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Episode Four: Beyond Life, Beyond Death

Air Date: September 13, 2000

Introduction to With Eyes Open

BILL MOYERS, HOST, ON OUR OWN TERMS: Throughout the filming for this series, one person after another told us they were better able to confront dying because of their belief that this life in not the whole story. Walt Whitman said, I feel and know that death is not the ending, as we thought, but rather the real beginning. But the beginning of what? That is the age-old question. Tonight, in With Eyes Open, Ray Suarez asks some thinkers of different faiths about what they believe comes next.

Introduction to Beyond Life, Beyond Death

RAY SUAREZ, HOST: Good evening. I'm Ray Suarez. Once, not that long ago, I was going down the steps into a New York City subway station and someone handed me a religious tract. On the cover, in very ominous looking chiseled letters were the words, where will you be five minutes after you die? And I opened the page to the next part of the tract and it continued, where will you spend eternity? and then went on for pages after to deliver a particular answer to those two very big questions. But they are questions we all ask. Where will you be five minutes after you die? Is there an eternity to spend any time in at all? With us here to help us understand them are two terrific religious thinkers.

One the product of privilege, New England prep schools and Harvard. Everything in Robert Thurman's life seemed preordained. Then when he was 19 he lost an eye in a tragic accident and it changed the course of his life. Thurman set off on a spiritual pilgrimage that took him a world away. In Tibet he became the first American ordained as a Buddhist monk, beginning his 35 year friendship with the Dalai Lama. Back in the U.S. Thurman traded his monk's robes for the gown of a university professor, translator and writer. Time Magazine named him one of the 25 most influential Americans because he challenges us to apply the precepts of Buddhism to our daily lives, to look at death with open eyes so we can learn how to live.

Robert Thurman, good to see you.


RAY SUAREZ: Let's talk a little bit about how a Buddhist would answer that question. Where will you be five minutes after you die?

ROBERT THURMAN: The usual Buddhist view of that is you will be very nearby where your body still is after your breath has ceased. And actually you'll be having what we might call an out of body experience. Some people will meet whoever they expect to meet, often a deity or Jesus or Buddha or a boddhisattva, they would say. And then they will go with them fairly quickly.

RAY SUAREZ: Was there a time in your life where to use a Christian phrase, where your old self died and a new self was born.

ROBERT THURMAN: I think there have been a number of those, Ray. I think one was the time where I lost an eye and I was unconscious for three days. And the minute I woke up from that I realized that I would be dying, really, and I wouldn't be waking up from it and I realized that I didn't really know what to do about that. There were some surging things but I didn't know what they were. And so, the whole rest of my life would be dedicated to try to find out how to negotiate that area, that thing.

RAY SUAREZ: So you made an intention to spend the rest of your life dying well?

ROBERT THURMAN: Exactly. Or finding out how to handle what really was going on underneath. What was this surging business that was the mind, or the soul or the heart or whatever. And I decided to really focus on the idea that I personally am going to die and try to viscerally make that, and one meditates that every day and when you try to practice Buddhism where you subtract yourself from reality. You try to think of what's happening to everyone with you not there. And you go through letting go therefore of everything. And this deeply changes the way you live because you have to appreciate everything that is happening. If you are a paratrooper and you have to jump out of an airplane and you have an idea that once you're out that's the end of you, you'll just step out any old sloppy way or they'll throw you out any old way. But if you feel you're going to fall and you need your parachute, you're going to clamp it on rightly, learn where the ripcord is, really get it right. Of course, you know there's some place you're going to.

RAY SUAREZ: Before we go too far, I want to introduce another religious teacher of great distinction.

David Wolpe grew up the son of a rabbi and a convinced atheist. Now Wolpe is the senior rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, showing thousands how the ancient writings of the Torah are relevant to their daily lives. Wolpe has written five books including Making Loss Matter, but he never fully understood loss until his wife was diagnosed with cancer, when their daughter was an infant. Today she's fine and Wolpe knows first hand that even in the greatest suffering there can be meaning and transformation. Rabbi welcome.


RAY SUAREZ: Now that story of near loss with your wife. You had already been a rabbi previous to this, right?

RABBI DAVID WOLPE: I had but what happens is for anybody who teaches something, especially something that touches the essence of what human beings are supposed to be, your teaching comes home to you when it touches you. This is part of the occupational hazard of being a professional religion-giver, which is that even as you yourself are supposed to epitomize it, the truth is that you're sometimes looked at as a dispensary of wisdom and that which you're giving out doesn't always touch you. When it finally touches you, everything is different.

RAY SUAREZ: So, are you better at it now?

