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Excerpt from "In Unexpected Places: death and dying – building up a picture"

by Ray Brown

Chapter 4

Things that Pass Away

Permanence and impermanence

The flat lands of south eastern Mali, near the borders with Ivory

Coast and Burkina Faso, is a region of peasant farmers.

Historically it has been a major cotton-producing area and while

cotton is still grown there it is more and more difficult to compete

in the world market. There have also been some recent gold finds

but it is uncertain how much of the income earned from this

mining finds its way back to the indigenous communities. In

colonial days and in the years that immediately followed, the

main cash crops were cotton and rubber which as well as

enriching the trading houses of France allowed some profits to

filter down to people in the region, making it one of the economically

richest in the country. Apart from cotton and mining

nowadays you will find mostly groundnuts, fruit such as

mangoes, river fishing, cattle rearing and mainly subsistence

farming. The Senoufo who live there, and in northern Ivory Coast

and western Burkina Faso and who number around a million and

a half, have the reputation of being hardy and courageous,

strong-willed in the face of adversity. They were the last in Mali

to hold out against the advance of French colonialism in the

nineteenth century. The Senoufo have become well known for the

quality of their art especially the carving of their wooden masks.

These are always associated with the beliefs of the group which

are passed on through the generations by a secret initiatic society

called the poro. These beliefs are extremely sophisticated and

merit study. The Senoufo believe that we possess an immaterial

body, invisible usually to the naked eye, called the nyil which can

travel outside you when you sleep. When you die you lose the

nyil just as you do the physical body. But there is a part of you

that cannot die, which they call the pil. The pil is part of klé or

God. After death the pil goes to the village of the ancestors but

we have to help it to get there by protecting it from the nyil now

separated but still a threat.

Now the key points here are that there are three bodies, the

physical body, the nyil and the pil. The pil is part of God, and that

is important; they don’t say it is the personality of the departed

person or that it is a soul separate from God but that it is PART

of God. (Note that in the Bhagavad-Gita – that very old, Hindu

poem – we have Krishna saying: ‘A spark of my eternal spirit

becomes in this world a living soul.’) Also the pil alone, not the

nyil, goes to the village of the ancestors, the permanence of

which is clearly implied. And the third point is that the nyil is

somehow a threat after death. (The Bhagavad-Gita again: ‘For

thy soul can be thy friend and thy soul can be thine enemy.’) We

need to be protected from the nyil after death: it is something

that can stop us from reaching the ‘village of the ancestors’.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Bardo Thötröl to give it its

Tibetan name, is a guide to dying for us to be able to help a

departed person in getting through the bardo, the phase after

death when the departed finds him/herself in an unfamiliar,

strange and somewhat frightening world (a more detailed

account of this is to be found in chapter 2). The dying are

constantly told in the Bardo Thötröl to avoid the soft lights of the

jealous gods – the nyils? And the overall aim is to allow them to

attain ‘liberation’ – like the village of the ancestors of the

Senoufo? We find the same idea reflected in the Hindu masterpiece

recounting the meeting of the Prince Arjuna with God,

Krishna: ‘The unwise think that I am that form of my lower

nature which is seen by mortal eyes; they know not my higher

nature, imperishable and supreme.’

Many belief systems or religions make a three-fold division of

the human being (indeed of everything):

* Body

* Psyche, comprising feelings and intellect

* Spirit

And a distinction is made between the body and psyche which

are said to belong to what is often termed the personality, which

is transitory and impermanent and dies at death, whereas the

spirit, in contrast, belongs to what we may call the individuality: it

is what is permanent. In the beliefs of the Senoufo, the spirit is the

pil, and it is part of God, part of the permanent. And the psyche,

combining feelings and intellect, is the nyil. The psyche is not

permanent and the nyil eventually disappears. But curiously it

remains a danger for some time after death. Do we need to be

told that our feelings and even our intellect present dangers? Our

feelings and our intellect are not material so it is not unreasonable

to suggest that they dissolve into nothingness more

slowly that the material, physical body. The big issue is to know

and to distinguish what is permanent and imperishable from

what is doomed to pass away.

