Loving & Dying

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Bhikkhu Visuddhacara

Published for free distribution by
Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Centre
355 Jalan Mesjid Negeri
11600 Penang, Malaysia



Monks: a monk should meet his end mindful and clearly comprehending. That is our instruction to you.


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All of us have to die one day. Our death should be serene and peaceful. Therefore when someone is about to die we should make it as serene and beautiful for him or her as possible. Yes, are you surprised that death can be beautiful? If you are, it is because we normally have dosa or aversion towards death. There is fear of pain and the uncertainty of what is to come after death. Then there is attachment to our loved ones which gives rise to much pain in our heart in having to part with them.

We should however realize that our wrong understanding and attitude is the cause of our suffering. We have not understood the Dhamma deeply enough. We have not understood and penetrated the nature of mind and body as impermanence, suffering and no-self. We have not learned how to let go gracefully, how to submit to the inevitable.

When the Buddha's stepmother Maha Pajapati Gotami was about to die at the ripe old age of 120, Ananda and the nuns cried. Maha Pajapati Gotami gently reproached them: "But why should you cry, my son and daughters. Don't you see this body of mine has become old and decrepit? It is like a haunt of snakes, a seat of diseases, a resort of old age and death, a house of suffering. Weary have I grown with this corpse of a body. It has been nothing but a great burden to me. Long have I aspired for the liberation of Nibbana. And today my wish is about to be realized. Truly my death is a happy thing. It is the time for me to beat the drum of satisfaction and joy. Why then should you cry?"

The Buddha, as he was dying amidst natural surroundings under two sal trees in the forest, also told Ananda not to cry at his death. He said one must with wisdom and equanimity accept the fact that death and separation from all that we love is inevitable. The Buddha reminded that we must practise mindfulness meditation to attain the wisdom that can enable us to face death with serenity. He told the monks: "Thus must you train yourselves: We must meet our death mindful and composed." And the Buddha's last words were: "All conditioned things are subject to dissolution. You should strive on with diligence."

People who have lived beautiful lives can die beautifully. The other day I came across a very touching In Memoriam in the newspaper: "As she breathed her last and entered into eternal life, her face lit up and her lips broke into a lovely smile. Sister F., on seeing this, exclaimed: "Look, she's seeing God..." It so happened I know this lady, a Christian, who had died such a beautiful death. She had a very gentle and kind nature and was always concerned for the welfare of others. I was told that as a school teacher she used to seek out the especially weak students and gave them special coaching and encouragement. She was deeply loved and cherished by her family and by all those whose lives had been touched by hers. I am told that she had always been such a gentle and loving person to everybody that verily her life was just like that of a saint.

Having lived such a beautiful life, it is no wonder that she died a beautiful death. Our religions may vary but as the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, puts it: "Compassion is the essence of all religions." It is my firm belief that if we have lived a good life, then when we die we will die a beautiful death whether we are Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims or of whatever views or beliefs. As the Buddha says, it is deeds that maketh a person. In this context I used to tell Buddhists that it is better to be a good Christian or good Muslim than to be a bad Buddhist. Thus, good Christians when they die may see their God or the light. Buddhists too may see mental images of the Buddha, arahants, devas or heavenly realms and radiant light.

Jack Kornfield, the American Vipassana meditation teacher, once related in the Inquiring Mind journal how he visited Howard Nudleman, a very kind surgeon and meditator a day before the latter died of cancer. He recollected how walking into Howard's room was like walking into a temple. And when he looked at Howard, Howard gave him a smile, a smile of such incredible sweetness, that he (Kornfield) would never be able to forget it for the rest of his life.

Yes, I am sure touching stories about beautiful deaths of beautiful people abound. Therefore, death too can be a beautiful experience. When we have lived a good life and this body has become frail and broken down, we can face death gracefully, knowing that we have lived a good life and that it is time for us to move on.

So when a loved one is about to die, we should understand and allow him (or her) to go peacefully. We should make it as serene and beautiful for him as possible. Obviously, we shouldn't be crying or wailing. That would only make it more difficult for the dying person. Of course if he is an understanding Buddhist and there is still strength in him to speak, he might, just like the Buddha, gently chide you: "But my dear why should you cry? Has not the Buddha taught us in many a way that separation is inevitable in life? How can it be that what is subject to dissolution should not dissolve? That is not possible. Therefore we should contemplate deeply on the Dhamma. This body, my dear, is not ours. This mind too is not ours. They arise and pass away according to conditions. We must practise mindfulness deeply to see this, so that, clinging no more, we can be liberated from birth and death. My dear, be strong. Even as I take my leave of you I will like to remind you of the Buddha's last words to us all: "All conditioned phenomena are subject to dissolution. Therefore, I exhort you, strive on with diligence."

Yes, all Buddhists should remember that the Buddha's last reminder to us was to strive on untiringly to attain the wisdom that can liberate us from birth and death. A meditator should meditate to the very end. He can observe his in-breath or out-breath or the rising and falling of the abdomen as he breathes in and out. If he experiences any difficulties he can be aware of them, noting them as they are, without any fear or anxiety, but with calmness and steadiness of mind. He can observe painful sensations and bear them even if they are intense. He can remind himself that they are merely sensations, albeit difficult ones. He can see too that they are impermanent, that they continually arise and pass away. He can understand and not cling or be attached to the body. He knows that both the body and mind arise and pass away according to conditions. He can reflect: "This mind and body are not mine. They have never belonged to me. They arise because of conditions and, according to conditions, they will pass away. Accordingly, this eye is not mine, this ear is not mine, this nose is not mine.....This body is made up of the four elements of earth, fire, water and air which represent the qualities of matter, the qualities of hardness, softness, pressure, tension, heat, cold and so on. As long as there is kammic energy to sustain my lifespan for this life, this body will survive. When the kammic energy for this life expires, then this body dies, and a new mind conditioned by the old mind at the moment of death, arises in a new body. If I had attained arahatship, there is no need for anymore rebirth. If I have not but have, nevertheless, lived a good life, I am not afraid of a new rebirth. I can take on a new existence as a well-endowed and intelligent human or a heavenly being and from there continue my path of development until I attain the ultimate Nibbana, the end of birth and death." Reflecting in this way, a meditator can become very calm and steady. He can become very peaceful. He can even smile at his pain and at the people that may be gathered around him. With his mind being so peaceful, painful bodily sensations too can cease. He can die in serenity and peace, gently breathing his last.