RABBI DAVID WOLPE: I'm truer at it now. I'm deeper at it now. Somebody who comes to me knows that I see it through their eyes as well as through my own.

RAY SUAREZ: We sometimes forget that there are a lot of other people who are sharing in this event of the end of life and the onset of death. How do all the people standing around the bed, as it were, play into what you would want people to learn about this, the end of life?

ROBERT THURMAN: From the Buddhist point-of-view, they very much feel that the emotional link between loved ones and the one who departed is very strong. So very powerful expressions of grief, violent lamentations, loud wailing, and this sort of thing are considered very deleterious because the most important person in the death scene is the person who has died. And they can get easily very upset.


RABBI DAVID WOLPE: Part of what I want to do with the family is first of all to open up to them the possibility that this isn't the end. I want them to at least be emotionally open to the chance that this world is not a finite one but a passageway. And I also want them to realize that the person who's dying still has something to give them. So I tell them that you have to listen to your mother, your father, your spouse, even your child who is dying and let them know that you still want from them as well as to give to them. It is an attempt to maintain the integrity of the relationship until it really is broken by death.

RAY SUAREZ: So there's a transaction going on.

RABBI DAVID WOLPE: Yes, absolutely.

RAY SUAREZ: The dying have something to give to the living and the living have work to do to help the dying as well.

ROBERT THURMAN: There's a very powerful blessing I think that comes from someone who is at that boundary of form and formlessness. Sleep and waking, waking and dreaming and they have a bigger picture and what you said, David very movingly about adopting the other person's view. Another element of someone who dies and who gives up in a way the identification with the body, where they locate themselves over here versus you over there type of thing. They become like a kind of cloud of awareness where they feel other people's perspectives. And so I think that what is reported by people when their dear ones die that they do hear their voice, they are called to come, sometimes they hear a voice just before they die that they must come at this time. They'll sometimes from far away and they'll know when they're in an airplane like thousands of miles away, and of course, this is all very woo-ooo.

RAY SUAREZ: Is that a technical term?

ROBERT THURMAN: That's a technical term of materialists, scientists: it's very woo-ooo. But there's much report of that because a person at that threshold has a very special type of awareness.

RABBI DAVID WOLPE: Part of what we're talking about is whether death is a clear black border or whether there is a blurring from life into death. And a story that I tell all the time is the story of twins in the womb. Two twins in a womb, one believes that there's a world outside this womb. The other one says, that's ridiculous. We've never seen another world, we've never heard of another world, all our needs are taken care of here. Now imagine that the one who believes in another world is born. Back in the womb his brother is mourning a death, but outside, they're celebrating a birth. And that is, at least one traditional way of looking at this world and the next world. That in fact it's a death here is a birth elsewhere. In other words, the lines and the categories that we fix things in are not nearly so clear as we've been taught.

ROBERT THURMAN: There's a wonderful thing the Tibetans do in relation to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, what we call, they don't actually call it the Book of the Dead. Because there are no dead in their view, in the sense that once people go then they go on into new life. The death is just leaving that body, going into a kind of subtle body and then into some sort of other embodiments in their view. So there's really no dead. I worked for a few years ago translating the Tibetan so-called Book of the Dead which they call the Book of Natural Liberation, Natural Freedom, freedom through nature. And that was a big revelation to me that there really are no dead people. There are just people transforming constantly in more and more and more marvelous ways.

RAY SUAREZ: But what about the contrary? The belief, that many people have, that there is nothing waiting out there past that portal. so, this is not an audition. Life's not an audition. This is the main act.

RABBI DAVID WOLPE: In both cases, death is a tremendous opportunity in a sense, because in the Bible, in the Book of Kings it say King David was old. And one chapter later it says, David was dying. And the rabbi seized on that to say notice the difference, even when you're old you can still garb yourself in position and power and so on, you can be the rabbi getting old. You can be the king getting old. But at the moment that you realize that you really are dying, that you have to confront your own mortality that I'm not going to last forever, you confront it as who you are, you become yourself in a sense. And I would say that part of the trick of leading a good life is to confront that before you have to. That is really taking in the fact that I shouldn't live as if I had eternity in this world because I don't. In a sense the shortness of life span is a blessing to the intensity of life. No I'm not going to go on a diet now, I'll do it in 2000 years, right. So it's not a big deal, right. I know I had a terrible falling out with him but I will make it up in a few centuries and then we'll talk. But if you realize deeply that you don't have that then all of a sudden life becomes inestimably precious as every single opportunity becomes so precious. Whether you believe there's an afterlife or not, if you believe that there's a death, you life can change.

