This article is part of Trike Daily’s Sutta Study series, led by Insight meditation teacher Peter Doobinin. The suttas are found in the Pali Canon, which contains some of the earliest Buddhist teachings. Rather than philosophical tracts, the suttas are a map for dharma practice. In this series, we’ll focus on the practical application of the teachings in our day-to-day lives.
In the Abhaya Sutta (Fearless Sutta), the Buddha explains how we transcend the fear of death. When we fear death, we’re likely to suffer in this human life. On the other hand, when we’re able to move beyond the fear of death, we’re greatly served in our efforts to know happiness in life.
At the sutta’s outset, the Buddha is visited by a brahman by the name of Janussoni. Janussoni tells the Buddha that it’s his opinion that everybody is afraid of death. The Buddha disagrees. Some people are, indeed, afraid of death, the Buddha says. Others, he says, are not.
The Buddha describes four types of people who will, invariably, be afflicted by the fear of death. First is the person “who has not abandoned passion, desire, fondness, thirst, fever, & craving for sensuality.” When the Buddha speaks about sensuality, he’s referring to the composite of actions, thinking, narratives, and self-identification that is involved in grasping after the pleasures of the world. When we spend our lives seeking sense pleasure—food, sex, entertainment, the instant gratification that technology offers—then we’re bound to grow fearful as we approach death, realizing that we’ll no longer be able to indulge in these worldly affairs.
Second, the person “who has not abandoned passion, desire, fondness, thirst, fever, & craving for the body” will fear death. The attachment to the body is something that most of us suffer to a rather large extent. We’re dependent on the body—how it feels, how it functions, what it looks like—for our happiness. We identify with the body; we believe that the body is “ours” to own or that it is who we are. So when death approaches, those of us who cling to the body are apt to experience the terror of losing it.
The third person who fears death “has not done what is good, has not done what is skillful, has not given protection to those in fear, and instead has done what is evil, savage, & cruel.” The Buddha calls actions unskillful when they cause harm to others and ourselves. Unskillful actions are imbued with desire and aversion and bring about suffering. So the person who hasn’t acted skillfully becomes fearful as he considers the unpleasant “destination” he’ll go to after he dies. We also may be stricken with remorse or fear that we haven’t made the most of our human life. We may become anxious about leaving behind an unfortunate legacy.
Lastly, the Buddha speaks about the person “in doubt & perplexity, who has not arrived at certainty with regard to the True Dhamma.” Having failed to practice the dharma and discern the truths of the Buddha’s path, this person is likely to experience the fear of death in the face of the unknown.
In the next part of the sutta, the Buddha describes the four kinds of people who do not fear death. First, there’s the person “who has abandoned passion, desire, fondness, thirst, fever, & craving for sensuality.” The dharma student learns to relinquish her “craving for sensuality” by seeing the drawbacks in her craving, seeing that looking for happiness in sense pleasure brings about suffering. She learns to see that all the pleasures of the world—the lovely sunsets, the ice cream, the images on the computer screen, the streaming movies—are decidedly impermanent. When we see their inconsequential and ephemeral nature, we lose interest in them. Having developed this wisdom, we’re no longer afraid of losing these pleasurable things.
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Likewise, the second type of fearless person learns to become disenchanted with the body. The dharma student investigates the body and comes to understand that it is impermanent, or inconstant. She realizes that she does not own the body and that it is, in large part, beyond her control. By conducting an ongoing study of the body, she cultivates this insight, lets go of her attachment to the body and is freed from her fear of losing it.
In laying out the third case, the Buddha suggests that person who has lived a skillful life is not afraid when death approaches. Having refrained from taking harmful actions, the dharma student isn’t afraid of ending up, after death, in an unfavorable “destination.” She doesn’t suffer the remorse and compunction of having lived in an unskillful manner informed by desire and aversion. She knows that, when it’s time to leave this earthly plane, she will have left behind beneficial gifts. Simply put, she has lived well, so when death comes her heart is filled with love, compassion, joy, and peace.
The last case is the person “who has no doubt or perplexity, who has arrived at certainty with regard to the True Dhamma.” When we understand the dharma and comprehend the truth, we’re able to transcend the fear of death. As dharma students develop virtue, concentration, and insight, we come to see that all conditioned experience is impermanent. It’s not-self. It’s not ours. The various sense pleasures, the body, thoughts, and emotions—including fear itself—are conditioned things and are subject to birth and death. Knowing this, truly, in the heart, we no longer attempt to hold on to these facets of human experience because we know they can’t be held onto. And we stop expecting to find true happiness in things that, by their nature, come and go.
Wisdom manifests, ultimately, in understanding that which is not impermanent, an ever-present truth (Thai, akaliko) that doesn’t die because it transcends time and space. This deathless quality is called nibbana (nirvana). The deathless isn’t only an object of faith; the dharma student is asked to know it as the third noble truth, the realization of cessation.
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Mindfulness of death is one of the most important practices we can engage in to know the deathless. As the Buddha says, “Mindfulness of death—when developed & pursued—is of great fruit & great benefit. It gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its final end.” (AN 6.20) At first, we may glimpse moments of the deathless. As Insight teacher Joseph Goldstein says, “small moments, many times.” The Buddha rarely described this experience specifically, but it can be understood as a consciousness that doesn’t land on any objects, a “consciousness without feature.” (DN 11) And when we finally know this truth that transcends death, we can fully abandon our fear, because we know that there is a true unconditional happiness: nibbana—a happiness that doesn’t die.
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