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Tears of joy

When Anathapindika, the philanthropist and great benefactor of the Sangha, was dying, Sariputta, the Buddha's chief disciple, preached a discourse on non-attachment to him. Sariputta reminded Anathapindika that life was merely a process dependent on conditions, and that in this transient mind and body there is nothing which is worth clinging to. Sariputta went through a whole list of what life constitutes, showing that they are all ephemeral conditions which cannot be clung to. Therefore Anathapindika should not grasp after visual forms and the eye, sound and the ear, scent and the nose, taste and the tongue, touch and the body, and the consciousness that is dependent on all of these. Anathapindika should not grasp after seeing consciousness, hearing consciousness, smelling consciousness, tasting consciousness, touching consciousness and thinking consciousness. He should understand their impermanent nature and observe their arising and passing away, without clinging to or being averse to them.

Similarly Anathapindika should not grasp after the contact dependent on eye and form, ear and sound and so on. He should not grasp after the feeling, whether pleasant or unpleasant, that arose dependent on the contact. He was to treat them all with equanimity, understanding their true nature of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and no-self. The body is made up of the four elements of extension, oscillation, cohesion and temperature. The mind is made of feeling, perception, mental activities and consciousness. They are all impermanent and changing all the time. Anathapindika, Sariputta exhorted, should not be attached to any of these. There is nothing in the world which can be called a permanent self. There is, in the ultimate sense, no self in this mind and body. And therefore there is nothing for Anathapindika to cling to.

On hearing this profound Dhamma, a great peace and joy came over Anathapindika. And he cried. The Buddha's attendant monk, Ananda, who was present was taken aback and asked Anathapindika why he cried. "Was it because he was not able to bear up with his pain?" "No," Anathapindika replied. It was not that. But rather it was because the discourse was so beautiful that it had touched him very deeply. "I have never felt so touched in my life. That is why I cried," he told Ananda and Sariputta. His tears were not tears of sorrow, but tears of joy - joy at hearing and understanding such profound Dhamma.

Anathapindika asked why such Dhamma was not often preached to the lay-people. Sariputta replied it was because the lay-people normally found it difficult to appreciate such deep Dhamma, being attached, as they were, to the very many sensual pleasures available in life. Anathapindika protested that there were those who would understand and appreciate the deep Dhamma and who, for not hearing it, would be lost. He urged Sariputta to preach often to others the discourse on non-attachment which Sariputta had just preached to him.

Shortly after Anathapindika died. As his end was peaceful and he had lived a good life, he was said by the Buddha to have been reborn in the Tusita heaven. As one who has attained the first stage of sainthood (sotapatti) it is believed that Anathapindika would, within seven lives, attain full enlightenment and thereby be liberated from rebirth.

There are stories too of how monks in the old days attained arahatship (full enlightenment) on their deathbed. So too yogis of today can meditate to the very end, so that for all they know they might realize insight knowledges, deepening their understanding of impermanence, suffering and no-self, and even attaining sainthood at the moment of death.

A yogi too can radiate metta, loving-kindness. Even as he is dying, he can radiate thoughts of loving-kindness to all beings. "May all beings be happy. May they be free from harm and danger. May they be free from mental suffering ..... physical suffering ..... may they take care of themselves happily." Dying with such noble thoughts of love for all beings is a noble way of dying. In the Visuddhimagga, a classic Buddhist meditation manual, it is stated that a person who is in the habit of radiating metta, will die very peacefully, as if falling into a pleasant sleep. And if he has not attained arahatship and has thus to be reborn, he may be reborn in a heavenly realm.

Yes, a yogi need not fear death. He can gracefully give up the body and mind knowing that life and death are just two sides of the same coin, understanding that while we are alive we are already dying from moment to moment, dying to each passing moment and being reborn into each new moment. Mental and physical phenomena are constantly arising and passing away. Nothing stays the same even for a second. This has been proven too in quantum physics where it was found that subatomic particles vanish at a rate of 10 to the power of 22 times in just one second. The Buddha too said that mental and physical phenomena are constantly arising and dissolving. As long as we have not eliminated the kammic-rebirth energy by uprooting the mental defilements of greed, anger and delusion, so long will we continue to take new birth. Dying in this life just means the end of the lifespan for the body and mind in this life. But immediately on expiry of the death-moment mind, without any interval, a new mind arises taking on a new body according to the kamma or deeds of the being in his previous life. So a yogi understanding that the death-moment mind is basically no different from that of any other mind-moment would have no fear. He can meet his end mindful and composed in line with the instruction of the Buddha.

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Making the atmosphere serene

In making the atmosphere serene for a dying person, we should know his preferences, his likes and dislikes. For example, he may like flowers. Then we should have flowers in the room by his bedside. He would probably like to pass away in his own cosy room, in surroundings that are familiar and peaceful to him. So if it is possible, he should have his end at home rather than in a hospital. But if that is not possible and hospital care is required, we should try to make his surroundings in the hospital as private and peaceful as possible. A private room is best but not all people may be able to afford it. Whatever the place may be, we should try to make the atmosphere as peaceful as possible.

