Comparison between unconditional acceptance of death
by Simone Weil
and Buddhist concept of passing away.
"There is not any love or truth without an unconditional acceptance of death" Simone Weil "Gravity and grace"
"I wonder if you have ever known what love is? Because I think death and love walk together. Death, love, and life are one and the same...To love, one must die." Jiddu Krishnamurti "On Living and Dying"
Experiencing the death of a loved person, or witnessing the death of others, can be one of the most profound events in one's life. Especially in Western culture, death is something we pretend does not exist. We are constantly encouraged to hold onto life, and even if we're with someone we know is dying, the subject is rarely, if ever, mentioned. Never acknowledging this universal experience of the unknown is like an individual who admits he has a mind but not a body, or vice versa; in short, by hiding from such an inherent part of life as death, we deny ourselves a truly integrated understanding of life's possibilities and its meaning. But death can be a teacher. Only in facing death, those of loved ones and our own, we can be free from the fear of it and learn the lessons it has to teach about life. In the following essay I want to ask myself to what extend Simone Weil’s concept of unconditional acceptance of death refers to Buddhist teachings on passing away. Buddhism has a lot to say about the role of death in human life, as well as its true nature. Trusting in some sort of design in the universe, I hope that the spirit of dying people is safe in the care of higher beings and involved in a process constructed to guide the millions of people who die and leave the planet every day. It is difficult though to cope with loss, regrets and grief, and with the gut realization that death is present as a part of pervasive reality.
The striking aspect of religious philosophy of Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace reflects way to spiritual introspection as well. This masterwork makes clear why critics have called her “a great soul who might have become a saint”. Simone Weil, a brilliant French philosopher, political activist and religious mystic, was little known when she died young in 1943. An individual can only change, Weil came to believe, through spiritual awareness, which is for me a great reference to Buddhism. Weil within each of the reflections of Gravity and grace (detachment, illusions, contradiction and training) takes a variety of perspectives, and dives a mysticism that is rooted in the great tradition of the aesthetic life. Weil's ethics defies our comfortable, utilitarian assumptions about what is good and bad for people. For Weil, anything truly good is incapable of being violated by evil. "We accept the false values which appear to us," she writes, "and when we think we are acting, we are in reality motionless, for we are still confined in the same system of values." Those ethics are what remain when every taken-for-granted notion of good and evil has been purged through the effort of pure attention. The book explores gravity and grace as the natural laws of the universe and how it contrasts with the grace of God. It is a divine movement that persuades the person to look for transcendent unity behind contradictions, that redirects human attention to God and that transforms the soul through a process of passivity and waiting. By analyzing the differences and similarities of them, this book points out the mystical implications of Weil's philosophy. In the part Illusions she writes, that the only organ of contact with existence is acceptance and love....and later that "there is not any love or truth without an unconditional acceptance of death". It is clear that she suggests opening ourselves for spiritual realization. She admits, that we should not want, what we love to live on forever. Buddhism also teaches that nothing in life is constant and we should exercise detaching ourselves from what is being value for us.
I have to admit that reading the Buddhist approach to experience of death opens me up gradually, deepening my understanding of how temporal life is and how much more important people are than anything else. Life has an urgency now; to enjoy others more fully, to assess the time carefully and to be in the present as much as I can, this is what matters. I think, this is, what Weil also means. But what does love has to do with death then and is the more precise idea of what death is? Watchfulness is the path of immortality: lack of it, is the path of death. Those who are watchful never die: those who do not watch are already as dead. It seems that when we think of dying, we think of losing the little "I," the ego, along with all the things we've built up in connection with the ego. The stronger the ego is, the greater the fear of death. But if the ego has already been abandoned during life? This is where love seems to fit in, for the ultimate abandonment of the ego is love. Both death and love seem to entail the letting go of the ego. Buddhism is often perceived as a philosophy whose aim is nothingness. But can't nothingness simply be the absence of everything we do know of to make room for the unknown? The more I have thought about it, the more I see the similarities between death and love. And love can be more described by what it isn't. I am not right? It is, just like Enlightenment, an experience beyond the limitations of the human mind, and beyond the phenomenal world. So it is with death. Death is the closest concept we have of the unknown, of nothingness, the opposite or negation of life as we know it. It is so frightening because it is so mysterious and inexorable. Therefore, death can be a teacher, because it brings home to us life's temporality, its ultimate illusory quality. Viewed from the center of consciousness called the watcher, or from its ultimate fulfillment, Buddhism offers a place from which to perceive life (love) and death as the parts of the same temporal experience. Also Weil writes, that people fear of God and we know, that we cannot see him face to face without dying, therefore we do not want to die. She states that "attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be attained only by someone who is detached." In other words, the reality of the world is a result of our attachment and it has nothing to do with the independent reality. As soon as we know that something is real we can no longer be attached to it. Hence, following Weil, attachment is an insufficiency in our sense of reality. We are attached to a possession of a thing, because we think if we case to posses it, it will case to exist. For me it is again a clear link with the Buddhist teachings. People tend to hold onto life. And Buddha said, that life is suffering, caused by desire. To end the suffering, we must end desire. From a greater perspective, death causes pain because of our desire for life. We fear death because we hold onto life, but this is a great illusion. Here, the folly of attachment is brought into the sharpest relief, because we know the body is as sure to die as it was born. Death is all around us. We will die and all the people we love will die. Understood this way, the only sensible course of action seems to be to seek that state where death cannot follow: Enlightenment, the state of being awake. This is how Buddhism addresses the issue of death, and it has an intuitive, practical logic to it. Strictly speaking, for Wail, everything which is threatened by time (and for Wail time does not exist as it is an illusion) “secretes falsehood in order not to die and in proportion to the danger it is in of dying”. Therefore people should accept death in order to life and love, she means. As a Christian anarchist, Weil perceives God and the supernatural as hidden and formless in the universe, yet the most real and powerful. By looking up every sin we commit as a favor of God, we come to understand the essence of life and death and the imperfection in us. “I wish and implore that my imperfections may by wholly revealed to me in so far as human thought is capable of grasping it. Not in order that it might be cured but, even if it should not be cured, in order that I may know the truth”, we read in Gravity and grace. We clearly call attention to our powerlessness when it comes to death. It sweeps through our lives, often without warning, and nothing can prevent it. They also point out how most people hide their heads in the sand, pretending death will never affect them, that this life will go on forever. But death, love, and life are one and the same... we only have divided life, as we have divided the earth. We talk of love as being either carnal or spiritual and have set a battle going between the sacred and the profane. We have divided what love is from what love should be, so we never know what love is. Love, surely, is a total feeling that is not sentimental and in which there is no sense of separation. It is complete purity of feeling without the fragmenting quality of the intellect. Love has no sense of continuity. Where there is a sense of continuity, love is already dead, and it smells of yesterday, with all its ugly memories, quarrels, brutalities. By watching ourselves experience we gain a certain detachment from the experience itself, and with this detachment comes freedom. But here, it is claimed those who connect with the watcher in themselves never die and those who do not are already dead. This is different from physical death, or is it? When so much of what human beings are has to do with consciousness, can it be that a life lived without this awareness is like death because we are only half alive, and life lived with this awareness makes it possible for us to carry this awareness with us into death. By cultivating the watching of everything that happens, one can make sure they are as fully present as possible in each experience. One becomes very awake, and this is an awareness that death cannot affect. According to the Buddhist way of thinking, death, far from being a subject to be shunned and avoided, is the key that unlocks the seeming mystery of life. It is by understanding death that we understand life; for death is part of the process of life in the larger sense. In another sense, life and death are two ends of the same process and if you understand one end of the process, you also understand the other end. Hence, by understanding the purpose of death we also understand the purpose of life.
Weil’s book also reflects religious searching, issuing general interests on the human soul. The originality of Weil’s psychological insight, the passion and subtlety of her theological imagination, the fecundity of her exegetical talents are unevenly displayed here. Yet the person of Simone Weil is here as surely as in any of her other books—the person who is identical with her ideas, the person who is rightly regarded as one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit. I like Weil’s spiritual writings and I hope to continue to explore Simone Weil's life and thought. After reading the piece on Gravity and grace I see her as exceptional human being and it reminds me how privileged I am to be able to read a work which offers each reader such 'light for the spirit and nourishment for the soul'. This is a book that no one with a serious interest in the spiritual life can afford to be without. I have found many reflections of Weil’s philosophy in Buddhist teachings and this is very grounding for me. In both there is plenty of terminology spinning my head as in both I am able scrupulously search fro the truth.
Simone Weil, Gravity and grace
Jiddu Krishnamurti, On Living and Dying
Levine, Stephen. Who Dies? New York: Doubleday, 1982
Mascaro, Juan,The Dhammapada. New York: Penguin Books, 1973. Saddhatissa, H, The Sutta-Nipata. London: Curzon Press,1985.