Over the last century or so, death has been becoming increasingly institutionalized and removed from immediate experience. It is no longer a common experience in concrete terms. Where people used to die at home in the past, this is no longer the case, and the usual gathering of relatives and family no longer takes place spontaneously. It is no longer a communal affair, but on the contrary, it is hidden from public view, resulting in less actual contact with death and dying. Perversely, the literature on death and dying has been growing considerably, and people are actually talking about it more and more, while handling the practical fact less and less. The irony of this situation is described by Ray Anderson, a Christian theologian, in his book Theology, Death, and Dying:
There is then a fundamental ambivalence about death for the contemporary person. Death has been pushed out of sight and out of the context of daily life. No longer is death itself a meaningful ritual of family or social life. Yet, there is the emergence of a quite specific awareness of death as an existential concern quite apart from the event of death itself.
Strangely enough, awareness of death in the form of the psychological effects of death as a condition of life has grown in inverse proportion to the silence concerning death itself. Where death was once the unspoken word that accompanied communion with and commitment to the dead as a ritual of public and community life, there was virtually no literature on death and dying.
In contemporary Western society, it is quite the opposite now, with one author stating that he has reviewed over 800 books on death and dying and has more than 2,000 articles on the subject in his files. Overall, there is much more talk about death and dying and far less immediate experience of it, in terms of actually handling those who are dying, or having to witness death. We see a lot of simulated death on television and so on, but as a rule, we have very little immediate contact with it compared with people living in developing countries, or in the past.
For all these reasons—the ever-present fear of death and our lack of contact with it—it is all the more important to have a proper encounter with the facts of death and to deal with the fear of death, because, from the Buddhist point of view, coming to terms with death is part of making our life worthwhile and meaningful. Death and life are not seen as completely separate and opposed, but as giving rise to each other. They coexist in a complementary fashion. For Buddhists, the aim is not to conquer death but to come to accept it and familiarize ourselves with our own sense of mortality and impermanence.
According to Buddhism, we die because we are a product of causes and conditions (pratityasamutpada in Sanksrit). Whatever is caused is impermanent, is subject to decay, to death. Human beings are not exempt, as it is a natural process. Life without death is impossible, and vice versa, and therefore the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice incorporates an acceptance of death and a cultivation of an attitude that does not reject it as something ugly and menacing that steals our life away, and thus something to be pushed aside and ignored. Nor does a Buddhist think of living forever. The Buddhist view is that everything is transient and impermanent, and so death and life are inseparably bound up with each other, at all times in fact, even while we live, as the aging process itself is viewed as a part of the dying process.
There is the famous story of the Buddha’s being approached by a mother carrying her dead baby in her arms. She pleads with the Buddha: “You are an enlightened being; you must have all these extraordinary powers, so I want you to bring my child back to life.” The Buddha says, “All right, I’ll do this for you if you’ll do one thing for me first.” “I’ll do anything,” she replied. He responds, “I want you to go around and knock on all the doors of this town and ask each person who comes to the door whether he or she had anyone die in his or her family, and if he or she says no, then ask him or her to give you a sesame seed.” The woman knocks on every door she can, and returns empty-handed, saying to the Buddha, “I don’t want you to bring back my child now. I understand what you are trying to teach me.” The lesson here is that death is all-pervasive and not something that happens, sometimes, to particular people, but it happens to every one of us. Knowing this can lessen the sting of the fear of death. It is analogous to people sharing some kind of psychological or personal problem. Eventually everyone starts to open up and talk to others with similar problems, realizing essentially that we are all experiencing the same thing. In this way, the problem becomes diffused. The Buddha’s point to the grieving mother, that everybody dies, is compassionate because to think “my child, my child, he has died, I want him back” is to narrow our focus in such a way as to generate an enormous personal problem. It is better to think of all the mothers that have lost children and experienced the same grief, whereby it becomes more encompassing. The problem moves beyond the personal into something much wider.
In terms of karma, it is an interesting question from a Buddhist point of view to ask if our death is in a way predetermined. In some ways, it is feasible to say that there is a preordained time to die, as our karma determines it. When the time to die arrives, we then die. This would be a result of our karma. On the other hand, our death is also dependent on a lot of causes and conditions, so it is not preordained in that sense. So it is predetermined in one sense and not so in another. Following form this, it is quite expected that Buddhists, if unwell, would seek medical attention and remedies, or go to the hospital if necessary. They would not simply acquiesce and say, “Well it must be my karma to die now,” and do nothing about the situation, for the time may very well not have come yet, so to speak: and if they are not careful, because of the causes and conditions set in motion, they might die before they need to. Even so, at times, no matter what we do in order to live, it will become impossible to do so.
People do not fear just eternal pain and suffering in hell, but extinction, not being around, not existing. This thought is very much disturbing in itself for many people, and so the removal of the idea of hell will not alleviate the fear of death itself. We have a fear of death, as do other creatures, but from a Buddhist view, ours is intimately linked to our notion of a self. While meditation or contemplation on death can be very confronting initially, we will be far better off for doing it than not, precisely because the fear of death is always there, underlying everything. The fundamental sense of anxiety is always there, so it is better to bring it to the fore and deal with it than suspend consideration, because it will continue to influence our life, often in a negative way, if ignored. We must remember, too, that this type of practice is done in the context of other Buddhist practices, which are all designed to incorporate and process the full range of negativities in the mind.