We all like to feel at peace with ourselves and with the world

around us. While certainly there are times when we enjoy noise

and being in a crowd we all without exception feel the need to be

alone with ourselves and with nature, and feel that need to be

something important. Whether we feel ourselves to be ‘religious’

or not, we are all sensitive to the feelings of peace, tranquillity

and well-being that we experience on a mountain-top, by the sea

listening to the sound of the waves, by a slow-flowing river, held

in the spell of its unceasing movement and stillness, or contemplating

the infinity and eternity of the night sky from a lonely

country field.

At such times we experience a sort of escape into the present

moment. Past and future cease to command our thoughts: so

much of our time is spent obsessively reviewing the past and

calculating the future! To be able to spend just some time contem-

plating something in the present without thinking of future

results is a relief, a kind of bliss. The same can happen when we

listen to music. We have the impression that we are finding

another Ourself, not the one that is assailed by problems and

demands, that is dissatisfied with what it does, is aggressive

with colleagues, jealous, obsessed with success of different

kinds, short-tempered, weakened by fears of many kinds.

We have to admit, however, that we generally do not dig very

deeply into all these feelings. We suffer from a sort of ‘laziness of

the soul’. Something holds us back from looking more closely at

our inner thoughts and feelings. The term was used by Steiner

and this ‘laziness of the soul’ is part of our human condition. We

have these feelings that seem transcendental from time to time

but in the end we remain indifferent to their potential to affect us

in any way that may change the way we see life. The truth is that,

in our heart of hearts, we do not intend to spend a lot of time

considering that kind of thing.

‘When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity

in finite things then one has pure knowledge.’ We find those

words in the Bhagavad-Gita, that dialogue already mentioned

between the God Krishna and the prince Arjuna in which

Krishna tries to get Arjuna to see what is true and real in our

lives. But how can you find eternity in things that are impermanent

and infinity in things that are finite? When I was a

student, as I was leaving my room one afternoon in winter, to go

to a lecture, a leafy branch on a stone wall in a lane I was walking

along shook in the wind as I passed. It drew my attention; how

or why I don’t know but I was suddenly transfixed, for how long

I don’t know, experiencing infinity and eternity in those shaking

leaves. An excursion into the present moment through a narrow

opening that led to a different dimension of awareness. In a few

leaves in the wind I saw all the continual movement, the constant

becoming and unbecoming of everything that exists in the world

we live in, and its eternal reality. Looking back on that

experience what I remark now is that it began IN the world, in

the world of impermanence, not in introspection or meditation or

prayer. We have here a case of impermanence and eternity in one

and the same object of perception. This paradox is of vital importance.

But it is something that is impossible to express in words.

There is something here of the paradoxes you find in Zen puzzles

or koans. Zen Buddhism has its roots in this impossibility. Zen

teachings and techniques abound in paradoxes and apparent

nonsense. As Fritjof Capra pointed out regarding Zen: ‘More than

any other school of Eastern mysticism, Zen is convinced that

words can never express the ultimate truth.’ The underlying

reality can only be reached through experience.

It is easy to describe what is impermanent in our lives, and it

is possible to apprehend that in the impermanent, the movable,

there is the buried, invisible presence of the permanent. It is quite

another thing to describe the permanent. Perhaps it is best

described by what it is NOT. We can try… It is not the physical

body, of that we can be sure, the physical body like everything

physical around us is doomed to disintegrate and disappear.

Averroes, in 12th century Moslem Spain, spent much time

meditating on whether we are to be resurrected in the physical

body. With a feeling of some relief for he saw that could be a bore,

he came to the conclusion that this was impossible and that resurrection

must be in some other form. What about our feelings? Are

they permanent? Hardly, judging by the way our moods and our

affections and even our loyalties can swing. I think it was Jung

who said: You are not your emotions. And indeed this point is used

by councillors in helping people handle psychological trauma,

such as sudden death by accident of a loved one. What about our

thoughts? We tend to think our thoughts are a real part of us but

are they? What is the reality? Is it not that when we are by

ourselves we are constantly chattering to ourselves internally

about this and that and all of those thoughts simply disappear

and die, and from one hour to the other we would be incapable

of recalling them? But we have more serious thoughts, of course.

