Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Fifteen Reflections on Life

This talk was given at Cambridge Buddhist Centre on the occasion of Sangha Day, November 9th 2014


It could be said that there is really no such thing as a spiritual life separate from life. There is just life. When we talk about spiritual life we are talking about a life lived in full awareness of the existential realities of impermanence and death, interdependence and interrelatedness, and a sense of the true sources of satisfaction. Even if we live life escaping from reality or ignoring reality, we will eventually be faced with reality and then our life will have a spiritual dimension whether we want it or not. What we usually mean when we talk about the spiritual life is a life lived with awareness of the existential reality and in which we act on the implications of that reality.

Spiritual community is an essential context for living the spiritual life. Spiritual community is the community of those who live life in full awareness of the existential reality and act accordingly.

Earlier this year I gave a talk entitled “15 reflections on death” and today I want to give “15 reflections on life”. I hope the importance and significance of spiritual community will come through even though I’m not approaching it directly.

So here are my 15 reflections on life:

1.   Existential reality
Death is the only certainty and is the most obvious and stark reminder of the impermanent nature of all things. I was in my early forties before I had a full realisation that I was going to die. Bhante says somewhere that he was in his 30s when this realisation dawned on him. It is possible to know that you are going to die without fully realising it. I happened to be reading a Shakespeare play at the time and I had a sudden realisation which struck me with the force of a shock, that death applied to me to. When I was much younger I had a sense of impermanence too – that I would grow old and die– and it was that which prompted me to seek a spiritual path. In the light of these existential truths – most of what passed for normal life seemed absurd to me at the tender age of 21. As a result I gave up my career and all thoughts of wealth or worldly success when I was 22 and I literally set out to find the meaning of life. I have never regretted that radical idealistic decision, which seemed foolhardy to others at the time. It still seems obvious to me that for a human being life needs to be more meaningful than something akin to the accumulation of nuts by a squirrel.

2.   Love
I have heard many stories of people who have had near death experiences or who have been clinically dead for a brief period. In all of these stories when the people return to life they say that what is most important is love. By this they don’t mean falling in love – which is just a form of temporary insanity. What they mean is loving kindness, compassion and empathy, sympathetic joy, generosity,  thoughtfulness – a concern for the welfare of others. A realisation of our inter-dependence. A brief encounter with death has the effect of showing what is of utmost importance and what is insignificant. And what is important is love.

3.   Friendship
Love is not an abstraction it finds its outlet and satisfaction in friendship and friendliness. Love is not necessarily a warm feeling – it is an intention and an activity. The activity of friendship and friendliness. This is what spiritual community is and this is what our Buddhist centre is trying to promote and give to the world. We are trying to promote and give a context for the practice of friendship and friendliness – expressions of the love that gives meaning to life in the face of death.

4.   Happiness
Everyone wants to be happy. According to all the research, what  makes people most happy is their connections with other people. To have a sense of belonging to a loving family or loving community is what makes us happy and apparently adds as much as 10 years to life expectancy. Before I became a Buddhist I was very self-sufficient and cultivated independence and self-sufficiency. This was not a bad thing, but it did take me many years of practising Buddhism in Triratna before I realised experientially, that I did need other people – that my spiritual practice was nothing without other people and that the family of Sangha really was a blessing and a boon in my life. I can say now that I am happy most of the time and I believe this is largely due to being part of this alive spiritual community of Triratna. Bhante says in Wisdom beyond Words that there is only one thing we need in order to be able to give to others. We need “to love ourselves and know that we are loved by others. Appreciate ourselves and know that we are appreciated by others”. This is also what we need in order to be happy.

5.   Money
What about money? And all that it can buy? Personally I like money and what it can do. However I have never considered the accumulation of money to be a worthwhile pursuit – it’s not something I ever wanted to give my life to. Most people acquire money by expending energy and selling their time. So money is like time and energy and when we spend money we are spending our time and energy to purchase the time and energy of other people. For instance you have to work a certain amount of hours or days or weeks to accumulate enough money to buy a new pair of shoes. Other people have given their time and energy to making shoes and making them available to you. So this is an exchange of time and energy and notes and coins are the medium. When we are considering the topic of money, we are considering the topic of time and energy, our own and that of others. Our time and energy are really our life. We have a period of time to live and energy to do things in that time. So we should consider carefully how we earn money and how we spend money because we are expending our life force in earning and that of others in our spending. Money is not just money. Money is not just a means of exchange. Money is the flow of energy through the human community – for good and ill. Money and where it goes is an indicator of the state of human consciousness and of the consciousness of individuals. What you are doing with money – in earning and spending – is what you are doing with your life.

