The Buddha Mind And The End Of Life
The Importance Of Meditating On Death
The Impermanence of Life
As death and birth move hand in hand,
Against the flow of time, none can stand.
No moment is eternal, life a temporary show,
From dust, we all came to dust; we all will go.
Ah! Why do we pretend, foolishly act as we may,
We will live forever, we shall perpetually stay.
Observe! The moment, does it ever stand still?
None from history survived, none ever will.
Cherish your life! Cherish the days full of light,
Live it with courage, abandoning all the fright.
Let every minute be filled with passion, and gay,
Let every step be daring, fears pushed to the bay.
Figure I. The figure depicts the “cycle of life.” The life we live has a certain set of constraints under which we operate. We are born as children, grow up to be adults, become old, and someday have to necessarily die. The one with the Buddha mindset recognizes those truths and deals with every situation in mind knowing that our presence on this planet is fleeting. Most of the problems of life become tiny in the face of death.
Life and Death
Life is inherently temporal. Everything around us is made of dust and will become dust in time. It is a crucial lesson to understand. As we live our lives, we start to take our existence for granted and live our lives as though we will live forever. It leads to attachment to physical manifestations of realities. When we lose these objects, we suffer pain because of it. Death is a constant reminder of the fragility of life: we are here in the present moment yet may die in the next.
“All conditioned things are impermanent—when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.”—Buddha.
In his quote, as mentioned earlier, Buddha talks about acknowledging this reality and coming to terms with it. Suffering, he believes, emanates when we clutch to our reality longer than necessary. We suffer when we see the death of a near one; we suffer due to financial losses, and we suffer when our dreams do not come true.
It is worth noting that it is not the event of a loss that causes us to suffer. Instead, the difference between our expectation of reality and reality itself leads us to suffer. It is not the event of the child's death that causes a mother to suffer but the expectation of his lifelong presence in her life. It is an important distinction to make. While the event itself is catastrophic, she can and must learn to live with the reality of the situation. A businessman doesn’t suffer due to the losses in his finances but due to the delta in the business's perceived value that has now been erased.
Can we learn to accept the impermanence of human life? Can we learn to be in tranquility in gains and loss? Can we gain some insights by meditating on our short-lived existence? What importance does death hold in our lives?
Death and Stoicism
“Do not act as if thou were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.”—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.
The Stoics have long used meditating on their death to improve their lives. They understood that we were born on Earth and would have to leave this existence someday. We can control what we do between birth and death. And in this life, we can pursue what the Stoics called a virtuous life. The Stoics defined virtue within four characteristics known as the Four Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism.
Marcus Aurelius, in Meditations, describes death as a mystery of nature. He writes, “Death is such as generation is, a mystery of nature; a composition out of the same elements, and a decomposition into the same; and altogether not a thing of which any man should be ashamed, for it is not contrary to the nature of a reasonable animal, and not contrary to the reason of our constitution.”
Death and Buddhism
From its inception, Buddhism has stressed the importance of realizing death and being aware of its significance. Through this realization, the Buddha understood the futility of life and searched for the truth. Through years of diligent practice, he achieved enlightenment and transcended death. Buddhists stress the meditation on death every moment since death is inevitable and can arrive at any moment. Atiśa Dīpankara Śrījñāna, a Buddhist religious leader and master, is said to have told his students that for a person who is unaware of death, meditation has little power. Still, a mindful person of death and impermanence progresses steadily and makes the most of every precious moment. A famous saying of the school he founded, the Kadampa, is: if one does not meditate on death in the morning, the whole morning is wasted; if one does not meditate on death at noon, the afternoon is wasted; and if one does not meditate on death at night, the evening is wasted.
The poet Linda Ellis captured this very beautifully in her poem “The Dash.”6
“For it matters not, how much we own,
The cars...the house...the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash.”
Death gives meaning to life. It is a meaningful insight to meditate on. On the last day of your life, what will really matter is how you lived your life and how you impacted the lives of those around you. Linda Ellis writes about it excellently in her poetry. It is not the materials (i.e, the cars, houses, or the cash) you collect in your life that will matter in the end. When this journey ends, it is the time in between; the experiences that you’ve had will matter.
It’s A Wonderful Life
I am reminded of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” by Frank Capra (based on the short story and booklet The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern). It's a Wonderful Life is considered one of the greatest films. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made. The story is about a building and loan banker who sacrifices his dreams to help his community of Bedford Falls to the point where he feels life has passed him by. He contemplates suicide and tries to commit it. An angel then saves his life and shows him an alternative reality. Through the eyes of the angel, he gets to experience what the world would have been without his presence. This is when he realizes that suicide would have been a mistake and that he should not have attempted it.
