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I am a writer in Central Florida with strong interests in the ways in which religion and philosophy intersect in popular culture. I especially enjoy examining how this is expressed in film, literature, music, and art.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Self-Imposed Exile in Existentialist Literature

07 December 2008
*(MLA style has been altered to facilitate online posting.)

Humans have always formed their sense of self in relation to the society they live in. For centuries, literature expressed a belief of mankind as part of the greater community. However, as the 19th century drew to an end many writers increasingly expressed an opposite view. Literature became a medium through which some individuals could express their growing anxiety with the world and their own sense of alienation. Often, this perceived estrangement from society was actually precipitated by the individual. This assumption can easily be seen in the characters created by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, and Albert Camus. Together, they introduced the notion of man as alone in the universe, an exile within his own community. Most of their characters are alienated from their community precisely due to their own choice to exclude themselves. The sense of isolation the characters feel paved the way for what has been termed existentialist literature. The main characters in Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, Kafka’s The Metamorphoses, and Camus’ The Guest all share this theme of self-imposed exile.

Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man is perhaps one of literature’s least likeable characters. He seems to want to feel as if he belongs, but persists in pushing others away. His treatment of Liza is especially poignant, as it entrenches him in a self-hatred, yet his heart has grown so cold that he continues to hurt her. One can almost picture Liza’s tears as Underground Man strips any sense of worth she holds for herself. He mocks her and says, "Well you should know that I was laughing at you then... (Dostoevsky, 1374). He displaces his feelings of shame onto her. The dinner scene is also indicative of his need for social connection, and at the same time illustrates how he is able to alternate between this need and the drive to punish others for what he thinks is a rejection of him. "Either they'll all fall on their knees, embracing me, beg for my friendship, or ...or else, I'll give Zverkov a slap in the face” (Dostoyevsky, 1351). His reaction here is nearly infantile. What is most tragic is the fact that Underground Man is lonely, but it is only himself holding others at bay. “He is 'subdued by his antithesis', that is, enslaved by an abstract concept of his own making” (Hall, 6). His pessimism alienates everyone because for him, mankind is the lowest form of life. “The definition of man is this: a creature who walks around of two legs and is ungrateful” (Dostoyevsky, 1322). Underground Man’s disdain for people makes him quite disagreeable and condemns him to a life of solitude, lacking in companionship or love. Towards the end of the story, he seems to grasp the fact that he has not really been living life, but rather than take the blame alone, he once again displaces it onto all humans. At the end of Part II in Notes from Underground, Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man says that “we are oppressed at being humans, humans with our own real bodies and blood; we are ashamed of it” (351). The fact is that he has never let himself be human, with all the faults that would entail, and cannot handle acknowledging the truth.

Kafka’s main character in The Metamorphoses, Gregor Samsa, also alienates himself from others. Rather than doing so because of a dislike of people, he separated himself from society in order to protect and care for his family. “It is their world, their stake in the commercial scheme to which he is committed…Kafka caught deeply and accurately the connection between home and office, the thwarting of independence in both realms, the depletion of the spirit, and, in consequence, the reduction of urban man to bestial immaturity” (Spilka, 15).He lived to work and hoped for nothing selfish. This disassociation from the common things a man hopes for, along with the way his family treated him as their work horse, slowly turned him into something inhuman. By this time, his family had no actual sense of gratitude or love for him, since they had taken him for granted for so long. Their main concern became their need “to get rid of it" (Kafka, 2026). He lost his humanity and was exiled from his own family due to their lack of love. Still, this treatment was one which he encouraged through his mindless sense of duty and self-sacrifice. His parents felt that they "could not endure useless, much less dirty refuse" (Kafka, 2023) precisely because he had accustomed them to comfort and material prosperity. He went from being human to being nothing more than garbage in his family’s eyes. If only he had been more selfish of his own needs, he may never have been in that predicament.

