In my post on marriage I wrote about Lucretius as offering something of an alternative to Buddhist views on death. There is a contrast in emphases: where Buddhists warn us of the terrible losses that come with death, Lucretius tells us death isn’t so bad and we should stop fearing it. But I think there is a way in which the two can go together.
The biggest problem with Lucretius’s advice is that it’s so hard to follow. Often those who don’t fear death simply don’t treat it as a real possibility. (The young, I think, are especially prone to this.) Once you really contemplate the possibility of your own death, the fear becomes much more real. You think you don’t fear death, but you really do.
The thing is, as long as your worldview focuses on yourself, your death is inevitably going to be a problem for you. You can live to improve the remaining moments of your life, but eventually those get fewer and fewer. Egoistic consequentialism, at least, seems to end in futility. This would seem a logical reason to fear death, against Lucretius – maybe not death itself, but the last moments that precede it, where everything you do means nothing.
Here, I think, a Buddhist view can help – especially Śāntideva’s. He takes the basic Buddhist doctrine of non-self and runs with it: claims that because the concept of a self makes no sense, we need to live for everyone and not just ourselves. I’m not sure I buy the metaphysical arguments, but there’s a lot to be said for their practical consequences. One of Śāntideva’s verses that has really stuck with me is BCA VIII.129: “All who are suffering in the world are suffering because of their desire for their own happiness. All who are happy in the world are happy because of their desire for others’ happiness.” Śāntideva doesn’t explain what he means by this, but I think this may be a part of it: getting over ourselves helps us to be happy, partially because it lets us live for things that extend beyond our deaths. (I’m reminded of this passage when I read of Jesus saying “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.”) On this score, it seems to me, Śāntideva helps us to be better Lucretians.