Ch01.B27 Death, immortality and other light subjects
by Nick Cain
Lost in the tranquil beauty of the Chion-In Temple with my girlfriend on my recent trip to Japan, we stumbled across a traditional Japanese graveyard high in the hills of the temple.
At first unsure whether we were unwanted visitors, our trepidations were disarmed by a young couple with two children. They were the only other living beings in the cluttered yet serenely beautiful setting. They warmly smiled at us, nodded their heads respectfully and went about honoring their loved one.
l don’t consider myself a religious man in the conventional sense anymore. I believe in something, but my interest in science means that l’m constantly re-evaluating humans involvement in this big, constantly expanding universe. But that’s beside the point, because no matter what you believe, l truly appreciate believing in something and why we do it.
It’s intriguing how places like graveyards and temples can make us feel.
Japan is not a particularly religious country (40% of the Japanese population consider themselves religious), the people who do have an organised faith generally consider themselves either Buddhist or Shinto*.
Picture: Chion-In Temple is a Buddhist temple.
Whilst l identify with a lot of Buddhist teachings, l don’t consider myself Buddhist. l can appreciate the beauty of the Japanese language, but l can’t speak a lick of it. So you would assume that l might not be able to fully grasp the beauty of such a place and the story it tells. The curious thing was, as l stood in that special place, l was emotionally affected. One man, with no real connecting beliefs was moved to feel, in that moment, a sense of being a part of something bigger.
There is something inbuilt in the human psyche that makes us want to believe in something bigger. Personally, l don’t think that’s bad, it’s why we act and interact in the way we do – and especially why the arts are so important in that process.
There’s a wonderful book called The Denial of Death by a gentleman named Ernst Becker. Written in 1973, Becker was a Pulitzer prize winning psychologist and philosopher who coined the idea that every human being ever born was motivated to transcend their physical self by constructing the greatest symbolic self they possibly could. He called this the ‘immortality project’ in each of us. No one wants to be forgotten, that’s part of the fear of death, and that every action, every war, every temple built was done so as a singular or group attempt at immortality.
Think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. War sometimes happens because your way of life (insert immortality project) conflicts with my way of life (insert immortality project). People will actually physically die in support of their immortality project. Go figure!
Whilst Becker did tend to lean his focus on the negative elements of this, there’s also a positive to this, too. It came to me as l was watching the beautiful Japanese family respectfully remember their loved one in that graveyard.
I wondered what stories the parents were telling the children. Was it how Grandma was an amazingly lady that could cure you with a hug? Was it that Uncle knew how to tell amazing yarns that could make anyone laugh?
Stories help give us meaning, and through the telling of stories to a new generation, the spirit lives on…for at least one more generation.
That’s immortality right there.
Share with us on Facebook or twitter, do you agree with the idea of immortality projects? If so, how does your own immortality project shape your art?
*Citation: The Dentsu Survey, Japan 2006.