There may be little or much beyond the grave
but the strong are saying nothing until they see.
In Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, he asks, “To be or not to be?”
He is talking about suicide, and “to be” means, in the context and in frequent Elizabethan usage, “to live.” He almost means, “To live or not to live?” and the rest of the soliloquy compares the certain burdens of earthly life with the possible burdens of a continuation in time after death. Hamlet more or less decides not to kill himself, scared by the possibilities of what might come next. In no longer living on earth, he would still exist, but in some other world of pain.
Still, his musing initially raises the heretical prospect that there may be no afterlife at all, a condition preferable to our life of suffering, a dreamless sleep. In that case, his literal formulation would be valid: it would be a choice between being and non-being. In life, we exist in some sense, we are; after death, nothing. Death through suicide or otherwise would mean quietus, absence, nada, zilch. His soliloquy does not linger on this notion, but only brushes up to it and then veers into fear of continued existence and the caution, “out of the frying pan into the fire.”
For the churches of more believing eras, the fear of a negative afterlife was a standard means to scare people into good behavior. For us, in the less believing era that Hamlet helped to usher in, death rather brings up a fear of total non-being, and that is what scares us into the good behavior appropriate to our time. Contemplating annihilation, we want to make the most of life -- for example, cross items off our “bucket list,” or do some meaningful task while we are still here for this one chance at being. “This having been on earth, one time, seems unrepeatable” -- Rilke
In early Buddhist doctrine, death also did not mean a total annihilation in every sense, but rather the continuation of one’s karma, the effects of one’s actions, so that the mental, emotional, verbal and behavioral traces would continue in some form until they were worked through. Dharmic (moral and contemplative) practice in this life would assure a better rebirth. Contemplation of death motivated practitioners to achieve what they could in this biographical life for the sake of improved karmic momentum.
The life we seek through our current spiritual practice, however, while it extends beyond the biography and its timeline, does not necessarily extend forward into more time. It does not need to go on and on in time, any more than it goes on and on in English. It might better be characterized not as extension, but as intensity – intensity of being.
Our normal ego and our normal sense of the world exist only faintly, as if some primary color, some original vibrancy, have drained away. “Now, no joy but lacks salt.”-- R. Frost. Still, we have it on good authority that we are, potentially, the salt of the earth.
Real life (as in “I am the way, the truth and the life”) involves a more to the very existence of existence. This intensity is our most precious non-possession. It can seem the fruit of meditation or of prayer, but it’s always simply given. Grace.
All blessings to all,