People across many of the world's cultures and religions believe the ultimate meaning in life is fulfilled only in an after-life, in which the temporary flawed nature of biological mortality gives way to an eternal existence after our bodily death. Such people hunger after eternal life and look to their hopes of going to heaven, or fear of hell, as final solutions to a transient mortal existence. Monotheists, including Christians and Muslims, believe biological life in the physical universe is just a testing ground for God to see if we have obeyed His will, our free-will having been dispensed by Him only as an illusory precursor to His ultimate rewards, or dire punishments, if we deviate in any way from His divine plan.
Some Christian fundamentalists go so far as imagining we will all float up into the sky in the Rapture, leaving the flawed realm of nature behind, and would-be Muslim martyrs fantasize they will see Allah's face and sexually cavort with black-eyed virgins in paradise, even when they blow themselves up in a gruesome and violent suicide bombing, killing many innocent women and children along the way.
Few questions are asked by such believers about the inconsistencies in these views of heaven or paradise, the Christian one a sexless world of angelic devotion to God, with little or no free choice, and the Muslim one sexually skewed and ultimately hedonistic, with black eyed virgins recreated undefiled each morning for the pleasure of men. Neither the Christian nor the Muslim paradise are real places, with the manifest complexity, or verifiable reality of nature, but physically unrealizable imaginary fantasy spaces lacking biological meaning and consistency.
The Soul taken up to Heaven - William-Adolphe Bouguereau
In the Christian heaven, angels are portrayed, as if still in a human body except sexless, even if in nominal male and female form echoing the debased sexuality of their earthly biological existence, with large feathered bird's wings attached, consistent with their need to fly up into the flat-Earth heaven, as a place in the firmament of the sky, ignoring the fact there is no resting place in the stratosphere, the lack of air to give such wings lift at high altitudes, and the endless frozen vacuum that permeates space. Why or how God would create an eternal heaven in outer space, still stranded in the physical universe, with its collocations of atoms, biomolecules and mortal tissues escapes all logic. Then by contrast we find we nevertheless have the twelve all-too-physical gates of the heavenly city, and the all-too-botanical Tree of Life with its twelve monthly fruits for the healing of the nations again confounding the physical and the spiritual.
Muslim paradise is even more fraught with contradictions - a veritable hedonistic pornographic cornucopia, with every righteous man able to command multiple wives, as well as having 72 black-eyed virgins to wait on his every whim, recreated each morning so that they can be enjoyed sexually to the full without ever having been defiled. No mention is made of what such a heaven offers for women, or what happens to these feminine houris in the dead of night to repurify them, or mercilessly annihilate them only to regenerate them de novo, or whether they also have immortal souls, their own free-will, or how such sex and so much of it, apparently without reproduction, can have any meaning, or how the many kinds of trees which sport pleasurable drinks, bunches of grapes, gold and silver cups, can exist, except in the physical universe with which we are all too familiar. Of course confirmed believers will always say this frank dream-scape is simply beyond the conceptual capacity of humble humanity to even comprehend, leaving themselves completely credulous to these contrivances.
In neither the Muslim nor the Christian case is there any constructive purpose for the entire paradisiacal existence. There is no natural evolution of the existential condition, except for endless hymns praising God, or worthy utterances of "Salaam" and yet more unmitigated pleasure. No new journeys appear to be made. No new learning experiences, or startling discoveries. It is as if the eternal heaven has become a sterile experience frozen in time, as when a drowning man sees his life flashing before his eyes and everything that has ever happened takes place in the brief moments before unconsciousness takes over.
By contrast, the Eastern traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism believe in a process of reincarnation of the individual soul, in which death is but a resting place and recuperation, either for the next cycle of life, as a human or lower life form, according to the consequences of one's karma, or eventually into union with Brahma or Buddha nature if one enters the perfection of the great maha-samadhi. At face value this description is more subtle and plausible, because it is now a mind-space that exists purely in consciousness, not limited by the fallibility and disorder of the physical world. It is also an evolutionary stepping stone on a much larger journey of emancipation of the wandering soul into oneness with the ultimate.
However blaming the grasping ego for the fear of mortality is a false double negative. The ego is not just a grasping monkey full of gluttony, lust and ignorance, but is the organismic survival dynamic all sentient animals and particularly our mammalian cousins, with their flowing emotional life, possess. It is emotions which provide the spectrum of feelings that transcend strict genetic boundaries and make possible both the dark emotions of anger and jealousy and the compassion and empathy that is our original virtue.
