How many of us read Ramana and believe that whatever he said was absolutely true? How many read Nisargadatta and believe whatever he said was the "final" truth? How many times do we see on Facebook people quoting either as a final argument to support their POV regarding anything spiritual?
I know I did. Ramana to me was the fount of all Truth during the first two decades of my searching, even after I had become a Zen monk and encountered very different teachings. I compartmentalized these separate and often contradictory philosophies so as to not have to explain them even to myself.
However, during the 1980s I grabbed onto another dead teacher to take as my central truth-talker, Nisargadatta Maharaj, because of his sharp mind, bold pronouncements, and hammer-blow clarity. It was then that I began seeing the vast differences between Ramana and Nisargadatta in terms of philosophy of existence and knowledge, and also of life-style.
With this background in mind, I was very interested in seeing the two different and opposite responses there were to my post on Life and Death, about feeling the life force and sentience leaving the body of a loved one, never to be experienced again.
Half of my readers who commented appear to agree with Ramana’s reasoning that consciousness can perceive the death of the body means that spirit is deathless, while half appear to believe the death of the body also means the death of the spirit, that they are intimately intertwined and the death of one means the death of the other. This is Nisargadatta’s view. He also believed his true nature, the Absolute, was beyond both.
Let’s look at this contradiction a little deeper.
In Theravadin Buddhism, there was no immortal soul (Atman) that underwent rebirth in incarnation after incarnation. There were only three main truths of the original Buddha worth mentioning: Life was suffering, there was an end to suffering by getting rid of desires and the “ego” so to speak, and the only other reality was karma. There was no soul that was reborn time after time, only karmic bundles of intertwined habits, memories, desires, which created a field that would result in a rebirth, not of the soul, but of a similar sentient entity defined by the previous karmic bundle, but not the same soul.
Zen did away not only with an immortal soul, but also with karma, and the personal self was seen as were all appearances, as empty of reality against a background of emptiness.
So both for the original Buddhists and Zen, there was no real rebirth of an enduring soul, and for Zen, no Self of any kind at all Buddhists, rebirth was to be avoided if possible, because all life was suffering, and why suffer?
Christianity, of course, does hold that the soul is immortal and lives on afterwards. Most Hindu traditions also hold that the soul lives on birth, after birth, until its eventual dissolution in God.
No one knows of course what happens after death. Ramana just pretended he was dead but still felt his own aliveness, concluded that the spirit that perceived the body as susceptible to dying, transcended impermanence, and was thus immortal because it was there watching the process of death, real or imagined.
Nisargadatta differently saw the I Am, the sense of a manifest self, disappears every night in deep sleep, and concluded there was something that was aware of both being awake and being asleep, or conscious and non-consciousness, aware of knowledge and the absence thereof, and concluded there was something, a “principal,” an Absolute, the “Witness,” or Noumenal Self that was entirely beyond Consciousness and the absence of Consciousness, which is one step further than Ramana took, who assumed Consciousness was real, while the perishable body was unreal. Nisargadatta said all of it was unreal: body; mind; Consciousness; the absence of Consciousness.
In reality he identified with just sitting in the position of the Witness, viewing his body/I Am (Manifest Self)/world as impermanent, not-self-sustained illusion.
It is my personal view that someone who believes in an enduring, immortal soul that keeps getting born and dying, in a sense is given an out from fully participating in life compared to someone who believes this is his or her only life. If one feels there is only this life, no past of furure lives, then this life becomes more precious. Those who believe in an immortal soul being re-incarnated, are likely to put off things, like pursuing Self-Realization, or perfecting one’s own understanding in this life because they have an infinite amount of time to do these things.
Now many people bring up the large number of cases of near death experiences as a proof of an afterlife and of an identity that remains aware after death. But you have to realize all these near death people still had functioning brains able to record events around them, and also dwell in a hypnogogic state with dreams and access to deeper Subtle Body energies. They were dead, but not brain dead, so in the most correct sense, they were never dead, thus whatever they reported cannot be extended indefinitely into a life after death because their experiences were of the Subtle or Causal Body level.
Some people like Ramana and Robert, and many others, remain aware during sleep, which to many appears to support an ongoing self-aware entity that persists forever. However, the same argument holds: those who experience waking sleep are still doing so with an intact brain functioning capable of many deep-consciousness states.
Now if someone returned to life after being brain dead, which is the medical definition of death, and then told us something about their experiences, their message may be more credible.
I have experienced the coming and going of sleep, waking, and dream, but got to the place I cannot sleep anymore without a sleeping pill, which ends awareness during my sleep—thank God! I love the place where I am not aware, because continuous awareness without abatement can be painful and stressful.
Thus there are no really convincing arguments that we have an immortal soul that is continuously reborn into human or other bodies, but I truly believe that if we hold this as our only life, we treasure it and others who participate in our lives much more highly.