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Facing Death Without Fear
Lily De Silva
In: "One Foot in the World - Buddhist Approaches to Present-day Problems", Wheel Publication No. 337/338, Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka, 1986.
Death is the only certain thing in life. It is also the thing for which we are least prepared. We plan and prepare for various other things -- examinations, weddings, business transactions, building houses -- but we can never be certain whether our plans will materialize according to our wish. Death, on the other hand, can come any minute, sooner or later; it is the most certain event in life. Just as the mushroom raises itself from the ground carrying a bit of earth on its hood, so every living being brings with himself the certainty of death from the moment of his birth.
The Anguttara Nikaya (IV, 136) illustrates the uncertainty and the evanescent nature of life with the help of a few evocative similes. Life is compared to a dew drop at the tip of a blade of grass: it can drop off any moment and even if it does not fall off, it evaporates as soon as the sun comes up. Life is also as fleeting as a bubble of water formed by the falling rain or a line drawn on the water. The text points out that life rushes towards death incessantly like a mountain stream rushing down without stopping. The Dhammapada compares the fragility of the body to foam (v 46) and to a clay water pot (v 40). Thus with various similes the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death are emphasized over and over again in the Buddhist texts.
It is accepted as a general truth that everybody fears death (sabbe bhayanti maccuno -- Dh 129). We fear death because we crave for life with all our might. It is also a fact that we fear the unknown. We know least about death, therefore we fear death for a duality of reasons. It seems reasonable to conjecture that the fear of death, or the fear of harm to life, lurks at the root of all fear. Therefore each time we become frightened we either run away from the source of fear or fight against it, thus making every effort to preserve life. But we can do so only so long as our body is capable of either fighting or running away from danger. But when at last we are on the deathbed face to face with approaching death, and the body is no longer strong enough for any protest, it is very unlikely that we will accept death with a mental attitude of resignation. We will mentally try hard to survive. As our yearning for life (tanha) is so strong, we will mentally grasp (upadana) another viable place, as our body can no longer support life. Once such a place, for example the fertilized ovum in a mother's womb, has been grasped, the psychological process of life (bhava) will continue with the newly found place as its basis. Birth (jati) will take place in due course. This seems to be the process that is explained in the chain of causation as: craving conditions grasping, grasping conditions becoming or the process of growth, which in turn conditions birth. Thus the average man who fears death will necessarily take another birth as his ardent desire is to survive.
Let us probe a little further into the process of death, going from the known to the unknown. We know that in normal life, when we are awake, sense data keep on impinging on our sense faculties. We are kept busy attending to these sense data, rejecting some, selecting some for greater attention, and getting obsessed with still other things. This is an ongoing process so long as we are awake. In the modern age man is reaching out and seeking more and more sense stimulation. The popularity of the portable radio with or without earphones, chewing gum, cosmetics and television is a clear indication of the present trend for more and more sense stimulation. By all this we have become alienated from ourselves; we do not know our own real nature, or the real nature of our mind to be more precise. Moreover, we go about our business in social life wearing masks appropriate for each occasion. We often do not show our true feelings of jealousy, greed, hatred, pride, or selfishness. We hide them in socially accepted ways of formalized verbal expressions such as congratulations, thank you, deepest sympathies. But there are times when our negative emotions are so acute that they come into the open in the form of killing, stealing, quarreling, backbiting, and so forth. But generally we try to keep these venomous snakes of negative emotions inhibited.
Now let us see what happens at the moment of death. We believe that death is a process and not just a sudden instantaneous event. When the senses lose their vitality one by one and they stop providing stimulation, the inhibitions too fall away. The masks we have been wearing in our various roles get cast off. We are at last face to face with ourselves in all our nakedness. At that moment if what we see are the venomous snakes of negative emotions of hatred, jealousy, etc., we would be laden with guilt, remorse and grief. It is very likely that our memories too will become quite sharp, as all the sensory disturbances and inhibitions which kept them suppressed have fallen off. We may remember our own actions committed and omitted during our lifetime with unpretentious clarity. If they are morally unwholesome we would be guilty and grief stricken (S. V. 386), but if they are morally wholesome we would be contented and happy. The Abhidhammattha Sangaha speaks of the presentation of kamma or kammanimitta at the mind door on the advent of death. This seems to be the revival in memory of an actual action or action veiled in symbols at the onset of death. It is said that rebirth will be determined by the quality of thoughts that surface in this manner.
