“There is life, there is death
and the difference between either one
is one single breath”
Kings X, Flies and Blue Skies
When I first heard that lyric I was struck with how powerful the meaning is. We do not think of death in this way. How can something as a single breath separate us between life and death? One of the greatest mysteries feared by all living things is “death”. Why is death so feared? What is death? Why is it so scary? We are all very curious about it but at the same time afraid to give it any real consideration often for the fear that somehow by thinking about it we may hasten its arrival. If that is true then we should all start right now thinking intensely about winning the lotto! 🙂 Buddhism is often criticized for seeming negative or gloomy. This is really a total misunderstanding. If you ever come across a Buddhist teaching that seems that way you have to turn it on its head and sort of look at it in reverse.
Do we really suffer for having an understanding of death that is based on reality or do we suffer when we have an understanding of death that is based on fiction? Most people think that giving death any consideration is uncomfortable and sort of morbid. What is the one thing in life since we were born that is 100% certain? All of us that were born will someday die. We give all sorts of things much thought every day. Many of these things that we spend our time thinking about will likely never happen. Doesn’t it make more sense to give something that we know will for a fact will happen to us a little consideration? We stumble through our daily lives going through our routines. We have the feeling that there will always be a tomorrow. We can always think, do, or say what we need to, tomorrow. We are in fact taking everything for granted. You have put off numerous important things to the future because in our minds that is a better time to do many things. One day we walk out in the street and we are hit by the proverbial bus! Wham! It’s all over, we are lying dead in the street. Now as your eyes are fading to black you begin to think. I wish I told my wife and my kids that I loved them. I wish I had told my father that I have not spoken to in ten years that I am sorry. I wish I had traveled to that place I always wanted to go. I wish that I had learned to play that instrument. I wish, I wish, I wish, How do you possibly think that is better? This is what living in ignorance has got you. As you are taking that last single breath as the song lyric says all these regrets are going through your mind one after another. This is because you never gave the reality of death any real thought. If you did you would act differently.
If you open your eyes now and consider reality as it is you will realize that EVERY MOMENT ONLY HAPPENS ONCE IN ALL ETERNITY! They are precious, each and every one! If you come back five minutes from now and read this post again it is a totally different experience (even though you may feel equally as bored!). Each moment is totally unique. If you truly understand the reality of death think how differently you will LIVE! So when that bus comes someday and you are lying there taking your last breath you will feel content and be able to let go without all the regrets. So after turning it on its head, how is that negative?
What happens at the point of death is mysterious. Obviously no one can really tell you unless they have been there, but the Buddha Dharma gives us some insight on this scary thing called death. Many people are most curious or afraid of what happens after death. Where do we go? But what they really should be concerned with instead is what death really is? Once you begin to understand what it is you may find the answer to what will happen after?
If we are to discuss death from a Buddhist perspective we should learn a little something about a few core Buddhist principles. In past posts we have discussed Pratītyasamutpāda (Interdependence or Dependent origination), Annica (Impermanence), Dukka (un-satisfactoriness, suffering), Shunyata (emptiness) and Anatta (Not-self). If you are new to these Buddhist concepts it would be good to go read those posts first and then come back to this one. Each one of these subjects were one to many posts in length so it would not be prudent to cover them in detail here.
The fear of death comes from many things. For each person the exact reasons will differ but I am sure that the following will be common to most:
We do not want to give up seeing the things that happen after we are gone.
We do not want to give up the things we enjoy doing and experiencing in life.
We do not want to give up or be separated from those that we love and care about.
But there is one thing, if we can be honest with ourselves (I mean like really honest) that is certain to be the biggest fear we all have…………………,
We do not want to give up our “self”.
The idea that “we” will just end and stop existing is the most terrifying thing of all! We love “us”!! No one loves “ourselves” more than “we” do! What will happen to those that we love? Will they remember us? Will they think that we were good people? Will they miss us? The Buddha taught that all things are conditioned. In his teaching of Dependent Origination “our” false notion of who and what “we” are is conditioned on ignorance. Ignorance does not mean dumb or stupid. Ignorance means un or mis-informed, to have a false or no understanding of the truth. So simply put, we have created a false idea of what our “self” is and we are totally infatuated with that idea. We have reinforced that idea since birth, so in some of our cases that love affair has been going on for some time!
All the teachings listed above ultimately point to one thing, our notion of our “self” is wrong, it is an illusion, a figment of our imagination, just an idea.
Interdependence or Dependent origination says that anything that exists is dependent or caused by multitude (un-measurable) actions or conditions. Nothing arises independently. All the elements that make up anything in the universe were already here. When conditions are right those elements come together, the thing exists, then when any of the conditions that were needed for the thing to exist go away, all the elements that made the thing go back to where they came from. They still exist. The notion of our “self” is dependent on ignorance.
Annica (Impermanence) says that everything is under constant change. Nothing stays in one state for more than a period of time. If everything is like this, and if given any real thought you can easily prove it to yourself. Then why do we think that we are any different?
Dukka (un-satisfactoriness or suffering) is shown in the Four Noble Truths to be caused by desire. Desire exists to feed the notion of the “self” that we have created. Suffering or un-satisfactoriness is caused by desire. Desire is caused by the idea of a “self”. We have the insatiable need to feed the “self”. Satisfaction can never be realized as long as the “self” exists.
Shuyata (Emptiness) says that all things (phenomena) are Empty of an independent existence. You are Empty of a independent existence because you are full (or made up of) everything else. There is no “you” and “other”. You are not separate, you are a part of everything and everything is part of you. The “you” cannot exist without the “other”.
Anatta (not-self) says that there isn’t an independent, abiding, or permanent “self”.
Why did the Buddha put so much emphasis on our notion of our “self”? Because it is the problem, the root, the cause of our suffering or un-satisfactoriness, it is the obstacle to us seeing reality as it really is! It is what makes Enlightenment so difficult to reach. It is why five minutes after you finish reading this post we will all be back to being totally engrossed in ourselves and feeding one desire or another! We have trained, reinforced, brain washed and cemented this idea of who and what we are since we were born. In order to understand what death is or isn’t we must first understand what the “self” is or isn’t.
We will continue in part II….