When we look at a lion eating a gazelle, we do not ascribe it to its grasping ego, but to the needs of the natural world to have carnivores and herbivores. Indeed without the lions, the gazelles might reproduce to the point they ate all the vegetation, resulting in a boom and bust instability, leading to their own extinction. It is only in the cultural context, where humans can become obsessed with material wealth, power, lust and greed, partly as an escape from the niggling fear of their own death, and the exploitations that culture can bring, that the human form of dysfunctionality we call egotism becomes a problem, both for society and for the individual. The ego is not itself to blame here, but the ego imprisoned in a cultural alienation from the flux of life itself.
Thus, while it is adroit psychology to blame the grasping ego, and to heal the problem of individual selfishness by addressing our emotional vices, the Buddhist view approaches this in a double negative, renouncing the very positive engagement with life and the perennial life flow of the generations that is essential to the diversity of biological and genetic life, by pronouncing renunciation of all desires and retreat from sexuality and the biological realm as the solution. A solution which itself provides no actual meaning, because it simply leads to an ultimate opting out, by escaping the cycle of birth and death through entering the void of Buddha nature, unless one agrees to postpone this final nemesis in a round of Bodhisattva compassion to help other sentient beings achieve the same annihilation. Like the Edenic view, the Buddhist patriarchal mind-sky cosmology has ultimately consigned nature to an inferior degraded realm.
This cosmology has profound contradictions that stem from the investment in consciousness at the expense of nature. There is no way a varying population in the physical universe can be tallied up to correspond to the reborn lost souls of previous lifetimes. In a world population that has grown from a bottle neck at one point of perhaps as few as 10,000 prehistoric individuals, the world's human population now stands at some 6,500,000,000. These massive changes cannot tally with the reincarnation of a constant pool of eternal souls. Bad karma is also said to lead to an animal, or even insect birth, yet there are always far more insects on Earth and even more bacteria than there are humans. It is an insult to the sanctity of life to ascribe all these natural relationships to an elite moral imperative of human consciousness. Rare species in need of urgent protection become mere equivalents of vermin such as rats and cockroaches, because they are all sentient beings caught in the round of reincarnation, so preservation of threatened species from onslaught by rodents, or other invasive plant or animal species becomes a meaningless contradiction, leaving the ecosytems unprotected, while Buddhist temples collect discarded dogs as sentient beings, only to risk outbreaks of rabies.
In the Bhava Chakra, or Wheel of Samsara or illusion, the biological realms of humans (characterized by doubt and passion with the capacity for escaping the cycle into enlightenment) and animals (characterized by complacency and ignorance), share their existence with the Devas or god-like beings, the proud and jealous titans, the gluttonous hungry ghosts, and the hell realm convulsed with anger and violence, resulting in a confused description, based on notions of the supremacy of consciousness, the forces of ego and the moral imperatives of karma. This brings the entire reincarnation cosmology into contradiction, as it subsumes the natural world incorrectly as purely a component of a moral theology, in contradiction to the survival of the fittest and symbiotic survival of whole ecosystems beyond isolated moral confines that nature depends on for its perennial vitality. If an effective moral karma aimed at enlightenment were the foundation of cosmology all the enlightened beings would have already departed the late physical universe and the whole existential dilemma would have ceased to exist, having disappeared up its own fundamental orifice.
The implicit fear of mortality is shared by all individuals. It is as if the best laid plans of mice and men are all futile, because ultimately we are all destined for the grave, as dust is to dust and ashes to ashes, making all our aspirations in life apparently meaningless.
However, this dilemma comes from a bounteous pay-off, without which we would never have existed in the first place, so really its another example of being in the best possible universe is always a dappled mixture of light and shade. Essentially we are condemned to mortality because we are sexual beings. The Garden of Eden story makes this clear in Adam and Eve being thrown out of paradise for eating the forbidden fruit and donning fig leaves, acknowledging their carnal knowledge of the sexual act. In punishment the woman is condemned to the pain of childbirth, named Eve as 'the mother of all living', to be ruled over by her husband, both condemned to mortality.
