We’re now ready to begin the first meditation of the death and rebirth module, and you’re going to be practicing these meditations for the first time after having completed the first teaching session. However, in this meditation session, we’re also going to meditate on some of the topics that I introduce in the second teaching session. That’s OK, because they’re fairly simple and anyway, you’ll need to come back and do all these meditations again and again. That’s why we call it “practice.”
Also, as I mentioned before, you need to learn how to do these meditations on your own, so that later you can do them without listening to the CD or by following the CD and using the pause button. This is because you need to gradually increase the duration of your meditation sessions beyond the 35 minutes or so we have for each session now. As the teachers in our lineage always tell us, when beginning a meditation practice or a retreat, start with many short sessions and gradually make the sessions longer in duration and fewer in number.
Anyway, I don’t want to say too much about meditation here, because I’ve already spoken briefly about it in the first session and more to the point, ideally you should also have completed the How to Meditate module of the Discovering Buddhism program by now and, therefore, be pretty familiar with how to meditate.
Sit comfortably in the seven-point meditation posture or as close to it as you can get and focus on your breath for at least a couple of minutes, preferably longer, again by using the pause and play buttons on your CD player as you’ve been doing in the teaching sessions.
Once you’ve made your mind calm and clear through focusing on your breath, generate a positive motivation for doing this meditation. Think, “The purpose of my life is to lead all sentient beings out of suffering into enlightenment. In order to do this, I must first reach enlightenment myself. To reach enlightenment, I have to complete the study and practice of each part of the graduated path to enlightenment. Therefore, I’m going to do this meditation on mental continuity, impermanence and death.”
Lama Yeshe’s meditation on the continuity of consciousness
Now we’re going to do a meditation on the continuity of consciousness as taught by Lama Yeshe at a meditation course he gave in Australia in 1975. First, I’ll describe the meditation in brief and then you can come back and do it more slowly.
Check how your mind of today is related to the experience of yesterday’s ego games. Check; observe. How are they linked? Similarly, check back to last week, last month, last year. Go all the way back through your life. Check with your big wisdom eye, how your ego and attachment have functioned over the years, how you have identified things at different ages, how you have perceived different views, all of which have been projection of your own ego.
If your mind were not connected with last year’s ego, there would be no reason for memories to uncontrollably keep coming back into your mind. Therefore, check how these experiences relate to the continuity of mind. Go back as far as your time in the womb.
Forgetting previous experiences and clinging to the future is not realistic. Unless you have psychic power, you have no idea whether you will be alive next year or not; nobody can guarantee you that. And you don’t have to be sick to die. One minute you can be well, drinking a cup of tea, the next minute you’re dead. We all know that this can happen; we’ve seen it. We’re not babies.
If you check well enough, you will find that even when you were in your mother’s womb, you experienced ego and attachment. Check where that came from. It didn’t come from itself. It had to come from something else. There is no such self-existent entity that doesn’t depend on something else. For example, a permanent soul; there is no such thing as a permanent soul, ego, consciousness or mind of detachment. Nor is there any self-existent physical entity either. Belief in such things is a wrong conception.
Some religions, like Hinduism or Christianity, talk of an eternal soul, but that’s a misconception. They have no understanding of the characteristic nature of the soul. Impermanent means changing every moment. How could there be a permanent, never-changing soul? It’s impossible. If you accept the existence of the permanent soul, you have to accept the existence of a permanent human being. It’s impossible for there to be a permanent human being; where is that person?
Therefore, check back through all your experiences of how your mind has perceived the sense world from when you were in your mother’s womb up to now. Check its different interpretations, its different feelings. This meditation helps you integrate your mind and life and introduce a little order into both.
Begin the meditation by concentrating single-pointedly on the movement of your breath. Then move onto an analytical meditation, checking your experiences, as I have just described.
When you find an object or experience on which you want to focus, practice placement meditation. Concentrate single pointedly on that object. In Sanskrit, this kind of meditation is called samadhi. Keep your mind on the memory of that experience for as long as you can. When your mind begins to get distracted by other thoughts, repeat your analytical meditation until you get to that point again and refocus your attention upon it.
Now here, because I need to describe other meditations, I’m not going to let the CD run silently while you practice the meditation as Lama has described. Therefore, do it yourself for the next few minutes or as long as you feel like. Press the pause button and again, when you’re ready to resume, hit the play button and we’ll do the next meditation.
Reflections on impermanence
Now we’re going to do some meditations reflecting on impermanence, and although I haven’t covered this material in the first teaching session, you can do the meditation now or come back to it after you’ve finished the second session.
As I read each verse, think about the meaning of the words; try to get a feeling for what the words mean, not merely an intellectual understanding of them. These verses were spoken by Lord Buddha himself.60
Alas! composites are impermanent,
They start to perish when they are produced.
