The Buddha in Hell and Other Alarms
The Buddha in Hell and Other Alarms
On the Wholeness of Darkness and Light
The greatest question facing humankind is ,
' Is the universe friendly ?'
A woman has written to say that she heard about distressing near-death experiences at a conference of the International Association for Near Death Studies (IANDS). "It sounded weird," she said. "Are these just nightmares?"
Well, all near-death experiences appear to share something of the same space as the dream world, and no doubt they do sound weird. But then, when looked at from the perspective of everyday consciousness, just about everything in this field of near-death studies sounds weird, at least at first.
It has been forty years since Raymond Moody's book Life After Life presented his collection of accounts of consciousness at the edge of death, the narratives he named "near-death experiences." Weird or not, it is clear that he touched a nerve that still quivers.
THE NERVE OF MORTALITY
Actually, the nerve of mortality has always quivered in creatures with consciousness. We see it in photographs of apes and elephants grieving the loss of one of their own, of crows mourning, and loyal pets refusing to leave the grave of their owner; we see it in the personal jewelry and objects found in the graves of our earliest ancestors, buried tens of thousands of years before us, clues that they also wondered, "What does it mean that we become not-alive? Where do we go?"
In the earliest written language, we hear their questions woven into metaphors of darkness and light, death and rebirth. Across thousands of years, we can still dimly see that they understood their non-physical experiences as a part of reality, and that, like us, they longed for reassurance. The sum total of their human experience was held in paintings and intricate metalwork, and in dances and poems and stories, like baskets in which to carry their meanings. Their images and words are the raw materials from which have come our myth and religion, the deep cultural assumptions which hold us even today.
Today we know more about the physical structures of life than they did; but they were more open to its invisible, imaginative depths. It has become a cliché to say that in some ways the scientific Enlightenment has closed down our understandings, as over the past four hundred years quantitative method and rational skepticism have led us to prefer the literal meanings of numbers, not poetry; of psychology, not religion. Compared with our ancestors, we are uncomfortable with metaphor and disdainful of myth, enamored of data and dismissive of symbol.
Moody's revelation of near-death experience was not presented in terms of religion, which by the twentieth century had distanced itself from the sciences. No, the subject as he presented it was consciousness. That made the subject approachable by almost everyone. And as proof is our bedrock of believability, Moody's findings gave something to everyone: some took them as proof of life after death but virtually everyone, religious or not, saw them as evidence that something is going on.
That something appeared very good indeed. Suddenly it seemed that Einstein's question, "Is the universe friendly?" could be answered, yes.
THE COMING OF DISTRESS
When rumors came of disturbing experiences, no one, understandably enough, wanted very much to go looking for them. For one thing, the reports smacked of an unwelcome return to a doctrinal hell. For another, investigators are also human and were torn by the same dread that has haunted humanity throughout time; they stopped short of examining the darker side of NDEs. And for the major researchers, all of whom worked in heavily scientific academic settings, someone commented about them to me recently, "These guys were already being ostr