Davey Tomlinson (University of Chicago): “Philosophy as a way to die: Memory, meditation, and rebirth in Greece and Tibet”


What are we really learning when, in Pierre Hadot’s words, we are ‘learning how to die’? In a note in his famous essay, ‘Spiritual Exercises,’ Hadot puts his answer succinctly: “training for death is really training for life” (fn. 123). The purpose of meditating on death, whether in Stoic or Platonic or even Heideggerian philosophy, is to change our relation to life. Death is unknowable, unpredictable, out of our control, and impossible to experience: “It is nothing to us,” as the Epicureans used to say. The realization of this fact allows us to live life more fully and freely. But what if death is not nothing? What if it is not unknowable? For traditions that ground themselves on a doctrine of rebirth, elaborate literatures develop concerning what it is like to be dead, what we may be able to achieve in the period between death and rebirth, and how we can best train ourselves in life to make the most of the opportunity death will present to us. While this is clear even in Greece—I will consider briefly some examples that are discussed by Hadot’s colleague, Jean-Pierre Vernant—it is perhaps nowhere clearer than in Tibet. By analyzing some of the ritual texts from the collection known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, as well as their philosophical background in Mahāmudrā and rDzogs chen thought, I will show how training for death might really be training for death. While this will not challenge Hadot’s conclusions regarding, say, Stoicism, it will complicate his position regarding how those conclusions might be generalized. We will see that in rDzogs chen, death is not an unknowable nothing, but rather presents the ultimate chance for spiritual practice: the nature of consciousness—buddhahood itself—reveals itself to everyone in the moments just after death, and with the right training this can be seized upon and enlightenment can be attained before one is reborn. In particular, I will explore disciplines of memory, which are emphasized as an essential part of the training we are to undertake during our lives. While this is so in part for reasons central to the philosophical, mythological, and cosmogenetic commitments of rDzogs chen, I will show how memory exercises are fundamental to many systems in which ‘learning how to die’ is not simply learning how to live, but is learning how to take advantage of what happens before we are reborn.

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