Our culture doesn’t encourage too much contemplation on birth and death

Diana St Ruth

Lisa Daix mustang 2011As we get older we inevitably find that more of our friends, family members and acquaintances are dying. It is sad to think we won’t see them again, and we may grieve our loss. A close death, however, can also put our lives into per­spective, bring us back to a place of con­templation. If we contemplate our lives, birth and death — which we tend to do as Buddhists — we realise that the end of this life could come at any time — any week, any day, even before the next breath! This way of thinking could bring on a state of melancholy, fear and panic, or it could lead us into reflecting on the three character­istics of existence — imper­manence, not-self, and suffering or unsatis­factoriness.

Our culture doesn’t encourage too much of this kind of deep con­templation on birth and death. Birth is okay — we made it into the world — but death is often regarded as a failing, an evil, something to be avoided, something unnatural. The Buddha, on the other hand, thought it was good to contemplate birth and death because he said it was all a delusion, at the same time emphatically denying he was a nihilist. He said he wasn’t a nihilist (someone who thinks we slip into a black hole of utter nothing­ness at the death of this body) and he wasn’t an eternalist (someone who thinks we live forever albeit in different forms). The Buddha taught that we don’t live forever because birth is a delusion, and we don’t die because likewise birth is a delusion, we were never born, so how can we die. He saw the body and conditioned mind as something in constant flux with no solid self or anything solid anywhere. The realisation that followed for the Buddha, his enlighten­ment, was of the unborn and the undying.

The Buddha became conscious of birth­less­ness and death­less­ness through the acceptance of impermanence and no-self. The complete experience of impermanence — flux and change — is a mind-blowing truth which will bring us to see that the body and mind are no more ‘us’ than the clouds in the sky or the carpet on the floor. And if we do get caught up into believing those things — and most of us do — then we are inclined to suffer, because life doesn’t often suit us. Being a self is a very firm idea, a conviction, but not a reality that we can ever confirm. It’s all in the mind. Death too, said the Buddha, is a delusion. Birth of ‘me’ is a delusion and death of ‘me’ is a delusion; only flux is experienced, a changing kaleido­scope of hopes, fears, memories and impressions. Facing death is facing all the impressions we have about ourselves and letting those impressions go. If we can do that, then we will not be bogged down in concepts. Life flows. We see and know impermanence as a constant. And that is liberating. All the mental suffering about what is going to happen to us, about being this or that person who will eventually disappear, about becoming ‘nothing’, is dissipated and this moment becomes a vast timeless­ness. The Buddha called it ‘birth­less­ness’ and ‘death­less­ness’, freedom from birth and death.

Ch’an Master Fen-chou Wu-yeh (761-823) said to his disciples:

‘This very nature of yours that does see, hear, feel, and know, is the same age as empty space which is neither born nor perishable. All objects are fundamentally empty and quiescent; there is not a single thing that can be obtained. The ignorant lack realisation, and are thereby deluded by objects, transmigrating in samsara without an end. You should know that the nature of your mind is intrinsically present; it is not something produced. It is like a diamond which is indestructible. All things are like shadows and echoes, devoid of any reality. That is why the sutra says, “It is only this one that is true; the others are not real.” You should always live in the realisation that everything is empty, that there is nothing one needs to ponder about. You should diligently cultivate this.’

pp. 126-127 Sun Face Buddha, Cheng Chien Bhikkshu.

Mustang 2011. Photo © Lisa DaixOur friends and relatives die and it can leave us feeling hollow and sad. At the same time it might awaken within us a wish to contemplate life from a broader perspective. Meditating on death is not a morbid thing if it’s real reflection, if it’s a genuine questioning of what we know of death and what we mean by that word. Otherwise, we may not be meditating but being dragged into a vortex of thoughts and fears. If we become aware of life as it is — a sea of change — it will be a liberating experience of deathlessness. This may be but a momentary experience, but a very real one. And then . . . we may become sad again and slip back into the confusion of thought. But that, too, is impermanent.

Click here to read more articles by Diana St Ruth

First published in the February 2005 Buddhism Now.

For a little more on the subject read
On Losing Someone You Love, by John Aske.

Categories: Beginners, Buddhism, Diana St Ruth, Karma & Rebirth

Tags: , , , ,

6 replies

  1. My turning 70 and the death of my mother, gave me much cause to reflect. Impermanence is in my face.

  2. The article compels introspection. In fact , the realisation of impermanence liberates us from false consciousness regarding our birth and death.

  3. Buddha never said birth and death are delusions. This is distortion of Buddha Words and can lead to wrong view. This cycle of birth and death is called Paticchasamutpada Or dependant coarising. With ignorance as a cause, formations arise, with formations consciousness, with consciousness name and form, sense bases arise, with sense bases, contact with the object of senses, contact leads to feelings which leads to cravings which leads to clinging which leads to becoming, leads to birth, death and the whole mass of suffering.

    • As you say Saddha, dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) arises because of ignorance. Realising this is liberation. Described as unborn, unbecome, birthless, deathless, emptiness, cessation of dukkha, nirvana.

      Birth and death are delusions based on ignorance, caused by grasping the idea of self.

      Good luck with your practice.


  4. A nice post Diana. Thank you. Now that I am in my 60s death’s shadow has become shorter so I’m thinking about what I would like read at my funeral. At first, I was thinking of something Buddhist but then I came across this by Richard Dawkins which suits my mood perfectly…

    “We are all going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. WE know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupifying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

    Unweaving the Rainbow – Richard Dawkins (1998)

    It may be karma that we are here or it may be luck. Either way it feels good to be alive. Once again, thanks for a thoughtful post.


    • Along with Diana’s post , your reply with reference to Richard Dawkins is also truly liberating . I am an admirer of Richard Dawkins the way he explains evolution in an understandable manner to rational , sentient beings . I agree – the very fact that we are here is a tremendous stroke of luck in evolutionary ladder . This existence needs to be celebrated for whatever it is if we can liberate our thought from the clutches of existential impermanence and not self .


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