As a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, working as a Buddhist chaplain at several of Melbourne’s hospitals and as well as Melbourne assessment prison, I have witnessed many personal tragedies faced by the living and of course the very process of dying and that of death and many of these poor people faced their death with fear, with misery and pain before departing this world. With the images of all these in my mind, on this occasion, I wish to share my view from the perspective of a Buddhist and we hope that people would feel far more relaxed in facing this inevitable end since it is really not the end of life, according to our belief.
Death and the impermanence of life
In the teaching of the Buddha, all of us will pass away eventually as a part in the natural process of birth, old-age and death and that we should always keep in mind the impermanence of life. The life that we all cherish and wish to hold on.
To Buddhism, however, death is not the end of life, it is merely the end of the body we inhabit in this life, but our spirit will still remain and seek out through the need of attachment, attachment to a new body and new life. Where they will be born is a result of the past and the accumulation of positive and negative action, and the resultant karma (cause and effect) is a result of ones past actions.
This would lead to the person to be reborn in one of 6 realms which are; heaven, human beings, Asura, hungry ghost, animal and hell. Realms, according to the severity of ones karmic actions, Buddhists believe however, none of these places are permanent and one does not remain in any place indefinitely. So we can say that in Buddhism, life does not end, merely goes on in other forms that are the result of accumulated karma. Buddhism is a belief that emphasizes the impermanence of lives, including all those beyond the present life. With this in mind we should not fear death as it will lead to rebirth.
The fear of death stemmed from the fear of cease to be existent and losing ones identity and foothold in the world. We see our death coming long before its arrival, we notice impermanence in the changes we see around us and to us in the arrival of aging and the suffering due to losing our youth. Once we were strong and beautiful and as we age, as we approach our final moments of life we realize how fleeting such a comfortable place actually was.
It is natural to grieve the loss of family members and others we knew, as we adjust to living without their presence and missing them as part of our lives. The death of a loved one, or even someone we were not close to, is terribly painful event, as time goes on and the people we know pass away along the journey of life, we are reminded of our own inevitable ends in waiting and everything is a blip of transience and impermanent.
At a certain moment, the world seems suddenly so empty and the sense of desperation appears to be eternity. The greater the element of grief and personal loss one tends to feel sorry for oneself.
Some of us may have heard the story of the women who came to the Buddha in great anguish, carrying her dead child pleading him to bring the child back to life. The Buddha said Bring to me a mustard seed from any household where no-one had ever died and I will fulfill your wish. The woman’s attempt to search for such seed from houses were in vain and of course she could not find any household in which no-one had ever died and suddenly she realized the universality of death.
According to Buddhism, our lives and all that occurs in our lives is a result of Karma. Every action creates a new karma, this karma or action is created with our body, our speech or our mind and this action leaves a subtle imprint on our mind which has the potential to ripen as future happiness or future suffering, depending on whether the action was positive or negative.
If we bring happiness to people, we will be happy. If we create suffering, we will experience suffering either in this life or in a future one.
This is called the Law of Karma, or the Law of Cause and Effect. Karmic law will lead the spirit of the dead to be reborn, in realms which are suitable appropriate to their karmic accumulations.
According to His Holiness, the 14 th Dali Lama of Tibet, that to cultivate the good karma, our good actions are an excellent way prepare for our death. Not performing evil deeds, keeping our heart and mind pure, doing no harm, no killing, sexual misconduct or lying, not using drugs or alcohol has very positive merit which enable us to die as we have lived.
The way we pass reflects the way we lived our lives, a good death putting a good stamp on a good life. As Leonardo Da Vinci once wrote in his notebook; Just as a well spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings a happy death. If we have lived a life of emotional turmoil, of conflict selfish desire unconcerned for others, our dying will be full of regrets, troubles and pain. It is far better to care for the lives for all around us rather than spending a fortune in prolonging life or seeking ways to extend it for those who can afford it, at the expense of relieving suffering in more practical ways. Improving the moral and spiritual quality of life improves its quality for us all rather than the selfish individualism that benefits the elite few who draw most resources.
Preparing for death and Buddhist rituals associated with dying
Buddhist clergy often remind their followers about closeness of death, emphasize the importance in getting to know death and take time to prepare for their own demise.
How do we prepare for death?. It is really simple, just behave in a manner which you believe is responsible, good and positive for yourself and towards others. This leads to calmness, happiness and an outlook which contributes to a calm and controlled mind at the time of death.
Through this positive and compassionate outlook of life, always being aware of the impermanence of life and having a loving attitude towards all living things in this transient existence we will be free of fear in opposite to grasping selfishly to life due to not having experienced happiness in life.
Having lead a responsible and compassionate life and have no regrets when death approaches enables us to surrender without a struggle to the inevitable and in a state of grace which need not be as uncomfortable as we are led to believe. A dying Buddhist person is likely to request the service of a monk or nun in their particular tradition to assist in this process further, making the transitional experience of death as peaceful and free of fear as can be possibly achieved.