Perhaps the most memorable and eloquent of these stories is Camus’ tale of the schoolteacher Daru, who separates himself from an entire town due to his differences in politics. “It is against the willing and unreasoning manufacture of violence that Daru's exile is a mute protest. He is irrevocably opposed to the brute immorality of men and to the processes of dehumanization which that immorality activates” (Grobe, 4). He chooses to live alone on the plateau precisely because "everywhere else, he felt exiled” (Camus, 2575). The description of the setting as isolated from others by a mountain and a desert, coupled with the references to numbing cold weather and famine, give the story a tone of profound desolation. "For days, still, the unchanging sky would shed its dry light on the solitary expanse where nothing had any connection with man” (Camus, 2576). Daru chooses his fate and condemns himself to loneliness. “No one in this desert, neither he nor his guest, mattered” (Camus, 2578). The horrors of war and colonization have scarred Daru’s soul and filled him with dread. With such an obvious disregard for himself and for others, Daru could never have felt happy in the company of others.

The literature which emerged as the 20th century approached was rife with anxiety and allowed the reader to grow aware of the vast separation between the individual and society. There arose a new hero in these stories, who grappled with feelings of loneliness and estrangement and who at times seemed on the verge of a psychological break down. Dostoyevsky is hailed by some as the patriarch of this trend, since Notes from the Underground is an intense psychological portrait of precisely such an individual. Franz Kafka is also an example of this type of writing because in The Metamorphoses he destroys the notion of safety within the family structure and thereby completely isolates Samsa, ripping all vestiges of humanity from him. In The Guest, Camus isolates Daru in a similar manner. He pits Daru against his society and the end result is that Daru is left without a foundation on which he can rely. Indeed, his very life is threatened. The hero’s complete isolation is the common theme in these stories and has led to their being lumped together under the category of existentialist literature. In all these individuals, this estrangement is partly their own fault. In many ways, these stories lead the reader to examine their own life, and thus examined, their lives reveal the same truth: every man is an island.

CITATIONS

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground, the Double, and
Other Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.

Grobe, Edwin P. The Psychological Structure of Camus's "L'Hôte".
The French Review, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Dec., 1966). American Association of Teachers of French http://www.jstor.org/stable/384469%20Accessed:%2008%20Dec%202008

Hall, J.R. Abstraction in Dostoyevsky's "Notes from the
Underground". The Modern Language Review, Vol. 76, No. 1 (Jan. 1981). Modern Humanities Research Association http://www.jstor.org/stable/3727016%20Accessed:%2005%20Dec%202008

Lowell,Sarah;Ed. Anthology of World Literature, Volume E-F. New
York: Norton, 1999.

Spilka, Mark. Kafka's Sources for the Metamorphosis.
Comparative Literature, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Autumn, 1959), pp. 289-307 Published by: University of Oregon

The Awakening: A Comparison Between Tolstoy & joyce

*(MLA style has been altered to facilitate online posting.)

The way in which a person relates to the people around them is often indicative of their worldview. This is especially true in fiction, which aims to share the author’s message with their readers. Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych and James Joyce’s The Dead are two stories which center around an individual’s life and the realizations they come to by the end of the story. Although Tolstoy and Joyce were both astute observers of way of life in their countries, Russia and Ireland respectively, they also recorded the duplicity and hypocrisy which was rampant in the lives of the bourgeoisie. Upon reading both stories, the similarities are obvious in both the way of life between the main characters and the conclusions they come to by the end. The conclusions both men reach at the end of the story could only be reached by a form of death because they had become so entrenched in society and following its norms.

The Death of Ivan Illych begins with a gathering of men who are discussing work issues. Talk soon turns to Illych’s recent death and this causes the men to begin seeing the possible advantages this means for their professional lives. After witnessing how some people fulfill their obligations half-heartedly, the reader is then given the chance to view Illych’s life through his own lenses. The reader witnesses the monotony of Illych’s life, his choices, and his skewed priorities. He is able to understand how devoid of meaning Illych’s life is and how few joys he actually has. This serves as an important buildup to the change which his imminent death catalyzes. By the end of the story, Illych has grasped the error of his ways and has finally understood that life consists of so much more than he ever imagined. If given the chance, he would certainly change. Unfortunately Illych’s awakening has come much too late. (Tolstoy, 1422-1460)

Ivan Illych is a complacent man. He has slipped into the comfortable role of family man, but he is not happy. He is married to a woman he does not love and most likely, never did. "To say that Ivan Illyich married because he fell in love...would be as incorrect as to say that he married because his social circle approved of the match" (1430). His entire life seems to be fragile and built upon layers and layers of lies. He has never truly looked himself in the face, and it is only the awareness of his mortality that causes him to wake up and see himself as he truly is. "It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing and all the rest false" (1457). As Anthony Daniels writes, Illych’s illness causes him to think about his life which although successful is finally acknowledged to have been “fundamentally meaningless” and causes him to question “what it has all been for” (1-2). Too late he realizes that all the impulses he buried were the sole authentic things about him.

