So what about heaven and hell after death? What role do they play in human flourishing?
When my kids were little, my parents would sometimes come up to spend the weekend with us in Concord. On Sunday mornings, we would attend First Parish in Concord, and of course, my parents would come with us. I remember one particularly beautiful Sunday morning standing on the church’s front steps with my father following worship.
“How many people attended worship this morning?” Dad asked.
“About four hundred or so,” I replied.
“And none of them believe in hell or eternal damnation?”
“We are universalists,” I said, “so none believe in hell or damnation.”
“So why don’t they stay home on Sunday and read the New York Times?” he questioned.
“UUs come for spiritual community,” I answered, “neither for fear of hell nor lusting after heaven.”
The religious metaphors of heaven and hell are, I think, usually intended as aids to devotion. These concepts are borrowed from mystics who describe heaven and hell as a human psychological state in the eternal now. These metaphors are often then used to encourage moral behavior and, perhaps appropriately, provide comfort during the grieving process. They can serve a very useful purpose in that regard. But they are metaphors for states of being.
If heaven and hell exist, and I think they do, it is in the here and now. To concretize heaven and hell as only in the hereafter seems to be misusing metaphysical concepts in ways that can be as harmful as they are useful. An eternity in a static heaven never held much appeal for me. It may sound like heresy to some Christians, but I don’t think there is an eternally unchanging, unchallenging place called heaven following death, at least not as generally depicted. Even if such a heaven did exist, I wouldn’t want to go there. And I am certain our loving God doesn’t send anyone to hell in eternal damnation.
So why do so many people chase after these illusions? The Sunni Muslims’ promise of twenty-one virgins for religious martyrs seems to my ears preposterous. Even the Quran declares heaven is open to everyone, though allows for the possibility of a time in a post life correctional sphere for those who die unworthy of heaven.
The Hindu notion of returning in another life as a plant or an animal seems no more than a misplaced metaphor. Even if there were life after death or some form of reincarnation, this is the only life we know of from our own direct experience. So lay Buddhists working and praying to improve their lot only in their future lives seems to misrepresent the fundamental experience of the spiritual journey.
Time is an illusion. Spiritual transcendence, if achieved at all, is achieved in the eternal now. Spiritual mystics from every religious tradition affirm heaven is accessible in the here and now, not only hereafter, not only after death. These teachings all point at a deeper mystery of human existence: how we live our lives matters very much as we seek deep, transcendent living in the eternal now rather than in some postulated hereafter.
As much as possible, one ought to always be respectful of long-established religious beliefs. But there is a limit to how far faith can exceed reason and experience. Beyond that limit, tradition becomes a dead corpse. Mystics seek the spark of the divine.
If we enjoy a good meal or an intimate touch, these are to be appreciated as gifts of this world. This practice of remembering or being mindful of the good things in life is an important part of becoming fully aware. Buddha’s non-delusional mindfulness leads us to cultivate a clear comprehension of what we are doing in every moment and why. Sometimes when walking in the woods or by the sea, or when sitting in mindfulness, meditation brings me to that state of ecstasy.
During the times of our life when we are students or householders, these mindful moments of ecstasy may be as close to awakening as we can come. At certain stages, we are more grounded in worldly matters than spiritual matters. We must be fully engaged with the world and the responsibilities, pleasures, difficulties, joys, and sorrows that come with it.
Spiritual maturity requires a shift in perspective. Tradition tells us that following his enlightenment, Siddhartha, the Buddha, spent forty-two days contemplating his transition from worldly to spiritual concerns. This foreshadows Jesus’s forty days spent in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan with worldly pleasures and power. Afterwards, he was able to take up his career, focused as it was upon spiritual concerns, and he lived faithfully between two worlds. These traditions show it takes time to consolidate a change of perspective from worldly to spiritual concerns.
This is the purpose of deep meditation—to transform our feelings, our thoughts, and our hearts. Having made peace with our embodied state, the Buddha teaches us to make peace with our feelings. The Buddha distinguishes six types of feelings: pleasant worldly feelings and pleasant spiritual feelings, unpleasant worldly feelings and unpleasant spiritual feelings, and neutral worldly feelings and neutral spiritual feelings.
Beyond regulating our body and feelings, the Buddha taught us how to regulate our mind. From the Zen Buddhists, I learned this spiritual practice of achieving equanimity through deep meditation; from the Taoists, concentration through focusing my mind. I learned to become like Budai, the impish so-called Laughing Buddha archetype, to achieve enlightenment through my natural inclinations.
My mystical teachers built upon the inherent, intense focus and tenacity that I first experienced growing up; playing marbles; surviving Yale; and becoming a successful entrepreneur, investor, and parish minister. Like Mr. Miyagi having Daniel wax his car in The Karate Kid, my teachers helped prepare my own nature for enlightenment through the discipline of fifty years of seemingly unrelated activities.
My enhanced concentration allowed me to overcome inevitable obstacles in my path, including sensual desires, aversion, boredom, anxiety, and doubt. Through spiritual practices conducive to my own nature and temperament, I learned how to remain awakened. When these obstacles burn away, peace and vitality remain, leaving a greater sense of purpose for your life. Reality is seen finally for what it is. And it is a thing of beauty