He might have a small Buddha image which he likes to gaze at. If so we can place the image beside the flowers at his bedside. The serene countenance of a Buddha image can be very reassuring. By looking at the image, one is reminded of the Buddha's wisdom and teaching. And that can give much comfort and peace, especially in times of need. The room too should be clean and cosy. The dying person might like his bed to be placed facing the window so he can see trees and plants which can be soothing to the heart. (The Buddha, for example, chose to pass away in natural surroundings, under two sal trees which were in bloom in Kusinara forest.)

If perchance the dying person should lose his steadiness and show signs of fear, anxiety or pain, relatives should reassure him. For example, a loved one can hold his hand or gently stroke his forehead, speaking in soothing and reassuring terms. She can remind him gently of the Dhamma, the need to keep the mind calm and to meditate. She can assure him not to worry about her or the children, that she has the teachings of the Buddha and that she will live by the teachings. She will know how to take care of herself and the children. She can remind him that property, loved ones and mind-and-body are ultimately not ours. Only our deeds are our true property that will follow us. She can remind him of the good life he had led, of the good care he had taken of the family, and of the many good deeds he had done. Recollecting thus, and understanding the Dhamma, he can become strong. He can smile and be at peace. Death is no more frightening to him.

Of course, what we have stated is just an example of one possible scenario. When the time comes there can be no prepared script. But if one understands the Dhamma one can respond intuitively and, according to the prevailing conditions, say and do just the right thing to help a loved one die peacefully.

During the Buddha's time, Nakulamata, the wife of Nakulapita, did just that: she reassured her husband when he was at one time close to dying. She told him: "My dear, do not die with any regret or attachment to anything. Our Lord, the Buddha, had said that it is unwise to die in such manner." Understanding her husband's nature, she continued: "My dear, you might think that when you are gone, I will not be able to support the children or keep the family together. But think not so; for I am deft at spinning cotton and carding wool. I can support the children and keep the family together. Therefore be at peace."

And she reassured her husband that she would remain virtuous and practise the Dhamma until she attained enlightenment. And if anyone should doubt this, let them go and ask the Buddha, who she was certain would express confidence in her. Hearing all these assurances, Nakulapita instead of dying felt very much better and recovered from his illness! Later, when the loving couple went to see the Buddha, the Lord told Nakulapita that he was very lucky to have a wife like Nakulamata. "You are very fortunate to have Nakulamata who had such love and compassion for you, who desire your happiness and who can counsel you in times of crisis."

Relatives too should give all the support they can to the dying. As has been said earlier, they should not cry as that would make it difficult for the dying person. But if they have difficulty in controlling themselves, then they too should contemplate on the Dhamma. They can contemplate that death is inseparable from life. When there is life there must be death. It is something we must accept gracefully. Besides when the body is decrepit or terminally ill, it is quite a relief to be "freed" from it. Taking on a new life, the person will be better off. Thinking in a wise way too, relatives can regain their composure and help give the dying person a dignified and serene departure.

The last thought-moment

The last thought-moment or the death moment is said to be very vital. If one dies with fear, anger, craving or any other unwholesome mental state, then a bad rebirth will come about. But if one dies with peace and understanding, with mindfulness and equanimity, a good rebirth will come about. Usually if one has led a good life the last thought-moment will quite naturally be a wholesome one. The good deeds one has done may appear to the mind's eye. Or one may have visions of the destiny one is going to, such as the seeing of breathtaking heavenly scenery and beautiful people. Conversely, if one has led an evil life, then the evil deeds one has done may appear before one's eye, or visions of hell-fire and other bad omens may be seen. In life though, we are not all good or all bad; there is a mixture of bad and good in us. But if on the whole we have been good, then we can be confident of getting a good rebirth.

If we have a good understanding of life and death, we can meet death with steadiness and equanimity. We can, as we have said, meditate to the very end, maintaining our mindfulness and composure. Having lived a generally good life and furthermore, being able to maintain mindfulness in the face of death, we can certainly be assured of a good rebirth - as a good human being again or as a deva, a heavenly being. Hopefully too we can quickly, in whatever rebirth we have taken, make an end of samsara, the round of birth and death, so that subject no more to rebirth, we will attain the peace of Nibbana.

Sometimes the question may be asked: What if a person is unable to maintain mindfulness, especially if he has not undergone any meditation training? What if, let us say, he dies in a coma? Or what if he dies suddenly in an accident? From my understanding of the scriptures as taught by the Buddha, I would say that if one has led a good life, then chances are some good thought-moment will surface at the moment of death and a good rebirth can come about. Our kamma is our true refuge (kamma-patisarana), so accordingly the sum-weight of the good deeds we have done should lead us to a good rebirth. That is why we should lead a good life while we are alive, and not wait until we are near death, for it would be much too late then. But as in life we have done both some bad and good, there is the possibility that we might unskillfully recollect the bad deeds instead of the good ones at the moment of death. Therefore maintaining mindfulness is all important; it is very helpful. With mindfulness, unwholesome thoughts will not be able to enter our mind and we can pass away calmly, peacefully. Mindfulness being such a wonderful quality - being able to help us in both life and death - why then should we not cultivate and thoroughly develop it while we are alive?

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A monk devoted to mindfulness of death is constantly diligent. He acquires perception of disenchantment with all kinds of becoming (existence). He conquers attachment to life. He condemns evil. He avoids much storing. He has no stain of avarice about requisites. Perception of impermanence grows in him, following upon which there appear the perception of pain and not-self. But while beings who have not developed mindfulness of death fall victims to fear, horror and confusion at the time of death as though suddenly seized by wild beasts, spirits, snakes, robbers, or murderers, he dies undeluded and fearless without falling into any such state. And if he does not attain the deathless here and now, he is at least headed for a happy destiny on the break-up of the body.

The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga)

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While we are alive it is good to contemplate on death now and then. In fact it is good to do it daily. The Buddha recommends frequent contemplation on death because there are many benefits to be gained from such contemplation. Let's look at how we can benefit in contemplating on death.