Upon facing the torture that is a chronic illness, Illych finally reaches into the recesses of his psyche. He understands now that he has never truly lived, at least not in any meaningful way. He also realizes that “he has blinded himself to its emptiness” (Daniels, 5). He buried his soul’s protest for so long that he got lost. Although this realization is a grim one, it paves the path to his redemption. "...It was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified" (Tolstoy, 1459). There is hope in this tale, albeit in the end Illych dies without the opportunity to change anything. This hope for a better life, for a more true and authentic self is the heart of this story. This hope can conquer fear of all sorts, including death. "He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it"(Tolstoy 1459). It is precisely this hope to be a better person, to live a better life that enables Illych to abate the panic of facing his mortality.

The Dead begins with a gathering to the one opening Tolstoy’s story, although in this case rather than being comprised of professionals discussing business, it is instead a social gathering at Christmastime. All appears to go well, although the reader slowly becomes aware that there is a sense of dissatisfaction on Gabriel’s part. By the time dinner is over and the Conroys arrive at their hotel, Gabriel is full of desire for his wife. In an attempt to get her in the mood, he tries to talk to her. He notices something is on her mind and attempts to be there for her. He is shocked to hear she had a boy from her past that dwells in her memory. He wonders if she has always compared Gabriel to him and is full of pity for her. He acknowledges to himself that he has never been in love before. He has a realization that life is to be lived and that he hasn’t actually done so. Although in some ways the tone at the end of the story is gloomy and oppressive, it is clear that Gabriel has seen the need for a change and one shares a hope that it is not to late to go about the process of living. (Joyce 1945-1974)

Gabriel is similar to Illych in his complacency. Although he seems happier than Illych, he is immensely dissatisfied with his country and fellow citizens. He longs for some European adventures, and even adheres to their fashion. When teased about his fondness for galoshes, he replies that "everyone wears them on the continent" (Joyce, 1949). When he is around his friends and family, he perceives that “the indelicate clacking of the men's heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his" (Joyce, 1948). He finds his peers irritating for the most part, as well as beneath him. Even when it comes to his wife, he is unable to actually feel love towards her. “He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love” (Joyce, 1974). It is at this point that he achieves enlightenment, or an awareness of the true nature of things. “Gabriel's illusions are shattered-he sees himself far more honestly now than he has ever done, he receives in fact a revelation of sorts” (Pecora, 13). He realizes that he needs to start living life to the fullest as he never has before.

After Gabriel finally realizes that his life has been largely inauthentic and bereft of any true passions, he allows himself to entertain fantasies of his own death. In a strange way he seems to glorify Michael for dying in such a way. "Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age" (Joyce, 1973). He acknowledges that it is glorious to be able to feel so intensely, and is disturbed to discover that he has never felt in such a way. “In this fit of romantic illusion, Gabriel is willing to see an early death as a preferable, noble substitute for the humiliation of his existence” (Pecora, 11). Apart from his fascination with death as something desired, Gabriel experiences a shift in consciousness. “His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling” (Joyce, 1974). This passage serves as an intense psychological record of the moment in which one man finally stares himself in the face. “He has arrived at a new conception of selfhood without firm boundaries” (Auslander, 12). This represents the beginning of the journey. In a way, there is a bit of hope in the realization that he has reached awareness while still a healthy man. Still, one is left to wonder if perhaps emotionally he is just as dead.

Fiction has a way of shining a light on those things humans tend to forget about while carrying on with the drone of daily life. The best literature aims to share an author’s personal worldview with their readers. Characters in a story become full of life as their tale unfolds and by having the reader care about the story’s characters, the author is able to ensure the readers get the message. Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych and James Joyce’s The Dead both share characters that have lost their sense of meaning in the world. They are trapped by circumstances and norms of their choosing. The tragic thing is that in order for them to face the fact that they haven’t lived, they have to undergo a difficult trial. Illych doesn’t make it, but Gabriel has a chance. Although the reader does not know what will happen next, one hopes that Gabriel has truly changed. After reading the two stories, the similarities are obvious in both the way of life between the main characters and the conclusions they come to by the end. The stories survive as classics precisely because of the warning to all readers to live life to the fullest now before it is too late.

