“I know what it’s like to be dead”

My title is from the Beatles’ song called “She Said, She Said”: a couple of the lyric lines are relevant to my topic. When I attempted to describe to my friend Gary G. the change in my experience that I will attempt to describe to you now, he immediately recalled the song.“She said, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead.'”

Back in May, I decided to tell my relatively new acquaintance, John C., too, about this significant change in my life. I’ll use some of what I wrote to John to help me introduce it here.

Not long ago, something “clicked,” and suddenly I understood the ineluctable reality of evolution as a soulless and self-contained process. From then on, I have awakened many mornings in a kind of near-death experience, a strong intuition of what it means to really not exist at all. That experience returns to me a few times during each day as well. As a result, my felt sense of the world has changed, and I have more compassion now about people’s desire to remove the fear of the unknown. Another positive result seems to be that I no longer fear the dark so much, metaphorically speaking. But I understand first-hand now how dangerous that experience can be, because time is telescoped and, in a real sense, I already do not exist. I seem to have more respect for and yet less fear of death now. Maybe one function of religion has been to protect us from such knowledge — to serve as a kind of socially-inculcated defense mechanism?

That last sentence raises some interesting issues, but I’ll leave them for future musings. Today I want to focus on the experience.

I remember reading many years ago a Zen dialogue (which, if I haven’t imagined it, I may be able to locate later). In the story, a monk is challenged with something like this: “You can conceive of nonexistence, but can you conceive of the nonexistence of nonexistence?” The question itself is subject to a variety of interpretations. For example, one may read it as implying that nonexistence does not exist, that there is no such thing. Well, yes, nonexistence is not a thing. One could even go on to say that the Zen master must be teaching that nothing ever ceases to exist. But I don’t think that the master was teaching that: Buddhism attributes only conditional reality, if that, to things. My reading of the question was more like this: do you understand what it means, in terms of your life, that “nonexistence” not only is not a thing, but also is a characteristic that cannot be predicated of any thing? My answer then was, “Yes, but I’ll need to think about that.”

Thinking more about it didn’t give me a useful understanding then, but now the ongoing intuition of nonexistence is helping me to think (and feel) differently. No thing can be said not to exist, I see now. I cannot not exist: not because I am eternal, but because nonexistence is not a characteristic of any real — existing — thing, and I am such a thing. (“Existing” as a thought in someone’s mind is not the existence I require for myself.) There is no time when I will not exist, and yet there will be a time when others can rightly say of me, “He no longer exists.” Contemplating that paradox, I begin to understand “the nonexistence of nonexistence.”

And the reality of death. I might say that death is unconsciousness that never ends, but only with the proviso that no one is unconscious — and that unconsciousness can be predicated only of an existing being. Analogies can’t be of much help here. But this I can say: there are dead bodies, for a time, but no dead persons. I will die, but I will never be dead.

“And she’s making me feel like I’ve never been born.”

And yet, in a sense I am dead now, because to intuit nonexistence is to feel past and future in the present. As I told John, time is now telescoped. Seeing beyond existence allows me to feel the timeboundness and momentariness of our existence. Knowing now the eternal reality of nonexistence and the relentless relativity of time, I begin to understand that already I do not exist. And I see, too, that, from the perspective of eternity, I have never been born.

I’m reminded of a kind of prelude experience that I had in 1990, on the day that my adult family’s first pet dog died. Below is a paragraph from the entry I wrote that day in my journal. (Click here for the entire entry. At the time, I was thinking of Zen Master Bankei‘s notion of “the Unborn,” thus my reference to “Mind” in that entry, but my experience now is different, beyond the reach of doctrine — as, for all I know, Bankei’s was, too.)

A line seems to have an origin and an end, but I come from nowhere and go nowhere. I am an imaginary series of points between two deaths. Each point is drawn on the plane of emptiness; each point of life is a point of death. In perfect stillness I pass through them all. If I could enter that stillness, I would know peace. I would know death in life and life in death; I would no longer want to deny what I am. I would live, at last, as a free man.

I now know death in life. And, because of that, I am learning to know life in death. It may be that freedom is at hand.

[Follow-up post: “Wrestling with Nothingness“]

5 thoughts on ““I know what it’s like to be dead”

  1. Dear George:

    In Buddhism this would fall under “contemplation on impermanence”, such as “I am of a nature to die”. It is highly recommended, a contemplation for everyone.

    I want to comment on your statement that Buddhism attributes only conditional existence to things. I don’t think that is true. In the Ittivutaka and Udana the Buddha states that there is that which is “unborn, unconditioned, uncompounded.” In the Middle Length Discourses references to the deathless, and synonyms, are frequent. In Mahayana Discourses there are references to Buddha Nature, that aspect of existence which is unborn, deathless, absolute. I believe it is a western secular interpretation of Buddhism which argues that the Buddhist Discourses do not references such a transcendental aspect of existence.

