This extract is from a talk given at a Buddhist Hospice Trust Seminar in London on 21 February 1987.
I think now there’s a growing realisation that it may be very rewarding for the living to understand death and dying, in order to understand how to live properly. It was, after all, the signs of decrepitude, ageing and death that the Buddha called the heavenly messengers; they jolted him into contemplating the significance and purpose of life as an individual on the planet and they jar against our preconceptions of what our life is about. We can see this topic as being a very important reflection, to help us unify our responses to living and dying. The idea that dying is somehow cut off from the rest of life, is something that people are beginning to realise is one manifestation of the ignorance that is our real problem.
For a Buddhist, the real problem is not death or dying, but ignorance- ignoring, seeing things wrongly, not understanding, forgetting, being heedless. We are ignorant of birth; we’ve only just been included in the act of birth- it tended to be something that was left to specialists, a very special event that only professional people can be in on. Ageing is also something that we tend not to want to know about, that we shun, ignore and cover up. A tremendous amount of our energy goes into either avoiding ageing – or at least trying to forget about it or pretend it’s not happening- and the reality of decrepitude is even more distressing. Therefore,to talk about death in such an open meeting as this is a sign of a great inclination, because even a few years ago it was a bit morbid or sick to be talking about death and dying. These taboos are all manifestations of the root condition of ignorance, of shunning the very processes which we, as mortal beings, are born into and it’s through not understanding the processes of our personality, the processes of our mortal existence,that we create a lot of shame, fear and ignorance.
First of all, let’s consider the problem of ignorance and the dying and death process. It’s important to begin to work through this taboo, this perception we have of death as something dramatic and tragic, as something abnormal. In fact, death is the most normal, mundane thing in the world – people are doing it all the time! So perhaps we should be more concerned about the freak occurrence of being alive, because once you are dead there’s no longer a problem! The main problem is for the living: it is the illusion of life and the fear that gets created about what we consider its end to be.
One thing that the Buddha taught was ’cause and effect’ or kamma-vipaka. Everything you do, of course, has its effects and throughout your life every thought that arises is some how propelled and thrown up out of the stream of consciousness by actions- by habits in the past. Every action we perform tends to come from a pre- existing condition, a pre-existing habit or volition and it tends to create ripples in the stream of consciousness that can then create other actions and repercussions.
So our whole life, if we consider it broadly, is simply a series of causes and effects – a complex process of ripples in the stream of consciousness. Through meditation you can come to realise more fully that what we are is, in fact, not one single thing but the appearance of a multitude of processes involving both body and mind. These processes create causes and effects which interweave and intermesh, creating a net of all these ripples and so we think there must be something in there. But in fact it’s just a net, called the five khandhas. These are: the thinking mind, the feelings, the perceiving mind, consciousness of the senses and the form of the body. They all seem to actually go their own way and at death they start to separate. So,if there is conscious dying, there is the possibility of understanding that there is nobody actually in the net. That five-barred prison does not actually contain any one person, so we may come to realise that it is not ME that dies, it’s not some personal thing that you have to defend and hold on to or feel frightened of losing. If you cut off a fingernail, you are not dead; if you lose an arm, you are not dead; if you cut off your hair, you are not dead.
The more you begin to cultivate meditation in your life, the more you become aware of a quality that is not thought, not feeling, not any kind of sensory consciousness or the body, and this will lead to the realisation that the ending of these things is no longer something to fear.
You begin to realise what birth is about. Birth is the coming together of the khandas and at any moment in the day there is always something dying. Some cells in the body are dying, thoughts are coming to an end, and some aspects of our life [such as being an infant] have gone and will never come back again. Yet,because of rebirth – because there’s always something new arising – one doesn’t feel any sense of loss or dread about it. But from our social conditioning, we are taught to believe in death, that the death of the body is the death of ME and we are not encouraged to investigate it.