6.   Sex
After money the next big topic is sex. What to say about sex. To stay within the bounds of experience I’ll stick with the topic of heterosexual sex so to speak. Well it’s the work of nature. Nature is primarily concerned with procreation. Living things procreate and die and procreate and die and procreate, that is the process of the natural world and since we are part of the natural world we too procreate and die and procreate.  So nature endows us with procreative instincts which are satisfied in sexual union. Nature is not sentimental. But we are. We endow our sexual urges with a romantic veneer and take falling in love to be a spiritual experience rather than a trick of nature. Don’t get me wrong. Falling in love is not a problem – it too is the way of nature. The problem, when there is a problem, is that we create a whole ideology and a story around the whole business of sex and romantic love, which can give rise to unrealistic expectations. And of course unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment. And people who are disappointed can turn nasty on each other. Nature is not concerned with our expectations and disappointments. But we can bring more consciousness to the whole business of sex and try to be conscious of our expectations and the expectations of our partners, so that disappointments – if they come – will be cushioned by awareness. People can become very unaware when it comes to sex – even ethical considerations can be forgotten. I think this probably applies to homosexual sex as well as heterosexual sex. Before getting involved in a new relationship, as a minimum we need to ask ourselves : Does the other person already have a partner? If not how long is it since they ended their last relationship? Is there a clear understanding between them and their previous partner that the relationship is over? Are you in a relationship already? If you think not, does your previous partner agree? It’s surprising how often people put their own sexual gratification before ethical considerations. It is especially surprising if they are Buddhists practising the five or ten precepts. Unfortunately it happens. I would like to encourage anybody involved with the Sangha here in Cambridge to really try to bring ethical considerations into your sexual relations. It’s obvious that we should not coerce or manipulate others for the sake of sex and that includes any kind of emotional blackmail. It is also obvious that we shouldn’t cause physical harm to ourselves and others for the sake of sex. But we can take ethical sensitivity further than that. If someone has ended a long term relationship, we should allow them a period of time, say four or five months before trying to involve them in another relationship. We should also be considerate of their previous partner. If their previous partner is someone involved in the local Triratna Sangha – perhaps we should even talk to them about our intentions before acting.

7.   Pleasure
A life of spiritual aspiration and spiritual endeavour is not unpleasant. There is the pleasure of having a sense of meaning in one’s life. There is the pleasure of having the company of like-minded people and being able to communicate openly and honestly about things that matter. There is the pleasure of meditative states. There is the pleasure of a clear conscience. But of course we tend to associate pleasure with sense experiences like eating good food or going to the cinema or engaging with sport and so on. It is important that we make a bridge between the more mundane pleasures and the higher pleasures or between pleasures of the body and pleasures of the mind.
Physical disciplines such as yoga, Tai Chi, chi Kung, Aikido, karate are one bridge. They involve both physical exertion and mental absorption and the pleasures of mindfulness and health. With regard to food, mindfulness is the key to bridging the gap between the greedy animal pleasure and a more refined pleasure. Being aware of different flavours and subtleties of taste can make the eating of a carrot or a gourmet meal more pleasurable and, as it happens, more healthy.
When it comes to the senses of seeing and hearing any engagement with arts and crafts gives more refined pleasure and prepares our minds for higher pleasures. The attempt to make art or engage in craftwork – whether painting, pottery or knitting – these attempts will enhance our enjoyment of great art – we will appreciate the greatness even more. Then if we can educate ourselves about the arts by visiting galleries or going to concerts or the theatre, our pleasure will become even greater and our spiritual practice will be greatly enhanced. It would be good to see more groups of people in the Sangha engaging with the arts in some way or other – either making art and sharing it or going to galleries and concerts together or forming writing groups or poetry reading groups, music groups, choir practice etc. These are just a few examples of bridging the gap between mundane and higher pleasure. A key factor in all of them is awareness and mindfulness. Mindfulness is a key to pleasure.

8.   Pain
There is no life without pain. But there is some pain that can be avoided. The pain that can be avoided is the pain that we create for ourselves. According to Buddhism we have a choice about how we respond to the circumstances of life. We can respond with grasping after the pleasant and trying to rid ourselves of the unpleasant or we can respond with equanimity to both the pleasant and the unpleasant. The Buddhist analysis says that we have a false idea about ourselves – the false idea that we are a fixed and separate personality or self, whereas the opposite is true.
Because we are deluded in this way we feel we have to protect and defend and enhance this fixed and separate self. To protect and defend we must reject what is unsatisfactory and to enhance ourselves we must grasp and draw in what is pleasant. But since this self is constantly changing and since everything is constantly changing there can be no grasping and defending. Life is change. We are change. Nothing is constant and trying to make life constant, trying to fix ourselves or our circumstances is not possible and ultimately painful. We can avoid a lot of this pain by awaking from our delusion and seeing and accepting that all is changing and everything is interdependent. To make anything fixed and constant would mean to make everything fixed and constant. By seeing and accepting that everything is flowing – fluid and changing – we can let go of expectations of security and permanence and learn to enjoy the abundant flourishing nature of life and learn to surf on the possibilities and potentialities that are in us and around us all the time. This means taking responsibility for our own minds and not blaming others or blaming circumstances for our failure to achieve the impossible security of fixedness, an impossible dream of a security that is unassailed by external factors. We are not a fixed personality but a flowing river of conditions constantly changing. We are not separate from others from the life and world around us; we are all interdependent – great streams of consciousness flowing through each other – intermingling – not discrete entities that never touch and have no effect on each other. A large part of our pain and suffering comes from not recognising this. When we do recognise this, deeply and thoroughly we become open and pliable and loving and less prone to the suffering of needing to be right, needing to be secure, needing to be seen to be a success.

