Diana St Ruth
As 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.
Our 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.