Is death still frightening if you believe the self is an illusion? An astonishing study of Tibetan Buddhists

By Christian Jarrett

Imagining ourselves as no longer existing is, for most of us, terrifying. Buddhism may offer some reassurance. A central tenet of the religion is that all is impermanent and the self is actually an illusion. If there is no self, then why fear the end of the self?

To find out if the logic of the Buddhist perspective eliminates existential fear, Shaun Nichols at the University of Arizona and his colleagues surveyed hundreds of monastic Tibetan Buddhists (monks-in-training) in exile in India, as well as lay Tibetans, Tibetan Buddhists from Bhutan, Indian Hindus and American Christians and atheists.

To their astonishment, the researchers report in Cognitive Science that fear of the annihilation of the self was most intense among the monastic Buddhists, and that the monastic Buddhists were less willing than any of the other groups to sacrifice years of their own life for a stranger.

The US participants were recruited online, whereas the monastic Tibetan Buddhists and other groups were given paper surveys to complete, translated by fluent bilinguals into the appropriate language. The hundreds of monastic Tibetan Buddhists who took part were from monasteries in Byalkuppe and Mundhod in India. The researchers also surveyed 30 Buddhist scholars about how devoted Buddhists ought to answer the different survey questions.

Two of the surveys addressed the permanence of the self. As expected, the monastic Buddhists showed the least belief in the continuity of the self – they thought they would be different in personality, beliefs, ambitions and other characteristics in the future. In contrast, the Americans, whether religious or not, showed the strongest belief in the continuity of the self (the other groups, including everyday, non-devout Tibetans, scored mid-way between these two extremes). Similar patterns emerged for beliefs about the existence of a “core self” that persists over time, with the monastic Buddhists again showing the least belief in the self.

Would the monastic Buddhists’ scepticism about the self have a bearing on their fear of death? More than the other groups, they said that they used the no-self doctrine to cope with the prospect of death, as the Buddhists scholars said they ought to do.

Yet, when the researchers surveyed their participants about their fear of death and especially their fear of self-annihilation (gauged by agreement or not with items like “Dying one year from now frightens me because of the loss and destruction of the self / destruction of my personality”), to the researchers’ surprise they found that this fear was most intense among the monastic Buddhists. This was opposite to how they ought to have responded according to the Buddhist scholars. Note, the Buddhists believed just as strongly in an after-life (though not, of course, for their current “self”), so this could not explain their more intense fear compared with the other groups.

Next, the researchers surveyed more participants from the same groups about how much they would be willing to sacrifice years of their own life to extend the life of another person (for instance, in the most extreme version of the thought experiment, they were asked to imagine they could take a pill to extend their own life by six months or give the pill to a stranger, similar to them, for whom the pill would add an additional five years to their life). The monastic Buddhists were the least willing to make this kind of sacrifice – in fact, over 72 per cent preferred to keep the pill for themselves in the above scenario, compared with 31.2 per cent of non-religious Americans.

Writing on Twitter, co-author Nina Strohminger at the University of Pennsylvania said that these findings were “probably the most bizarre and unexpected of her career“.

The researchers believe the paradox they have uncovered, between the Buddhists’ explicit beliefs and their fears, may be explicable by the fact that, despite their training and explicit claims, the monastic Buddhists still have a powerful sense of a continuous identity that stretches from the past and into the future. It is not easy to defy the illusion of the self even if you are taught to do so. This would seem to be borne out by notable Buddhist autobiographies that betray a keen experience of a continuous self. At the same time, Buddhists may succeed well in truly believing that the self ends at death (unlike other religious groups that preach that the soul is eternal), and this could account for the Buddhists’ exaggerated fear of self-annihilation at death.

One caveat to the findings highlighted by the researchers is that, although their monastic Buddhist participants meditated every day,  none of them were highly experienced, long-term meditators with many years of practice. Meditation is seen as one way to eliminate belief in a permanent self, so it will be interesting to repeat the research, not only with other Buddhist denominations, but specifically with highly experienced, expert Buddhist meditators, to see if they too would fear self-annihilation.

Death and the Self

Image:  Tibetan Buddhist monks in-exile pray during a Long Life prayer offerings ceremony to his Holiness the Dalai Lama at the main temple Tsuglag Khang on March 9, 2009 in Dharamsala, India. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

48 thoughts on “Is death still frightening if you believe the self is an illusion? An astonishing study of Tibetan Buddhists”

  1. Has anyone considered the fact that the monastic Buddhists were perhaps the most honest group of people answering the survey about the pill to extend their own life vs someone else’s?