WORKS CITED

Auslander, Adrienne. Form and Subtext in Joyce's “The Dead.” Modern Philology, Vol.
82, No. 2 (November 1984), pp. 173-184.
Munich.http://www.jstor.org/stable/437129 Accessed 02 November 2008

Daniels, Anthony. Chekhov & Tolstoy. New Criterion 23.8 (Apr. 2005): 31-36. Humanities International Complete. EBSCO. Valencia Community College, Orlando, Fla. 7 November 2008. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hlh&AN=16696098&site=ehost-live

Lawall, Sarah, Ed. Anthology of World Literature. New York: Norton, 2005.

Pecora, Vincent P. "The Dead" and the Generosity of the Word. PMLA, Vol. 101, No. 2
(March 1986), pp. 233-245 Modern Language Association

Cultural Movements in Confessional Literature

17 October 2008
*(MLA format has been altered to facilitate online posting.)

The greatest authors have often been witnesses to the contemporary concerns of their society. It is usually simple to trace specific movements, whether philosophical or political, in many classical works of literature. When examining the literature of the late 19th century, the reader can actually witness the end of Romanticism and can anticipate the birth pangs of the movement which would come to be known as Existentialism. Romanticism and Existentialism share a view in which passion has supremacy over reason, and therefore are much more concerned with a person as an individual rather than society as a whole. Both movements also embrace a lifestyle which can be classified as bohemian due to a high regard for travel and the reluctance to conform to societal norms. Finally, both movements share a view of man as essentially alone in the Universe. Although the main concerns of Romanticism and Existentialism are similar, their approaches differ greatly. Upon reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions and comparing it to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, it becomes possible to witness the evolution from sentimental Romanticism to the psychological angst which would become inseparable from Existentialism.

Romanticism has at times been considered overly sentimental by some critics due to its preoccupation with human emotions. The Romantic ideals arose as a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment which focused heavily on the practice of reason. Romantics sought to exchange this gravitation towards reason in favor of a more natural approach to life which revered the very passions which make us human. Rousseau exemplified this attitude when he wrote "As this period commences the brief happiness of my life; here approach the peaceful, but rapid movements which have given me the right to say, I have lived" (Lowell, 667). This sentiment expresses the idea that one must embrace intense emotions in order to truly live life. Romantic writers record a full range of emotion in their desire to live life fully, but their main focus deals with feelings provoked by love, beauty and nature.

Existentialism may be seen as the consequence of this focus on personal emotions. One can only stare at his reflection for so long before it begins to stare back. The first Existentialists had plunged into the wellspring of their emotions and seemingly drowned in them. Unable to get back to the comfort zone, they delved deeper in and became self-conscious. When the Underground Man tells Liza that the reason she is there is because he spoke words of pity to her and tells her that she wants to hear more pity, he is at his cruelest. He tells her, “Well you should know that I was laughing at you then...Yes, I was laughing at you!” (Lowell,1374). With these words he destroys any remnant of self-worth she has and also marks himself as a scoundrel. As if his self-worth wasn’t low enough, he adds fresh guilt and self-hatred to the mixture. Dostoyevsky imbues the Underground Man with the emotions Existentialism would deal with: anxiety, dread, estrangement from society, and misery.
Romantics revered the bohemian lifestyle with its nomadic existence. This may have been partly influenced by their veneration of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. The ideal Romantic person traveled vastly and was able to study classical aesthetics in architecture and art. It was impossible for Romantics to find solace in things such as the family, for their sights centered on the world around them and their minds were under the spell of wanderlust. As a consequence of the inability to find comfort in the traditional home environment, Romantics embraced nature and viewed the world at large as their home. Rousseau’s desire to lead a “wandering life” (Lowell, 675) echoes the Romantic theme of man as a lonely wanderer on the face of the Earth.

