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Zen physics: The science of death, the logic of reincarnation
By David Darling


Truth sits on the lips of dying men. Matthew Arnold A wise man things of nothing less than death. Spinoza

As soon as a person’s heart stops beating, gravity takes hold. Within minutes a purple-red stain starts to appear on the lower most parts of the body, where blood quickly settles. The skin and muscles sag, the body cools, and within two to six hours rigor mortis sets it. Beginning with a stiffening of the eyelids, the rigidity extends, inexorably to all parts of the body and may last for between one to four days before the muscles finally relax.

Two or three days after death, a greenish discoloration of the skin on the right side of the lower abdomen above the cecum (the part of the large intestine nearest the surface) provides the first visible sign of decay. This gradually spreads over the whole abdomen and then onto the chest and upper thighs, the color being simply a result of sulfur-containing gases from the intestines reacting with hemoglobin liberated from the blood in the vessels of the abdominal wall. By the end of the first week, most of the body is tinged green, a green that steadily darkens and changes to purple and finally to black. Blood colored blisters, two to three inches across, develop on the skin, the merest touch being sufficient to cause their to player to slide off.

By the end of the second week the abdomen is bloated. The lungs rupture because of bacterial attack in the air passages, and the resulting release of gas pressure from within the body forces a blood stained fluid from the nose and mouth-a startling effect that helped to spawn many a vampire legend among peasants who had witnessed exhumations in medieval Europe. The eyes bulge and the tongue swells to fill the mouth and protrude beyond the teeth. After three to four weeks, the hair, nails, and teeth loosen, and the internal organs disintegrate before turning to liquid.

On average, it takes ten to twelve years for an unembalmed adult body buried six feet deep in ordinary soil without a coffin to be completely reduced to a skeleton. This period may shrink drastically to between a few months and a year if the grave is shallow, since the body is then more accessible to maggots and worms. However, soil chemistry, humidity, and other ambient factors have a powerful effect on the rate of decomposition. Acid water and the almost complete absence of oxygen in peat, for instance, make it an outstanding preservative. From Danish peat bogs alone, more than 150 well kept bodies up to five thousand years old have been recovered in the last two centuries. And likewise, astonishingly fresh after five millennia was “Otzi the Iceman”, found in 1991, complete with skin tattoos and Bronze age toolkit, trapped in a glacier in the Otztal Alps on the Austro-Italian border.

Accidental reservations aside, people throughout the ages have frequently gene to surprising lengths to ensure that their corpses remained in good shape. Most famously, the ancient Egyptians were obsessed by corporeal preservation, to the extent of mummifying not just themselves but also many kinds of animals which they held to be sacred. The underground labyrinths of Tuna-el-Gebel, for instance, are eerily crowned with the mummies of baboons and ibis. Incredibly, at least four million of the latter went through the elaborate embalming process-a process that made copious use of the dehydrating salt natron, excavated from around the Nile and parched desert lakes.

All mummies preserved by the old Egyptian method are very long dead- with one bizarre exception. In 1995, the Egyptologist and philosopher Robert Brier of Long Island University completed the first mummification in this traditional style in more than 2,000 years. His subject was a 70 year old American who had given his body to science. Brier went to great pains to follow the old methods, traveling to Egypt to harvest his natron (principally a mixture of sodium carbonate and bicarbonate) from the dry shores of Waddi Natrum, and using authentic replicas of embalming tools from the first millennium B.C. Just as the mortician-priests of the pharaonic tombs would have done, Brier drew out the man’s brain by way of the nostrils, extracted the major organs before storing them individually in canopic jars, and finally left the body for several weeks to completely dehydrate, swaddled and packed in the special salt. Only the subject’s feet were visible, wrapped in blue surgical booties. Rejecting criticisms that his research was in poor taste, Brier claimed the experiment had shown beyond doubt that it is the action of natron, more than any other factor, that affords mummies their well-kept look.

The Romans, too, were familiar with the drying and preservative properties of certain chemicals. So-called plaster burials, in which lime or chalk (both drying agents) or gypsum (a natural antiseptic) was packed around the body in the coffin, have turned up in Roman cemeteries in Britain and North Africa.

