Colossal bust of Ramesses II, the 'Younger Memnon' (1250 BC), British Museum. Author: Mujtaba Chohan.

Colossal bust of Ramesses II, the ‘Younger Memnon’ (1250 BC), British Museum. Author: Mujtaba Chohan.

Go: get a piece of paper.

Write down your four favorite possessions.

Write down your four favorite pastimes.

Write down the four parts of your body you like the best.

Write down the four people you care for most.

Write down your four best personality traits.

Go ahead. Do it now, then come back.

I’ll wait.

Finished? Now, slowly, one by one, draw a line through each of your favorite possessions. You will lose them all.

Scratch out each of your pastimes. There will come some point in your life where you will be unable to manage them.

Erase each of your favorite body parts. If you’re lucky, they’ll slowly devolve into senescence. If not, you will lose them through illness or injury.

Ink out your favorite people. You will lose them all, either through their deaths or your own.

What you’re left with, at least in the version I learned recently, are your personality traits. However, let’s be honest: you will lose those as well through death, injury, or dementia.

Rip them up. Rip them all up. Either they will die with you, or you will lose them along the way.

The question we all face is how to be happy in the face of these truths. The most popular method by far is one of avoidance: it’s a long way off, we tell ourselves. It’ll happen to someone else. I have better things to do than think sad thoughts.

For many of us, ambition takes over. We imagine that somehow by losing ourselves in work, by writing the great novel, the famous screenplay, by pushing forward the boundaries of scholarship or physics that we will somehow escape death. “Ars longa, vita brevis,” as the aphorism goes. Or we imagine it through children or charity work.

But ambition is vain, and history is a long time to come. Does it really matter whether we are forgotten in a hundred years rather than ten? We can no more secure our posterity after our deaths than we could before our births. Shelley illustrated how time defaces in his poem Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

The Neanderthal’s Sneeze

It took less than three thousand years for the pharaoh called “Ozymandias” to be forgotten. But wait a second, he hasn’t been completely! We’ve now recovered more than a little about the life of Ramesses II, his real name. Perhaps there’s life yet in Ozymandias’s trunkless legs. What future do we yet see for him? He’s lasted quite awhile now, but time marches on: in about five billion years from now, our Sun will run out of nuclear fuel and balloon into a red giant, melting his homeland to slag and sterilizing what remains of his planet.

We like to think that our collective memory will outlive Earth: that descendants of humans will one day populate the galaxy, and perhaps others besides, with our progeny. This holds out the possibility that Ozymandias’s works, or at least his name and history, will persist in perpetuity.

But the wheel of saṃsāra crushes all. According to our best cosmological theories, the universe will expand forever under increasing acceleration from the effect of dark energy, and what is left will slowly disintegrate into entropy. In two trillion years we will no longer be able to detect any galaxies but our own, since space will have expanded them all past the point of detection. The era of star formation will end in about a hundred trillion years, and the stars and planets that are left will slowly be absorbed into black holes. Nuclei will most likely begin decaying at 1034 years. By 1040 years all that will be left in the universe will be black holes and high entropy radiation. The last of the black holes will evaporate by 10100 years, leaving a universe that is essentially empty.

The timescales involved are mighty, reducing a human lifespan to utter insignificance. But that alone isn’t the point: the point is that these times, unimaginably distant though they may be, will one day be as real as here and now. There will come an hour, a day, a potentially endless epoch-series of heres and nows where all we are and all we have done will be utterly gone and forgotten. Any causal signal we might have produced in our blink of a life will be as lost in the entropic noise as a neanderthal’s sneeze.

It’s true that cosmology holds out the hope of future universes spawned from that endless dark, but presently they’re no more than speculations without evidence. And at any rate, they would have nothing to do with us. Nor would the potential for eternal abstracta like numbers or laws of nature to which some look for hope. If such things exist, they are more bloodless than the vacuum.

So some accept stories written in old books about other so-called “realms of existence”, apparently tuned for sentience: of everlasting life in heaven, of resurrection in a perfected body, with a perfected mind.