9.   Meaning
Does life have meaning? Is it possible to live a meaningful life? What is a meaningful life? These are the kind of questions which people ask from childhood to old age and the answers they intuit often shape their lives. When Leo Tolstoy – the great Russian writer and thinker – was 50 years old he had a major crisis. Life suddenly felt meaningless and he was suicidal – he wrote: “my question – that which at the age of 50 brought me to the verge of suicide – was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder: it was a question without an answer to which one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything? It can also be expressed thus: is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”
When in Buddhism we talk about Going for Refuge what we are talking about is what gives meaning to your life. For some people what gives meaning to their life is their career, for others it may be family, for others it may be money or power, for some its social justice, for some its environmental politics and for some its religious conviction of one kind or another. In what sense can Buddhism give meaning to our lives? It can only give meaning to our lives to the extent that we understand it and practice it wholeheartedly. Buddhism is about the expansion beyond self concern, beyond even the sense of a separate enduring self. Buddhism is about the energy of consciousness expanding outwards in ever increasing ripples of compassion. Life is energy and living is growth. Buddhism seeks to awaken and liberate the expansive energy of life in the heart and mind of every individual.
We can treat Buddhism and Buddhist practice as a palliative or a therapy to help us cope with the stresses and strains of ordinary life – and we can benefit from it – but really Buddhism is about going well beyond coping or being happy. Perhaps it could be summed up as: what makes life meaningful from a Buddhist perspective is taking on the task of consciously changing and growing and on the basis of that bigger, expanded consciousness going beyond self concern to a deep and authentic concern for others that manifests in concrete actions. As Sarvananda puts it in his book (Meaning in Life) – “meaning in life, for a Buddhist is found by moving towards egolessness.”

10.               Conditioning
One of the ways we have to work on ourselves in order to grow is we have to try to become aware of our conditioning and how it manifests in our behaviour, thought processes and communication. We are broadly speaking conditioned by our family background and by the society in which we grow up and live. Our family background can condition our attitudes to work, money, family, religion, children, manners, the arts and so on. Sometimes school reinforces family conditioning and sometimes it counteracts it.
A huge conditioning factor in the lives of most of us for the last five or six decades is TV and more recently the Internet. The mass media generally reflects and reinforces conventional norms via an approach to what is newsworthy and also through soap operas, game shows, talent shows and so-called reality TV and of course via advertisements. However we get our news about world affairs or national affairs you may be sure there is a bias. If we use only one source than the bias will be more pronounced. And of course we form our opinions and convictions about the world we live in on the basis of that bias. Sometimes we even delude ourselves that we have first-hand information about news items – when actually it is usually all either second or third hand or even based on other people’s speculations.
So part of becoming aware of our conditioning is looking more closely at where we get our views opinions and convictions from. This is not about establishing whether our opinions are right or wrong but it is about growing in awareness of how we come to have our views in the first place. This is an aspect of self-knowledge, self-awareness.
The other big conditioning factor which we are exposed to from childhood is advertising. Our whole way of life depends on advertising. We live with an economic model of growth. An economy grows by producing and selling things. The production and selling of more and more things depends on the consumption of things and the consumption of more and more things depends on advertising awakening in us the appetite to buy more and more things. Advertising has to show us that buying things will benefit us in some way. It has to show that buying things will make us happier or give us status or give us security. In other words advertising has to promote a set of values. Values like frugality or simplicity are antithetical to a growth economy. If you need economic growth and consumption then you don’t want people repairing their clothes or shoes or vacuum cleaners. You don’t want people sharing the use of things and you don’t want things lasting a long time. You want people to adopt values such as new is best, shopping is therapeutic, my status depends on what I own, my security depends on what I own, buying a new gadget or item of clothing will make me happy  etc. All of this has very wide implications for society, politics and economic affairs. We need to be aware of what we are being influenced by and try to be conscious of our values and the consequences of our values. There are no easy or facile answers to questions posed by our economic model of growth. We may easily be critical of something without having a clue as to an alternative and without even having the will or appetite to live an alternative. It could be argued for instance that if we really want to live simple and ecological lifestyles, we would all live communally, sharing resources such as heat and light, and equipment like washing machines and refrigeration. We would also be content with less ownership and less buying power. We might even be vegan.  These are big steps to take and would seem to involve sacrifices that we might find a bit too daunting.
The point here is to become more deeply aware of our conditioning and how we come to have certain views and values and then to reflect deeply on the consequences for our lives. You may find, as I do sometimes, that my values and how I actually live don’t coincide. What I am saying here is that it is better to be aware of this and acknowledge it rather than delude ourselves.