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    1. The researchers do moot this possibility. However, they say they have no reason to believe that the monastic Buddhists should be more honest than all the other groups, and they add that it was not always clear what the most socially desirable answer should have been (although I am not sure why they make this latter point because I would have thought the altruistic option would always be more socially desirable, unless perhaps deliberately foreshortening one’s own life is seen as a form of suicide which may have negative moral connotations for some).

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  2. 1 elements that does not seem to have been considered, is the economic condition of the men who joined these Buddhist monasteries previous to their joining. The potential that these men have joined the monastery in order to escape economic deprivation and to have the consistency of three meals a day and a safe place to sleep. In general Americans who seek out Buddhism come from The Middle two upper classes. And in general Buddhists in Tibet do not come from middle-class or upper-class. This may have an economic and less spiritual element that leads men to the monastic life. Thus while they may in fact practice the behaviors of a monk, they may retain the philosophy of someone who has had to survive the harsh economic deprivation. Thus there being in a monastery does not necessarily mean they are the most spiritual people who are involved and Buddhism. Something to consider

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    1. I’d also like to add that many of the guys are sent to monastery as young children by their parents. However, will post my analysis of these results based on my knowledge of this culture as a separate comment.

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  3. The following issues could have played a role:

    – Ethical conduct is the *foundation* of Buddhist teachings (and especially monks take this very seriously) – so these monks would have refrained from ‘social desirability responding’ (i.e., not lying; which could have been an issue with many of the other responders in the study).

    – “The self as illusion” is a difficult concept to grasp for most people, and even many monks are unable to explain it clearly [the difficulty of this concept is described in the following article: Karunamuni, N., and Weerasekera, R. (2017). Theoretical Foundations to Guide Mindfulness Meditation: A Path to Wisdom, Current Psychology. (article preprint publicly available from: https://mindrxiv.org/mfs63/ )]

    – Buddhist consider human life to be extremely valuable [in order to undertake the practice of meditation (and reach enlightenment), because in many of the other ‘realms of existence’ (they describe 31 realms), practicing meditation is difficult].

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  4. Really interesting study, and I agree, it’s not congruent with expectations. However, from my experiential learnings with Buddhism, I think I can understand why a “monastic Buddhist” may have answered as they did. This is, admittedly, only conjecture.

    On the annihilation of the self: The Buddhist students were the only ones that we can say, with certainty, are actively & systematically striving towards a spiritual goal. In their pursuit of enlightenment, they’re seeking to break free from the rebirth cycle. They are told it takes years to achieve. Telling someone with this striving that their potential to break free will prematurely end is essentially telling them they won’t meet their goal. In the proverbial game of Snakes & Ladders, you’re telling this person they will take the long snake back to the beginning–and that beginning may not even be on the same game board (due to the complexities of reincarnation). I can see how that would induce anxiety/fear/dread in these students.

    On the life pill: I wonder if a student’s (i.e. imperfect) understanding of the Four Noble Truths may be a factor. Life is suffering–so why would you give someone else five extra years of suffering, if you can sacrificially take on six additional months of suffering? Especially from a student’s view, tenaciously perceiving lay people as “ignorant”–why would you give someone five extra years to squander in material ignorance, when you can use those six additional months to achieve nirvana, become a boddhisattva, and return to help others?

    I would be interested in seeing the research repeated with meditators. My hypothesis would be that it’s these active practices–and not the brand of spirituality–that would temper the fear of death.

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  5. According to Buddhist teachings, there is some degree of ‘conceit’ about existence until one reaches ‘full enlightenment.’ Therefore, one can expect novice monks (most of whom would not have even reached the first stage of enlightenment) to have a ‘fear of death.’ Also, mere ‘beliefs’ about something do not directly translate into ‘lack of fear’ (for example, we often get deceived by virtual-reality shows). Buddhist teachings require “experiential understanding” about phenomena (i.e., regarding the ‘way things are’) – that is how one progresses in the Buddhist path, and I doubt these novice monks would have even come close to that.