Before and at the moment of death and for a period after death, the monk, nun or spiritual friends will read prayers and chants from the Buddhist Scriptures. In Buddhist traditions, this death bed chanting is regarded as very important and is ideally the last thing the Buddhist hears. Buddhists believe that we can actively assist and bring relief to the dying members through assisting the dying through the process of dying.
Through Buddhist doctrine we are told by Buddhist masters that the final moment of our consciousness is paramount, the most important moment of all. If the ill person is in hospital and the diagnosis is grim that the person cannot possibly survived, the family should call in the Buddhist priest to pray for the loved one so that at the final moment, the right state of mind has been generated within the person and they can find their way into a higher state of rebirth as they leave the present lives.
The nurses and family members are not supposed to touch the corpse, having to wait 3-8 hours after breathing ceases before touching the body for any preparation after the death. We Buddhists believe that the spirit of a person will linger on for sometime and can be affected by what happened to the corpse. It is important that the body is treated gently and with respect and that the priest can help the spirit continues its journey calmly to higher states, not causing the spirit to becoming angry and confused and may be more likely to be reborn into the lower realms.
In the Mahayana Buddhism, especially, Vietnamese tradition we pray for the dead for 49 days after passing away, 49 being the estimated time it takes for the spirit to be reborn again into a new life. Some spirits are reborn 3 days, 21 days, 49 days or 100 days after death, and in some cases even 7 years.
The concept of rebirth or reincarnation has become more popular in the west in recent years due to the influence of Tibetan Buddhism, especially, the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (by Sogyal Rinpoche, 1992) became a best seller in the USA and has been widely read throughout the developed countries by new generations who are concerned with alternative thinking and eastern cultural perspectives. Naturally people concern with life beyond death was stimulated by the ideas contained in such philosophies and beliefs.
The supreme aim of Buddhism is to obtain nirvana or enlightenment. This translated means a state of liberation or illumination from the limitations of existence. It is the liberation from the cycle of rebirth through countless lives up and down the 6 states of existence. It is obtained through the extinction of desire.
Nirvana is a state that is obtainable in this life through the right aspiration, purity of life, and the elimination of egotism. This cessation of existence as we know it, the attainment of being, as distinct from becoming. The Buddha speaks of it as unborn, un-originated, uncreated, unformed, contrasting it with the born, originated, created, and formed phenomenal world. Those who have obtained the state of Nirvana are called Buddhas. Gautama Siddhartha had obtained this state and had become a Buddha at 35. However it is now believed that it was only after he had passed away that he reached such a place of perfect tranquility, because some residue of human defilement would continue to exist as long as his physical body existed.
According to Buddhism if a human does not obtain nirvana or enlightenment, as it is known, the person cannot escape the cycle of death and rebirth and are inevitably be reborn into the 6 possible states beyond this our present life, these being in order from the highest to lowest;
- Heaven. In Buddhism there are 37 different levels of heaven where beings experience peace and long lasting happiness without suffering in the heavenly environment.
- Human life. In Buddhism we can be reborn into human life over and over, either wealthy or poor, beautiful or not so, and every state between and both as it it is served up to us. Anything can happen, as is found in human life and society all around us as we are familiar with in the day to day human world in is myriad of possibilities. What we get is a result of our Karma of what we have dragged with us from previous existences and how it manifests in our temporary present lives.
- Asura. A spiritual state of Demi-Gods but not the happy state experienced by the gods in the heavens above this state. The Demi-Gods are consumed with jealousy, because unlike humans, they can clearly see the superior situation of the gods in the heavens above them. They constantly compete and struggle with the gods due to their dissatisfaction with their desires from the others.
- Hungry Ghost. This spiritual realm of those who committed excessive amounts of evil deeds and who are obsessed with finding food and drink which they cannot experience and thus remain unsatisfied and tortured by the experience. They exhaust themselves in the constant fruitless searching.
- Animals. This realm is visible to humans and it is where spirits of humans are reborn if they have killed animals or have committed a lot of other evil acts. Animals do not have the freedom that humans would experience due to being a subject constantly hunted by humans, farmed and used in farming, also as beasts for entertainment.
- Hell. This realm is not visible to humans. It is a place where beings born there experience a constant state of searing pain and the various types of hell realms reads like a variety of horrific torture chambers. Those with a great deal of negative Karma can remain in such places for eons of time.
To conclude, as already mentioned, none of us can avoid death and if we are not free from the vicious cycle of death and rebirth, we are doomed to the endless cycles of life and death and its paradoxical nature of suffering, of happiness and sadness, youth and ageing, healthiness and sickness, pain and death, all because we are so attached to the existence in the first place.
The Buddha urged us to prepare for death, to prepare for that journey by cleansing the mind and not being so attached to things, to be able to let go and release ourselves for needing to be, from needing to have. Through this we will not suffer so much as we pass through the final stage of the present life, we can let go, be grateful for what we had but not clutch to it, not try to ensure permanency and cause ourselves to suffer more than we need to. This way we can end the cycle and leave forever, obtaining nirvana and release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
(This essay has been presented at the conference Dying, Death and Grieving a cultural Perspective, RMIT University, Storey Hall, 349 Swanston Street, Melbourne, Victoria, 22nd and 23rd March 22, 2002. For further information on the conference, please contact Lynn Cain,