11.               Idealism
It is quite natural for many people to be idealistic when they are young and even to act on that idealism. If you then get involved with the usual things of career and family the idealism may have to take a back seat or for some people it may disappear completely. This is a great shame. It is like losing your heart, losing your soul. Because often it is that idealistic urge in us that is our spiritual aspiration trying to find expression. And if that gets drowned our life can become dull and depressing, because an important flow of energy has been dammed up.
For Buddhists the ideal is of course represented by the Buddha and is conceptualised as Awakening, Enlightenment, Nirvana or Buddhahood. This is seen as an attainable ideal – as we say in the short Puja – “the Buddha was born as we are born, what the Buddha overcame we too can overcome, what the Buddha attained we too can attain.”
What the Buddha overcame was greed, hatred and spiritual ignorance and what the Buddha attained was the perfection of wisdom and compassion. This is our ideal as Buddhists, Wisdom and Compassion and that is represented symbolically in the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas such as Avolokiteshvara, Manjughosha, Tara, Amitabha, Ratnasambhava and so on. The big problem with idealism is that we either use it as a stick to beat ourselves and others, because we and they are not perfect or we use it as an excuse for laziness, because it’s too remote.
So we have to recognise that an ideal is meant to inspire us and arouse us to action. It is not a judgement on us, nor is it unattainable. In order to make ideals more real we need to see how the ideal is present in the path – the means and methods to attaining the ideal include the ideal.
The first precept asks us to refrain from harming living beings and to practice deeds of lovingkindness. That is compassion and the road to compassion. The fifth precept asks us to refrain from clouding our minds and to practice awareness. That is wisdom and the road to wisdom. Idealism without a path is useless. A path without ideals is pointless. We have an ideal and we have a path – we can trust that if we follow the path then our ideals will be realised.

12.               Going forth
In the life of the Buddha before he became the Buddha – when he was still Siddhartha – there is the well-known episode of the going forth. In early scriptures the Buddha is depicted as saying simply: “while still young, a black haired boy blessed with youth, in the first phase of life I shaved off my hair and beard – though my mother and father wished otherwise and grieved with tearful faces –, and I put on the yellow cloth and went forth from the house life into homelessness”
Later on this incident becomes embellished into a full dramatic story of leaving stealthily in the middle of the night, leaving a sleeping wife and child and riding off on the back of a white steed whose hooves are muffled by the gods and then exchanging clothes with a poor man and heading off into the jungle. Whatever happened it is clearly a key moment in his life, a turning point. The point where he turns away from mundane, worldly concerns and activities and decides to pursue a spiritual path. And from the description it seems to be the result of a long period of reflection and dissatisfaction.
Going forth, whether as a sudden event or a long drawn out process, would seem to be a part of any spiritual life. When we decide we want to embark on the journey of consciously growing and developing, the journey of expanding and elevating our consciousness, the journey of purifying our mind – when we embark on this journey, then inevitably there is an element of leaving behind or turning away from other values and other activities. This can cause a big upheaval in your life and it is therefore important to be around others who are doing the same and who understand what you are about.
Our friends and relatives, who are still immersed in worldly values and activities , like Siddhartha’s parents, may think we are becoming strange, but our friends in the Sangha will share our values. If we want to reorientate our life in a spiritual direction, the direction of skilfulness and egolessness, then we need a mutually supportive spiritual community to support and encourage our decision and our efforts.