We have ideas and theories. But then scientists and researchers

have observed that certain theoretical discoveries take place at

the same historical time and in different places by people who

have no contact with each other. The work on describing quanta

done independently by Heisenberg and Schrödinger is

sometimes quoted as an example, as is the simultaneous rediscovery

of calculus in England and Germany and elsewhere. A

less known example is that of the Russian engineer, Popov, who

successfully carried out an experiment in wireless telegraphy in

the Russia of Tsar Nicholas in 1894, almost a year before

Marconi. As if ideas were around and about us and, at a certain

time, became ripe for capture. So what we take for OUR ideas

may not be ours at all.

There is a Buddhist meditation which goes like this:

The physical body: this is not mine, this am I not, this is not

my soul.

My feelings: These are not mine, these am I not, these are not

my soul.

My thoughts: These are not mine, these am I not, these are not

my soul.

My mental states: These are not mine, these am I not, these are

not my soul.

My ego: This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my soul.

Fifteen or twenty minutes’ inward repetition of this formula

leads us on a path away from the changeable and the impermanent.

For it focuses our mind on the fact that the body will

eventually die and decompose, that our feelings come and go,

our thoughts likewise (and with great rapidity), and our mental

states such as animosity, well-being, depression, jealousy are also

subject to change. That even our ego, our personality, cannot be

permanent in any sense.

The Cabbala, the esoteric philosophy behind Judaism, has a

neat way of representing impermanence and permanence. And it

represents the difference not by showing them as black and

white, binary opposites, but more of a sliding scale. If you look at

the diagram (see chapter 3, page 31) of the ten sephirot (plural of

sephira) you will see that they stretch from the lower one,

Malkhuth, which is our physical world, through Yesod, which is

our emotions, Hod which is our thinking processes and further

and further up through Heshed which is our ideas of justice and

universal love, to the creative principle, God to Christians,

Brahman to Hindus, Yahweh to Jews, and Allah to Muslims. So,

just to take the sephirot mentioned, what is in Malkhuth, the

physical world is obviously impermanent, what is in the

emotional world, Yesod, is also impermanent but less material.

Our thoughts in the world of Hod are more long-lasting but also

impermanent in time, our ideas of justice, universal love in the

sephira Heshed are more permanent still, but it is only when you

get to Kether, the creator, the Emanator, that we reach any idea of

a kind of genuine permanence, of eternity. But, and this is interesting,

it doesn’t stop there. Beyond the highest sephira, Kether,

there are other levels which are:

Ain Soph Aur: Light without End

Ain Soph: Without End

Ain: Without

So there’s the answer. Real permanence is nothingness! Nothing

we can see, hear, touch, smell or taste. And indeed that’s all it can

be. If it were something it wouldn’t be permanence!

Obviously we are up against the question of what is meant by

‘something’. To return to paradoxes there is a sense in which

something can be nothing and nothing something. If you

meditate on the Buddhist prayer on page 43 and slowly divest

yourself, so to speak, of your physical body, its pleasures,

illnesses and frailties, of your feelings, of hates and loves, of

obsessions, of enthusiasms, of shame, of fears and hopes, of

wishes and urges, of your complexes, your ego and your self-importance,

your disappointments and resentments, passions

and affections, grudges, jealousies, thoughts, ideas, theories,

ideologies and causes, your education and erudition, you are still

left with something. Something very difficult to define but which

is the something that underlies all existence. I think that is a first

step to understanding permanence.

Ray Brown was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, ,and educated there and at the University of Oxford and University of Reading, He spent many years as an English language teacher and consultant and during that time lived in Europe, Ghana and Mali, the Central African Republic, Algeria, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Egypt, Colombia, the former Soviet Union and China. This has given him a wide knowledge of different cultures and different value and belief systems which contributes to the authority he is able to bring to his writing. He now lives in France and devotes his time to reading, writing and to country walks.


ISBN: 978-1-84694-418- 5 April 2011

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1. ‘Kénédougou’ by Roland Colin, Paris, Présences Africaines; 2004..

2. Bhagavad-Gita 15.7, 6.5, 7.24, 18.20 trans. Juan Mascaro, Penguin

Classics, 1961.

42 Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, p. 122, Shambhala, 2000.

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