Existentialists on the other hand, were witnesses of the havoc that the Age of Industrialization had caused. Political upheaval and governmental reforms left their toll on society and its thinkers. For the Underground Man, the “definition of man is this: a creature who walks around of two legs and is ungrateful” (Lowell, 1322). At the root of Existentialism is a strong dissatisfaction with society which can only be explained in light of the turbulence which surrounded the shift from a rural way of life to that of an urban lifestyle. “It is Dostoyevsky's distinctive achievement in Notes from the Underground to have portrayed and analyzed a contemporary revolution, the anguished moment when the old myths of Enlightenment rationalism give birth within apparently continuous forms to the new myths of individualism and their radical opposition between the 'self' and the 'other'” (Hall, 5). The fact that the Underground Man stands on the threshold of a new type of society is the reason we find him so opposed to everything he encounters. Although he renounces the norms of society like the Romantics did, his bohemian lifestyle does not aim for pleasure. His wandering is that of a madman, a frenzied rush through cold city streets in a world that is ever more hostile.

Romantic literature often centers on feelings of loneliness, but has the recurrent theme of nature as a comforting mother. Perhaps the greatest evidence for Romanticism in Rousseau’s Confessions is the “romantic color in certain passages such as long walks in the countryside and attendant reflections on the beauty of nature” (Carmody, 6). Like Rousseau, many famous writers of the age were known for their solitary nature. Rousseau in particular often referred to his feeling very alone and his need to be loved by everyone who knew him. Still, he is able to find peace in nature, regardless of what ails him or how alone he may feel. "I walked on in a kind of ecstasy, abandoning my hearing and senses to enjoyment of all, only regretting, with a sigh, that I was obliged to enjoy it alone." (Lowell, 675) Clearly, Rousseau finds solace in nature, yet even during his moments of greatest tranquility he yearns for companionship.

Existentialists shared the lack of peace in the home, but were unable to find solace in nature. For Existentialists, the entire world is a hostile place and there is no peace to be found anywhere. The concept of liberation is seen not as a gift, but as a curse. This is because the individual is the sole person in charge of his own destiny and he must therefore carry the weight of his world on his shoulders. Dostoyevsky intuited this when he created the character of the Underground Man, who when “feeling alone and helpless in a hostile world, he tried to cope with his anxiety by withdrawing from others and nourishing a belief in his own superiority” (Paris, 4). Although he attempts to convince his readers and himself that he is superior to others, the fact remains that he still yearns for companionship. "Either they'll all fall on their knees, embracing me, beg for my friendship, or ...or else, I'll give Zverkov a slap in the face” (Lowell, 1351). With these words it becomes evident that the Underground Man is a lonely man, but not necessarily by choice. The Underground Man, in true Existentialist fashion, is alone in the universe and can find no comfort in the world he has been thrust into.

Rousseau’s Confessions and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground share similar themes. The main focus in both works is the narrator’s intense emotions, his attraction to alternative lifestyles, and overwhelming feelings of loneliness. Although quite similar, the ways in which these concerns are expressed are very different from each other. Reading both works in light of our understanding of Romanticism and Existentialism enables the reader to fully grasp how Romantic ideals formed the seed for Existentialism. Rousseau’s Confessions serve as a final adieu to the Romantic Age and leaves us with a portrait not merely of a philosopher, but with that of a man, giving us “the most complete estimate of his own character and his attitude toward life and conduct” (Havens, 3). Although not actually an Existentialist himself, since the movement would not come to fruition till the commencement of the 20th century, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground anticipate the concerns of Existentialism and “is the best overture for Existentialism ever written” (Kaufmann, 14). Comparing both works, the reader comes across similar themes, but the thoughts which are conjured up are very different. Reading Confessions, one is left with the opinion that the world is generally good and that life can be lived fully. Notes from the Underground offers less optimism, since the world we have just left is one in which anxiety and dread are prominent, and where each man is an island with no one to call a friend.

List of Citations

Abstraction in Dostoyevsky's "Notes from the Underground" Author: J. R.
Hall. Source: The Modern Language Review, Vol. 76, No. 1 (Jan., 1981), pp. 129-137 Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3727016 Accessed: 10/10/2008 17:25

Kaufman, Walter. Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre. New
York: Meridian, 1956.
Notes from Underground: A Horneyan Analysis Author: Bernard J. Paris
Source: PMLA, Vol. 88, No. 3 (May, 1973), pp. 511-522 Published by: Modern Language Association.http://www.jstor.org/stable/461530 Accessed: 16/10/2008 17:20

Rousseau's Confessions: Notes on the Style Author(s): Francis J.
Carmody Source: The French Review, Vol. 30, No. 5 (Apr., 1957), pp. 358-365 Published by: American Association of Teachers of French. http://www.jstor.org/stable/383589 Accessed: 15/10/2008 17:19

Sarah Lowell, Ed. Anthology of World Literature, Volume E. New
York: Norton, 1999.

