Three Fathoms Observatory
Stewart Yeung








                                                                                                                                                                                                Life Contemplation

Reflection On Death (and necessarily on Life)

The Enlightenment

The ancient Greek aphorism “Know thyself” concerns self-awareness and self-understanding, an integral part of which is the knowledge of one’s ultimate fate of death.

For me, the inevitability of death remained an academic concept, or an emotional event when my parents died, until one day when I had a false “heart attack” (which turned out to be a gastritis that I had never experienced before, hence the confusion). The prospect of impending death prompted me to seriously contemplate my own ultimate fate of death.

A gastroscopy examination was conducted on me under sedative. This was an enlightening experience: an experience of nothingness for about half an hour. No sensation, no self-consciousness, no space-time and all they contain … nothing. Since then I have some idea of what “death” is.

What is Death?

According to Epicurus, death is a condition without a subject (the self), hence it is a thing indifferent. In a subjective perspective, I and the outside world are one and they exist and disappear together. I will lose at my death a world that is at once my world and the world. My experience of gastroscopy under sedative gave me a taste of this condition of nothingness.

According to Buddhism, homo sapiens are simply a physio-psychological complex with a stream of consciousness under a the right set of conditions. When this set of conditions change and hence no longer right, the complex falls apart and the consciousness vanishes.

I do love the idea of Man created by a Jewish God so that human spirit returns to God after death. The idea of Hindu reincarnation is similarly palatable. The prospect of an afterlife lasting forever is absolutely wonderful and tempting. However, I think it’s against the principle of “Occam’s Razor”: belief in God/everlasting spirit requires more and more complex assumptions to explain the universe than non-belief. Homo sapiens are but one species among many others on Earth, all of which are subject to the process of life and death. Kierkegaard’s leap of faith opposed to reason and Tillian’s transcendental God’s existence as a prior condition of human intelligence are far beyond me.

Although death is invariably anticipated with intense anxiety (as felt by the Mayan captives facing their impending life human sacrifice in Mel Gibson’s film “Apocalypto”), after death there is no longer a subject (i.e., no “me”) to face and experience the loss/whatever emotions associated with it.

Hence there is no need to fear death – there is no “me” to feel anything afterward.


Common Attitude to Death = Evasion of a Truth

People commonly tranquillize themselves in the face of death: it’s not yet present-at-hand and therefore it is no threat. For many, death is considered an accident and an unjustifiable violation. They always provide/plan for their future on the working assumption (in the absence of evidence to the contrary) that they will have ample, almost infinite time ahead. Most of them engage in life reflection too late, or too half-heartedly, for it to have much impact on the way they live.

The truth is: each one of us is being-towards-death (Heidegger).

People also subtly look on our death from a detached and objective point of view, as just another event in our lives. This inauthentic approach to death (and therefore life) involves thinking of ourselves as a part of the “They” – the undifferentiated crowd – and failing to recognize the uniquely special meaning that our existence has for us.

The truth is: death subjectively is one’s ultimate fate, an occurrence of the most fundamental personal concern.

For many, the longer life is, the better. Death is the destroyer of meaningful life.

The truth is : death is a crucial condition of our lives having meaning. A better life doesn’t depend on how long it is, but on what one had done with it, and how creatively one had developed and utilized one’s opportunities.


Know Death and You Know How to Live

Maintain an authentic, non-evasive awareness that my being is inevitably being-towards-death.

Death will deprive me of whatever gives value to my life, including the opportunity to pursue potential rewarding and hitherto untried possibilities.

Continuance of life is utterly contingent. My days are numbered! Time as it relates to me is a finite commodity. Now immediately focus my attention on making my live maximally rich and rewarding while my time still lasts!

It’s my own responsibility to shape and determine my being before death as fully as lies in my power. Explore the infinite possibilities of being/life, develop new repertoires, realize my potentials here and right now, before time is out! Lead a life fuller in content and more satisfactory in nature.

Lead an authentic life controlled by myself: to break free of the belief that I must do things just because everyone else does them, and in the same way as they do them; design my own life in the light of my own appraisal of the constraints/opportunities, make life decisions/choice based on reflections about priorities, control my own fate, stretch my horizon and dwell on ultimate questions. (Rather than allowing my life to be dictated by the current socio-economic system, conforming to social expectation/ custom/dominant people/ circumstances, … )

When death is approaching, take steps to provide my life with some degree of closure : wind down projects, discharge responsibilities, pay debts (emotional and else), make peace with the world, etc.

Strive for achievements having a permanent and transformative effect on what will come after me, e.g. discoveries, inventions, long-lasting projects, bring up my children,…



                                                                                                                                                    Drafted in 3Q 2008 by Stewart Yeung 



Reference :

“Death” by Geoffrey Scarre, Stocksfield :Acumen Publishing Limited, 2007

“An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology” by Padmasiri de Silva, London : Macmillan, 1991