Now, anything you don’t understand or really have a look at becomes the unknown and you feel a certain fear of it. It’s the unknown, it’s the not normal and there is a fear which grows up around that. With fear as a cause,the effect is more ignorance. So there’s this whole tendency in our life to shift away from the unknown- from what we can’t understand- rather than to actually welcome it as a release from our limitations. The Buddha would often recommend that people contemplate and consider their own death each and every day. He would encourage them to reflect upon words such as: ‘It is natural to die and I will die one day’. To explore this reflection deeply is to recognise how best to develop your life. He also encouraged people to go right up to death, to observe corpses and to contemplate them. This is still very much a living tradition in Buddhist countries.
Our whole world is really what we think, see and perceive and the feeling of separation from what is known leaves our human emotions very unsteady. In such a state of uncertainty- which is really ignorance- we become unbalanced, confused or embarrassed, so it’s important to see that our attitude towards death is just one example of the way we experience our lives. We tend to shy away from what we are unable to grasp, hold on to or control and this creates more fear and dread. So one of the most helpful things we can do is to normalise death. When we take death as a good teacher, as a good friend, as something we can learn from, then there is a natural inclination for people to be with the dying. (This is as natural and healthy as the simple act of trying to be of help to others, of wanting to look after people; these two have to go together.)
I have had some limited experience with dying people. At one time there was a nun who was dying in our monastery. We found a great deal of joy and energy arising out of the possibility of serving this person and learning from her. When we’re with the dying we tend to become less petty, death takes away some of the silly dribble and we look back on life in a more fulsome way. We begin to see what is constant. When we put aside the arguments,the grudges,the ‘you said this and she said that’ dialogues, we start to reflect on the constant theme of our life. What is there that we can say we are or have been? This is where the teachings of kamma really come into play because if you have lived your life very skilfully then you are able to abide in that good result.
This person has lived very skilfully in her life, so there was a joyousness about her dying because there was no grasping in it. In fact, it was quite fun. One imagines that dying must always be a very serious thing but hers was actually quite amusing! She was giving us accounts of every process she was going through then,from time to time, she would go into a state when everybody would be leaning forward saying, “Yes, this is it,this is it, she’s going”. She’d say,”I’m going, goodbye. It’s been very good.” Just when you thought she had gone she would sit up and say, “Oh, has anyone got anything to drink?”! Then we would all get back into normality again.
She was going through these cycles and her hold on the khandhas – the personality elements- was loosening. She would start to dissolve and go so far but then you would witness her coming back and watch the rebirth into the personality again. With that rebirth she would be bright and would sometimes sit up. She had a big jar of sweets and she would hand them round and everybody enjoyed eating them. Then she would start to talk about meditation and it was good fun. The whole experience was like somebody’s life encapsulated rather than a discrete experience of dying that engendered fear and solemnity: it was just part of the living process.
We waited for some great last words and every time we thought she would go she would come out with something quite poetic. But actually,the last thing she said was,”I’m sweating”- a very mundane thing. When her moment of death finally came, the drama had cooled down and everyone present just sat peacefully and let it all happen. The continual restless feeling of wanting things to hold on to faded away and there was a trust in death. When one can trust death then, of course, one’s trust in life becomes much deeper. What it comes down to is the fact that so much of life is motivated by fear: fear of being blamed, fear of not fitting in, fear of being mocked, and so on. When you analyse it, the final image of our fear is the fear of death itself.
When you’ve made peace with that then everything else is really OK.
Although death is all around us we don’t recognise the possibility of imminent death. So this state of ignorance keeps us in an un- alert state, with a dullness that makes our life very close to being half-dead. In that half-dead, half-sleep state, we allow ourselves to live in fear and shame and defensiveness when we need not do so. If you learn to contemplate your own death,to be with those who are dying and with your own dying – as it’s happening, you begin to see the possibility of living very clearly and skilfully. Then death will not touch you, death will not harm you, and death will not reach you. The body will go and the bodies of others will go but there will be no sorrow. There will simply be understanding.
Being with the dying is more than just the expression of one’s compassion: it is the manifestation of a wish to learn for the benefit of one’s own liberation. I found that being with death and dying, contemplating it as it happens to others and to myself, has been a very rewarding reflection of this existence.