Do Tibetan Buddhists fear death the most?

It is an old philosophical idea that if the future self is literally different from the current self, one should be less concerned with the death of the future self (Parfit, 1984). This paper examines the relation between attitudes about death and the self among Hindus, Westerners, and three Buddhist populations (Lay Tibetan, Lay Bhutanese, and monastic Tibetans). Compared with other groups, monastic Tibetans gave particularly strong denials of the continuity of self, across several measures. We predicted that the denial of self would be associated with a lower fear of death and greater generosity toward others. To our surprise, we found the opposite. Monastic Tibetan Buddhists showed significantly greater fear of death than any other group. The monastics were also less generous than any other group about the prospect of giving up a slightly longer life in order to extend the life of another.

The economist might call this an income vs. substitution effect, the income effect in this case predominating.

That is from “Death and the Self,” by Shaun Nichols,  Nina Strohminger, Arun Rai, and Jay Garfield.  Via Rolf Degen, who in turn notes on Twitter:

I don’t think that the terrible thing about dying is the expiration of the self. The terrible thing is that WE must leave – and the party goes on without us. Social comparison until the end.

There is this famous saying that being ostracized is like death, it is “social death”. But it goes further: Real death IS social death, it is like being ostracized by the living.


For the record - I am in my 50s. If someone told me I had a bedbug infestation, or that someone had stolen my identity, I would experience a very high level of anxiety... and, to compare .....

If someone told me I had a form of cancer that kills everyone who has it within a year, I would not be all that anxious - I would be first off thinking - no joke - well, on the bright side, I don't have to worry about retirement planning any more. I would right after that think about things slightly differently, but without anxiety - my favorite book in the Bible, by far, is the kind Letter to the Philippians (to explain a little better, the last time I went to the hospital with what are euphemistically called "heart murmurs", there was a couple in the cubicle/curtained off space/ next to me, who were talking to each other the way one would imagine a couple who had lived together for 60 years might talk to each other, on an evening in my beloved Northern Virginia where it rained a lot and where one of the two of them had just experienced the sort of heart murmurs that often end up in death, within a few hours or so ..... they both seemed so kind to each other, and so patient as they listened to what each other had to say - to tell the truth, I tried hard to listen, but I could not hear anything interesting - and I could not tell which of the two of them was in the hospital because of heart murmurs that would likely kill them if untreated .....)

Steve Sailer once wondered if the reason we talk about Buddha so much is because he marketed his style of thinking better than all the other guys who wanted to be the Buddha of their day, Well, nobody fears death the most. For some of us, it is a surprise, for some of us, it is not, people generally die the way they lived, which is why so many people try to tell other people what they know about God, in the time we (they) (us) have left. Nobody fears death the most the same way nobody likes cheap beer the most, compared to some fictional group of other people who like cheap beer less (and fear death in a different way, chebere ok chebere). It is what it is. God bless anyone who thinks God does not care about them even if they think they are boring (you're not) and selfish (well, maybe you are) and won't be missed (eventually, all of us are not missed) and not all that kind (w0rd). Truth is, I have known a lot of boring people (several hundred I could name), lots of selfish people (several hundred I could name), and lots of people who died and nobody missed them (to be accurate, I have known several people who died and nobody missed them: if several means lots, than I have known several. God help us all.). I hope that God loved every single one of them more than God loves me. I find that amusing, so there's that.

My father died in his late 50s after a few months of a smoking-related illness and he felt the same way. He said he wasn't afraid of death, but he was afraid of dying, and as luck would have it, he was ill for a few months, endured chemo and so on, and then died suddenly. He had enough time to put his affairs in order, which was a help to all of us (he dealt with funeral homes and the rabbi himself, and enlisted a good estate lawyer who would charge by the hour rather than as a percentage, as two important things). He also spent time with me and my brother and made it clear that he was an open book and would answer any questions he could. I brought him in to talk to my former therapist who did a very thorough interview about his perspective when I was growing up. He was open about everything. He set an example for me.