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    1. Also, intellectually understanding the non-self nature (i.e., understanding the ‘illusion of self’) is possible before one moves on to an “experiential understanding” – the article I mentioned in my earlier comment explains this well.

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  6. This is interesting by the fact that science wants to prove something about spirit and was shocked by their results. Most likely because they the researchers may have pre conceI’ve ideas about Buddhist monks. Also these monks may not have awakened therefore their ego’s will still possibly have a fear of death. Awakening does not happen automatically even if you are a Buddhist monk..monk’s are people with egos. The ego has a fear of death…and will take the pill.

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  7. I’m not sure that the writer has a good understanding of Buddhist philosophy. Buddhists do believe that conscious experience continues after death, in the same way it continues from moment to moment in this life. Although there isn’t a self (singular, independent, autonomous, unchanging), there is continuous experience. Thoughts are arising but are not really anybody’s thoughts. Secondly, the Buddha nature doctrine holds that the nature of ones mind and the nature of the universe is unchanging and unconditioned and limitless. Even in Theravada Buddhism which doesn’t have this Mahayana idea, the mystics still speak of the deathless.

    Lastly, I wonder if this dear has anything to do with the fact that traditional Tibetan teachings stress very strongly that there can be scary experiences after death in the intermediate state and also the possibility of rebirth in hell realms or the animal realm, as well as heavenly realms and others. Also, I wonder if some people explore spirituality in the first place because they are afraid of death and want reassurance about it.

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  8. The Buddhist idea about ultimate reality being limitless and timeless and aware is not massively dissimilar from the Hindu idea that the ultimate reality and the true nature of the individual is God or Brahman and one needs to realise this to be freed from the cycle of birth and death.

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  9. Misunderstands Buddhism so not surprised it is surprised by its own conclusion. Buddhism recognises the rare and precious human life, without which we can’t achieve enlightenment, so if you die before achieving enlightenment you’ve every right to be worried.

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  10. I don’t think this research is conclusive, but this is a very interesting topic worthy of further research and discussion. No matter what I’m told death will always be my biggest concern and I’d love to understand it better.

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  11. Has anyone considered that the monks may feel that they need all the time they can get to become fully and totally enlightened in this lifetime? So that the “attachment’ to life is not fuelled by the desire to maintain the self, but the contrary, it is fuelled by the urgency to break through all karma and end the circle of suffering (samsara). Being in a human body is an excellent occasion to become enlightened. If the monks are reborn in the higher realms it becomes more difficult to become enlightened because the higher reams are very pleasurable.
    So, tying the attachment to life to attachment to / belief in self, is a self-centered perspective.

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  12. As ever BPS you present an unclear and uncertain parade of ‘facts’. I’ve followed you now for 2 years and each time that I am interested with one of your articles and get excited by reading it, on completion, I’m left feeling “well that was a waste of time.” How can you write a HEADLINE “an astonising study of Tibetan Buddhists” ? You have no idea of the REASONS for them
    answering a questionnaire with those specific questions. Why don’t you talk to people openly and at length and allow that connection to inform your judgment? No, it has to be quantified. Fine, quantify life if you dare, with the smallest infiltesimal framework of minute understanding, but don’t publish articles proclaiming to KNOW.
    Many thanks
    Jo

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  13. Interesting topic and Very interesting comments, from which the research can be further built on. Please continue further!
    The word FEAR is highly confused… It is different in an emotion and different when felt. In eastern philosophies, it is ‘ok’ to have fear (even shame / guilt / anger, as they are essential part of human emotion. If you are not fearful at/of anything, then it is considered that you have a problem). Understanding emotions makes you more aware and then you can easily overcome (not by suppressing) the actual fear (of life and death).

    The pill… Its an interesting one. I wonder, what they would do, if one pill (or a woman for example. Not both) is placed in-between two monks (in training) and asked to take or give?!
    Its different when the questions are asked individually or when people around.

    The researchers should continue… Best of luck.

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  14. What has this got to do with Tibet, China or Buddhism. Buddhism is just a bastardized version of ancient Hinduism. They even hijacked Hindu symbols of Aum and Swastika. 90% of China population claims to be atheist. Shaolin monks are looked at as redundant fools practicing childish Hocus pocus.