First we must make it clear that by contemplating on death, we do not mean that you must become morose, frightened, morbid or depressed, and feel like killing yourself. No, far from all these, we mean that you should, in contemplating wisely on death, be able to live even more wisely and compassionately.

For example, whenever I should get annoyed or frustrated I would (if I am not too unmindful) contemplate along these lines: Life is short, soon we will all be dead. So what's the use of quarrelling or arguing with anyone? What's the use of getting all heated up? No point at all. It is better that I keep my peace. Arguing or getting heated up would not solve the problem. It causes only more animosity and vexation. Thinking in this way I can cool down, check myself from being carried away by strong feelings, and relate more gently and skillfully with others. Of course, it is not always easy and sometimes (perhaps many times) I do forget and get carried away with rhetorics and emotions, but whenever I remind myself about the brevity of life and the pointlessness of getting all fired up, I can cool down somewhat and speak with more gentleness and restraint.

Similarly, when I should be agitated or worried about something, I would think what's the use of all these worrying and anxiety. Life will take its natural course and death awaits each and everyone of us. No-one in the world can escape death. Death is the great equalizer, the great leveller. Therefore, while I am alive, it is better for me to live as best I could, and that means living in accordance with the Dhamma, living mindfully, from moment to moment, day to day, just doing the best I can, one day at a time. Thinking in such wise too, I can check worries and live more lightly and happily.

Furthermore, we can consider that with or without worries, all of us still have to grow old and die. So we might as well grow old without the worries! That will be the smarter thing to do. Nobody will disagree that we'll surely be better off without the worries. On the other hand, all the worrying might even shorten our life, cause us to develop a premature illness and die. Thinking in this way too, we can check our worries and live happier lives. Thus, thinking about death in a skilful way can cause us to be more tolerant and patient, kinder and gentler, both with ourselves and others.

Then we can also become less attached to our material possessions, less greedy. Yes, when we can perceive deeply the brevity of life, and how no matter how much we may have acquired we cannot take even one cent along with us when we die, we can become less tight-fisted. We can loosen a little and start to enjoy sharing and giving, loving and caring. We will realize then that there is more to life than just accumulating and hoarding wealth. We will like to be more generous, to share and to bring joy and happiness into the lives of others. Bringing joy and happiness to others is what makes life meaningful and beautiful. That is what counts. Love and compassion can grow and flower in us like the beautiful blooms of a tree. We can become truly beautiful people that are steeped in compassion, responding from the heart without any discrimination of race, sect, religion, social status, etc. Our life will take on a new shine and we can then say we are truly happy and human. And when death comes we shall have no regrets. We can die happily and peacefully, with a smile.

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When four mountains come a-rolling

The Buddha once told a simile with regard to death to impress upon us the need to live a meaningful life. He posed this question to King Pasenadi: "What would you do, O King, if you are told that four huge mountains, one each from the north, south, east and west, are heading in the direction of your kingdom, crushing every living thing in sight, and there is no escape?"

King Pasenadi replied: "Lord, in such a mighty disaster, the destruction of human life so great, and rebirth as a human being so hard to obtain, what else can I do save to live a righteous life and do good deeds." The Buddha then drove home his point: "I tell you, O King, I make it known to you - old age and death are rolling in upon you. Since old age and death are rolling in upon you, what are you going to do?" The King replied that under such circumstances, it was all the more urgent for him to live a righteous life and do good deeds. He also acknowledged that all the power, prestige, wealth and sensual pleasures which he was enjoying as a king would, in the face of death, come to nought.

So when we reflect wisely on death we will realize that wealth, power, prestige and sensual pleasures are not everything. They cannot guarantee us happiness. Many people have had them and still lived tempestuous and unhappy lives. Some regretted the way they had ill-treated, down-trodden or ruined others in the frenzied pursuit of their worldly ambitions. Having reached the top, they found that the achievement was, after all, not all that satisfying, even hollow and meaningless. Sometimes they wished they had spent more time with their loved ones and friends, that they had shown more care and tenderness. They regretted having neglected their loved ones. Some people having attained a good degree of success, changed their attitude in mid-course. They devoted more time to their loved ones, friends and society and are prepared, for the greater good, to forego their highest ambitions, to settle for less.

If we were to read about how some rich and successful people made a mess of their lives, we might learn a lesson from their mistakes. The other day I read a book entitled, "The World's Wealthiest Losers". I found it quite an educational book. It was quite aptly titled. They were losers in life despite their wealth. Yes, I learned quite a lot of Dhamma from it, about how money and success do not guarantee their owners happiness. Instead they were unhappy despite or because of their wealth and success. Reading about how the rich and famous, such as Howard Hughes, Mario Lanza, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Aristotle Onassis, lived and died I do not envy them.

Glamorous personalities like Elvis and Monroe, died from an overdose of drugs, living out the old adage: "From rags to riches, and from riches to emptiness." All their wealth and success could not bring them the happiness they sought. Happiness still eluded them. They seemed quite pathetic, consumed by tantrums, grief, fear and emptiness. Take the case of one heiress, who inherited an astronomical fortune, married seven times but could not find happiness. She told her biographer: "I inherited everything but love. I've always been seeking for it, because I didn't know what it was." Her first six marriages ended in divorce and her last in separation. In the end, despite her massive wealth she was said to be "just a vulnerable sick woman riddled with loneliness." She died at age 66 with some friends by her bedside, but no husband. Such tragic tales, I'm sure, can be found in the East too.

Of course, in making references to others, we do not mean to be disparaging in a self-righteous way. But we just wanted to emphasize the importance of having the proper values in life, to understand the nature of true love and compassion. We also do not mean to denounce riches and success, or to say that you should not strive for them. No, we are not saying that. We do understand that we have to be practical and realistic. We understand that if you are working in the world it is only natural you will try your best to acquire as much wealth as possible. After all, if you want to do good and help others, such as building charitable institutions, hospitals and meditation centres and offering almsfood to monks and the needy, you would need money. So we are not saying you should not try as laypeople to enrich yourselves. But of course in acquiring wealth, you should do so through honest means, without harming others.