    Best wishes,


  2. Hi, Jim. Thanks for your comments. Quite the amateur student of Buddhism, I offer the following response for what it’s worth.

    The saying from the early scriptures is well known: readers can find a form of it here. I would argue, however, that, having demonstrated the dependent origination — conditioned existence — of all things, the Buddha was not stating that any thing is “unborn, not come into existence, not formed, unconditioned.” The experience of the not-born, which paradoxically is not and cannot be an object of experience, is what I was trying to describe in the post. So I might more accurately describe the experience as one of “unborn-ness” — “emptiness,” in the later Madhyamaka philosophy of the Mahayana. It’s not a cognitive thing, not equivalent to the “I am of the nature to die” exercise; it’s more an intuition of voidness in existence.

    Speaking of the Mahayana, I must say that in my experience its sutras tend to be very different animals. They often reflect the influence of relatively late schools of philosophy, some of which speak of “Absolute Reality” in a way that can lead to reification. With the philosophical (“Mind-only”) idealism of some forms of Yogacara, for example, we are well into the so-called “Third Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma,” the new, third paradigm. In other words, such forms of Buddhism are arguably far from the original experience as expressed in the earlier scriptures. Later students, however, have understandably read backwards, interpreting the Pali scriptures in light of the Mahayana. That’s quite similar to the situation George Fox encountered in Christianity, except that the new writings could not become part of the Christian scriptural canon: for well over a thousand years, Christians had been reading scripture through the lens of “apostate” exegesis and theology which presented themselves as simply elucidating the original teachings of scripture.

    Again, I’m a self-taught, if reasonably well-read, amateur; I’m cheerfully open to correction.

  3. Dear George:

    Buddhism is a huge subject and I don’t want to spend a lot of time here on the varieties of Buddhist experience and interpretation. But briefly, the madhyamika exegesis is not the norm for most Buddhists. It is central in Tibetan Buddhism, but East Asian Buddhism, while acknowledging that it has a place, is more centered in Mind Only views. For those interested, the central commentary for East Asian Buddhism (including Zen) is “The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana” by Ashvaghosha, and it does affirm the positive existence of the transcendental.

    In the Theravada the great commentary is Buddghaghosha’s “The Path of Purification”. In the section on Nibbana, Buddhaghosha argues with great fervor that Nibbana is not a mere absence; that is to say that Nibbana is not just the removal of hindrances but an actually existing condition.

    Finally, in the Tibetan region there are those who have argued that madhyamika analysis reveals the absence of all negative qualities which in turn reveals the presence of transcendental qualities such as compassion and wisdom; see Dolpopa’s “Mountain Doctrine” and the commentary “Uttara Tantra Shastra”.

    There are Buddhists who have argued for the idea that realization is the realization of a “mere absence” and westerners, particularly secular westerners, have tended to gravitate towards these interpretations. It is my perception, though, particularly in East Asian Buddhism, that such a view is not predomnant.

    I hope this is of some assistance.

    Best wishes,


  4. Thanks again, Jim. The “Mind-only” philosophy is what has kept me all these years from really embracing Zen: I just don’t buy it, and it has never meshed with my experience. I certainly do agree that it is predominant there: it gets in my way at almost every turn!

    What my post actually stated, though, was that any thing is necessarily conditioned. I wonder if we might agree about that. I can also agree that nirvana must be an actual condition, as you say; however, I don’t see why that must lead to metaphysics. It does seem to me that if nirvana is the extinguishing of the craving and delusion that cause suffering, then the resulting condition would not be characterized only by absence. Absence of craving, delusion, and suffering seems quite a positive condition to me — what else could one, well, crave? I understand the desire for a transcendental object, but my understanding of the earlier Buddhist philosophies — the first two turnings of the wheel, different as they are — led me long ago to see the desire for transcendence as no different from any other. And Nagarjuna showed me that phrases like “transcendental object” — and, my favorite, “the infinite” — are self-contradictory. They deconstruct themselves as soon as I encounter them.

    You and I have different Buddhist perspectives, I would say, both of them comprehended in the universe that is Buddhism. I hope to continue learning from you.

  5. Dear George:

    You see Buddhism through the post-modern interpretative matrix. I have no problem with that. I don’t have that perspective; though I understand it I haven’t found it efficacious in my own life. I don’t consider Nagarjuna, for example, to be a deconstructionist, though I think it is possible to interpret his work in that way. But that is a modern interpretation.

    I am not convinced that terms like “transcendental object” or “the infinite” are self-contradictory; but that would be a subject for another forum.

    Best wishes,


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