Since having arisen they perish;
Calming them down is happiness.
From that same moment of the night
Humans first enter into the womb
The journey of their life to death begins.
Once gone there is no turning back.
At daybreak, many people can be seen,
That evening one is gone from sight;
At evening many people can be seen,
Next morning one is gone from sight.
Since many girls and boys have died
While young and in the prime of life,
How can one feel secure and think,
“I am young so I have long to live”?
Some die when they are in the womb,
Some on the ground where they are born,
Some die as they learn to crawl
And some just as they learn to walk.
Some die old, and some die young,
Some in the very prime of life.
Old people pass away in turn
Just like the fall of ripened fruit.
As all ripe fruit
Always falls and rots,
So all who are born,
Are always by their death destroyed.
Like every pot
A skilful potter moulds from clay,
Which finally is broken and destroyed,
So too is every person’s life.
Like weaving wool
Stretched back and forth across a loom
Finally runs out,
So too with every person’s life.
Like every step of one condemned
Brings nearer the gallows
Where that one will hang and die,
So too is every person’s life.
Just as a waterfall’s flow
Can never turn back on itself,
So a person’s life goes on forever
Without increase, without return.
So hard [to obtain] and yet so short
And yet with so much misery,
Lives are obliterated so soon,
Like words written with a stick in water.
Just like the herder with a stick
Who drives the flocks into the fold,
So age and sickness drive all humans
On to the place where they will die.
Just like a little stream,
As days and nights pass by,
A person’s goods are quickly finished,
Life, furthermore, is transitory.
Collections in the end disperse,
Whatever rises must also fall.
All meetings end in separation,
The final end of life is death.
Since life at its end turns to death,
All living beings, destined to die,
Move ever closer to all those
Results of good or bad they’ve done.
By doing bad [actions], people fall to hells;
By virtue, rise to happy realms.
Others meditate on the path and find
Since Buddha and all the hearers
And all solitary realizers too,
Give up the bodies that they have,
It’s definite that common folk do so too.
Wherever you go there is no place
But that death can find an entry:
Not earth, nor sky, nor ocean deep,
Not far within the mountainside.
Seeing that everyone
Who has been and is yet to be
Gives up the body and departs,
The wise have fear, follow religion, and lead pure lives.
Seeing old age and the pain of disease,
And seeing the mind depart at death,
The steadfast give up the prison-like home,
That common people like and can’t give up.
Again, the way to practice this kind of analytical meditation is to think deeply about the meaning of the words—after each verse, or after each couple, if they are linked together. Even though, because of time, I have to read straight through them here, when you do it yourself, stop, reflect, and try to feel the meaning; try to feel the subtle impermanence that the Buddha is getting at. Try to feel the certainty and imminence of death and understand, as he says, that not only is each moment bringing us closer to death but that each moment is also bringing us closer to the next life, to the results of the positive and negative actions that we’ve done.
Positive actions result in happiness, negative in suffering. Therefore, we need also to understand that since most of the actions we’ve ever done have been negative, what each moment is bringing us closer to is suffering, and not just the sort of suffering that we’ve experienced in this life but the immeasurably greater sufferings of the three lower realms.
Gampopa’s four contemplations
Now, the final part of this meditation will be on Gampopa’s four contemplations, which I’ll talk a little more about in the second session.61
Gampopa taught that there are four things to meditate on when we investigate impermanence within ourselves: death, the characteristics of death, the exhaustion of life and separation. So, let’s just spend a couple of minutes on each one on this first run-through, and later on, you can spend more time on each.
- To meditate on death, think, “I myself cannot stay long in this world and will have to go to the next life.” Contemplate this.
- To meditate on the characteristics of death, think, “My life ends, this breath ceases, this body becomes a corpse, and this mind has to wander in different places.” Contemplate this.
- To meditate on the exhaustion of life, think, “From last year until now, one year has passed, and by that amount my life has become shorter. From last month to this, one month has passed, and my life is that much shorter. From yesterday to today is one day, and by this much my life is shorter. The moment that just passed right now is the passing of one moment. By that measure, my life is shorter.” Contemplate this.
- To meditate on separation, think, “Right now whatever I have—my relatives and wealth, this body and so forth that I cherish so much—none of this can accompany me forever. One day soon I will have to separate from them.” Contemplate this.
And now we’ve come to the end of the first meditation session, so let’s dedicate the merit. Think, “Because of the merit that I’ve created by doing this meditation with the aim of reaching enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, may all the kind mother sentient beings quickly reach enlightenment.”
Thank you very much.
60 Tibetan Dhammapada: Sayings of the Buddha, pp. 37-40.
61 Jewel Ornament of Liberation, pp. 85-6.