In other words, what we are emphasizing is the moral balance. We need to have spiritual values, the appreciation that happiness is not in self-indulgence but in sharing and caring. When we have the right values we can live meaningfully and bring joy and happiness to all those who come within the ambience of our lives. When we have understood the Dhamma, especially the truths of impermanence, suffering and no-self, we will not cling to fame or gain. We can live with humility and compassion, share our wealth and success, and find joy in making others happy. But when we do not have a deep understanding of what constitutes happiness - that true happiness comes from a mind that is liberated from greed, anger and delusion - then because we do not understand we can do the wrong things, be sunk in a sensual mire and come to a miserable end. So it is important that we contemplate well on life and death, and steer in the right direction, the proper course.

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A sense of urgency

Contemplating on death can also bring about what is called samvega in Pali - a sense of urgency which can charge us with the energy to do all the good we can before we die and, in particular, to practise meditation to experience the deeper truths and understanding. The Buddha said most people are running up and down the nearer shore; they are not seeking to cross over to the other shore. The Buddha meant that we are all very much entangled in sensual pursuits, in the mundane pleasures of life. We are not seeking to go beyond to the supramundane - to go beyond life and death, to taste the ambrosial nectar of immortal bliss, immortal Nibbana.

What is this Nibbana? The Buddha said it cannot be described but must be experienced by each one for himself or herself. But the Buddha did try to give us some idea of what Nibbana is like. For example, he described it as the unborn, unoriginated, unformed, unconditioned, the deathless, the highest happiness, the greatest peace. Nibbana represents a state of no arising and passing away, no birth or death. It is also described as a blowing out of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion, the cessation of mind and matter, the extinction of suffering [*9].

A person who has attained the state of Nibbana, which can be realised in the course of meditation, is said to be enlightened. An enlightened person may be an arahant or a Buddha. The difference between an arahant and a Buddha is that the former gains enlightenment by listening to another enlightened person while a Buddha gains enlightenment by himself.

An enlightened being is a person who can face the vicissitudes of life with an even mind. Through the ups and downs, such as loss and gain, success and failure, praise and blame, pain or pleasure, fame or disrepute, he remains serene and unshakable. He remains this way not because he is deluded or unfeeling, but because he is enlightened and wise; he understands the true nature of existence, the nature of physical and mental phenomena, the nature of their impermanence, insecurity and absence of any core or essence that can be called a self in the ultimate sense. If he does not crave for pleasure or is unaverse to pain, it is not that he does not feel them. He feels them but understanding their true nature he cannot be overwhelmed by them. He can take both pain and pleasure as they come along with wisdom and equanimity.

So too with the other worldly conditions such as praise and blame, and loss and gain. If he is praised he does not get swollen-headed or conceited. He is not elated. If he is blamed he is not upset or depressed. It doesn't matter to him. He is steady and unperturbed because he knows he has acted truly - without the subtlest taints of greed, anger and delusion. He is motivated only by loving-kindness and compassion. He has no desire even to harm an ant or a mosquito. His conscience is clear, his mind is light and free. An arahant lives out his last life on this earth and when he dies he undergoes no more rebirth. He goes out like a lamp. He attains nirodha - cessation. He has parinibbana-ed - ie. he has attained final Nibbana, the cessation of all existence, the attainment of the Nibbanic element of supreme peace. Thus arahants during the time of the Buddha had this saying:

I delight not in life
I delight not in death
But I await my time
mindful and composed.

Another verse goes like this:

Impermanent are all conditioned things
Of a nature to arise and pass away
Having arisen they then pass away
Their (complete) calming and cessation is true bliss.

Comtemplating on death can release us from the grip of the sensual lure. We will not be deluded by material wealth but will channel our resources towards a more fulfilling and rewarding life, with due regard for the development of wisdom and compassion. We can be spurred to take up meditation or, if we have already done so, to double our efforts to attain the supreme goal of liberation from all suffering.

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Contemplation leads to understanding and acceptance

Frequent contemplation on death - on how it is inevitable and that our true property are our deeds - can spur us to live a good life such that when we die we will have no fear of death. Furthermore when somebody dear to us die, as inevitably all of us must, grief will not assail us as we have understanding and acceptance. This is not because we are unfeeling or have no heart. No, we have a heart, and a soft one too. We can feel deeply but we also understand the nature of existence, and can accept that death is very much woven into life.

Explaining how the wise can accept death, the Buddha said: "Seeing the nature of the world, the wise do not grieve. Weeping and wailing will only lead to more suffering and pain. It cannot bring back the dead. The mourner becomes pale and thin. He is doing violence to himself and his mourning is pointless." The Buddha said that the wise man who had truly comprehended the nature of existence has "pulled out the dart of grief and despair." "He has no clinging. Having obtained peace of mind, he has passed beyond all grief. He is freed."

So we should contemplate on the deeper aspects of the Buddha's teachings so that we can face death without grief but with understanding. The departed too would not want us to lose our self-control. They would not want us to suffer a broken heart but to accept their departure gracefully. Having taken a new rebirth, they are also no more present to see us weeping. Our weeping and sorrow cannot help them in any way. So it is futile. If we were to consider more deeply, we may see that our grief is because of our attachment. We cannot bear the parting. But if we can contemplate deeply and become wiser, we can accept the inevitable. Instead of grieving, we can be brave. We can respond meaningfully, say by resolving to live a noble and exemplary life in honour or in memory of a loved one. A wise person would surely not want us to mourn for him. Instead he or she would say: "If you really want to do me honour or to remember me by, then live a good life, do good deeds, be kind to your fellowman......That's all I ask."