But this view of sexuality is a false moral contrivance designed to bind woman to man's procreative authority. The mortality of the individual organism is a trade-off we must accept for complex organisms, including humanity, to exist at all, because it is the sacred loom of sexual recombination that makes possible the testing of endless new genetic combinations without the lethal costs of mutational overload that accompany other forms of rearrangement. Indeed some organisms are parthenogenetic and are in principle immortal beings, but this comes as a huge compromise of a species' adaptability which works only when environmental conditions remain relatively constant and the existing genetic arrangements suffice. Whenever conditions change and genetic stresses emerge, virtually all species revert to cryptic forms of sexuality, sometimes even reproducing with other species, as is the case with some species of frog and most of the bacterial realm, which has a form of promiscuous pan-sexuality mediated by viruses and mobile genetic elements.
So we can't really afford to take the Christian position that the physical world is tainted with a disobedience to God that has resulted in an accursed realm of slime and sex, which is to be shed like a husk in ascending to an asexual heaven where we eternally sing praise of God almighty. This entire cosmology is deeply flawed. It is the very diversity and complexity of life that sexuality makes possible that has given us the capacity to marvel at the world, invent religions, and then betray nature in myths like the Eden story, however charming.
We need to respect that sexuality is a deep and fundamental manifestation of the creative process of the universe, essential for the emergence of complex conscious life, upon which all sentient beings depend. It is the greatest act of altruism the universe possesses because in forgoing parthenogenesis we are contributing only half our genes in a merging with those of another individual of the complementary sex. It is thus a manifestation of the cosmic complementarity that underlies mind and body, female and male and wave and particle aspects of reality, and with it the complementary dynamics of chaos and order, whose interdependence is the foundation of complexity.
But there is also a more subtle problem here. It is NOT true that everything we do in life is made meaningless by death. In fact the most biological things we do, having sex, procreation, raising a family and making the world a place where our offspring have a good chance of survival, are all part of the immortal web of ongoing life and they are not in any way rendered meaningless by our individual mortalities. Indeed is is because we die that there is room in the world for our children and grandchildren. Good grand-mothering is one of the reasons human females may have evolved to have menopause, to avoid them competing reproductively with their own daughters.
Moreover there IS, and has to be, individual suffering in the physical realm. While many of us lead lives of relative happiness and humanity's evolutionary emergence has been, despite nature's rule of tooth and claw, a relatively beneficent existence of long-lived generations with good gather-hunter skills and copious time for rest and recreation, some of us endure pain and suffering as a result of injury, genetic disability, sickness or the violence of others, and the frank oppression of many human cultures, that can make life for some of us somewhat of a living hell.
But again this is not a situation which means the physical realm is fundamentally flawed. We can't all simply have our cake forever and eat it too. We can't have the diversity and sheer complexity of organismic life without the process sometimes breaking down by the natural processes of entropy and ending up in purgatory, or even a living hell through the vagaries of fate. This is the nature of all complex systems and to take the whole process in vain is to deny the very existence and fecundity of life itself. We can of course ask why fate dealt this particular hand to us and this is a deep question still to be discovered by the ongoing process of conscious discovery, but we can't validly expect life to exist without this aspect of suffering, without taking life itself and the very existence of consciousness in vain. This applies also to our final demise which may be a difficult, painful or deranging passage without this making the best years of our lives meaningless and futile. The key to this is compassionate treatment of the disadvantaged, and those in suffering, and those approaching death, not betrayal of the life process to a sterile cargo cult in heaven.
Then there is an ultimate cosmological problem which we all have to face in understanding the meaning and purpose of sentient conscious existence. Life is perennial but not strictly immortal. We recognize that if a giant asteroid struck Earth, or when the sun becomes a red giant (if we do not invent generation ships beforehand and travel to other solar systems), or ultimately many billions of years hence, when the universe enters the big crunch or big chill, all life throughout the galaxy and the whole universe may cease as we know it. It may then seem like the ultimate futility that after all these generations, for all its riotous interplay, life has all been snuffed out to nothing.
However this again is a fallacy of thinking, which is ultimately sourced in the grasping ego. We believe life has to go on forever, or it's not worthwhile, because the grasping ego wants to live forever because it is our emotional survival mechanism which quails at the thought of our ultimate demise. This false perspective powers traditional religions' fantasies of paradise and eternal life and links to one of the genuine wisdoms of the Eastern tradition, which sees individual consciousness as a form of cosmic consciousness caught in the confines of the individual soul.