The Theory of "Natural Goodness" in Rousseau's Confessions
Author(s): George R. Havens Source: Modern Language Notes, Vol. 38, No. 5 (May, 1923), pp. 257-266 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

The Afterlife: A Comparison of Tibetan Buddhism & Roman Catholicism

1 December 2008
*(MLA format has been changed for ease of blogging.)

The rise of the New Age movement in the West has led many people to reexamine traditional teachings within the religious belief of their parents. A popular practice is to compare the teachings of Judeo-Christian teachings to those of Eastern religions. Christianity especially has inspired many writers and scholars to search for parallels between Jesus’ teachings and those of the Buddha. Some have even claimed that Jesus was influenced heavily by Indian religions and there are legends which state that during his lost years he journeyed to India.

Although the West has only recently begun the attempt to learn more about Buddhism and other Eastern religions, references to Buddhism appears in many writings of the early Christian church. In the 2nd century CE, Clement of Alexandria wrote, “Some, too, of the Indians obey the precepts of Buddha; whom, on account of his extraordinary sanctity, they have raised to divine honours” (Clement, 1:15). Donald Mackenzie, when speaking of St. Origen’s views on Christianity in Britain, quotes St. Origen as writing that Britain was “predisposed to it through the doctrines of the Druids and Buddhists, who had already inculcated the doctrine of the unity of the Godhead.” The list of references by early Christians to Buddhists is a long one and seems to imply that at least some Christians were aware of Buddha’s teachings. The fact that many of the references seem to be positive indicates an understanding even then of their similarities. After all, both religions value compassion, respect the sanctity of life, reject violence, and emphasize the importance of charity. Apart from this, their views on the afterlife are very similar. In particular, the views of Heaven and Hell in Roman Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism, along with their overall beliefs in the afterlife, are so similar that at times it seems to validate the notion that Christianity was heavily influenced by Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhists have a highly developed understanding of the afterlife. In their belief, knowledge of the afterlife is essential in order for the dying to avoid obstacles in their rebirth. Death is not something to be feared for Tibetans, as they know that nothing is permanent and eventually they will be reborn. As the creators of the University of Virginia exhibit on The Tibetan Book of the Dead state, “Spiritual growth is achieved not by cowering from death, but by confronting it head on.” The Tibetan Book of the Dead (TBD) is perhaps the world’s only extensive and thorough guide through the realms of the afterlife. Its purpose is to liberate souls from the illusions perpetrated by their weakening consciousness as they die. Tibetans believe that the afterlife consists of a bridge between lives known as Bardo. If a person dies with no knowledge of this state, they are likely to continue the cycle of reincarnation or to enter into one of the lower realms. On the other hand, if they are enlightened they may achieve Nirvana, which is true liberation from all attachments. “There being several turning-points, liberation should be obtained at one or other of them through recognizing” (TBD, Part 2). Thus, they will have achieved Buddha-hood and the process of rebirth will no longer drag them into the lower realms, including the mortal plane we inhabit.

Upon dying, the soul encounters many deities. There are the peaceful deities, whose main goal is to entice you into forgetting your mission. There are also the wrathful deities who attempt to scare you. In your panic, you may get lost. For this reason, it is important to constantly be mindful of the fact that all things encountered while in Bardo are mere creations of the mind. Finally, the soul encounters the most fearsome of the wrathful deities, Yamantaka. He carries a scale on which he weighs the sins and good deeds of the deceased. This determines whether the soul will go to Hell or to Heaven. Although he points the soul into the direction they shall go, he is not actually judging it. Each person is fully responsible for where they end up, as it is simply an accumulation of the karma from their past life.