When the Buddha was about to pass away, it was said that heavenly flowers and sandalwood powder fell from the sky and sprinkled all over his body in honour of him. And heavenly music too was heard. But the Buddha indicated that such kind of honour was not what he wanted. "It is not thus that the Tathagatha is honoured in the highest degree," he said. "But, Ananda, whoever abides by the Dhamma, lives uprightly in the Dhamma, walks in the way of the Dhamma, it is by such a one that the Tathagatha is honoured in the highest degree. Therefore, Ananda, thus should you train yourselves: We shall abide by the Dhamma, live uprightly in the Dhamma, walk in the way of the Dhamma." And though we have said it before, we would like to say it yet again: The Buddha's last admonition was: Vayadhamma sankhara. Appamadena sampadetha. All conditioned things are subject to dissolution. Strive on with diligence (for liberation).

No lamenting can touch the ashes of the dead

In his previous lives, the Buddha as a bodhisatta (a Buddha-to-be), also displayed no grief at the death of dear ones. The Buddha was able with his psychic powers to recollect his past lives, and it was said that in one life when he was a farmer, he did not grieve when he lost his only son. Instead, he contemplated: "What is subject to dissolution is dissolved and what is subject to death is dead. All life is transitory and subject to death." When he was asked by a Brahmin why he did not cry - was he a hard-hearted man, has he no feeling for his son? - the bodhisatta replied that his son was very dear to him, but grieving would not bring him back. "No lamenting can touch the ashes of the dead. Why should I grieve? He fares the way he had to tread."

In another life when he did not cry over his brother's death and was accused by people of being hard-hearted, he replied that they had not understood the eight worldly conditions that all beings faced, to wit, loss and gain, happiness and unhappiness, praise and blame, fame and disrepute. "Because you do not understand the eight worldly conditions you weep and cry. All existent things are transient and must eventually pass away. If you do not understand this, and because of your ignorance you cry and lament, why should I also join you and cry?"

In yet another life, the Bodhisatta shed no tear at the death of his young and beautiful wife. Instead he reflected: "That which has the nature of dissolution is dissolved. All existences are impermanent," and taking a seat nearby, he ate his food as usual, showing an exceptional ability to live mindfully from moment to moment. The people who gathered around him were amazed and asked how he could at such a time remain so calm. Did he not love his wife who was so beautiful that even those who did not know her could not help but brush away a tear? The Bodhisatta replied in verse:

Why should I shed tears for thee
Fair Sammillabhasini?
Passed to death's majority
You are henceforth lost to me.

Why should frail man lament
What to him is only lent?
He too draws his mortal breath
Forfeit every hour to death.

Be he standing, sitting,
moving, resting, what he will,
In a twinkling of an eye
In a moment death may come.

Life I count a thing unstable,
Loss of friends inevitable
Cherish all that are alive
Sorrow not should you survive.

Such amazing accounts of the Bodhisatta's self-control is awe-inspiring. It teaches us too to contemplate well and deeply on the teachings, to understand the truth of impermanence and to accept the fact of death. Perhaps then when we suffer the loss of loved ones, we too can reflect as the Bodhisatta did and maintain our composure.

** **

Death is no stranger to us

Another way to contemplate on death so as to overcome fear of it, is to consider that it is no stranger to us. In this, our long wandering in samsara, the never-ending round of birth and death, the Buddha said we have died and been reborn innumerable times - so many are they that if we were to collect all our bones together and had the bones not rotted, each of the piles of our bones would rise up higher than the highest mountain! So too, the Buddha said, the tears we have shed in samsara over the loss of our loved ones was more than the waters in the four oceans.

Truly, the Buddha said, we have suffered enough to be utterly wearied of life, and to seriously seek the way out of this maze of suffering, the way to the deathless Nibbana. But unfortunately, we have short memories and cannot remember any of our many past lives. How could we when we sometimes could not even remember what we did yesterday! And so we continue to live complacently, without the sense of urgency to cultivate the wisdom that can liberate us from all suffering. However, during the Buddha's time, there were many monks, including of course the Buddha, who could recollect their past lives. In our present age too, there have been accounts of people who had an uncanny ability to recollect their past lives. Francis Story and Dr Ian Stevenson had written books, documenting quite a number of these cases.

When we contemplate on rebirth we can benefit in two ways:

1. We can consider that death is, after all, no stranger to us. We have met it many times before. So we need not face it with fear. We can consider it as just another transition, a change from one life to another.

2. We can be motivated to find a way out of samsara, the round of birth and death. We may study more deeply the teachings of the Buddha. And we may strive harder to put them into practice, to develop dana, sila and bhavana - generosity, morality and meditation.

Momentary death

In another way of looking at it, death is something we are experiencing from moment to moment. For in the absolute sense, we are dying every moment and being reborn the next. According to the Buddha, consciousness is arising and passing away all the time. On the dissolution of one consciousness, another immediately arises and this goes on and on, ad infinitum, until and unless we realize ultimate Nibbana. Bodily phenomena too are continuously arising and passing away. So what we have is just the continuous arising and dissolution of mental and physical phenomena. This is, in a way, a kind of death and rebirth which is occurring from moment to moment. In Pali, it is called khanika-maranam - momentary death. In the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), it is stated thus:

"In the absolute sense, beings have only a very short moment to live, life lasting as long as a single moment of consciousness lasts. Just as a cart-wheel, whether rolling or whether at a standstill, at all times only rests on a single point of its periphery: even so the life of a living being lasts only for the duration of a single moment of consciousness. As soon as that moment ceases, the being also ceases. For it is said: `The being of the past moment of consciousness has lived, but does not live now, nor will it live in future. The being of the future moment has not yet lived, nor does it live now, but it will live in the future. The being of the present moment has not lived, it does live just now, but it will not live in the future." (Translated by Nyanatiloka in Buddhist Dictionary.)

