Philosophies of death

The new International Speaker Series began with a lecture by a distinguished university president from South Korea on Wednesday afternoon.

Dr. Song Suk-Ku, president of Dongguk University in Seoul, delivered a speech entitled “Buddhist Reflections on Life and Death” in the courtroom of the Beto Criminal Justice Center. The lecture detailed how both Eastern and Western philosophical and religious ideologies dealt with the concept of death.

SHSU International Programs Director Jurg Gerber pushed for the creation of the series, and said he was pleased to have Song deliver the speech for the university.

“I am delighted to have such a known expert on Buddhist philosophy initiate SHSU’s International Speaker Series,” Gerber said.

Many criminal justice students enrolled in SHSU’s master’s program are graduates of Dongguk university, and Song offered to deliver his lecture in return for one that SHSU philosophy professor Frank Fair gave the previous year on a trip to Korea. A philosophy of religion professor, Song was asked to speak because of his years of study in the field of various cultures beliefs on death.

“Human beings know not only that they will die, but also that death is one of all the evanescent things in the world,” Song said. “At the same time, human beings know that death is not the end of everything.”

Song spoke in Korean with his words translated into English by way of an interpreter.

Song went on to speak about how analyzing and reflecting on death would lead someone to have a more fulfilling life, while remaining ignorant of death would not.

“If you cannot understand death, then you cannot understand life,” Song said.

Song had been interested in researching philosophy and religion since he was 15, and really became interested when he served as an observation officer in the Korean Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. Beginning in 1966, it was his job to count and process the number of dead bodies at the end of each day.

Song went on to work as a professor at a different South Korean university from 1972 until 1982, when he became a professor of philosophy at Dongguk University. Apart from teaching, Song has also written seven books on the topics of philosophy and religion.

Song’s speech included the beginnings of the belief of dualism in Western society, speaking about how Plato created the foundations for many European beliefs of duality, where life on earth and in the afterlife were linked.

Song spoke about his trip to the catacombs of Rome, and how it helped him come to the decision that Christians believe that the soul is connected directly to the body life on Earth and is simply one part of a single, unending life.

“When we consider the fact that the dead bodies were kept in the original shapes, we can learn that they thought theses bodies are closely related to the heavenly world of God,” Song said. “St. Paul also talked about the resurrection of the body and soul. Accordingly, we can discover that Christianity is in line with the Aristolean tradition in which body is not separated from soul.”

Song also added that Christianity might not be the best religion on which to base his beliefs of the afterlife.

“Christianity is not the perfect tool for understanding the transition from body to soul, since it teaches they are in unity,” Song said.

Fair, a philosophy of religion professor at SHSU and one of the hosts of the speaker, said that Song’s statement seemed to be based on his understanding that Christianity might not put proper emphasis on the importance of life on Earth.

“If you think that Christianity is a sort of dualism and ‘the real world’ is elsewhere (i.e. Heaven), then it may sort of devalue this life,” said Fair.

Fair added that the comment seemed to be based on a Song’s belief that Christians may think that life on Earth is less important than life after death, so that they need not concern themselves as much with what they do when they are alive.

On the other hand, Song said that Eastern religions see the soul not as a permanent entity that accompanies the body during life and then travels to a final destination in Heaven, but rather as a natural cycle of a powerful energy that binds all living things together.

Song said that Confucianism states that life is part of an inheritance from previous generations and meant to be passed on to future ones, and that death is seen as a final rest and repose after living a life that free from makeshift measures. Taoist believe that life and death are part of a natural process called The Way (or, the Tao), in which all the universe is constantly changing, and any change affects the whole.

“Man and nature do not happen to have a mechanical and superficial relationship by accident,” said Song. “Rather, they are interrelated. Therefore, a mere incident between them will affect the whole.”

When some one dies, their chi (or personal) energy scatters and reorganizes itself. Death and life are really one and the same, and the ultimate goal is to escape the cycle of life and death and enter a state where this is no death or life.

Song said that Buddhists believe that death is seen as the end of one life to be followed by reincarnation into another vessel. Once one has discovered his or her karma, they will achieve nirvana and be released from the cycle of death and rebirth. He added that Buddhists see all life as sentient and capable of transcending the cycle, and that once one does they will begin a transmigration of souls until one achieves ethical consciousness.

Song closed by saying that regardless of one’s view of death, it is important that one look upon it with hope.

“One must not be afraid of death,” said Song. “One must not make light of it either. The bottom line is that death is as much worthwhile as life.”

Freshman Sarah Loosmore attended the speech and said that many of the concepts Song presented in his speech intrigued her.

“I think that a lot of it makes a lot of sense, because you have to understand the coming of death to understand death, and I think that’s very true,” she said.

“When he said the body is the prison of the soul, I never looked at it that way,” she added.

Vice President of Academic Affairs David Payne said he enjoyed Song’s speech, as well as his presence at the university.

“Dr. Song is a very distinguished academic leader in Korea, and we’re happy to have him at our university,” said Payne. “I thought his speech offered a variety of insights about death as viewed by Christians and non-Christians.”

Payne also said that he enjoyed the analogy Song used to describe the passage of life from parents to their children.

“I like his image of life being like a marathon race, with life being passed like a baton from generation to generation,” he said.

Song’s wife Chung Young-Ja accompanied Song to America, along with the Director of the Police Administration Dr. Lee Yoon-Keun and Director of International Relations Dr. Kim Young-Min.

Fair said that many people have a tendency to ignore death as a reality, and that Song’s speech speaks to why we should examine the issue.

Fair added that the dangers of not examining death could lead people to become complacent or even apathetic towards life as a whole.

“It seems to be that people can base their life on a lie, lie that ‘I won’t die’ and ‘I’ll live forever,'” he said. “Coming to terms with death can cause someone to be less anxious to blot out a life.”

Fair also said that despite the differences between Eastern and Western philosophies, both stress that the individual must seek to find a proper understanding of their place in both life and death.

“The more important contrast is not so much East versus West, but that the person uses their resources or their cultural and religious traditions to make sense for themselves their lives and their place in the big scheme of things,” he said.

And the opposite is people who run and hide and avoid really looking for the truth,” Fair added. And you can find examples of such people in all cultures.”

Fair said that he enjoyed meeting Song, and that the International Affairs office will continue seeking future speakers.

“We expect this will be the first, while we don’t have the whole series planned, but I suppose Dr. Gerber will continue to seek out relations with universities abroad.”

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