinction or a fear of the unknown. The only data that we have available regarding what transpires after death are from stories of resurrection. For those who have faith and believe the stories, they produce great comfort in promising a pleasing existence after death. For those who don’t believe them, existential fear is very real. As a result, we are fascinated and intrigued by the idea of resurrection.
Indeed, we love the idea of resurrection so much that we have a mock practice once a year. We treat each New Year’s Day as a resurrection, a time of renewal and resolutions to better oneself. Christians revel in the idea of being born again, not a physical but a spiritual rebirth, a spiritual resurrection. Both of these, though, are artificial resurrections that don’t involve actual death and are completely under the minds control. But, they do emphasize the importance to people of the idea of being reborn, to fundamentally change, to change what is into something better.
Near death experiences (NDEs) are looked on by many as indicators of what lies beyond death, as the individual gets very close to absolute death. The nervous system flat-lines, but is revived, resurrected and the nervous system returns to relatively normal activity. The individual can then retrospectively report on their experiences. Stories of NDEs are often celebrated in books such as “Proof of Heaven” and “To Heaven and Back” and can become very popular movies such as “Heaven is for Real.” These “resurrections” fascinate people, evidencing our powerful need to relieve our deep fear of death. People who have experienced NDEs report a variety of experiences including sensations of floating up and viewing the scene around them; experiencing a beautiful, otherworldly place; meeting other beings sometimes identified as angels, God, and lost relatives or friends; recall of events in their lives; feelings of oneness and connection, and an overwhelming, transcendent love.
People who have had Near Death Experiences (NDEs) feel that they were very real and a spiritual revelation. They are often profoundly changed by them. But, in science, in order for an observation to be judged reliable and valid it must be able to be observed by more than one person at the same time and reliably and repeatedly reproduced. NDEs are subjective experiences and as such cannot be validated in this way. Science also requires tests of interpretations and again NDEs have not be amenable to scientific testing. One experiment with lab rats demonstrated that as the brain is dying there is an amazing spike of high levels of activity. Some scientists believe that NDEs are what is experienced as the brain spasms just prior to shutting down. There is currently no evidence to confirm or deny the spiritual nature of NDEs. But, if they are to be believed, they point to a wondrous, blissful, life after death
We tend to forget that every evening our consciousness ceases, dies, and every morning it is reinstated, resurrected. The new day is a brand new existence with opportunities to experience, grow, and develop. As the sage Thich Nhat Hanh states in his morning Gatha “Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.” This rebirth every morning is a wondrous opportunity to begin anew, to reinvent ourselves, and work toward ending suffering in ourselves and others. If it doesn’t work today, keep in mind that tomorrow morning another resurrection will occur. What a precious gift!
Resurrection is seen as involving a reemergence from a physical death. But our bodies, including our brains, are dying and renewing constantly. Over varying amounts of time every cell in the body dies and is replaced with a new cell. We have completely different bodies than we had a few years ago. In a sense we’re undergoing a constant continuous process of resurrection.
But, it’s not just our bodies that undergo resurrection, so do our experiences. In fact, our experiences are reborn (resurrected) in every moment. Each moment only exists for a flash and then ceases, dies, never to be repeated, and a new conscious experience replaces it, is resurrected. This underscores the importance of present moment awareness. It emphasizes how critical it is to fully experience and enjoy the precious onetime moments of our existence. To be unaware is like having a Christ or Buddha like resurrection and not noticing! So, death and resurrection are going on constantly. They occur routinely due to the impermanence of all experiences. A resurrection occurs in every moment with both the body and experience.
The Buddha described his resurrection as an awakening. As he described it, we all live in a state of complete delusion. We believe that there is an external physical world containing life and death that we only experience and witnesses. He taught that if we can break through this veil of delusion we can emerge with an understanding of our true nature and the nature of the universe where there is no birth, life, and death. Instead, we emerge as pure awareness. What we experience as life is simply a construct of that awareness and nothing more. In other words, our concept of reality dies and is resurrected in a new form that reveals a completely different reality. Actual experiences are not different, only how we view and interpret them. This is the state that he called awakened or enlightened. It transcends life and death, so there is no need for a resurrection as there is never a true birth nor a true death, only those that are experienced in an everlasting awareness. It’s a shift in what is being experienced but not a loss of anything.
The Buddha taught that no one should take this on faith. No one should believe him. Rather, try out his path and see for yourself what happens. In a sense, this is scientific, as it’s truth or falseness can only be judged by one’s own experience. There are clues that occur along the way as meditation is practiced. Changes start occurring almost immediately as meditator begins to see and understand, better and better, the nature of experiences, and the reactions, thoughts, and emotions that are evoked by them. These improvements occur gradually as meditation is practiced over time. But, the individual becomes more integrated, better able to cope with emotions and stress, and far happier. These benefits are sufficient reward even if the ultimate change of enlightenment should never occur.
So, we are confronted with a number of different accounts of resurrection. The notion of a resurrection after death cannot ever be confirmed except after death. NDE resurrections can only be personally confirmed if you’re unlucky enough (or lucky enough) to come very, very, close to actual physical death. But, the resurrection of the moment you can confirm in every moment. The resurrection each morning you can confirm daily. The enlightenment resurrection is much more difficult to confirm. But, if the effort is made, the Buddha assures us that it can be confirmed and verified by everyone who engages in the practice, follows the path, and experiences awakening. He urges everyone to find out for themselves.
All of these ideas and notions of resurrection can help the individual to become more and more relaxed and perhaps a bit excited at the idea of their own personal resurrection. Something will happen eventually, regardless of our desires otherwise, so, we might as well greet it and welcome it as an opportunity for an answer to an eternal question.
“The symbolic language of the crucifixion is the death of the old paradigm; resurrection is a leap into a whole new way of thinking.” – Deepak Chopra
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies