For the five years that I have now been transmitting, to the best of my ability and understanding, the Buddha's teachings, I have been speaking about the importance of the denial of death in our post-modern western societies. But I would never have believed, even a year ago, that such a denial would lead us to this kind of collective hysteria in which we have been living for almost eleven months.
Western governments have all been alike in one regard: whatever their political and philosophical affiliations or tendencies, since the outbreak of this coronavirus epidemic they have been driven by the will to defeat the virus and eradicate it, and to achieve this they believe that they have found the miracle solution: the successive confinement of their people. They have been driven by two forces: that of wanting to defeat a natural phenomenon and to save people from death. Without a more in-depth investigation, if one remained at a high level without thinking about the consequences of these two policies, one would certainly find that these intentions were commendable. However, after a year and with the benefit of hindsight, it is perhaps time to take a closer look and to think about the consequences and not just the intentions.
For more than half a century the idea has been growing that modern medicine, science, and biotechnology will one day enable us to defeat disease and perhaps ultimately death. One day, as the French transhumanist evangelist Laurent Alexandre proclaims in his seminars, we will be completely protected from disasters and become immortal. The acceleration over the last fifteen years or so of technological, computer, and genetic capacities has even led us to believe that this could be the case within a generation, or even sooner.
At the same time, we have locked ourselves in a cosy blanket of material comfort, alleviating our sorrows, our sufferings, our difficulties and separating ourselves more and more from nature, from our own nature. Today, the whole technological world around us numbs us in the belief that at the touch of a button, using a smartphone application, we can effortlessly get what we want, provided we are willing and able to pay the price. I’m hungry? Two clicks and a meal is delivered within half an hour. I want something? Two clicks and it’s delivered the next morning or sometimes even the same evening. I have pain somewhere? One online teleconsultation with a doctor later and I’m relieved. I want heating at home when I arrive from work? One click and I turn it on remotely. I’m bored? One click and I’m watching a movie or TV series. All without any effort other than paying the required price. The best of all worlds. Almost. A world of comfort and endless entertainment. A world where anyone can satisfy – at least for a few moments – their narcissistic desires, without worrying about the modalities or consequences of these automatic acts.
And here we are, entangled in a tenacious illusion. That of believing that technology will be able to do everything and that we will be able to free ourselves definitively from all the difficulties and vicissitudes of life and also from illness and death (why not!).
But one thing is certain: we are all mortal. The only uncertainty concerns the time and circumstances of death. We are all going to die, no matter how many of us there are. There is no one in the past who was born who did not die and there is no one now and in the future who was or will be born who will not die. Another thing is certain, we will all one day be affected by illness, small or great, benign or serious. And let’s be honest with ourselves: the progress of science will not save us from death or disease.
This simple observation of the nature of things seems to have left us. The idea of death, of disappearance has become unbearable for many people. Some come to revolt against these natural facts. Whether a person over 85 years of age dies from coronavirus or something else their families and relatives revolt, even taking political or medical leaders to court. Death is even perceived as a failure and the increase in life expectancy is an unsurpassable horizon of modern health.
A few months ago, on French television, in an exchange between the French Minister of Health Olivier Véran and the French writer Alexandre Jardin, Alexandre shared that his 89-year-old father-in-law had died of coronavirus and explained that at 89 years of age you also have to accept that you can die. The Minister replied that perhaps Alexandre’s father-in-law could have lived to be a hundred years old. This death seemed to him to be an avoidable tragedy and a failure. Minister Véran even tried to make the writer feel guilty for his lack of compassion. This exchange was a perfect example of the confrontation of two visions of life. On the one hand, life as an absolute to be safeguarded whatever the cost through medicine, and on the other, a more philosophical vision of life and our condition as mortals.
Our societies have forgotten this, and today the denial is complete. The word “death” has itself become taboo. We prefer to say: “he’s gone, she’s left us, etc.” Our materialistic society has abandoned any notion of transcendence of our small personal existence. More and more, we live curled up inside ourselves, in a life that is oriented solely towards our small personal well-being and the satisfaction of our selfish needs. Personality, one’s individual existence has become the ultimate grail. The only possible enlightenment is a material enlightenment in this life, in this existence.
Even the quest for happiness has been diverted by this denial of death. Happiness is no longer the end of our ultra-individualistic societies but has become the means. In this, we totally delude ourselves, we comfort ourselves rather than grow. We behave like spoiled children who no longer want to face the reality of their lives, and we start to dream that perhaps death could forget us and thus we could prolong our lives of pleasure and cozy comfort. Until annihilation in death.
For this is how death is experienced, as an annihilation, an abyss of emptiness, an absolute nothingness. Since we are only focused, all our life, on immediate pleasures, we have not taken the time to reflect deeply on the meaning of a life that we know is over. So, facing death generates absolute terror: “I am going to disappear, it’s the end of the world!” This immeasurable terror pushes us further into denial. We prefer to continue distracting ourselves from it rather than confronting it.
The result of this denial is the catastrophe in which we live. We in the West are ready to give up everything because of this fear: we are ready to stop living, to limit our lives to only the so-called essential needs. We are ready to give up our freedoms, our wealth (economic or internal). And if we continue in this denial, everything will be lost.
Our governments have found an effective lever to control us further, which is the natural inclination of any bad government. By stirring up fear of death, they manipulate us and make us accept a whole series of offensive measures that we would not have accepted a year ago. But to be manipulated, you have to be manipulable. It would be impossible to impose these measures on a nation of Stoic philosophers who meditate every morning on the Memento mori.
It’s time to pull ourselves together before it’s too late. To really contemplate in our lives the importance of death, its place and inevitability. To reflect and meditate deeply on the value of life and death. An unconscious life of selfish pleasures and joys is a lost life because in an instant, when we die, the only thing left is the ultimate confrontation with all that we have avoided. A life of full presence, reflection and acceptance of death is a life that has every chance of being lived to the fullest whether one dies old or broke in youth, whether one dies in sickness and suffering or in peace. Taking into account the inevitability of death, we will have lived fully.
It is normal to die, especially at the age of 83, which is the average age of people currently in intensive care. If someone dies from coronavirus or something else, it is not that we have not succeeded in prolonging their life expectancy, but more certainly that their life expectancy was that one. We all die at the right time, at the right moment. It is never too early. If it is, you who are reading me, you will die tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Anything can happen. To have no other project in life than to preserve ourselves from death or to prolong our life expectancy is, in the end, to have a miserable life.
True freedom is not the freedom to come and go, the freedom to express ourselves freely or the freedom to do what we want. Real freedom is freedom from the fear of death. It is because of this fundamental freedom that all other individual freedoms are possible. Today more than ever! Let us rediscover our fundamental freedom and we will regain all our liberties.
English Translation: Eric Vautrin