13.               Awakening
Awakening is the best translation of bodhi, which is often translated as Enlightenment. And Buddha is probably best translated as ‘the awakened one’. Awakening is also good because it gives a sense of process rather than an endpoint. Bodhi or awakening is a process without end. And it’s a process that begins with the tiny seeds of spiritual aspiration. Those tiny seeds of aspiration are sown when we become sharply aware of the existential facts of life, or when we encounter higher states of consciousness in ourselves, in another person or even in a book.
We embark on a spiritual path because at some point and in some way the seeds of awakening have been planted in us. Our spiritual aspiration – shraddha – has begun to grow. Awakening is a direction rather than an endpoint. The opposite of awakening is sleep and the direction of greater sleep, stupor, unconsciousness, ignorance. The direction of awakening is towards greater awareness, an expansive consciousness, compassion, egolessness, creativity, abundance, living. So we can put ourselves on the path of awakening by acting and speaking and thinking skilfully and if we do we can be certain that the process of awakening will carry on unfolding in our lives and will even gain momentum in time. If we travel together on the path of awakening we can help and support each other and enjoy the journey all the more. As Walt Whitman says in his great poem Song Of Myself:
“each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
my left hand hooks you round the waist,
 my right hand points to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road.
Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you,
you must travel it for yourself.
It is not far… It is within reach,
 perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know, perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.
Shoulder your duds,dear son, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth;
wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.
 If you tire give me both burdens, and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip,
 and in due time you shall repay the same service to me;
 for after we start we never lie by again.”

14.               Community
Epicurus – the ancient Greek philosopher – is quoted as saying “of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life and happiness, the greatest by far is friendship”.
The most essential ingredient of friendship is trust. Where there is no trust there is no friendship. Friendship in turn is the essential ingredient of the spiritual community. Spiritual community is a network of friendship – or to put it another way – a spiritual community is a network of trust. But what is it that we trust? According to the Short Puja – the
Threefold Puja – the spiritual community is “the Fellowship of those who tread the way” and the community grows “as one by one, we make our own commitment”. So the spiritual community consists of those who have individually made a choice, a decision, a commitment – and that decision is “to tread the way”. In other words the spiritual community consists of those who have made a commitment, a choice to follow the teaching of the Buddha – to observe the ethical principles of Buddhism, to cultivate positive mental states through meditation, to study the Dharma with those more experienced.
To come back to the question of trust –in the spiritual community what we are placing our trust in is the commitment of others to actually practice the Dharma. If someone says they are going to practice the Dharma but are unwilling or unable to do so then, by definition, they are not really part of the spiritual community. Or if someone is practising the Dharma, but not as a free individual choice and decision, but to obtain approval or out of fear of disapproval – then they aren’t really part of the spiritual community either, again by definition.
The spiritual community is not a club you join, it is the result of the individual decision to practice and the actual practice of the Dharma. Those who find themselves on the path together in this way are a spiritual community. If the practice is under the guidance of a particular teacher then they belong to a particular Sangha. There is the Maha Sangha of all practising Buddhists and the specific Sangha of those following a particular set of teachings. Our spiritual community is defined by our individual commitment to practice and by the elucidation of the Dharma by Sangharakshita. The Triratna community is the community of those who trust each other’s practice of the Dharma as elucidated by Bhante Sangharakshita. To be part of the spiritual community is a source of support in our practice, a source of happiness in our lives and a piece of strange good fortune to be rejoiced in. Human beings are deeply social and therefore community and a sense of belonging is very important to us. To belong to a community which also has a higher purpose is a bonus and if we can recognise this – recognise our good fortune, we will be happier and quite likely to make others happy to.

15.               Life
Life is abundant. Life is like a tropical rainforest or a Niagara falls – it rolls on relentlessly and is a flourishing abundant cornucopia –producing and reproducing endlessly. Life cannot be stopped, it cannot be contained and restrained. But we want to control life. Our fears and insecurities lead us to want to control life as much as possible. We even want to control the future.
EM Forster –the English writer – said:  “ We can spend our whole life preparing to live” . And John Lennon said  “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans” . In other words the urge to control life and make it secure and comfortable can lead us to miss out on actually living our lives. We can spend a lot of time and energy trying to create an imagined future or trying to protect ourselves from a feared future and in the meantime our life is almost on hold.
But as Bhante puts it in his poem of the same name – Life is King.
Hour after hour, day
After day we try
To grasp the Ungraspable, pinpoint
The Unpredictable. Flowers
Wither when touched, ice
Suddenly cracks beneath or feet. Vainly
We try to track birdflight through the sky trace
Dumb fish through deep water. Try
To anticipate the earned smile the soft
Reward, even
Try to grasp our own lives. But life
Slips through our fingers
Like snow. Life cannot belong to us. We belong to Life. Life
Is King.
 The great Albert Einstein is quoted as saying:
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
Mindfulness is the Buddhist way of living your life as though everything is a miracle. For Buddhists it is not the walking on water that is a miracle, it is the simple fact of walking.  When we have mindfulness and when we have love, we have everything and without needing to control, we are able to connect to the pulsing heart of life.





Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Goal

This talk was given at the convention for male Order Members in Europe in August 2014.

In the Dhammapada it say's" Nirvana is the Supreme Happiness."
Here is a quote from a very unlikely source and I don't expect you to guess where it's from - the fact it's a bit of a trick.