In this context, a being is but a conventional term. In the ultimate analysis, it is just a series of consciousness arising and passing away. One consciousness dies, another arises - that's all. And we call this continuity or process a being. But in the ultimate sense, there is no being - no unchanging soul or mind, but just this series of consciousness arising and passing away, one consciousness conditioning the arising of another.

Furthermore, the conventional death that we experience at the end of one life-span is also not ultimate death. Another consciousness immediately arises but in a new body or realm according to the rebirth one has taken. Only when one has eliminated the mental taints of greed, hatred and delusion will no rebirth come about. Contemplating thus, we can also appreciate the nature of impermanence, suffering and no-self. And we can take life and death in our stride.

** **

Food for thought

Everytime you look at the newspapers and come across obituaries or death announcements, do you give a thought to death? Do you pause and contemplate the fact of your own mortality? Whenever death comes to others, we don't feel much about it. The deceased may be a stranger to us. The suffering is not ours and, besides, we have become quite numbed to stories of death - they are reported everyday in the newspapers. Reading about how people are killed, especially in a war, life seems so cheap. There seems to be no respect for life. But when death strikes those close to us, how do we take it? And when we face our very own death, are we petrified with fear? Yes, although we know that death and tragedies are occurring all around us, yet we are thunderstruck and are unable to accept it when it actually happens to us.

When we read the in memoriams in the newspapers, we can see that though a person may have passed away for some years already, yet the pain of separation suffered by the living ones is still very much there, as if it had been inflicted only yesterday. Sometimes in their messages, spouses or relatives openly expressed the sorrow they still felt and the tears they still shed for their loved ones. We understand it is very human to feel this way. But the Buddha also teaches us that, as human beings, we can imbibe ourselves with the wisdom and strength to accept our loss and to bear it stoically. It is not that the Buddha wants us to be unfeeling but that he wants us to have the wisdom to accept the loss and to understand the futility of our grief. Definitely he doesn't want us to pine away with grief, to grow thin and frail, to lose all interest in life. Buddhists in particular should understand this and thereby accept their loss stoically.

If Buddhists need to put a message to go with an orbituary or in memoriam in the newspapers, why not Buddhistic ones such as: "Impermanent are all conditioned things. Strive untiringly for the unconditioned Nibbana"; or meaningful contemplation on death such as: "Just as the dew-drop at the point of the grass-blade at sunrise very soon vanishes and does not remain for long: just so is the dew-drop-like life of men very short and fleeting. One should wisely understand this, do good deeds and lead a virtuous life; for no mortal ever escapes death."

Or if one wishes to be more personal, how about a message that goes something like this: "My dear, if you could know, you will be pleased to know that the children are growing up beautifully. I have taught them the Dhamma well, to treasure the precious values of love and kindness, wisdom and understanding. I have taught them well not to ape the violence and greed that often come across in mediums such as the TV and movies. As a consequence, they are very gentle and loving to everybody. As for me, I have been keeping my precepts and meditating. I am practising mindfulness in everyday life and I go for retreats once or twice a year. I am quite peaceful, and growing in the Dhamma. I try not to grieve for you; for you and I have understood somewhat the Buddha's teachings - that it is futile to grieve: it serves no purpose. And I know you wouldn't want me to grieve either, but to live a good and exemplary life.

"Nevertheless there were times, I must admit, when I felt the pain, when I missed you terribly, especially when I thought about the good times we had, the happiness we shared together, your sweet smile and bright eyes, the way you laughed and teased. Yes, when I got lost in such nostalgia, I must admit I do feel like bursting into tears. But dear, I can get a hold of myself. I can be mindful. I can watch the pain and accept it. I can watch my thoughts and mood. I can reflect on the Buddha's teachings and understand the futility of grieving. I can be happy and count my blessings - at least we have had happy times together and there are now the children to live for. I know my pain comes from my attachment and lack of deep understanding of the nature of all existence. Thank Buddha for teaching us mindfulness, for teaching us to live in the present, to be happy from moment to moment, to count our blessings, to bask in the happiness of a life well-lived.

"Well, I know this message is getting rather long. I realize too that you will not be around to read it. But it does make me feel good to express myself this way. I thank you for the happiness you have given me, and I dedicate all the good deeds that I have done, and the good life I now try to live, all that I dedicate to your sweet and loving memory. I wish that you too, in whatever good rebirth you may have taken, may continue to practise the Dhamma until you attain Nibbana, the cessation of all suffering," and so on and so forth.

Admittedly this is a rather long message and I have got somewhat carried away. But what I would like to underscore here is the theme of the message, one of understanding and acceptance. It is just to give an idea of a Buddhistic message or expression. It can be shortened and put more simply. Or, except for its pedagogic (ie. its teaching) purpose, a message may not be needed at all. Such feelings are quite personal and can be kept private. When one has understood the Dhamma well, one can just carry on living a good life and be content.

** **



Reading the newspapers and newsmagazines can give us much food for reflection. Besides the orbituaries, there are grim reminders of suffering all over the world, though we may have become quite numbed to it. There are murders, robberies, rapes and wars, religious, ethnic, social and political conflicts, pollution, diseases, starvation, poverty, tortures, oppression, terrorisms, accidents, suicides and natural calamities such as earthquakes, fires, floods and hurricanes. It is a long and depressing list which can go on and on.

At the same time, side by side with these news stories there are pictures and advertisements showing happy people enjoying themselves, as if without a care in the world. They are laughing and posing behind posh cars, grand mansions, luxury hotel suites, bottles of alcohol, cigarettes, perfumes, cosmetics, glamourous designer outfits and exquisite jewellery. They are gorging themselves at food fests, beauty contests and fashion shows with beautiful and sophisticated looking models parading on the catwalk. The contrast is especially ironic when, say, you happen to see a high fashion parade next to a heart-rending picture story of piteous African children all skin and bones dying from sheer starvation.

