Is Life Just A Lamp To Be Snuffed Out?

Just look at how the circuit of the universe returns upon itself.
You will see that nothing in this cosmos is extinguished,
but everything falls and rises and turns.

– Seneca
(Epistle 36.7-12)

As written in Seneca’s Epistle 54, ‘Before I was born: for death is non-existence. I know what that’s like. It will be the same after me as it was before me. If death holds any torment, then that torment must also have existed before we came forth into the light, but, back then, we felt nothing troubling. I ask you, wouldn’t you call it a very foolish thing if someone judges that a lamp is worse off after it’s snuffed out than before it has been lighted? We too are snuffed out and lighted. In the time in between, we have sense and experience, before and after is true peace. We go wrong in this, Lucilius, if I’m not mistaken: we think that death comes after, whereas in fact it comes both before and after. Whatever existed before us was death. What does it matter whether you cease to be, or never begin? The outcome of either is just this, that you don’t exist.’ (From ‘How To Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life’, as edited, translated and introduced by James S. Romm)

From the Buddhist perspective, Seneca’s views were indeed, as he was open to, mistaken. If he, like most of us, cannot even recall what we had for lunch last week, it is most unlikely that we can  remember our past lives (which do explain why we were reborn with certain habits since young). If so, how can he claim, as if from memory, that there was no death before birth? Since there are rebirths, there would be ‘redeaths’ too. Likewise, how can he claim there will be ‘nothing’ of himself after death in this life? Death did ‘torment’ us in our past lives too, as we were not ready for it, thus surely having craved for more of this worldly life, to be reborn here, still trapped in the rounds of rebirth. How it troubled us was merely forgotten, but soon to be re-experienced if still not ready. Also, it would be foolish to assume that our consciousness, so very complex and powerful, is like a lamp’s light that ignites from nowhere and extinguishes to be nothing at all.

Whether we were reborn better or worse off in this life might be difficult to tell, due to our existential forgetfulness, but we can decide how well to burn the wick of life now, to ensure our light will be transferred to a better lamp. If we are concerned about the cause and effect of how we live life now, why should this concern not overflow to the next life? Imagining ‘pre-and-post-life nothingness’ before and after this life to be true peace, yet without any senses and experiences does not make sense as the duo are needed to sense and experience true peace itself. And if ‘we’ were all truly at peace at first, why would we ‘come to life’, to be lacking in peace of body and mind now? Surely, it is wiser to believe that the ‘circuit of the universe returns upon itself’ (which Seneca also wrote of), as the phenomenon of karmic rebirth. True peace must then be the experience of liberation from all rebirths and redeaths, thus ending ‘true suffering’.

Although strong in various moral principles, Seneca’s views on the afterlife was a form of nihilsm (in the sense that nothing will be ‘experienced’ then) and eternalism (in the sense that this non-experience will last forever then). His concept of death was a concrete and clear-cut event, after which there is simply nothing. However, again, due to the ‘circuit of the universe’, it is not a be-all and end-all event. Physical death is but a point of transition in the ceaseless flow of change, when the consciousness (i.e. mind) departs from one body (i.e. matter) to seek the next. There is no mental of spiritual death then. Contemplating thus is more consoling than anticipating eternal nothingness, which might lead to craving for the expiring life to continue, while dreading total annihilation. Since life and death in Saṃsāra are as illusory as they are transitory, we ought to strive towards the truly lasting deathlessness of Nirvāṇa – not by extinguishing the lamp of mind and matter; only the fires of attachment, aversion and delusion, that fuel our painful burning now.

The day will come again,
which will return us
into the light.

– Seneca
(Epistle 36.7-12)

Related Articles:
The Body Candle & The Mind Flame
Why The ‘Same’ River Is A ‘Different’ River
Why There Are No Souls
How Are We Reborn Without Souls?
The Middle Path Between Nihilism & Eternalism

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.