"Nirvana is the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness"

I didn't expect anyone to recognise that. I have changed one word – nirvana should read heaven. So the quote is "heaven is the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness". It's from section 1024 of the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps it just demonstrates how words and descriptions cannot fully encapsulate transcendental experience. We have to be careful with words.

In the shepherds search for mind Milarepa says "without arrival, he reaches the place of Buddha. Without seeing, he visions the Dharmakaya."

These quotes from Milarepa are in the mode of paradox. The paradoxical method is only one way to talk about the goal of Buddhism.   In the Three Jewels Bhante tells us there are four ways to speak about the goal of Buddhism – negatively, positively, poetically and paradoxically.

By negatively he means speaking about nirvana as the absence of something. It's the absence of craving, the absence of ignorance, the absence of suffering, the absence of the poisons, the stopping of the wheel.
Positively, nirvana or enlightenment is the fullness of compassion and wisdom, energy, peace, bliss, the Supreme Happiness etc.
Poetically nirvana is spoken about as the cool cave, the holy city or the other shore or perhaps the Pureland.
In terms of paradox, we have this quote from Milarepa -  "without arrival, he reaches the place of Buddha. Without seeing, he visions the Dharmakaya.". We have the whole perfection of wisdom literature and we have the Rinzai Zen tradition of koans.

I have been thinking that there are perhaps another couple of ways of talking about the Goal of Buddhism.
Firstly we could speak of the Goal in terms of how it manifest in peoples lives : Bhante does this in Living with Kindness  where he says " A common misapprehension is to think of Insight and egolessness in abstract, even metaphysical, terms rather than as comprising concretely-lived attitudes and behaviour. But realizing the truth of egolessness simply means being truly and deeply unselfish. To contemplate the principle of egolessness as some special principle that is somehow separate from our actual behaviour will leave it as far away as ever. If we find it difficult to realize the ultimate emptiness of the self, the solution is to be a little less selfish. The understanding comes after the experience, not before." Page 134.

When we look into the Pali Canon we see that the Buddha  says to the first 61 Arahants " You are free from all shackles whether human or divine. Go now and wander for the welfare and happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and men."  (Nanamoli, Life of the Buddha, Page 52 )and of course that is what the Buddha did and what those Arahants did. It's what Milarepa did with his songs and what Bhante has done for 70 years.
As Bhante puts it again in Living with Kindness " Forgetting the self as a reference point, no longer asking what any given situation means for you alone, you can go on indefinitely expanding the breadth and depth of your interest and positivity. This is the essence of the spiritual life: to bring about a state in which the whole movement and tendency of our being is expansive, spiralling creatively outwards and upwards." Page 136.

So that is a sense of what the Goal looks like when it manifests in the life of an individual - It looks unselfish, expansive, and alive to the welfare and happiness of the many. It's a matter of concretely lived attitudes and behaviours.

We could also talk about the Goal in terms of the Path. As Gandhi put it " The clearest possible definition of the goal and its appreciation would fail
to take us there if we do not know and utilize the means of achieving it. I
have, therefore, concerned myself principally with the conservation of the
means and their progressive use. I know that if we can take care of them,
attainment of the goal is assured. I feel too that our progress towards the
goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of our means." M.K. Gandhi, “‘Letter to Jawaharlal Nehru (14-9-1933),” CWMG, 61, 393.

In other words the end is included in the means; the Goal is included in the means to the Goal.

Speaking about the Goal is difficult because of the nature of language, which presupposes a subject and an object. When we talk about the Goal, we inevitably end up at some point talking about a subject - me, you him or her - moving towards and arriving at a goal - Enlightenment. But of course the Dharma is all about breaking through the illusion of a separate, fixed self - or breaking through the illusion of subject and object. Speaking about the Goal is also hampered by the human obsession with measuring and categorising. This an obsession that has served humanity well in many areas of life from Astronomy to Zoology, from Music to Transportation, but is not all that helpful when it comes to the spiritual dimension of life. It leads us to want to measure and categorise what cannot really be measured and categorised . If we speak of transformation we want to measure the degree of transformation and categorise the type of transformation. If we speak of freedom we want to measure and categorise freedom. Even when we move into metaphor and speak of entering a stream we want to know how deep the stream is and how far into it we have progressed. I guess there may be those who want to know the depth of the Cool Cave and it's cubic capacity or where the Lost City is to be found on Google maps.  This is why Bhante talks about Nirvana as non-experience in his lecture Enlightenment as Experience and as Non-experience. If we think and speak in terms of experience we want to categorise the type and intensity of the experience. This can lead to a craving for particular kinds of experience - so anything exciting and new will draw our interest - a new teaching or a new teacher or a new meditation technique that seems to promise quick results. New and exotic things have the promise of new experience and in our society, which is deeply deeply conditioned by consumerism it is difficult for us not to think of egolessness as yet another exciting new experience - even the experience to trump all experiences. Just as an aside here - the most commonly used adjective in advertising is the word 'new' and it is used because it works. There is an ad for an Apple iphone which has the word 'new' twice in one sentence'. That is what we have been conditioned by since childhood and it goes deep. We have been conditioned to crave the new and the implied promise is that the new will give new experience and satisfaction.

