Is There Life After Death? Essays & Opinions
Paid Program Sponsored by John Templeton Foundation

Strohminger, Garfield & Nichols

Buddhism and the Loss of Self

Nina Strohminger is a postdoctoral scholar at the Yale School of Management. Jay Garfield is Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor of Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at National University of Singapore. Shaun Nichols is Professor of Philosophy a

Unlike Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism embraces the idea that there is no self, only a sequence of ever-changing and impermanent psychophysical processes. Just as one cannot step into the same river twice, there is no such thing as a continuous self, a single “me” that persists over time. Because there is no continuous self in life, there is no self to preserve in death.

The Buddhist no-self doctrine is sometimes said to alleviate a familiar source of suffering: fear of death. By focusing early and often on how the self is continually dying, many Buddhist scholars argue, one is able to make peace with death of the physical body. Buddhists also believe that embracing the no-self doctrine is central to the elimination of suffering: when one does away with the self, egocentricity and selfishness go with it.

Though the benefits of Buddhism have been oft-repeated, until recently there had been almost no empirical work on whether Buddhists actually are less selfish or less afraid of death. Our research team recently traveled to Nepal and India to examine the impact of these religious teachings on their adherents. We measured responses from displaced Tibetan Buddhists and Indian Hindus. We also surveyed Americans who were raised in Abrahamic religious traditions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). Unlike Buddhism, Hinduism and Abrahamic religions characteristically subscribe to the belief that there is a self that persists over time (an ātman or soul), which survives the body in rebirth or the afterlife.

Our data show that Buddhists have internalized the no-self doctrine. While Americans and Indians indicate a high belief in the connectedness of the self and an essential core self that persists across the lifespan, Buddhists strongly disagree with these statements. This was true whether our test subjects were Buddhist monks and nuns or Buddhist laypeople. Buddhists also believe in greater impermanence of the world and everything in it.

We also asked these populations if they coped with death by embracing the no-self doctrine. While almost all Tibetans affirmed this coping strategy, virtually none of the Americans said they did. (Abrahamic religions rely on other means for coping with death, such as belief in an afterlife.) Indian Hindus were somewhere in between.

The no-self doctrine is deeply insinuated into the Tibetan Buddhists, but how do these beliefs affect anxiety about death and selfishness? We gave our subjects the fear of personal death scale to fill out, which contains a series of statements about different kinds of reasons one might be afraid of death, to which subjects rate their level of agreement. The scale allows us to measure both the overall fear of death and the reasons for this anxiety. We were particularly interested in the items related to self-annihilation, which include, “Dying one year from now frightens me because of the loss and destruction of the self,” and, “Dying one year from now frightens me because of the destruction of personality.” When we asked prominent Tibetan scholars how a good Buddhist ought to respond to this scale, they said that one should have little to no fear of destruction of the self.

Nonetheless, Buddhist monks and nuns—those who were steeped in these religion doctrines day in and day out—exhibited significantly more fear of self-annihilation than Americans or Indians. Buddhist laypeople, who were less versed in the details of the doctrine of selflessness, also exhibited less fear than the monastics. If we consider only the other possible reasons to fear death, such as fear of the unknown, Buddhists were no less fearful than anyone else. In short, the no-self doctrine, rather than equipping the Tibetan lamas with serenity regarding end of life, seems to provoke a deep-rooted anxiety of self-annihilation, and does nothing to reduce overall fear of death.

In another survey, we gave participants a tradeoff task to measure generosity in end-of-life decisions. Imagine, we said, that you have a terminal disease that will kill you in six months unless you take a medication. There is only one dose of the medication available. If you take it, it will prolong your life by six months. If you don’t take the medication, it will go to someone else who has the same condition and, like you, will die in six months. If the medicine would prolong his life by twelve months instead of six, would you still take the medicine? What about two years? How much more life would the stranger have to receive before you would give up your medicine?

What we found surprised us. While Abrahamic and Hindu populations chose to give their medicine away when the stranger would live an additional couple of years, Buddhists were exceedingly reluctant to give their medicine away under any circumstances. If there is a ceiling on how much Buddhists value their lives over others, we never found it. Our scale only went up to “more than five years”—more than 70 percent of Buddhists selected this option.

Much of Buddhist philosophy and religious practice is aimed at cultivating selflessness, rechanneling concerns to the larger moral universe around us. But we did not find this effect in our studies. Ironically, it seems that these teachings, instead of mitigating fear of death and nurturing generosity, engender some of the behaviors and thought patterns they seek to destroy. These effects are especially strong among monastics who have the deepest understanding of these doctrines. They are the most fearful of self-annihilation, and the least generous with their lives.

This cross-cultural research highlights that religious teachings can have a deep and lasting impact on precisely the sort of moral and existential quandaries that religion is designed to help us navigate. However, these beliefs will not always have the impact on practitioners that we intend—and may in some cases even be counterproductive.

Have something to say?