ROBERT THURMAN: That's really true. There's a famous Tibetan marriage counseling statement which is when pressed for counsel some married couple, the great teacher Atisha said, you want some marriage counseling? Okay. Husband and wife, each of them will very soon be dead. Therefore, now that they're alive they should be nice to each other.

RABBI DAVID WOLPE: Part of the problem is that the way we explain afterlife is sometimes ludicrous. We don't have what the philosophers would call epistemological humility. That is we're not humble about what we do know and what we don't know. So you get for example, Mark Twain says that people think after they die they're going to lie on green fields and listen to harp music. He says they wouldn't want to do that for five minutes while they're alive but they think that we have to for the rest of eternity doing that after we die. The truth is that whatever that life holds after this one is literally unimaginable in the same sense that this world was unimaginable. Before you were born you could never have imagined, mountains and seas and trees and human faces and all the things that this world holds, so what makes us think that we have, with our limited vision, the ability to know what that world is going to be like.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree?

ROBERT THURMAN: Of course the Buddhist thing it's a little, it's a little different because with the rebirth, or reincarnation, I believe it must be understood by people that for the Buddhist it's a very common sense belief. In other words that I'll be reborn maybe in America again, or maybe I'll be a woman next life, if I was too much of a male chauvinist in this life. There also are many different types of heavens. The little feathery wing and halo type and there are also sort of like big groovy jacuzzi type heavens. And there are many different types. And there are sadly those other places, lots of ones, hot ones, cold ones, crushing ones, cutting ones, very frightening visions of the lower reaches, as well as animal forms.

RAY SUAREZ: Rabbi, just a few minutes ago you were talking about some of the things that people believe and you used the word ludicrous. And there is a whole folk religion that's passed down from grandmother to parent to child about what happens to people, where they'll be. So and so is looking down on us. So when you're sitting down with someone and they pass on one of these very comforting, very reinforcing, but in your view very mistaken views. Do you say, let me straighten you out on that or do you try to put in another story to take the place of that one. It's a tough moment I would think.

RABBI DAVID WOLPE: As you probably have guessed, I don't really do either of those. I say to them that in fact nobody that I know of can report accurately what happens after you die. Because I have faith both in God and in human beings, I think this isn't the end. And by saying that I mean not just that I have faith in a god who doesn't abandon us the moment we die but that it is my experience of other people that if you really know them, that you feel something transcendent about them, something that is indestructible in their spirit, something that's more than an accident of ancient chemistry but that really endures.

ROBERT THURMAN: The one thing that I think is really ludicrous, the picture that people keep in their mind is that they will become nothing because it came to me as a Eureka experience a few years ago that the one thing that is nothing is nothing. Therefore there's no place nothing that you can go to. You never can come from nothing. Nothing is not a place or a destination or you can't spend eternity in nothing as nothing because your subjectivity is something and everything else in nature that we know and see, every something becomes something else, comes from something else. Even the Buddhist's version of Pascal's Wager that I like very much, which is that if you're going to, which I used to do with my grandfather, a 96 year old atheist. If you're going to be nothing and you prepare to be a certain something in a good way so that you can be a good something or somebody, then if you end up as nothing you won't regret you wasted your time because you won't be there. If you don't prepare to be a good sort of somebody and you don't become nothing as you expected, you're going to be like, oops, where's my parachute? Where's God? Where's my equipment? Where's Buddha? Whatever it is. So I think that's pretty useful. But I don't bother with someone who is really going and finding nothing soothing, you know, let them go, peacefully, and then when they get a little wake up call and there's St. Peter or whatever, then they'll just have to cope with that. Hey, I thought I was going to be nothing.

RAY SUAREZ: Surprise. Reverend Douglass Fitch, as a pastor you preside over many of life's great joys, baptism, marriage. Talk a little bit about the tough job of helping people to die, helping them get ready to die.

REVEREND DOUGLASS FITCH, UNITED METHODIST: It is a difficult task. There's no doubt about it. I come from a tradition, not just African American tradition, but my religious tradition. That is I'm a United Methodist and there is a ritual. Two lines of which say, live as though you're prepared to die, die as you go forth to live. That's almost an east and west coming together, so to speak. Within an 18 month period, my first wife of 32 years passed. Her father passed and her mother passed, in an 18 month period. And so it was not just a cold ritual that I had to deal with, it was a living understanding. I had to come to grips with the image that they all three died with, it was a Christian understanding of who they were.

RAY SUAREZ: What do you mean by that?

REVEREND DOUGLASS FITCH: That is, there is something more to life than just death. Death does not have the last word, life does.