Also, he got satisfaction from the fact that his funeral would be well-attended. Hundreds of people attended (he was a university prof). He also got a kick out of the fact that he was getting a lot of people into a synagogue - as he put it - once in their lifetimes.

I'd love to see Sam Harris comment on this. This actually makes perfect sense, if you think that meditation increases executive function, and that despite their doctrinally-motivated denial, these monks' present selves are actually MORE unified with their future selves (exactly as you would expect from someone with all that executive function and probably not very much future discounting.) So this finding is exactly what we should expect!


In fact Buddhist tradition has both samatha training and the more "advanced" vipassana training (example: see this Scott Alexander review). The former, roughly speaking, refers to concentration and the latter to concentration in insight.

Samatha practices involve focusing on an object/thought/... as one continuous whole, while vipassana tries to break down reality into a sort of totally disconnected stream.

Tradition does consider samatha to be a prerequisite for vipassana, with at least one big caveat: it warns that the ability of a samatha-trained mind to intensely focus on something as one continuous whole can mess with the vipassana view of everything being a sequence of pulsations.

P.S.: Can some commenter tell me what is the "income" Tyler is referring to, and what is being substituted with what?

Do you have any insights on how the Buddhist vipassana tradition is different from the Meditation tradition (Dhyana) in Patanjalian Yoga?

Unfortunately I don't, because, ironically, I have even lesser familiarity with Patanjali's yoga than vipassana. The main eight steps of Patanjali do not seem to make any reference to either insight(vipassana)-type practice, or our good old jnana-yoga of a neti-neti sort. Neither do I recall seeing such things being discussed as part of Patanjali's approach. Worse, the word "dhyana", as well as the fact that such expositions often refer to analogies like the unbroken flow of oil, which all sound more like samatha than vipassana.

However, this doesn't mean the insight/vipassana ideas are not there in Patanjali, because - given that only the sutras are available, who gets to decide what the details of the practices envisaged by Patanjali are?

Daniel Ingram's book, whose review by Scott Alexander I linked to above, refers to a certain stage, even a particular one that involve insight, as related to kundalini movements. While kundalini is rather tantric and not yogic, this suggests a possibility that these ideas might have been there in the details of yogic practices no one bothered to write down (or was written down and lost), and tantra could have borrowed them from yoga; of course this is wildly speculative.

Nice link

I'll try to explain what I think Tyler means by the income vs substitution effect here.

Peoples' preferences for different goods change as a result of their income changing, or the prices of the goods changing relative to the price of other goods.
Tyler is saying that the income effect is that these Monastics' lives have improved through their training, relative to other lives. So for people whose lives are not so great, the prospect of death or changing lives with someone else is not too bad (substitution). But for people whose lives are great, like these Monastics, their "income" is that their lives have improved relative to others, so they will choose the luxury good, which is their own life.

I think that's what he means!

Thanks. I am still a bit confused, but cannot think of anything better than your explanation.

I don't have much to say about Tyler's remark.

But I think it is intuitive enough that cultures that don't have an elaborate theory of afterlife probably fear death the most.

Heaven / Hell is central to all Abrahamic religions, if I am not mistaken. So a well led life, always holds the promise of heaven which is appealing.

In Hinduism, heaven and hell play a very marginal role, though it is not absent. The more orthodox texts in the tradition don't discuss heaven / hell at all, but instead talk of the cycle of birth and death, and ultimately Moksha (liberation). So for most people, afterlife doesn't hold much dread as it most typically means a rebirth. There is always a second chance for even the most dissolute of men.

I am not sure about Buddhism. It is clearly an atheistic religion. But nevertheless embraces the idea of rebirth. Given that death doesn't necessarily mean a "shunya" prospect of nothingness, I am not sure why Buddhists (or Tibetan Buddhists in particular) would dread death anymore than Hindus (who probably dread death the least).

Does the Yogacara school of Vasubandhu de-emphasize rebirth and reincarnation? I understand it is more influential on Tibetan Buddhism than other Buddhist schools like that of Theravadas and Madhyamaka.

