This article was adapted from a talk given by Trungram Gyalwa Rinpoche in June 2018 at the Dharmakaya Center for Wellbeing in Pine Bush, New York.
Kisa Gotami was a young woman living during the time of the historical Buddha. One day, her only child died, and she suffered the pain of this loss to the point that she started to hurt herself. So someone suggested that she go see the Buddha. With great hope and expectation, she asked Buddha if he could bring her child back. Buddha didn’t say yes or no. He said, “Before I can help, you have to find some white mustard seeds from a family who has never had a family member die and bring those mustard seeds to me.” Kisa Gotami was very happy. She went from house to house, town to town, and asked all the families, “Has anyone died in your family?” And every family said, “Yes, somebody died.” So Kisa Gotami went back to the Buddha and told him that she couldn’t find what he had asked for. At that moment, in front of the Buddha, she realized that death is a truth of life—and she became awakened; she became an arhat, a person who has seen the truth.
Death is unavoidable, because the cause of death is not illness or an accident. The cause of death is birth. We usually think that, for example, cancer causes death. But that is just the condition that helps ripen the end result of birth: death.
Death is a subject that many people—especially in the West, but in the East as well—try to avoid. Everyone considers death to be a negative. It’s not something we want, so we don’t want to be reminded of it. But that avoidance doesn’t help. It actually hurts us when we are not prepared to die—not only at the moment of death but also now, when we are not dying. If we do not keep in mind the truth of death, our quality of life becomes worse.
We know one of the truths of death is that it’s unavoidable. But we always think, “Yes, it’s unavoidable, but I have some time, because I am healthy or I’m not that old.” Those are the defenses that we always use, but they are like blinders. In fact, age and illness have nothing to do with death. There’s a saying that in the time it takes for one very sick person to die, many healthy people die.
We should understand that life is finite. There’s a beginning, and there’s an end. There’s no addition to it. Rather our lives are getting shorter every moment—not by years, but by seconds. And it doesn’t matter if we’re aware of that or not; it is still reducing. Every second, every breath. Even when we’re sleeping. Even when we’re doing good things.
In general, the Buddhist teachings related to death say that we have to be active. We should not be passive about death. We should not just procrastinate or assume that we have time. That will not help. It’s unavoidable, so bring it in front of us and think about it. Doing so can improve our life.
Some were rich, some were poor, and others were great masters, but it’s all the same. They all died.
Even without death, we have lots of suffering. On a daily basis, we are hurt by other people. We have fears of losing something. We have fears of not getting things that we want. We fight with other people over these things.
When we do that, there is a basic assumption in our mind that we are living for a long time. That’s why these things seem important. In turn, we create more tension, which brings more suffering, and we lose inner peace.
But if we can think about the truth of impermanence—of death and the uncertainty of the time of death—then everything else in life becomes secondary. The feeling comes naturally and suddenly. If we can consider the truth of death while we’re going through all these negative emotions, we can realize that they are not that important. Because no matter how much we fight to get and to keep something, we will still lose it.
This truth changes our perspective and makes us much happier. It helps us appreciate the life we have right now—moment by moment. It helps us understand that every day is a bonus.
Meditation on Impermanence
The most common death-related practice in Buddhism is a meditation on impermanence. The “Stages of the Path,” “Four Types of Turning Minds Toward Spirituality,” and Gampopa’s (1079–1153) “Four Dharmas” all contain meditations on impermanence. That’s the foundation.
But just the thought of impermanence—let alone a meditation—is the catalyst of the spiritual journey. Look at Buddha and his life story. He started his spiritual journey only after he saw a sick person. Without some understanding of impermanence, there’s no way to have genuine spiritual progress.
Sometimes I look at pictures that I took many years ago, and I consider how many of the people in them have died already. Some were rich, some were poor, and others were great masters, but it’s all the same. They all died. You can look at history books and know this fact. Or you can imagine a hundred years from now and ask, “Who of us will be living?” Probably no one. These are contemplations that can trigger the thought of impermanence.
There are different methods for meditating on impermanence. One way is to work through the “Jewel Ornament of Liberation” by Gampopa. Read one sentence of this teaching, internalize it, and spend some time meditating on it.
Or you can incorporate impermanence into a meditation on the breath. Every time you breathe in, each time you breathe out, life is shortened. You may experience a scary feeling, but if you do, that means that you are understanding impermanence. You can also think about how your own life changes from infant to child to adult. That’s impermanence. With each change your life grows shorter. That reduction of your life at each moment is quite a powerful meditation on impermanence. Now you know this big chunk of time is not one time. It’s changing. It’s not staying in one location or in one state.
Impermanence should end up being a feeling, not just an intellectual understanding. There’s a famous story among Tibetans that there was a meditator in a cave. Every time he needed to get water, he had to go through a very narrow path where there were thorny plants that caught on his clothes. He wanted to cut the plants, but each time, he thought, “Let me first meditate.” That’s because he didn’t know if he would have enough time to become enlightened. So he never ended up cutting the plants, but he did see the truth of his mind.
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