But in the Sutta Nipata the Buddha says :
" There is no measuring of man
 won to the Goal, whereby they'd say
His measure's so: that's not for him;
When all conditions are removed,
All ways of telling are removed."
quoted in Guide to the Buddhist Path, Page 205.

If we can try to see Enlightenment from the perspective of Enlightenment, from the perspective of the Goal, we then have to say that there is no person who attains the Goal and no Goal to attain - neither the person on the path nor the Goal is fixed. Everything is dynamic, everything is energy. There are no ultimate distinctions to be made between the person treading the Path and the Path and no distinction to be made between the  Path and the Goal. The individual is the Path and the Path is the Goal. The Goal is dynamic, not static and therefore the language of Goals is not very helpful.

We have to break through the idea of me (in isolation) progressing on the Path (external to me) and arriving at a goal (somewhere over the horizon) like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. This sort of spatial and linear language can lead to delusions about the nature of spiritual life and practice.

What we need is a more dynamic vision, something that cannot be measured and categorised so easily. Pratitya Samutpada could perhaps be that vision, but it can still be understood as something external to the person. Perhaps it would be best to think that we are pratitya samutpada, rather than thinking that we are subject to the law of pratitya samutpada. Everything arise in dependence upon conditions - we are the conditions in dependence upon which we arise. It's not that the conditions are simply or only external factors acting upon us. We are our thoughts, emotions, words and actions and our thoughts, emotions, words and actions are constantly moment to moment creating us and re-creating us. we are what we input into our minds.

Perhaps plant and flower imagery are a good way of getting a sense of this. The plant or flower is an image of organic growth and an image of transformation. The acorn grows organically into an oak tree or the acorn is transformed by various conditions into an oak tree. Whichever language we use there is a dynamic, constant process - a process of dependent arising - pratitya samutpada. The acorn is a dynamic, constant process. The oak tree is a dynamic, constant process. The person on the path is a dynamic, constant process as is the path and the Goal. The Goal - Nirvana, Enlightenment - call it what we will, is a dynamic, constant process. There is in the end no end point and no point at which the acorn stops being an acorn and becomes an oak tree.

Buddhahood is a process and breaking through into Buddhahood is a process. In his lecture entitled Breaking Through into Buddhahood, one of his classics -Bhante mentions four areas in which we need to break through - negative emotions, Psychological conditioning, rational thinking and our sense of time.
Once we start working in these areas of our lives it is like putting the acorn into the soil  and providing the nutrients for it to grow.

Some of the conditions that help us to break through negative emotions are things like healthy food, exercise, time spent in the natural environment and engagement with cultural activities.  There is also of course focussing on what is positive in our lives and thinking positively. In the Order, sometimes, negative emotion seems to take the form of clinging to opinions or points of view at the expense of spiritual communion or even at the expense of simple fellow feeling. It is where the positive quality of confidence dips into being the negative quality of arrogance. How do we break through that?  It's a question that  demands self knowledge and a willingness to own up to our own egotism. Not an easy task. Owning up to our egotism is not easy but it is essential.

When Bhante talked about breaking through psychological conditioning - he talked in terms of becoming aware of our conditioning both through feedback from others and through noticing and reflecting on our responses to unfamiliar situations or places. I think there are other forms of psychological conditioning that are more collective and therefore harder for us to see. I spoke earlier about advertisers using the word 'new' to grab our attention and activate our craving. But advertisers have been doing more than that to us for generations. Our whole consumer society could be seen as a social engineering experiment and we are the guinea pigs in the experiment. Especially since the end of the 2nd World War we have been systematically conditioned to want to buy more and more things and continually upgrade our possessions. Our whole economic system depends on this behaviour. But this began back in the 1920's. In "America: a narrative history" the author tells us that when increases in efficiency meant that more goods became available, people had to be persuaded to give up their values of frugality and plain living. He writes " The public had to be taught the joys of carefree consumerism and the new industry of mass advertising obliged. By portraying impulse buying as a therapeutic measure to bolster self-esteem, advertisers shrewdly helped undermine notions of frugality"
There have been many improvements in the techniques of advertisers since then and we are the products of a society whose consciousness has been programmed for generations to buy happiness, freedom, security, love and everything desirable in the form of goods and gadgets. This is a deep and powerful psychological conditioning that reaches into every corner of our lives and minds and we cannot afford to ignore it. So breaking through psychological conditioning is not just about your relationship with your parents or your religious background. It is also very much about our consumerist conditioning and it's opposition to the values of simplicity and contentment. I remember some years back reading that the government in Thailand had suppressed Buddhist teachings about living simply because it was impeding economic progress. And of course they were right - if your valuation of progress is in economic terms then the Buddhist values of simplicity and contentment are at best a nuisance.