Oh, heaven and hell feature prominently in Buddhist texts too, as does Vedic characters such as Indra (perhaps usually referred to as Shakra, which is used synonymously by Hindus too) even the earliest ones! You must have heard of that story where Buddha gives a bad guy in hell a thread from a spider's web to climb to heaven, and he messes that opportunity by not allowing fellow-hell-residents to follow him, for fear of the thread snapping. One should take care not to be misled by the over-rationalized portrayal of Buddhism by European enlightenment thinkers and many modern westerners (I can't find the link now, but somewhere on Jayarava's blog is an excellent discussion of this stuff).

My understanding is that both Hinduism and Buddhism emphasize death a lot, and use it to motivate spirituality. Personally too, thinking of these issues make me more obsessed about death, not less. I don't know if rebirth is sufficiently helpful because:

(i) human life is supposed to be a rare opportunity; you don't know what you are coming back as (remember the story of Jada Bharata!) - you forget the details of this life but carry forward hangups from there;
(ii) even for the most faithful, their faith is far from perfect;
(iii) death is painful, and there is some material and familial attachment even for advanced practitioners.

Rather, if you take advaita-vedantic expositions like Panchadashi, you will find typically peoples' desire not to die being interpreted as a "love for Self" (upper case S), and thus used as a sort of learning portal towards it. I don't know if your Vishishtadvaita has a similar idea, but at least in a slightly different context death seems to be used as a motivator for spiritual practice: antima-nimisha-smriti in the Ajamila sense is a very low probability event, and to slightly increase that probability one makes the seemingly heavy investment of making remembrance as 24 x 7 as possible, because the payoff is so high.

I haven't read any Yogacara/Madhyamika stuff, but I would expect them to lie between Theravada and Vajrayana (the Tibetan one): since the both of these emphasize death, one would expect the middle one (pun unintended) to do so to.

Rule #13: don't overthink?

It's nice to see Shaun Nichols get a mention here. I took a couple of class from him at the U of A, and he's great.

I don’t think that the terrible thing about dying is the expiration of the self. The terrible thing is that WE must leave – and the party goes on without us.

I think the terrible thing is that I don't get to find out what happens next. Or do anything about it.

Chris Hitchens echoed the 'social death' sentiment shortly before he was tapped on the shoulder.

I thought the whole basis for the Dalai Lama's authority over Tibetan Buddhism is that he is specifically supposed to be a "continued self"? Is the objection that only the top-level monks get that privilege?

Alternate theory: the difference in fear of death has nothing to do with religion, but rather with level of participation in community -- that may be a confounder. I would like to see a study that included cloistered Christian monks and nuns.

For those who serve Satan, death means being cast into the like of fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.

Ugh, that sounds worse than Brazil!

It is worse than anyhing else. You should think about it.

I've just never heard of anything worse than Brazil until now.

Then you are a very uninformed person. There are many things worse than Brazil.

The living will be ostracized soon enough.

"To die will be an awfully big adventure."

I would just point out a fallacy most Christians have about the after-life and heaven. No, grandma and the family dog are not in heaven, they will have to wait with the rest of the faithful for the End Time and the resurrection of the body. There's an exception for martyrs, Stephen being the first martyr, they go straight to heaven, which may explain their behavior.

Honest question, where is grandma after death but before the End Time?

The Bosom of Abraham.

The joke among new testament scholars is that they are in a waiting room, hopefully one with more recent magazines than those found in a doctor's waiting room. See Corinthians 15:35-58 (not for the joke but the discussion of the resurrection of the body).

Didn't want the joke version though, is the basic Christian belief that our souls are in some kind of limbo/purgatory until then? Are they conscious?
Luther proved he soul sleeps waiting for he resurrection.

Reading is an acquired taste.

Dante isn't dogma, but lots of people are in Heaven. The Saints are "our friends in Heaven," a common trope in Early Christian sermons, theology, and poetry. There is a social continuity.

You might like to see this Faithful Student song, important to the Longchen Nyingtik tradition. I've included a link to the text in Tibetan and English below.

"See me with compassion; I have no other hope. This dear human body, impermanence besets. Do you not fear your death, good and faithful student?"

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