We often live our lives as it does not have any meaning to anyone. In the daily grind of life, we often start to get lost in the crowds. We start to see a normalized view of the world where our actions no longer create an impact on the world. As we grow into adulthood, we craft a narrative in our heads that this world no longer needs us. The movie is an excellent way of finding purpose through the idea of death (and not death itself). The idea that this life is limited makes it precious and worth living. Every small act of help that we practice ripples into the fabric of society and leads to long-term consequences.
Meditating on Death
Meditation on death can be a liberating experience. Let us reframe death as non-existence to come to terms with it. As we know it, the universe has existed for 13.8 billion years. Your life began not more than 100 years ago. You have non-existed for billions of years and will non-exist for billions of years hereafter. Life is an experience created by your consciousness. The thought that life goes on with and without us seems sad at first.
The antithesis to non-existence is our existence. The yin to the yang of death is life. Life is your opportunity to BE. However, this experience would not have been as influential and exciting if this ride had not ended. In a way, death is what gives meaning to life. Otherwise, life would have been entirely meaningless. The perpetual state of non-existence becomes meaningful when you gain consciousness. We get closer to the truth as we meditate on our deaths. To me, this is a powerful thought.
Death is intertwined with nature. We come from dust and go back to dust. The dust then turns into energy and gives rise to a new being. Are we ever dead then? We can say that our being (i.e., consciousness) goes away into non-existence. Yet, our energy remains behind. The work we do, the people we help, and the progenies we leave behind live on this Earth. Our death gives rise to new opportunities that others can accept and carry on the struggle of life.
Meditation on death is that our losses in our lives do not look significant. Everything around us will eventually crumble to an end; we need not worry about losing some money, missing a promotion, or facing a setback in a relationship. Life moves on, and the world moves on. Embracing death and the impermanence of life takes away all the fears and lets us live a more peaceful and blissful life.
Death And Overcoming The Demon Within
Being aware of our death can help us overcome the demon's vices within us propagates. Humans have suffered from many vices that have plagued our existence throughout the ages. Our ego leads us into believing that we are invincible that somehow we can defeat death and amass infinite power and wealth. In the following paragraphs, I argue that meditation on death can be a powerful tool in our armory to overcome the vices that often inhabit our minds.
Death And Power
Human history is filled with powerful leaders who have been hungry for power. Events like the holocaust, genocide, mass murders, and rape only occur when the collective consciousness of the human species enters a dark spot. Can we say that this is the work of the devil? Evil emanates from a position of absolute power. However, every dictator in the past has fallen to the hands of death. If they realized that they could never hold onto this power and eventually relinquish it, they might not have gone ahead with the atrocities. Had they meditated on the death of the fellow-beings whom they caused so much suffrage, they might have abstained from succumbing to the devil.
Death And Greed
Greed is a human vice that has been with us for ages. We all suffer from the idea that hoarding and having more stuff in our lives will lead us to happiness. Human society has gone through immense pain and suffering due to the greed of a few. The colonization of civilizations by the British Empire is well recorded in history. The East India Company that entered the Indian subcontinent on the pretext of trade ended up colonizing India for more than two centuries and leaving the nation poor and famished. Did the East India Company leaders think of their actions as being angelic or devilish? Did they think that the wealth that they would accumulate served them in the heavens? We cannot take a single penny to the grave. Unfortunately (or fortunately), this is the reality that we live in. Had the past tyrants (leaders like Stalin and Mao) thought about their impending death, they would never have been able to inflict the deaths of several millions of children, women, and men through mass genocides. Can greed trump death? Certainly not.
Death And Desire
Desire is the engine that keeps us going. We get out of bed every day because of our desire to live a better life. We often need to go to work, exercise, take care of our loved ones, or have a trip planned that brings energy into our lives. Desire can undoubtedly be a positive force. However, there is the negative side of desire as well. We can be overly desirous of a loved one, commanding respect from our peers, or even ranking highest in the social hierarchy. Where does this desire come from? Does this desire persist throughout our lives? Does it lead us into a good place or a bad place? Can we ever fully satisfy the desire? The desire to love can be positive. However, the desire to hold on to the love or expect love in return can be detrimental to our psychological being. We can never hold on to the love. The love is fleeting, and so is the being embodying the love. Are two moments ever the same? No. Are two experiences ever the same? No. Death is nature’s way to remind us that the state of desire will finish a certain way and that a new cycle of desire (for someone else) shall emerge. Being aware that every desire is short-lived and will get quenched and finish off is a powerful thought to help us see through our desire instincts.