Others accept stories about beginningless rebirths, that comfort us with the thought that whatever kammic conditioning endures from moment to moment in our lives will follow us after we die, creating a new birth from our kammic shell. It’s sometimes said that the ancient Indian culture looked upon saṃsāric rebirth with an eye to life’s pains, and that therefore rebirth wasn’t appreciated. I’m not convinced: clinging to a notion of self that persists after we die is basic to the Buddha’s own picture of psychology. Kammic rebirth serves its cosmic purpose within the Buddha dhamma, but it also springs from the same deep root: a desire for self perpetuation. The Buddha’s own discussions with householders looking for happy rebirth tell the tale.

This move to embrace fantasy is essentially childish. When we’re kids we think of illness and death as something almost inconceivable, until it happens to someone close to us: a close family friend who dies a few months after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, a brilliant cousin who becomes schizophrenic and commits suicide, a grandmother whose mind is slowly lost through Alzheimer’s. Experiences like these helped awaken me to the reality of anicca and dukkha.

The fantasy strategy can work for a time, but eventually it must break down on confrontation with reality. And then we need a strategy for confronting dukkha: for coming to terms with the lone and level sands.

The Snickering

Philosopher David Hume expressed one natural response to this kind of existential problem, in his Treatise of Human Nature:

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

So we are back to a natural form of avoidance: “Good God man, you’re talking about trillions of years from now. Who in their right mind worries about trillions of years? I can hardly remember what’s on the calendar for next Tuesday.” A game of backgammon, and it’s all gone and forgotten.

Except of course that it’s not. It’s only postponed, waiting impatiently in the corner with your coat in its hand like Eliot’s snickering footman. As Christopher Hitchens put it in his book Mortality, written while slowly dying of throat cancer:

… I don’t so much object to his holding my coat in that marked manner, as if mutely reminding me that it’s time to be on my way. No, it’s the snickering that gets me down.

So, just how do we rid ourselves of that snickering?

That is the point of practice.

No Comments

  1. bagmanhattan on February 23, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    Doug, I’m going to respectfully disagree with this, and I’ll explain why as I go along. Please feel free to disagree with me.

    You write:

    “We like to think that our collective memory will outlive Earth”.

    Who’s this “we” you refer to? It reads like a broad generalisation. How many people you know have told you that they think this thought?
    I have to tell you that in my 75 years of lived experience I’ve never met anyone who holds this to be true. Are you and I living in the same world?

    You write:

    “We imagine that somehow (and you cite a number of worthwhile human activities, describing them as “ambition”) we shall escape death”. You qualify this with “many of us”. This seems to me as patent nonsense. How many people do you know who have told you unequivocally that they will escape death by having children, or undertaking scientific research, through creative writing or any other of the wholsemome and worthwhile activities you think derive from ambition? I know no-one who is so short-sighted. It may be the case that some Buddhists claim to believe in some form of afterlife, but it’s my experience that – when this is challenged – it is weakly helded: “Well, that’s what Buddhists believe, isn’t it?”, or “Well, didn’t the Lord Buddha say he’d experienced former lives?”, or some such unprovable metaphysical stuff.

    You write:

    “The question we all face is how to be happy in the face of these truths (and you cite the examples of inevitable loss you proposed in your strike-them-out inventory). It’s a cliched truism that we all encounter loss sooner or later in life. Some experience more loss than others, and some are more vulnerable to its impact than others, maybe because they are socially isolated, or have experienced repeated trauma, or are very young. But you seem to suggest that a normal response to loss is to seek happiness, and I wonder where you’ve encountered such a response, except perhaps in the very young or emotionally very immature.

    My professional background is nursing. I’m recently retired after over fifty years in service. For about twenty five years I was involved in charitable (Buddhist) hospice work, not just with Buddhists. In all that time it has very seldom been my experience that people facing or experiencing loss settle into a state of either seeking or mourning the loss of happiness. People adapt incrementally to loss, sometimes after a period of adaptive struggle with shock, anxiety, sadness, anger and the other normal and necessary concomitants of bereavement. In the Prufrock stanzas you quoted, the footman’s snicker was met with a momentary anxiety, not with crushing defeat.

    You write gloomily and with what seems a kind of perverse evangelical relish, “The wheels of samsara crush all”. Well, if this is to be the slogan of secular Buddhism, I don’t think you’re going to find many hearts will be gladdened by its message!

