When the body disintegrates, most people still cling to being and life. They don’t die completely. The Buddha’s teaching enables us to die fully and completely, so we can start all over again from zero to determine the meaning of our existence.
The beauty of existence is that it has no intrinsic meaning—it is up to us human beings to create the meaning of our lives. Animals and plants have no need for meaning; to survive is enough for them. And the quest for pleasure is merely an extension of the struggle for survival. There’s not much meaning in that.
Real human life begins from the realization that we are free to determine the meaning of our existence for ourselves. Once we realize this, our life becomes art. We can use our creativity, not only for making music or painting or dance, but for creating a life of beauty, of compassion, of understanding.
But few people realize their potential for creating meaning in this life, and die unfulfilled and incomplete as human beings. They leave the body still craving being as a personality, so they have to ride the wheel of karma around to the point where they can become human beings again. Depending on the karma one has accumulated, that might be a long ride. It means bondage to samsāra and suffering.
The Buddha didn’t die like an ordinary man—he attained complete Unbinding. Unbinding is different from ordinary death in that there is no residual karma, nothing to determine the following birth. It is return to zero, to complete freedom. This is an almost unimaginably high state. It is higher even than the conception of god.
So the technique and philosophy taught by the Buddha is much more than a simple religion—it is a path to complete cessation of suffering, complete freedom from rebirth and becoming. As soon as we desire being on any level, we fabricate a false sense of self—an ‘I’—according to the level of our desire. Desire leads to the feeling of ownership, of ‘mine’, and of course there must be some person to be the owner.
In this way we create our own existence through desire. But because we don’t realize the implications of desire—entanglement in karma, in samsāra—out of ignorance we create suffering for ourselves. Buddha’s teaching shows us the way out of that entanglement and suffering, if we understand it properly. But to get the benefit, we have to be willing to give up the false personality, proprietorship, the ego or sense of ‘I am’.
To most people this feels like death, and it is a kind of death of the ego. But it is also release from karma—after all, if there is no person, who is going to receive the karma? Who is going to suffer? And it means freedom from the constraints and conventions of ordinary human beingness, new abilities and freedoms that we can hardly imagine in the ordinary state of egoistic being. Buddha’s teaching offers us the opportunity to hit ‘reset’ and begin all over again from zero to create the meaning of our lives—this time with full knowledge of the consequences.