By Joy Allmond
The afterlife seems to be an overwhelmingly dead end for one particular people group—and it’s not the nonreligious.
Tibetan Buddhist monastics—a community of Buddhist monks and nuns—are reported to fear death the most when compared to several other people groups: nonreligious Westerners, Hindus, Christians, lay Tibetans, and lay Bhutanese. The studies were conducted by Harvard Divinity School, the University of Arizona’s department of Philosophy, and other institutions.
The researchers examined how cultural views of self might determine the level of fear associated with death. Buddhist teachings claim the concept of no-self helps to mitigate fear of death and egocentricity. Since Buddhists believe there is no self outside of the body or mind, these findings were surprising—even to the experts.
Participants from all religious traditions completed a survey that assessed different fears associated with their death, including loss of social identity (e.g., “I will be forgotten,” consequences to family and friends, the loss of self-fulfillment (e.g., failing to realize life goals), and punishment in the afterlife.
Monastic Buddhists scored similarly to the other groups surveyed about different fears associated with the thought of dying. But they feared self-annihilation—decomposition of the body, state of everlasting sleep, loss and destruction of self, and destruction of personality—more than any other group.
In contrast, Christians—perhaps since they believe the soul is separate from and independent of the body—were among the groups to least fear self-annihilation. The areas in which Christians exhibited the most fear were consequences to family and friends and self-fulfillment.
Another surprising discovery—particularly given Buddhists’ concept of no-self—is that the monastics were found to be “less generous than any other group about the prospect of giving up a slightly longer life in order to extend the life of another,” according to the report.
This finding suggests the monastics were actually more egocentric than the other groups that responded.
Tibetan Buddhist monastics were found to have no less belief in an afterlife than other religious participants. They were, however, found to be among the least fearful of punishment in the hereafter, with Bhutanese and Tibetan lay people indicating they are most fearful in this category.
Another noteworthy finding is that Christians and nonreligious Westerners have similarly rated fears in the areas of self-fulfillment, social identity, and transcendental consequences (e.g., the unknown).
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JOY ALLMOND (@joyallmond) is managing editor of Facts & Trends.