    You write:

    “we need a strategy for coming to terms with the lone and level sands”

    Hardly encouraging, I think. My own starting point would be an acknowledgement and a celebration of the human heart and mind for openness to human experience, the touchstone of everything we know and value and aspire to, and of our human qualities of kindness, empathy, generosity, joy, confidence, patience, wisdom, generosity, resilience, endurance, creativity, mirth, nobleness of spirit and cooperative fellowship with others.

    You declare – as if authoritatively – that ‘getting rid of snickering’ is the point of practice. For it may be thus. I trust you don’t claim the right to be prescriptive for the practice of others. I practice because I can, and want to, for its own simple sake. If I were asked for my recommendation on practice, I would say just that.

  2. bagmanhattan on February 23, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    In the last paragraph of the preceding comment the second sentence should read “For YOU it may be thus”.

  3. RalphChidiac on February 23, 2013 at 2:26 pm


    My name is KiKi and I believe your article to be a little bit of a downer, I actually did not even want to finish my Big Mac after reading it. I know life is not fun in the sun all the time, but why not appreciate the sun when its up high in the blue sky. I remember my teachers telling me that at some point in the future we (Earthlings) will get swallowed up by this yellow and soon (zillions of years) to be red giant. That does not take away from this moment of a lovely Shiny star against a strikingly blue background, generating a sense of warmth, basking my dermis in the perfect temperature for a sense of fuzziness to take over.

    Actually, my name is Ralph, I am 53 with a very Nihilistic outlook on life. My favourite philosopher is Art, as in Arthur Schopenhauer. My retort is very simple (as I am pragmatic, and have borderline personality disorder as well) there are moments when I would totally agree with this presentation and others when I simply don’t give a poop. and this is WHY:

    The Tragedy Of Life

    The existentialist dilemma is fundamentally a human dilemma. No other life form thus far has exhibited such an angst towards existence as such – proof of this is in the constant changes we bring to our environment without ever reaching an enchanted sense of self-sufficiency, as one era’s Utopia becomes the following one’s redundancy. Therefore, in essence, this must be a human characteristic, but which one?
    The tragedy of life has nothing exclusively with hopes & expectations, constraints & adversities, pain & suffering as these matters are also the sources of our contentment and happiness if not goals and directions in our experiences.
    I take upon myself – as this is verifiable only deductively – by moving in depth into the primal cause of this dis-enchantment, by making the assertion that,
    The Tragedy Of Life is MIND.

    To substantiate such a statement I stipulate that anything,… ANYTHING that occupies the mind’s conscious aspect is enough to give life meaning, from the momentary to the permanent, from the valuable to the worthless, from attraction to avoidance, from pain to pleasure.
    Is it that far fetched to state that what makes us happy (say a partner) can also make us suffer (separation) and what makes us suffer (you have cancer) can make us happy (your cancer is gone)?
    The problem with most is that they associate both happiness and suffering with places and situations (say Paris and money ) all the while they are certain neural firings in certain parts of the brain running the illusion.

    Therefore sir, I believe in WHAT works at this point in my life and what makes me carry on with this shitty burden of existence.
    Happy people exasperate me, depressed people irritate, (YES I am a piece of work, but who gives a damn, I sure do not),
    the Cosmos is so large, yet I cannot find a place to hide, as I am simply running away from my mind, and the only relief I get is when that latter is occupied by whatever except itself, so I think I am going to get busy finishing my big Mac.

    Thank you for listening…Even if you did not.

  4. bagmanhattan on February 23, 2013 at 3:58 pm


    Good chewy and granular stuff in this comment, I understood about 15% but the overall impression was 100% great fun. Not a good idea to expose your dermis to the sun, however, let your epidermis take the strain and get a nice tan (but use a reputable UV-blocker).

    Without a milligram of condescension, let me say that I find that people with borderline personality disorder can, as you’ve done, make a fine and distinctive contribution to secular Buddhism through Forums like this, and yes, you are indeed a piece of work, Ralph……..

    Let’s hear from you again!

  5. RalphChidiac on February 23, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    Thank you Baggy, especially coming from what seems to me to be a very well read and lived individual.
    Why does intelligence only exist on line? Just kidding of course.

    Regards Sir

  6. bagmanhattan on February 23, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    Thank you Kiki for calling me Baggy. I knew you were a genius, Schopenhauer would be proud of you.

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