We are said to be a civilised people who abhor violence and the inflicting of senseless pain on one another. Yet we have boxing championships at which two brawny men would, for a sum of money, try their utmost to bash out each other's brains to the roars of approval from the crowd, not unlike the barbarous days of the Romans when gladiators fought lions and each other for the entertainment of blood-thirsty spectators. We have matadors that would infuriate, torture and kill a bull just for the fun of it. And everybody, or at least the stadium-filled spectators, seems to think it is fun too.

Smoking and drinking have taken great tolls on the health of the people, yet cigarettes and alcohol companies still insist on purveying in every possible way, even through the sports arena, their products of death. Smoking is ludicrously described as "an encounter with tenderness"! and drinking is equated with success and prestige among many other things. So-called developed countries are dumping their cigarettes and other harmful products on Third World nations while curbing the consumption of those products among their own people. In their inordinate greed for wealth, companies would go to great lengths, not seeming to have any qualms at all about what they say or do in the purveyance of their products. The mass media such as newspapers and newsmagazines, which accept and publish these advertisements because of greed for the huge sums of money they bring in, cannot absolve themselves too from responsibility. They have a basic human right to exercise a social conscience by declining harmful advertisements but they choose not to do so.

Looking at a glossy airline magazine, the picture of an elderly brewery company chairman in Thailand caught my attention. Dressed in suit and tie and with greying hair, he was proudly displaying, in his posh conference room, a row of bottles of beer brewed by his factory. Just behind him was an altar on which sat a gleaming Buddha image. One can see that the altar was impressively and centrally located in the room. Now, the Buddha, as we all know, had taught abstinence, and the fifth precept to which all Buddhists subscribe, states: "I take the precept to abstain from alcohol and drugs which are a cause for heedlessness." It is hard, therefore, for an observer to reconcile the mass production and distribution of alcohol, which is considered a wrong kind of livelihood in Buddhism, with the image of a Buddha, displayed as it were, so proudly in the room.

Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai social critic and activist, wrote in his book, Seeds of Peace, "It is a sorry fact that Siam has about 250,000 monks and more than twice that many prostitutes. This speaks for a system that is dysfunctional and has to be reexamined from the ground up. If we can return to the beautiful roots of our Asian traditions, we will help create a sane and functional model for living." In citing the latter two examples, it is not our intention to pick on Thailand, but just to point out anomalies. In point of fact, anomalies exist everywhere. Just as in Thailand, they can be equally found in Buddhist Burma, Buddhist Sri Lanka, our own or any other country. Nobody has a monopoly.

Yes, we can go on and on with the list of contradictions that abound in the world we live, but this much, we believe, would suffice to make our point. Yes, are we not a kind of society with a split or schizophrenic mentality? - like a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. We know what is unwholesome, yet we condone and even encourage its proliferation. Apparently, we are all willy-nilly caught in it, and we are hurled along with the tide. Programmed and conditioned by the moguls of the advertising media, we respond to their commands and messages. Buy this, buy that. Eat this, eat that. Wear this, wear that. Do this, don't do that. This is rugged and that is feminine. This is the in-thing and that is out. This is the great way to live; it is the jet-set high society, the world of great fun and entertainment.

Forgive me if I may sound like a critical person, a bad sport, or a mad monk standing on a soapbox declaring at the top of his voice that the end of the world is nigh and threatening a decadent society with hellfire and brimstones. But you might agree with me that it might not be a bad idea if, now and then, we were to step back a little and look at the state of the world and the state of our mind and the state of our life. Some wisdom may yet arise from such contemplation. We can re-assess our position and the direction we will like to go. Do we follow the crowd or do we break ranks? If I may "borrow" a verse from Robert Frost: "Two roads diverged in a wood and I - I took the one less travelled by. And that has made all the difference." Yes, when two roads diverge in your journey of life, which one will you take? The one less travelled by - the path of mindfulness and wisdom, of love and compassion? Please do think about it, for it might well make all the difference.

** **

Where earth and water,
fire and wind no footing find,
There ebbs the flow,
there whirls no more the round,
there mind and matter,
cease without remainder.


** **


As we come to the end of our treatise on Loving and Dying, I should make it clear that I do not at all claim to be an authority on living, loving or dying. But I have tried to share some thoughts on the subject with you, thoughts about how to live and die with love and understanding all along the way. It is a subject which I have given, and shall continue to give, much thought to. It is a subject which, I believe, should be of interest to all of us - this question of life, love and death. Of course I am not claiming to be wise and I know I have many shortcomings too. Just like people who may mean well but still bungle along the way, I too am bungling and falling as I go along the way. But each time I do pick myself up, brush the dirt away, try not to lament or cry, set my sights once again on that mountain peak that rises up into the sky, and carry on with the journey of life.

I do hope though that some of the thoughts I have shared here may have been of some help to you, that they may have lighted up a little of your way. If they should have given you a little inspiration and determination to live and die with more love and understanding, I would be very very happy. And if perchance parts of my writing should have offended you in any way, I ask too for your forgiveness. As human beings we can only try - to serve and to share. We mean well, and what little we, despite our limitations, managed to contribute to a better society, it is a happy thing. Whenever I look back, it will give me some joy and solace to know that at least I have managed to do this much, even though it may only have been a little.

And when I die, perhaps I could say to Death: "O Death, you may do your worst now, for I have lived and loved, and I have done what little I could for my fellow-beings." And before I slip quietly into the night, perhaps you might yet see that faintest trace of a smile on my lips.

I will smile
the sweetest smile yet
you shall see
And I will go
very peacefully
into the night.

Can you smile
with me too?
And say -
Hello to death
Goodbye to life.


[*9] For further reading on the subject of Nibbana, see "On the nature of Nibbana" by Mahasi Sayadaw, published by Buddha Sasana Nuggaha Organisation, Rangoon, Burma.


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Source: BuddhaNet, www.buddhanet.net

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last updated: 05-09-2004