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    1. Sorry I disagree with you orisonb. The Buddha was initially influenced by Hindu teachers from whom he learned how to calm his mind and go into deep calm mind-states. The Hindus thought that this was enlightenment. But the Buddha felt that there has to be something beyond calming the mind, because these calm states are only temporarily and besides he had many unanswered questions. This lead him to a ‘quest for truth’ where he strived for many years – this eventually lead him to understood the nature of the mind (consciousness) which he later described in great detail. Hindu’s may have incorporated this teaching to their own understanding later on in history. However, I find Hindu teachings are often presented using vague terms and abstract language. Buddhist teachings on the other hand are very comprehensive, straightforward and thorough. Buddhist teachings also do not make any assumptions, and can be understood by anyone who has an open mind.

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      1. I guess it is not yet apparent to you that I am born, raised and living in India. For you meditation probably does not have anything to do with God and Yoga is just a stretching exercise for backache. People like you and other Abrahamic desert religions will forever search God or life or meaning in a bloody book or text book. Life is about living. Spirituality is about “experiencing” – not arm chair intellectual philosophy for useless PHD citations.

        India is of course the nation burdened with Dalai Lama. USA, UK, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, none wants this Tibetan fool. India has this His Holiness Dalai Lama King of Tibet since forever and suffered war with China as a result. These ungrateful selfish Tibetans live tax free in India and get government freebies and handouts from my income tax money. And then this Dalai Lama will stand and say to the rest of the world how intolerant India and Indians are. I am sure Tibet is a part of China because these Tibetan scoundrels are ungrateful selfish pigs just like the Chinese population.

        You are welcome to your belief system as it is uniquely yours and not of Buddha. Hope you find common sense if not enlightenment in this life time.

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      2. You seem to be holding a great deal of anger – mindfulness practices could definitely help you. Yes, I think Buddhism has died down in India (things you say prove that too). I think the original teachings are still adhered to in Sri Lanka (the little island just below your country) – in fact, I learnt meditation from an excellent Sri Lankan meditation teacher.

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      3. I just want to add that your anger is a valid feeling. I’m hearing that you feel the Dalai Lama has insulted and taken advantage of you. It’s certainly understandable that you might be juuust a little bit angry about that! I further want to validate your view of and feelings toward the Western world as we have, on the whole, both historically and probably still to this day, treated India and its people in much the same way you feel the Dalai Lama has… if not a whole lot worse…

        I’m hoping the suggestion of mindfulness practices is not intended to say that your anger is not understandable. Only that with such practices, we can all come to better understand our minds; thoughts, emotions, stories, habits, etc.

        From one Franco-American on behalf of the whole of the Western world (if that’s at all possible), my sincerest apologies and regrets for all past and ongoing transgressions. We are incredibly imperfect and fail on the daily. I can only hope we’ll all progress together toward a better, more respectful, compassionate, loving world, however slow and fitful that progress might be.

        Also, thank you for expressing some of the reasons for your feelings. Very helpful to understand where you’re coming from.

        And in that way, thanks to both of you for sharing in this “lived” experience together. However messy it can be. Messiness is spiritual too 😉 Peace.

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      4. Weird coincidence, I just happened to come across the following which reminded me of this thread. … but it wasn’t because I was studying or anything…! 😉

        “Studying is important to help us in our meditation, as [he who shall not be named] is always emphasizing. Some people think meditation and study are two different things: if you study, you become an intellectual and you’re dry; if you meditate, you get some experience. But [he who still shall not be named] emphasizes this: if you study and you become a dry intellectual, that’s your problem—but that’s not why you study, that’s not the purpose of the study. The purpose is to learn things so that your meditation goes well and is effective.”

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  15. I grant that someone may have already chimed in about this here – I regret I haven’t read through all the comments – but I’ll offer my response to a friend who shared this with me on facebook, in case it’s helpful:

    Fascinating and yeah, pretty unexpected, at least on the face of things. I suspect there’s more to things here but I can’t say for sure. There are two things that readily come to mind for me while reading this.

    One is the teaching (at least in the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, keeping in mind there are several traditions) of this precious human rebirth. An appreciation for this life is nurtured in a way that spurs one to take full advantage of it by progressing spiritually as much as possible with what little time one has in this body. Not only is the human form most ideal for spiritual practice, but it’s also said that (and I may not have this exactly right) it’s as rare as a blind sea turtle swimming in a vast ocean which happens to surface for air at just the right time and place such that its head happens to perfectly positioned in a single golden yolk floating in that ocean as it’s being blown about by the wind here and there. Meditating on death and impermanence is as much about accepting these facts as true as it is about being inspired to live in a way that accords with that reality.

