“Dear friend, please practice together with Ananda and myself as follows. Breathing in I see that this body is not me. Breathing out I am not caught in this body. I am life without limit. I have never been born and I will never die”
Shariputa, speaking to his dying friend the monk Anathapindika
I remember when my father died. I was in the military serving in England. I got the call from the Red Cross that he was in critical condition. I ran straight to the airport to head home. I had to fly to New York, which was an 8 hour trip, and then on to Michigan, another 3 hours, where my home was. Due to buying my ticket at the last minute the closest airport that I could get to was 2 hour drive from the hospital. My brother in law picked me up at the airport and we headed to the hospital. When I got to the hospital I found out that my Dad had died 30 minutes before I got there! I remember sort of being in shock and I was trying to take it all in. Then I was sitting in a waiting room that had a T.V. on. The news was on and they were talking about something that had happened that day somewhere in the world. There was no door on the waiting room and I could see people going back and forth, people coming to visit someone else or someone that was just released from the hospital. Then it struck me that as my Father died, the world just went on as if nothing happened! I don’t know if this makes sense to anyone or if anyone else had ever felt the same feeling. But I suddenly felt mad! How could everything just continue on as it was before when I had lost someone so important to me! Was his life so insignificant? I had a hard time dealing with this. I wish now that I would have known about and understood the wisdom in Shariputra’s words. It would have taken away much of my pain and anger.
In the last post I stated that:
Shuyata (Emptiness) says that all things (phenomena) are Empty of an independent existence. You are Empty of an 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”.
We tend to think that before “we” were delivered by the doctor into our mother’s arms, that we did not exist. Likewise when we die we think that “we” do not exist anymore. The problem really is the “we” part. Put simply “We” have never existed (the way we think we do), at the same time all that we are made of has always existed. Well, you ask how can this be? We think of the “self” as this independent entity that exist separate from everything else. There is nothing in the Universe that is like that. Name me any single thing in the whole universe that, just poof!, came into being out of nothing or anything that has been totally annihilated to where no part of it exists anymore? If you give it some serious thought you won’t be able to come up with anything. Now think of any individual thing in the Universe that will last forever. There isn’t anything! Everything has its period to exist. It comes into being, exists, and then dissipates back into the parts that made it. It is like a universal recycling plant! 😉 So why do we apply these ideas of permanence and separation to ourselves? Well it is the “self” itself, otherwise known as ego, that does not want to give up the idea of “itself”. It is afraid of what that means.
If you give up the notion you have of your “self” there is no longer the need to feed it. You won’t have to:
Create the self (Ignorance)
Feed the anger of the “self”
Feed the greed of the “self”
Protect the “self” from other (which includes killing and lying)
Make the “self” feel good (which includes sexual misconduct and taking intoxicating substances)
Make the “self” feel loved or wanted
Flatter the “self”
Make the “self” feel superior
Take from “other” that which the “self” does not have (which includes stealing)
Feed the jealousy of the “self”
These are all things that the “self”, that we want to protect, loves! Are any of these things positive qualities? Are any of these thing worth protecting? Let’s turn these on their head and see how they look if we remove the “self”:
Be a peacemaker
Work to benefit others
Make others feel good
Love all beings
Lift others up
Give to other what self has
Sow the seeds of unity
These seem to be much more worthy causes. Our notion of ourselves is what hinders our ability to treat all beings as a mother does her child, as it says in the Metta sutta. Understanding Not-self was one of the roots of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. So if we can begin to understand it we too can begin to be Enlightened. In the Heart sutra it says:
since the Bodhisattvas have no attainment,
they abide by means of Prajna-paramita,
Since there is no obscuration of mind,
there is no fear.”
When we consider death we are bound by the fear of losing our “self” and becoming insignificant. The paradox is that there is no “self” to give up. When you have the wisdom to understand your true self, there is no fear. As the Bodhisattva Avaloketeshivara taught in the Heart sutra when you understand that there is no ‘self” to lose (your mind is not obscured by ignorance) there is no fear and there is also no, “death” (as Shariputra says in the first quote)! In fact there never was a thing called “death”. We were here before we came into our present state of being and we will still be here after we cease to exist. We are like a stream or a river. When you sit on the bank and watch the water go by you feel that you are looking at, the Colorado River for example. If you sit there a long time you still feel that you still are just looking at the Colorado River. The truth is someone arbitrarily gave it the name, Colorado, so that name in reality has no relationship to the river and does not represent what the river really is, and the whole time you have been sitting there the water has changed over and over again. It is the same if I am sitting here with Paul. Paul is a name that his parents gave him but has no real relationship to what Paul really is. Not only has Paul been changing for countless eons he is changing right before my eyes. Every cell in his body is going through the process of dying and rebuilding. His consciousness is being bombarded with information from all his senses and is changing constantly. Paul is not permanent! His is no more Paul than the river is the Colorado! Paul only exists as a convenience of thought.
I still feel the Shingon concept of the six level (or element) pagoda is the best visual illustration of what we really are. Each level is a different shape and represents a different element, earth, water, fire, wind, and space. They are not to mean the element literally but each element represents things that are similar. They are the elements that everything in the Universe is made up of. So earth means all things that are solid, water all liquids, fire heat and light, and wind all gases. The sixth element is consciousness. It is not represented as a physical shape because it is invisible and is part of or contained in all the other 5 elements. It is kind of like the Force in Star wars, it is in everything, animate and inanimate, but it is what gives life to or animates living things. So we are made up of all these elements that were already present in the universe plus our consciousness. When we cease to exist all these elements and our consciousness is still here, it just isn’t in the form of what we call Paul.
I know that this is not an easy subject. I hope you can find the means to read through this and give it some real thought. In the next part I want to take a practical approach and talk about two different teachings from two different traditions which actually give instructions to someone that is dying.