RAY SUAREZ: As you listen to a Jew and a Buddhist trading perspectives on this time of life, did you find yourself sort of sitting back and thinking, well, I'm down for all that. I haven't heard much yet that I'm saying no to.

REVEREND DOUGLASS FITCH: As a matter of fact I kept saying, aha. I could own it and I could, I could embrace it. Aha, aha, aha. The fact is I could say aha because I own that now.

Ray Suarez Joins the Audience

RAY SUAREZ: According to recent polls 94% of Americans believe in God or a higher power. 81% believe in heaven described as the place you live forever with God after you die. 79% say there will be a judgement day when God decides whether you go to heaven or hell. Those are some astounding percentages of believers and of course, it means that nobody in our audience here today is going or most of the people that you know are going to hell. You've got some pretty good questions to ask, too, so let's begin. Yes, your name is?

ROBIN: My name's Robin and what we've been talking about so far is like the perfect death. What about sudden death? In my family, that's what we experienced. My brother died when he was nineteen in a car accident and my father died suddenly several years ago. And it's very hard for a family to reconcile those kinds of deaths and to live with faith knowing that something so suddenly and so disastrous could happen.

RABBI DAVID WOLPE: I'm going to give you a short and inadequate answer to the great religious question which is how do you deal with evil that happens to good people? What I believe is that a lot of life, maybe most of life is essentially random. And that that is in its way important because the truth is that if every good life were rewarded with good it would be impossible to be good for it's own sake. If I am a kind person, I will never be in a car accident, then your kindness all of a sudden becomes instrumental. It becomes prudence. You're doing it for a reason. And so the answer is that really sudden, terrible tragedies and the necessity of living a good life are in some sense different questions. They're disconnected. But the the people I know who are really good are good because they believe in goodness. And that is a legacy that I hope the people in your life whom you loved have left you.

RAY SUAREZ: And Poyom is it? You had a question?

POYOM: Most people believe they're going some place that will be good and that will be maybe better or whatever, why are people still so afraid of dying?

ROBERT THURMAN: Oh, that's what I said that I don't really believe in that belief that the pollsters come up with. It's like the pollsters said do you believe in God? That's the American thing to do, yes. But then, what is, how much belief is there, really? And the fear is there because they haven't really lived their life by it. Which is what belief should really be.

RAY SUAREZ: So you're saying a certain portion of those people who say they're going to heaven don't really mean it.

ROBERT THURMAN: They're saying that just in case. Officer, yes, I'll go to heaven in case that's an option. But they're living like there's going to be no punishment for all the selfishness that they put forward and they don't expect necessarily big reward for the good things that they do.

RABBI DAVID WOLPE: It certainly is true that people, that even people of faith tend to be very scared at death. The prospect that I will all of a sudden lose everything in the world that I love, the people I love, the books I love, everything, the beauty of the world. That scares me. And so does the prospect that I really will be judged on how my life was lived because I know in my own heart that however much I say I try to be a good person, I could try more. I could do better. I know that I don’t do as well as I could.

RAY SUAREZ: So what does that idea about the permanence of life, of the soul, of the self, tell you, advise you, about how to live? Hedge your bets?


RAY SUAREZ: Be careful?

RABBI DAVID WOLPE: I would say what it tells you is not be careful but that the aim of life, I believe because I think, if you ask what is the purpose of life I really think that at least as I understand my tradition, there is a purpose. The purpose is to grow your soul. And to return your soul back to God more polished, more burnished, deeper, more mature than it was given. And I think that if you really do feel faith then you take that idea seriously.

ROBERT THURMAN: In the Buddhist view, that's really the same. Grow, what you say grow your soul. In the Buddhist view is to evolve, we would put it actually. And the idea is to evolve to where we are a completely happy and completely beneficial being and have no negative element left in us. So the purpose of life is learning, really, and evolving through learning

RABBI DAVID WOLPE: I think in every great religious tradition the aim of life is not to know whether there is immortality but to live so that you deserve it.

ROBERT THURMAN: That’s great.

RAY SUAREZ: Rabbi David Wolpe, Robert Thurman, thank you both very much.


RAY SUAREZ: The whole point of this exercise has never been to come up with a set of answers or a menu or a rule book that now will tell you definitively what's going to happen to you when you die and for long after you die. Think of it as maybe just another tool in the tool kit of how to be a human being. You may have heard things that you disagree with violently and passionately, things that made you nod your head in assent, agreement or hope. Maybe you just heard some things that you need to chew over again. Provocative thoughts. We hope so. Thanks and good night.

Major funding is provided by The James Irvine Foundation with additional support from the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation.

©2000 KQED, Inc.

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