Tuesday, October 14, 2014


My previous griping post made reference to the afterlife. This got me thinking about what I believe regarding our postmortem existence.

Those who know me well know that, despite my fascination with and deep respect for religion, I think much of it is bullshit. I'm a scientific skeptic at heart, even more than I'm Buddhist in terms of my metaphysical sympathies and liberal-Protestant in my social and theological sensibilities. This makes me a doubter, an empiricist, a pragmatist—a "Show me the money" person. I don't take any scripture's word at face value, and I think the best religion is the one that offers experience as the greatest guide to truth. This is why Zen Buddhism, in particular, has long appealed to me ever since I began reading about it and engaging in limited, sporadic practice. Zen is simple, blunt, and pragmatic. Although it's not free of its own wild claims about the nature of mind and reality, I think Zen is, of all the religions I know anything about, the one that's most anchored in actual reality. It makes no dubious assertions about people rising from the dead, or walking on water, or commanding a sea to part. There are no blue-skinned gods cavorting with maidens, no bloodthirsty tribal deities demanding that we "smite the necks" of the infidel. Zen has none of that nonsense. Zen basically comes down to Who you is? Where you at? and Whut you do? Follow your situation. Be open to what the world is saying to you every moment. Be open to this moment. Zen, pragmatic and empirical, dovetails nicely with scientific skepticism.

But as I was reminded recently, my mother is dead. It'd be nice, in a romantic way, to think that she resides in some celestial paradise, a heaven of some sort. While I won't deny the possibility that such a place exists—after all, I haven't died, so I can't take my empiricism quite that far—I have my doubts. Personally, I'm not convinced that anything lies beyond the grave for any of us. "The rest is silence," as Shakespeare movingly wrote in Hamlet. It was only the living, those who survived Hamlet, who spoke of a heavenly reward: "Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." But what do those people know? Like me, they haven't died. All the faithful have is their belief. I won't go so far as to say that a belief in heaven is irrational or misguided; believe in it all you want, as far as I'm concerned, and I won't think you're crazy. But I have to be honest about where I stand, and my own belief, pending objectively verifiable evidence to the contrary, is that there's nothing on the other side of the Great Door.

This isn't to say, though, that I think nothing remains of a person after he or she dies. I may not believe in an afterlife, in a continuation of consciousness and experience after death, but I do think we leave echoes—echoes that reverberate through time and space, perhaps fading away years from now, perhaps not. If chaos theory has anything to say about postmortem metaphysics, it could be this: we can't know what effect our lives will have on the future of this world. Perhaps a ripple thirty years down the line—some vibration, some memory, some mention—might be enough to trigger a significant turbulence that propagates itself throughout the whole of human history. You never know.

I don't want to say too much about this here, because it's still too personal, but my mother left one letter, which I found folded up in a dresser drawer, that was essentially a prayer to God. I discovered this letter while going through her things a few months after she had died. The letter was in Korean, and it riveted me. What I held in my hand was the only bit of material proof that my mother ever talked to God, and that realization changed my understanding of her character. This method of talking to God—writing Him a letter—was her way of praying. I'd never seen my mother pray, truly pray, outside the context of church. Granted, she recited the Lord's Prayer with one of our church's pastors during the months that she was dying of brain cancer, but I don't recall her ever breaking out spontaneously into sincere, heartfelt, completely unscripted prayer. That letter was filled with anguish; it was a soul-cry, an attempt to make sense of wrenching circumstances in her life, and it left me in tears to see how she had put her rawest feelings on paper, then folded the paper up, hiding it in her dresser for no one but God to see. I ended up giving the prayer to my brother Sean as a memento.

And that's what I mean by a vibration, a memory, a mention: a significant effect felt only after Mom was gone. It's trite to say that Mom "lives on in our hearts," but I think this sentiment is true, however trite it might be. Those who leave us, passing away into the future, also leave something behind—something that we have to carry forward if we feel any sort of obligation to the dead. Perhaps that's my answer to the question of heaven, then: part of my duty is to carry my mother's fading embers forward in time and space. Some of this carriage is done willingly, consciously; some of it has nothing to do with my will: others see reflections of Mom in how I naturally think and act. To the extent that carrying those embers forward is a duty, it's one I assume gladly. There no longer exists a mother that I can hug, a mother whose warmth I can feel, so now it's up to me to gather up those glowing coals, the remains of her passing, and share that warmth and those hugs with others. I incarnate the echo. Perhaps heaven isn't so much a place or a state of consciousness as it is an action and a responsibility. This would make heaven a close cousin of karma: the momentum of all our decisions and acts, always moving forward, like a wavefront, into the unknown future. And behind that wavefront, propelling everything ahead of itself, is the driving force of love.



Charles said...

I was going to comment on this wonderful meditation, but then I got something in my eye.

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks, man.

John said...

Well said.

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks, John.