Back to listApr 23, 2007

Seminar on Life and Death at the Boston Research Center

On April 23, 2007, the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century (BRC), an international peace institute located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, held the first in a series of seminars on "Life and Death." The inspiration for this event came from SGI President Daisaku Ikeda's 1993 lecture at Harvard University, in which he stated, "Humankind seems finally to be on the verge of realizing the fundamental error of our view of life and death, to understand that death is more than the absence of life, that death, together with active life, is necessary to the formation of a larger more essential whole.... A central and fundamental challenge for the coming century will be that of establishing a culture--based on an understanding of life and death and of life's essential eternity--that does not disown death, but directly confronts and correctly positions death within a larger living context."

The seminar drew together a small, interdisciplinary group of Boston-area scholars for intimate discussions, including Professor Tu Weiming, director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, and Professor Mary Catherine Bateson, noted cultural anthropologist and author of Willing to Learn: Passages of Personal Discovery. On this occasion, designed to be an introductory conversation on a broad topic, participants agreed to share their personal views of death, the influences that formed these attitudes, and how their views of death affect the way they live their lives.

Professor Tu said he believed Confucius once stated that it was impossible to understand death without first understanding life. "The Confucian notion is that you are in this world for a purpose, and it's a blessing for you to become a human. In this regard, for humans, the spiritual death of heart and mind would be the most devastating occurrence." Reflecting on his own life, he observed, "It's not fear of death, but fear that life is too short, that has compelled me to live fully."

Professor Tu further described the conditions under which human beings continue "shining as immortal souls after death." This happens, he asserted, when an individual's words become a wellspring of inspiration illuminating future generations, and when an individual has helped to transform the world through virtuous actions.

Professor Bateson stated that death, whether from a biological or spiritual viewpoint, should be considered a part of life. In contrast, some religions consider death an unnatural state and even a kind of retribution. This leads to likening death to an intruder.

"A civilization that defines death as an enemy that is unnatural cannot live in peace with the natural world," she warned.

She also emphasized that an alternating cycle is inherent in the process of growth. What is important for humans is having a sense of responsibility for the future and compassion for others. In this regard, Professor Bateson suggested that the way of the bodhisattva is a model for living.

In terms of shared commonalities, participants agreed that two keys to sustaining a high quality of life are connections with others and lifelong learning. Learning even includes learning about letting go and dying. They also agreed that our culture's lack of understanding about the interconnectedness of all life contributes to our denial of death as a natural part of the life cycle.

The second seminar is scheduled for winter 2007. Invited guests will be Harvey Cox, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, and Nur Yalman, a social anthropologist and professor at Harvard University.

[Adapted from a report by Boston Research Center staff and an article in the May 14, 2007 issue of the Seikyo Shimbun, Soka Gakkai, Japan]