ST Sep 3, 2009Praying to the dead provides consolation for the living. Apart from that, the prayers serve no purpose. After all, the dead are already ... dead. Right?
Devotees pray for the dead
By Yen Feng
WHETHER it was the sight of more than 5,000 altars filling the great hall or the memory of a dear family member, no one could be sure.
But it was enough to draw tears from the thousands of devotees who bowed their heads in prayer at the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, off Sin Ming Avenue, on Thursday.
From noon to 9pm, Buddhists took part in Ullambana, the annual traditional custom of praying for departed family members on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month.
Temple staff said more than 5,000 requests had been put in this year by devotees to set up the temporary altars. It took volunteers three days to complete the spectacular ceremonial hall, filled with rows of identical tables brimming with sweet offerings.
Well, let us take a few moments to seriously examine this matter. Why might we believe that death is the end of our brief existence? Probably because we think that consciousness is dependent on the physical brain. If the brain has failed and begun to rot away, then that's presumably the end of the story.
But wait. What if the existence of consciousness is not dependent on the brain?
One good starting point for analysis may be the near-death experience. They used to be rare, but interestingly, are said to have become much more common ever since the development of modern cardiac resuscitation methods.
NDEs are a certain range of experiences that some people report having, at the time when they were clinically dead or otherwise very close to death. (Of course, they only report these experiences after they've been successfully saved, for example, by doctors in the emergency ward). What is an NDE like? Here's an excerpt from Wikipedia:
The traits of a classical NDE are as follows:
- The notice of a very unpleasant sound or noise.
- A sense/awareness of being dead.
- A sense of peace, well-being and painlessness. Positive emotions. A feeling of being removed from the world.
- An out-of-body experience. A perception of one’s body from an outside position. Sometimes observing doctors and nurses performing medical resuscitation
- A "tunnel experience". A sense of moving up, or through, a passageway or staircase.
- A rapid movement toward and/or sudden immersion in a powerful light. Communication with the light.
- An intense feeling of unconditional love.
- Encountering "Beings of Light", "Beings dressed in white", or other spiritual beings. Also, the possibility of being reunited with deceased loved ones
- Being given a life review.
- Being presented with knowledge about one's life and the nature of the Universe.
- A decision by oneself or others to return to one’s body, often accompanied by a reluctance to return.
- Approaching a border.
In the more dramatic NDE cases, the person even reports floating out of his body, and being able to observe, in very specific terms, what was happening at the accident scene/hospital ward; his account is then later verified by other eyewitnesses.
Although NDEs are uncommon, they are common enough for some of their characteristics to have crept into our everyday language. For example, you have probably come across phrases such as "the light at the end of the tunnel" or "I saw my whole life flash before my eyes". These are literal descriptions of some characteristics of NDEs.
The most obvious challenge to NDEs is, of course, that they are hallucinations, nothing more than the crazy, addled perceptions of a person whose brain is all mucked-up, because he was already dying.
But let me offer an excerpt of a counter-argument by a researcher on the topic. Dr Peter Fenwick is, among other things, Consultant Neuropsychiatrist emeritus at the Maudsley Hospital in the UK; Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry; and Consultant Neuropsychiatrist at the Radcliffe Infirmary Oxford; and Honorary Consultant Clinical Neurophysiologist at Broadmoor Hospital. Here's Fenwick, in his own words:
"So, now we come to the really important question: what happens when an NDEIn layman's terms, what is Fenwick saying? Firstly, he referrs to NDE cases involving cardiac arrest patients. In these cases, the brain completely stops working and there should be no way that it can enable the patient to continue experiencing anything. Even if the patient does have any experience, he should not be able to remember it and report it later. That's because his memory has already stopped functioning. After all, the person's brain has shut down completely.
occurs during a cardiac arrest, and why is this important?
The first point is that signs of cardiac arrest are the same as clinical death. There is no detectable cardiac output, no respiratory effort, and brainstem reflexes are absent. If you are in this state and I put a tube down your throat, you will not cough. You will have dilated pupils. Your blood pressure has fallen to zero. You are, in fact, clinically dead. Even if I start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), I cannot get your blood pressure any higher than 30 millimetres of mercury, and this is not going to produce an adequate blood flow to your brain.
A number of studies show that the longer CPR is continued, the more brain damage occurs. So it is not an ideal intervention. We know that after a cardiac arrest, both NDErs and non-NDErs suffer brain damage, but we do not know whether the amount of brain damage in the two groups is the same or different. During CPR, you are not going to be able to perfuse – that is, force an adequate amount of blood through – the brain. When the heart does finally start, the blood pressure rises, and there is a slow resumption of circulation and lots of technical reasons why your brain function does not return instantly. And the point to remember is that your mental state during recovery is confusional.
What should be clear to you now is that it is not a good thing to have a heart attack. In their 1999 study of cardiac arrest and brain damage, Graham Nichol and his colleagues found that out of 1,748 cardiac arrests patients, only 126 survived (Nichol, Stiell, Hebert, Wells, Vandemheen, and Laupacis, 1999). Most units range between 2 and 20 percent resuscitation rates. Eighty-six of Nichol’s survivors were interviewed, and most of the people who were resuscitated had evidence of brain damage.
Simultaneous recording of heart rate and brain output show that within 11 seconds of the heart stopping, the brainwaves go flat. Now, if you read the literature on this, some sceptical people claim that in this state there is still brain activity, but, in fact, the data are against this in both animals and humans. The brain is not functioning, and you are not going to get your electrical activity back again until the heart restarts.
The flat electroencephalogram (EEG), indicating no brain activity during cardiac arrest, and the high incidence of brain damage afterwards both point to the conclusion that the unconsciousness in cardiac arrest is total. You cannot argue that there are ‘‘bits’’ of the brain that are functioning; there are not. There is a confusional onset and offset, and there is no brain-based memory functioning. Everything that constructs our world for us is, in fact, ‘‘down.’’ There is no possibility of the brain creating any images. Memory is not functioning during this time, so it should be impossible to have clearly structured and lucid experiences, and because of brain damage, memory should be significantly impaired, and you should not be able to remember any experiences which occurred during that time."
The fact however is that cardiac arrest patients can and do have NDEs. During these NDEs, they hear, see, move, feel and think (or distinctly perceive themselves doing so). They may even perceive themselves as having conversations with "Beings of Light"or long-deceased relatives. All of these perceptions indicate that the patient's consciousness is still operating very actively. Furthermore the patient is later able to remember his experience om detail, and can give a clear, lucid account of it. This indicates that his memory was still functioning at the time when his brain had shut down.
What does this suggest?
That ... consciousness can exist without a physical brain.