Death is as natural an event as nightfall; it is but one of the manifestations of the law of impermanence. Though we dislike it immensely we have to orient ourselves to accept its inevitability, as there is no escape therefrom. The Buddhist texts advocate the cultivation of the mindfulness of death often so that we are not taken unawares when the event does take place. To face death peacefully one has to learn the art of living peacefully with one's own self as well as with those around. One method of doing so is to remember the inevitability of death, which will deter one from unwholesome behavior. The practice of meditation is the best technique which will enable one to live peacefully with oneself and others.
The practice of loving-kindness (mettabhavana) is an effective method of meditation. One of its special advantages is the ability to face death undeluded (asammulho kalam karoti).
In one sutta (A. III, 293) the Buddha explains how to prepare for a peaceful death. One has to organize one's life and cultivate an appropriate attitude for this purpose. The instructions given there are as follows:
(1) One should not be fond of a busy life involved in various
Another sutta (A. I, 57-8) explains that if one avoids unwholesome wicked activities through body, speech and mind, one need not fear death. The Maha-parinibbana Sutta (D. II, 85-6) categorically states that those who are evil in character face death with delusion while the virtuous face death free from delusion. Thus if one leads a simple virtuous life one need not fear death.
Once Mahanama Sakka (S. V. 369) disclosed to the Buddha that he was worried where he would be reborn if he were to meet with a violent death in a road accident. The Buddha explained that those who have cultivated the qualities of faith, virtue, learning, generosity and wisdom for a long time need not entertain such fears. To illustrate the position further the Buddha employs a simile. If a pot of oil or ghee is broken in deep water the potsherds will sink to the riverbed and the oil or ghee will rise to the surface of the water. Similarly in such a tragic situation the body would be discarded and may be devoured by vultures and jackals, but the mind will rise and progress upwards.
The account of the illness of Nakula's father (A. III, 295) is another interesting episode regarding the Buddhist attitude to death. Once Nakula's father was seriously ill and his wife noticed that he was fretful and anxious. She advised him that death with anxiety is painful and is denounced by the Buddha. Therefore he must compose himself. Comforting him, she said that he might be worried about the family income and the task of bringing up the children after his death. She assured him that she was capable of spinning and weaving and thus she could provide for the family and bring up the children. He may be anxious that she would remarry after his death. She said that he knows just as well as she that she has never been unfaithful to him ever since they were married at the age of sixteen, and she pledged that she would remain loyal to him even after his death. Perhaps he may worry about her spiritual development and she assured him that she would continue to be earnest in her spiritual welfare. Therefore he must face death, if need there be, with no anxiety. Such was her advice to her husband who was fatally ill. It is said that he regained self- composure and thereby good health too. The matter was later reported to the Buddha, who commended Nakula's mother for her wisdom and composure.
The suttas also discuss the advantages of the regular contemplation of death (A. IV, 46-48; S. V, 344,408). The mind gets divested from the love of life, and being intoxicated with the zest of life, men commit various atrocities. That can be prevented by the habit of practicing mindfulness of death. If we only remember that we have not come to this world to stay forever, we would take care to lead much better lives. If, when we take stock, we find wicked negative emotions such as lust, hatred and jealousy in us, we should immediately take steps to eradicate them as we would try to put out the flames if our head were to catch fire (A. IV, 320).
Thus the Buddhist texts tirelessly reiterate the positive benefits of the regular contemplation of the inevitability of death. It helps one to lead a more wholesome life and also to face death, the one and only certain event in life, with calm composure and fearless confidence.
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last updated: 19-01-2005