When I meditated one morning recently, what I had read came to mind. And I thought about my practice (described more fully in my post, “Death and Life”) in which before I go to bed I turn over a picture of my family and say, “I do not fear death. I know it is a natural part of life. And when it comes I will be prepared because I know that I have lived a good life … I have offered joy to others and made a difference in the lives of others.”
I have faith that when death comes, I will be in the good, peaceful state that Montaigne experienced. But I was aware that a large part of that faith comes from my knowing that I have lived a good life in my interaction with others. What about all the people who do not have good interactions with others, even often with “loved ones?”
I have always thought that if someone dies with lots of “bad blood” in their hearts, if they do not resolve that conflict during their final days, they will not, can not be at peace when they die. And I realized during my meditation that that is why most people fear death so much. I had always thought it was fear of the unknown, or the physical pain. Those are certainly factors. But I believe now that each person knows deep down that if they have not led good lives, at the moment of death they will not experience peace but will be in turmoil. They will be in hell.
Religions teach that heaven and hell are a place in the afterlife; they use eternal damnation as a threat, a motivator to live a good life, to not sin. I have never believed in the existence of such a heaven or hell. When we die, life is over. Period. (Obviously I don’t believe in reincarnation.) But I understood in my meditation that morning that one does experience heaven or hell at the moment of death. And if one dies at peace, that is in a practical sense your eternal state. Whereas if you die in turmoil, that hell is also your eternal state.
Many people are led to believe that the salvation offered by some religions is a simple matter of believing in and loving God. Some try to fake it by just mouthing the words. But it is not that simple. Christianity, for example, teaches that even if one believes, in order to be saved one both has to “love your neighbor” … in other words be kind and respectful to other people … and trust your life to God instead of to worldly things, or as a Buddhist would say, turn you will and your life over to the care of your true Buddha nature, surrender your ego to your true Buddha nature.
And so if they grab for the easy fix, they will be disappointed at the moment of death. They will still experience hell. Instead, walk the path of whatever religion, offer joy to others, make a positive difference in the lives of others, and you will be at peace when death comes and will in a practical sense experience heaven.
But it gets even better than that. The nirvana of Buddhism, as well as the heaven of other religions, is attainable in the here and now, not just at death. If our attitude comes from our pure heart and we reject the guidance of our ego-mind from which come the emotions, judgments, cravings, and attachments that cause samsara … if we truly and completely turn our will and our life over to the care of our true Buddha nature … we will experience nirvana now. As the Heart Sutra says, “Bodhisatvas, abiding always in perfected wisdom, their minds are free of fear and obstructions, therefore they have no fear or obstructions, free of confused illusions, they reach nirvana.”