    The second thing is (and this is hinted at by the distinction from “highly experienced, long-term meditators”) that there is a difference between intellectually understanding something and knowing it to the core of one’s being such that it becomes one’s reality. The illusion of the self is the most deeply embedded belief we have, so it’s not going to be easily uprooted by occasionally meditating, even if that is helpful. It takes dedicated practice to change one’s sense of reality in that most fundamental of ways. I suspect that most monks are in a place of intellectually understanding or believing but not at or close to a place of knowing – as this is essentially liberation or nirvana itself.

    Just a couple of thoughts off the top of my head, but I admit these results were intriguing to read about and interesting to consider. I hope they do actually repeat the research with those who have been in deeper practice for longer. Good stuff!

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  16. Very surprising, as every Buddhist understands at some level that the true Self, the Self of all, never dies. It would be good to explore the methodology of the study as the interpretation, crafted in the article, is not consistent with the teaching. Certainly is a good headline and puts the writer on the map but I wonder at the level of monastic it was asked of really understood the question being asked of them.

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    1. Hi Leith, the expression of a “true Self, the Self of all, [that] never dies” has piqued my curiosity… I wouldn’t have expected a Buddhist to have such a view as it seems to me the antithesis of Buddhist doctrine, specifically that of anatman or “no-self” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatta)… I wonder if you would expound a little on what you mean? Maybe I’m just misunderstanding you… Thanks!

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  17. In interpreting the finding, one needs to have a thorough understanding of the schema of devoted Buddhist practitioners, that would include those in monastic orders. As we are talking about the Tibetan lineage, part of the greater vehicle “Mahayana” or as Tibetan Buddhism usually calls themselves Vajrayana, the diamond vehicle, we need to know one of the emphases is to have attainment within this life, that involves intensive practices. And it is valuable to have this human form for this life, if one does not treasure it, and make good use for dharma practice, one wouldn’t know when would be the next rebirth in a human form again.

    It is in this context, as a monastic monk, if we are unsure of his own attainment when facing death, it is dangerous to face death, in the middle-realm or bardo, one may end up in a rebirth at a lower-realm if not being able to keep conscious of what one may face.

    As for the life-extension pill… there is also a belief that those who do not practice dharma are likely to be planting negative karmic seeds with each thought they have. Believing in Karma would also mean one should not tamper with what one needs to face. We do not know by giving that pill to someone in need would result in more negative karmic consequences or not, it is better to keep it for the self when they are sure the 6 more months of life extension will help them proceed further on the Dharma path. Another possible explanation would be their honesty in stating their own preference without social pressure.

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    1. Just had a look at the original journal article and looked at the “Fear of Personal Death Scale” used. The high Cronbach’s Alpha score of 0.84 within Self-annihilation subscale is no surprise to me. The “decomposition of the body” is a contemplative exercise for the beginner level meditator, good enough to fear, one needs to contemplate and visualize the decomposing of the body as a way of perceiving the impermanence of our physical body. “Loss and destruction of self” is perhaps understood in a similar light. But the “state of everlasting sleep” and “destruction of personality” should be feared the most… clarity of the mind is what Buddhist practitioners especially monastics striving to achieve, even at the time of dying, everlasting sleep would mean a loss of clarity and destruction of personality would mean thoughts not guarded by a mind with clarity of reasoning and perception.

      The 8 items under “Loss of social identity” subscale is one that puzzles me as well. Amongst the 8 items, I spotted that “Burial deep in the earth” can be a scary thing for Tibetans as earth burials are for the lowest of all kinds in their culture. And “Loss of human semblance” is one most Buddhist practitioners would fear, since having this human body is a rare thing, and it is the best form for dharma practice.

      In their conclusion that the monastic subjects studied were not long-term meditators and the authors cited Tsongkhapa as a reference… this sounds weird… and the paper does not provide age information of the samples used, are we talking about a bunch of young monks in their teens? Although in some analysis it stated controlled for age.

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  18. Well, in general Buddhism is still viewed with rose-colored glasses by many in the west, as Lopez and other scholars have pointed out. We tend to over-estimate their actual level of selflessness, and, concomitantly, under-estimate the selflessness of those of western religious traditions.

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