Buddhism, existentialism, philosophy, Spirituality
Comments 4

Should You Fear Death?: A reply to Chi-Tsung’s argument against fear


Not where the monk Chi-tsang lived.  Definitely one of my travel photos from Ngong-Ping, Hong Kong (2018)

The Buddhist monk Chi-tsang (549-623) (吉藏 , Jizang; born Sanlun Zung) on his death bed said:

Man cherishes birth and fears death as he does not understand the true aspect of birth and death.  Death originates from birth.  Therefore, man should fear birth instead of death.  If I were not born, then I would surely not die.  If birth, the beginning, is realized, then death, the end, will surely be known.  In this sense, man has to be sad about his birth and need not fear death.

In other words, human fear of death springs from ignorance of metaphysical facts about existence. When we recognize that the necessity of death actually comes from the state of being born, then the result should be that we transfer our fear to birth (as the source of death) and fear birth instead.

Reductio ad absurdum

It’s difficult to recognize it at first, but in this quote Chi-tsung provides a reductio ad absurdum argument, which is a demonstration that reveals an error in either an assumption or in the logical argument.  As I recreate the target argument and provide the unstated assumptions and conclusion, I’ll reveal that the conclusion is absurd.  Thereby the original assumption will be proved false.  So Chi-tsang is not actually telling us we should fear birth, but rather he’s making a rhetorical statement to point out that we’ve misunderstood something.

Restating the argument

Adding the unstated assumptions, pre-conclusions, and conclusion we can see the reductio more clearly:

A1: I fear death.

A2: If I fear something, I must also fear its source.

A3: The source of death is birth.

PC1: Therefore, if I fear death then I must fear birth.

PC2: Therefore, I fear birth.

A4: But I do not fear birth (Side note: I think a reflection on empirical facts of our experience will tell us that we cannot find ourselves fearing birth.)

A5: It is a contradiction to fear birth and also not fear birth at the same time.

PC3: Therefore, I do not fear birth.

C: Therefore, I do not fear death.

In other words, our fear of death doesn’t make sense, so we must deny it.  Chi-tsang’s moral conclusion is: We ought not fear death.

At first, this seems right.  Q.E.D.! Empirically, we can check the result using an example.  The reasoning is similar to the reasoning we have about fire and being burned.  We know the source of being burned is a hot object, and we fear the hot object but not the burn itself.  (We dislike the pain, but that is a different emotion than fear.) If something bad happening to us is an analogy for death, then Chi-tsang’s argument checks out, at least in abstraction.

The Error

However, I’m not sure that Chi-tsang has not made an error somewhere.  On further consideration, his statement seems counter-intuitive to me. The counter-intuitiveness can best be demonstrated with an empirical example. Imagine you are eating the most delicious treat.  You would be sad when it’s all gone, especially if you know you’ll never get another.  Would you fear receiving the treat in the first place?  No, that doesn’t make sense.  You are sad for the loss, not for having received the treat in the first place even though receiving it is the “source” of the loss.

The example reveals that it might be a good idea to push back against Chi-tsang’s argument.  My example shows us that assumption #2, If I fear something, I must also fear its source, is not necessarily true for human beings. We know by experience that there is a difference between an outcome and its source.

A possible reason:

Between birth and death, a lot of (good, pleasant) things happen.  Would you like a banana?  Or would you like a squashed banana? Or would you like an overripe and rotting banana?  Of course, you’ll have the banana (not the squashed or overripe banana), even though they are material of the same source.  As clearly as we choose the banana, we clearly want life.

What assumptions would Chi-tsung need for this statement to make sense?

In order for Chi-tsang’s argument to make sense, he’d need the listener to already be on board with the Buddhist conclusion of emptiness.  He would need his listener to already assume that there is no difference, nothing transformative, nothing that happens in life that adds something.  The question is: If I drive from Vancouver to Prince George and back again this weekend before you notice, did I really leave town?  We’d both agree that I did.

Chi-tsang’s argument is sneaky.  But life is something, and that’s why I disagree.


Critical Thinking Questions:

  1. What do you think happens after we die?
  2. Should we fear death?
  3. Why is your life special to you?


  1. We fear the consequences of death in terms of our life (i.e. loss future experience, unfinished stories), not the fact of death.
    Yet we often conflate the fear of loss with the fear of death itself.
    I take that as the point of Jizang’s reductio.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting take on it! I like what you said about conflating the fear of loss with the fear of death itself.
      If that’s the case, and yet we still fear death, then there’s more work to do to find out what we’re afraid of.


  2. proclus9 says

    Chi-Tsung’s advice is in keeping with Buddhist teachings that we should strive not to be re-incarnated, i.e. not to be born, i.e. to fear birth. Being reborn means that we have failed to attain Nirvana because of our imperfect lives. In short, birth is a sign of failure. Re-incarnation is the Buddhist version of what Christians call “original sin.”
    From an existential perspective we might say that birth is to be feared because we have no lived up to our true potentials and will therefore another birth – another moment of consciousness – will reveal to us how we have mismanaged our lives. The knowledge of our failure to be authentic is painful and, therefore, to be feared.


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