A friend of mine is a committed Buddhist, a teacher in a group that meets to discuss Buddhist teaching. He's explained many things about Buddhism to me. Recently, his father died after a long illness, and he is confident that his father has now gone on to another life that is as good or better than the one just finished. He comforted his Dad with this as he was dying.
We walk together with some other friends, and I notice that when it comes to crossing roads, my Buddhist friend is more worried than any of them about oncoming cars - even when they are quite distant. So much so that I said to him:
"If you are sure you'll come back in a better life, why are you so scared of dying?"
He mumbled something about “No one wants to die”, but I wonder, is this a fair question to ask a Buddhist? I thought it was a reasonable challenge, but now I wonder if the idea of reincarnation helps us accept other people's deaths, but doesn't help us accept our own. A bit like the sweet lies we tell children to protect them from life's harsh realities.
For myself, I remember years ago being terrified of dying, but now as a Christian I'm happy for God to take me home any day he wants - I know it's an upgrade. I'm happy to be challenged on this, and I challenge my Christian friends on this too, because it's good to remind each other how good will be God's presence. But is reincarnation like this for Buddhists?
I'm sure reincarnation isn't taught as Santa-Claus-grade truth. Where plenty of people say Santa is real, but no one makes their roof strong enough to support 7 reindeer and fully-laden sleigh. But given that reincarnation is understood as real, is my friend just a bad example, with most Buddhists confident and comfortable about moving to their next life? Or is his fear of death fairly typical, with only the really enlightened Buddhists being comfortable about their own death?
EDIT: To clarify a few things:
- I'm not expecting a Buddhist or anyone else to be reckless or suicidal. The behaviour I saw was approaching paranoia. When coming to a road when walking together with 5-6 friends, the non-religious ones and I would cross when there was a suitable gap in the traffic. But then we would have to wait while our Buddhist friend waited for a much bigger gap. This occurred frequently. And when I say 'suitable gap', I mean about average for pedestrians in this city, where the Buddhist has lived all his life.
- I'm not saying that this behaviour in a Buddhist invalidates Buddhism at all. Sometimes I see similar behaviour in Christians, and I will encourage them to take their faith seriously, that if their faith is real there is good stuff after they die, and perhaps remind them of the verse "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain". But when Atheists behave with this kind of fear I don't say anything, because that makes sense as they have no hope for anything after their death.
- I wasn't trying to score a point on my friend or his faith, just encouraging him to live what he believed. I like it when friends challenge me if I act inconsistently, or out of pride or selfishness. It may hurt at the time, but it's an opportunity to grow.
- Is this just one individual who is inconsistent about what he believes? There's many in every faith. (And who didn't like being challenged on it - again, nothing unusual there.) Or is this standard practice? Should I expect Buddhists to be just as fearful of death as Atheists, or a bit less fearful, or much less? Does belief in being reincarnated to a new life give some hope in the face of death or none?