It is sometimes thought Tibetans have a different approach to death, having been raised among it perhaps, but the very fact of there being specific spiritual instructions especially designed for the matter indicates that Tibetans are no different. They fear, as we do in the West, not just for themselves, but they also fear leaving their children and loved ones behind, and they too wish not to grow old and die, or to die young, for that matter. Fear of death is all-pervasive and acultural. Everybody experiences it, but an important difference in the Buddhist tradition is the emphasis on working with that fear. Therefore Tibetans, if they choose to, have access to traditions and practices of this nature. Monks for instance, would go to charnel grounds, or graveyards, to practice and contemplate impermanence, which might seem a bit excessive to us. In Tibet the charnel grounds use to be in the wilderness, so they were a very eerie place to practice, especially on one’s own, and it was guaranteed to throw up all kinds of fears. Thighbone trumpets and other implements used on these occasions have horrified some Westerners, who have described these rituals as shamanistic, incorporating elements of black magic and so on. However, for Tibetans, living in primitive physical conditions, these bones had no magical qualities, but were merely reminders of impermanence, of transience. It would help them deal with their fear of death, and the fear of the dead as well.
There are Buddhist traditions, of course, like Zen, that do not have such elaborate rituals as are found in Tibetan Buddhism that involve mantras, visualizations, and so forth, and focus more on being immediately present with what is happening now, avoiding all mental constructions of what might take place, as the best form of preparation for the future, including the eventuality of death. The end result is the same. Both methods lead to greater acceptance of the event, and the ultimate aim is the same, which is to increase awareness and develop insight. In addition, of course, the Buddhist view is that life and death are inextricably bound to each other, moment to moment. The death of the past is happening right now, and we can never really see what is going to happen in the future. When one moment passes, that is death, and when another arises, that is life, or rebirth, we might say. Therefore, living in the present with awareness, links in a fundamental way with appreciating impermanence.
It does not matter how elaborate certain teachings or meditation techniques are, the fundamental aim is still to deal with immediate experience, here and now. It has nothing much to do with what might or might not happen in the future, or attaining some wonderful mystical experience in the future, because, as the masters have continuously emphasized, as important as the attainment of enlightenment is, it has to be arrived at through being in the here and now, dealing with present circumstances, not through indulging in speculation about what enlightenment might be. None of this is to say that we have to be practicing Buddhists to die in a peaceful manner. Ultimately one cannot tell, judging by people’s personalities, who will die peacefully. Some Christians die very peacefully, whereas others struggle; some Buddhists die peacefully, and some kicking and screaming, as they say, and some atheists die peacefully, and so on. A very mild-mannered person can become quite aggressive and obnoxious at the time of death, refusing to accept it, and others, normally obnoxious characters, turn out to be very accepting and amiable. We can never really say with certainty how anyone will react to death, but we can say that certain meditations, including those on death, will definitely help a person come to accept it more readily, although we can never be absolutely sure, and the moment may produce panic even in a dedicated practitioner. But if we know what’s going on, it is likely to be far less confrontational.
This brings us to the critical factor of seeing meditation, reading, and contemplation as conjoined. We should not be satisfied to just think about impermanence and death; we have to have the real experience, which comes from meditation. To read about Buddhism’s approach to death is important, but it needs to become an existential concern and to be translated into something approximating a real intuition or a real encounter with death. Following such a path will prevent our knowledge from evaporating in the actual experience itself. From a Buddhist point of view, so much depends upon our habits, and so thinking about death in a certain way helps us to get used to it, to become habituated to it. Therefore a real transformation has to take place on an emotional and intellectual level. Most of us have a fair degree of intellectual understanding of the facts, but that is really not the main point. A sense of impermanence has to be felt and experienced. If we understand it truly, we will handle all our tribulations far better, such as when our relationships break up, when we get divorced, when we get separated from our loved ones, when relatives die. We will handle all of these situations far differently with a truer appreciation of impermanence than we would otherwise have.
Knowing in an abstract sense that everybody dies or that everything is impermanent is different from experiencing impermanence, coming face to face with in everyday life. If we have felt impermanence, then tragedies are easier to deal with because we fully grasp that all is impermanent and transient and nothing lasts forever. As the Buddha said, we come in contact with people and things that we wish not to come in contact with, and we get separated from people and things that we wish to stay among, and that is how things are, in reality. Similarly, when death occurs, it may still be a very fearful experience, but we may be able to maintain that sense of awareness. Fear may still be present, but maintaing a sense of equilibrium is very important. Buddhist meditators may get separated from their partner and experience great stress and grief, but they may not yield to that grief so completely that it overwhelms them, and this applies with respect to their own death as well.
From Karma by Traleg Kyabgon © 2015. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.