Although Heaven is considered to be a place of bliss, Tibetans still see it as part of the lower realms due to the fact that eventually souls in Heaven will have to reincarnate into the mortal plane. Indeed, even deities must reincarnate every few thousand years. “Even the most wretched souls will eventually work their way out of even the deepest pit of hell, just as even the highest and purest souls will eventually lose their footing in heaven and descend again into the cycle of death and rebirth” (Williams). Even Hell is not permanent, as it ends after the evil souls have been punished enough. They are then free to continue the cycle of rebirth and hopefully continue with their progression into ever higher planes. The souls are free to choose their next set of parents and Kevin Williams cites the final passage of the Bardo Thodol as stating, “Let virtue and goodness be perfected in every way” (Williams). They too will someday achieve Nirvana, although the amount of time and lives this will take depends on the karma they accumulate.

Roman Catholics also believe that death is not something to be feared, since they have complete faith in an afterlife. Their vision of the afterlife is eternal and unchanging, unlike the Buddhist view of impermanence. Roman Catholics believe that the main purpose of every human soul is to achieve entrance into Heaven where they will gaze upon the beatific vision in all its glory. They do believe in a resurrection of their corporal body as well, but it is something that will only happen once and will last all eternity. They also believe that upon dying all souls will sleep for an undetermined period. “I saw the dead, great and small alike, standing in front of his throne while the books lay open” (Rev.20:12). At some point in the end times, Jesus will call each soul by its name and everyone who has died will be resurrected into their body. Once called by Jesus, the multitude will then await judgment by God. It is believed that at that point all humans will learn and understand everything they could not grasp in their lifetime. They will see all their sins and good deeds and will know the pain of realization at how much they grieved God. Roman Catholics have a strong sense of the pain Jesus suffered for human sins, and feel that with every sin they commit, they are hammering yet another nail into Jesus. (This is of course symbolic, but it causes a great deal of guilt to those who are actual believers.) Upon facing God, all humans will be questioned and if they are not found in Jesus’ Book of Life, they will not be considered part of his flock. “And anybody whose name could not be found written in the book of life was hurled into the burning lake” (Rev 20:15). Anyone not recognized as one of Jesus’ own will in effect have chosen to keep away from God and will therefore not be allowed into Heaven.

The Roman Catholic view of Heaven is one in which there is everlasting joy and peace. “He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness or pain; the world of the past has gone” (Rev 21:4). It is creation restored to a state in which humans experience none of the woes associated with mortality such as hunger, pain, aging, disease, or death. It is a place in which every human being has a chance to truly commune with God and walk with him, as was intended for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. “Then I heard a loud voice call from the throne, 'Look, here God lives among human beings. He will make his home among them; they will be his people, and he will be their God, God-with-them” (Rev 21: 3). Heaven is also the place where we will be able to reunite with loved ones who died before. Many souls will enter a place known as purgatory. This is a place for those who died in a state of sin, but who were part of the faithful. The understanding of Purgatory is that rather than a punishment, it is a place of cleansing and preparation for Heaven. Souls banished there must stay as long as necessary to be made holy for their union with God. "I tell you, you will never get out till you have paid the very last copper" (Luke 12:59). Hell is a place of great misery, as the souls must live forever in the anguish of being apart from their Creator. "[I]t is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:47-48). God punishes souls by damning them to Hell as a way of honoring the fact that while alive they wanted nothing to do with him. Since he will not exert his will upon his creation, he allows them to continue without him. This is the reason why the Roman Catholic Church stresses the importance of making your decision now while on Earth. There are no second chances.

Tibetan Buddhism and Roman Catholicism share a complex vision of the afterlife, heaven, and hell. Still, despite these and other similarities, the faiths differ to a great extent. Whereas Buddhists may at times be considered an atheist religion, Roman Catholicism is centered on their faith in a loving Creator who wishes to commune with his creation. Salvation for the Tibetans lies in each individual’s mindfulness and in their awareness of the complex games their consciousness will play upon dying. Roman Catholics believe their salvation lies in following the way of Christ through the grace of God. In the end, the very similarities that an outsider notices are the very things which set both religions apart.







LIST OF CITATIONS

Clement of Alexandria, "Stromata Book 1." New Advent. 26 Nov 2008.

Mackenzie, Donald. "Buddhism in Pre-Christian Britain." American Journal of
Archaeology (1928): 42.

The New Jerusalem Bible. Henry Wansbrough, Ed. New York: Doubleday. 1985.

"The Tibetan Book of the Dead." 28 Oct 2008. University of Virginia. 1 Dec 2008.

Williams, Kevin. "The Tibetan Book of the Dead." Near-Death Experiences and the Afterlife.
2007. 4 Dec 2008 .