Firstly there are two views of the physical universe. In the space-time view it IS eternal, being one reality, from big bang to eventual annihilation, so the physical description of its genesis stands eternal, just as the religious conceptions of heaven are eternal. Moreover, in some models of cosmology there is no demise, with endlessly inflating fractal extrusions, or rebounding cycles of cosmic regeneration from big crunch to big bang. But, regardless of these ideas still to be confirmed, the universe is not only eternal, but it is endlessly fertile in its temporal evolution in real time over vast epochs and it is this evolutionary fertility that eventually brings about our conscious condition.
In actuality, each of us is a manifestation of the sentient universe coming to understand its conscious existence, having pulled itself up by the 'boot straps', from the big bang, through the generation of atomic nuclei in a supernova, and the formation of biomolecules in a subsequent newly-forming solar system, to the evolution of complex life forms on planets. Note here that, far from being merely a scientific theory reviled by the religious as an affront to the clockwork intelligent designs of God's creationist universe, it is the evolution of life and the evolutionary principle, as a creative process over vast time scales, that is the universe's most transcendental aspect and the deepest manifestation of its 'divine' nature.
Over all these vast ages it has taken - a third to a half the history of the entire universe, possibly repeated in countless planets across far-flung galaxies, the cosmos eventually comes to the point of each of us of recognizing itself and its existential condition, as the veritable creator and dreamer of the conscious realm, just as Hindu mythology envisages the sustainer God Vishnu dreaming Brahma the manifold phenomena of the existential universe as a lotus emerging from his navel, something we also have to take as a warning because it is Lakshmi's subsidiary status as the faithful wife that has led to wives immolating themselves in Suttee and the ongoing conservative patriarchal morality of Hindu Vaishnaivites. Nevertheless, in this sense we are each avatars of cosmic consciousness.
It is this cosmic form of our own consciousness that is the ultimate healing of the mortal coil in the compassionate awareness of the transience of all life and the need to protect the living generations, as the crucible and antennae of cosmic consciousness and the way to the joyous cosmology of the diversity of biological life throughout our generations.
We thus need to appreciate existence in the now and value it in the living present, regardless of whether it will continue forever, firstly because the meaning and meaningful purpose of our incarnation is both to experience the universe subjectively in the present to the full, and secondly, in return, to give back to the generations of life the best we can offer for their own survival, enjoyment and appreciation of the joyous cosmology of the living universe. It is this act of compassionate incarnation that is at the core of the Bodhisattva journey as well, and is the root foundation respite and sustenance of the individual soul's quest for realization and redemption.
This is also integrally the Tao of mutual complementarity of Yin and Yang, not just a disembodied conscious realm, in which biology and the physical universe is a degraded, secondary, or transient precursor to the imagined real life in heaven. Hence there IS a cosmic role for consciousness but it is as an integral complement to the biological fecundity of the physical universe. It is because we are sexual, biological organisms that we exist as conscious sentient beings, and we must needs respect nature and sexuality as sacred, in the generation of living diversity, and not merely a degraded, false realm, nor retreat into a renunciation of the sins and fallibility of the mortal flesh.
Moreover it is in enriching the living diversity of the planet and providing a better future for all our offspring, in the paradise that we know the natural Earth can provide, that the positive healing of the grasping ego comes about - not merely by the double negative of renunciation of the living world to escape the life cycle into the cosmic void. Nothing else but sustaining the future generations, neither claiming to obey God's will by piety, prayer or self-flagellation, or by bowing to Mecca, nor suicide bombing, nor by renunciation and monastic retreat, nor self-denial, nor self-affirmation, nor expedience, exploitation, or greed can be of any use. Neither will indulgence in heaven nor punishment in hell, nor being reincarnated as a lower or higher life form through the ignorance, or otherwise, of our ways be of any use. Only by sustaining the living planet do we provide an antidote, the ONLY antidote, not only to the destruction of wanton exploitation and rape of the planet through winner take all greed, and the needless genocide and violence of war, but because, in doing so, we realize the living paradise of the promised heaven right here on Earth knowing full well that nature untrammeled is capable of sustaining us in paradisical abundance so that we can thereby escape the living hells and dark purgatories that the monotheistic paths evoke for all who do not mindlessly obey the alleged divine commands.
This is a fundamental step of growing up and coming of age, no longer seeing through a glass darkly, but now coming face to face with the living reality, no longer depraved, sinful beings whose fallible ignorance and greed is better subjugated to the divine will of God, but taking personal responsibility for enriching the passage of the generations of life given no additional promises, but the unique opportunity to give back to posterity a compassionate trace in the history of the universe which helps bring about a state of realization of the abundance of living diversity for all the generations to come.