More recently, wealthy Victorians went to enormous trouble to carefully dispose of their corpses. Burial in crypts and catacombs came into fashion and not only because it gave the well-heeled, through the ostentatious grandeur of family vaults, a way to display their social standing. There were more sinister reasons to try to ensure a safe place for burial. Locked doors were a deterrent to body snatchers who might otherwise hawk your remains for illegal medical dissection, or worse, pry out your teeth for use in making dentures. Also, the Victorians had an acute fear of being buried alive-better, they reasoned, to revive in a room with some chance of escape then in a horribly cramped coffin piled over with earth.

To be aware of yourself is to have an effective knowledge of where you end and the rest of the universe begins, so you know precisely on which battle line to fight. And being an individual in the wild is a battle, a continual, desperate struggle to stay alive.

We sometimes wonder how humans can be so cruel and ruthless, how they can lay waste to the planet with impurity, how they can exterminate other species and kill one another in alarming numbers. But such acts are not different after four billion years’ practice. To stay alive at any cost, at anyone else’s expense, is in our nature. It is the prime directive of our genes.

The fact is, the soul as it is normally presented is not a phenomenon open to scientific investigation. Not is there any logic in calming, on the one hand, that the soul is nonphysical or supernatural, and, on the other, that it can have physical effects. Science will never be able to disprove the existence of the soul, any more than it can disprove the existence of fairies or fire-breathing dragons.

A crucial part of the development of our self-image involves the brain latching onto the game rules by which the individuals around it play. During infancy, and continuing into childhood and adolescence, the brain organize itself around the prevalent attitudes and beliefs to which it is exposed.

To be a self is to be different from anyone else and to know it. And to be different and to know it, involves having a clear conception of where “you” end and the rest of reality begins- an awareness of one’s boundaries.

What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies. Aristotle

The fact that we know virtually nothing about its author is particularly appropriate since of the things Lao-tsu rejected, including violence, oppression, superstition, and imposed authority of any kind, he rejected none so insistently as the self.

Like the waters of a river

that in the swift flow of the stream

a great rock divides, though our ways seem to have parted

I know that in the end we shall meet.

12th century Japanese verse

There is something in zen which we never meet anywhere else in the history of human thought and culture. It begins with rationalism since it deals with such religio-philosophical concepts as being and nirvana, but after the beginning is once made, the matter is strangely switched off in a most unexpected direction. To judge by the ordinary standard of reasoning is altogether out of place, for that standard is simply inapplicable. We must acknowledge that our western world view is limited and that there is a much wider world beyond our mentality. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki

Death is not the end. In the truest sense it is the essential prelude to change and new life. Death is the point where there individual and the cosmos meet, where differences are reconciled, and where physics and zen, so long help apart in uneasy tension, merge effortlessly in a realm beyond words and thought.

The following is taken from an excerpt from an article in the September 14, 2006 edition, Christian Science Monitor: "American Buddhism On The Rise" "The Dalai Lama's visit spotlights the fact that, with 1.5 million adherents, Buddhism is America's fourth-largest religion." By Jane Lampman | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor CAMBRIDGE, MASS. – "That genial face has become familiar across the globe - almost as recognizable when it comes to religious leaders, perhaps, as Pope John Paul II.

When in America, the Dalai Lama is a sought-after speaker, sharing his compassionate message and engaging aura well beyond the Buddhist community. After inaugurating a new Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education in Vancouver, B.C., the Tibetan leader this week begins a visit to several US cities for public talks, sessions with young peacemakers, scientists, university faculty, corporate executives, and a California women's conference. But he'll also sit down for teach-ins among the burgeoning American faithful. Buddhism is growing apace in the United States, and an identifiably American Buddhism is emerging. Teaching centers and sanghas (communities of people who practice together) are spreading here as American-born leaders reframe ancient principles in contemporary Western terms. Though the religion born in India has been in the US since the 19th century, the number of adherents rose by 170 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the American Religious Identity Survey. An ARIS estimate puts the total in 2004 at 1.5 million, while others have estimated twice that. "The 1.5 million is a low reasonable number," says Richard Seager, author of "Buddhism in America." That makes Buddhism the country's fourth-largest religion, after Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Immigrants from Asia probably account for two-thirds of the total, and converts about one-third, says Dr. Seager, a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y. What is drawing people (after that fascination with Zen Buddhism in the '50s and '60s)? The Dalai Lama himself has played a role, some say, and Buddhism's nonmissionizing approach fits well with Americans' search for meaningful spiritual paths."