The third area Bhante talked about is breaking through rational thinking. This is a matter of trying to constantly bear in mind the metaphorical nature of all descriptions, the metaphorical nature of language. Using imagination and lateral thinking help with this. In the Buddhist tradition paradox is used to transcend conceptual thought. The rational mind, rational thinking, is very important for human survival and progress, however it is not adequate to realising the true nature of reality. Our abilities to analyse and measure and categorise are not sufficient for the attainment of the Goal of Enlightenment - or maybe better to say our rational thinking is not sufficient for the non-attainment of the non-Goal of Enlightenment.

Bhante also talked about our need to break through our time sense, that is our sense of mechanical, linear time in which our life is planned and  measured out. Buddhahood is beyond time, eternal, outside time. This is why breaking through the time sense is important. If Awakened consciousness is beyond time, then to get a glimpse of that we have to begin by trying to liberate ourselves from mechanical time, which is a form of measurement. If we are to approach the state that cannot be measured - the state of the Trackless One - then we need to go beyond the rational, measuring, mind and beyond our time sense. Natural or organic time is pure duration and doesn't have a past, present and future. It is what we mean when we talk about mindfulness or being present in our experience.

The metaphor of breaking through could give the impression of a sudden, dramatic happening, but it is a process. We can break through all the time by being aware, contemplative and skilful. This constant breaking through is the Goal of spiritual practice. To switch metaphors, it is a constant evolving of consciousness that we are aiming at. Of course our rational and materialistic ways of thinking will want to measure and categorise and label every millimetre of progress we make, but we need to breakthrough or evolve beyond our human obsession with labelling and measuring and categorising and simply surrender to the process of growth and consciously evolve.
There is a paradox here too. In the image of the rain cloud from the White Lotus Sutra, the rain of the Dharma falls on all beings and each grows according to his or her own nature. The process of growth, the process of evolving is unlimited but the nature of beings is limited. The acorn cannot become a sunflower and the sunflower seed cannot become an oak tree.
A second paradox is that we have to make a conscious effort to become capable of surrendering to the Dharma. We have to use our individual will to go beyond or transcend our individual will.
The spiritual path, which is not a path but a metaphor, is strewn with contradictions, which are not contradictions but simply paradoxes.

I am speaking about the Goal and about the non-difference between the means and the end, between the path and the Goal. If we practise study, meditation and reflection, if we practise skilfulness, if we practise spiritual friendship, etc., we will become the Path and in doing so we will also become the Goal - all in good time.

In my own life and practice I have never been very concerned with or interested in the Goal - it always seemed too much of an abstraction -just so many labels hanging in a void with tantalising words on them - Enlightenment, Nirvana, Buddhahood.

I have tended to think of the goal in terms of the Path and in terms of lived attitudes and behaviours, rather than in terms of some big experience that I want to have. For me the Goal is the Path and the Path is the Goal. The Buddha is the Dharma and the Dharma is the Buddha. Because we have separate words for things does not mean that things are separate.

There is a little practice I have been doing for many years which encapsulates what the whole point of being a Buddhist is for me. When I bow in front of a shrine I say to myself - With body, speech and mind I go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. May I be a worthy disciple of the Buddha, May I be a worthy disciple of Bhante. May I be purified, may I be mindful, may my understanding deepen, may I be of benefit to others. So these last four things constitute the Path and Goal for me :
Purification or skilfulness. The realm of Vajrasattva.
Mindfulness or awareness.
Deep understanding or realisation of the Truth.
Benefiting others or compassion.

All four of these things contain within them Wisdom, Compassion and Energy, the seeds and fruits of spiritual practice.

However I have noticed that spiritual life and practice is not linear and straightforward and there are surprises and mysteries along the way.

How we experience time can change, how we make decisions can change and even our sense of who we are can be transformed.

In my own experience, when I was 21 my whole life changed as a result of a dream I had. I gave up my career in accountancy and most of my possessions and literally set out to find the meaning of life. That was about six years before I discovered Buddhism.
About 15 years ago I was at a stage where my spiritual practice felt a bit flat and dull and going nowhere. I was on holiday in Florence and went to the Uffizi Gallery. When I encountered the Madonna of the Magnificat by Botecelli I was suddenly filled with inspiration and my spiritual practice came alive again. I can't explain how that happened. About 3 years ago I was in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and my attention was arrested by a painting of the Madonna and Child by Van Dyck.  I was irresistibly drawn to this painting for a few months and when I went on solitary retreat, I had a dream that seemed somehow related to the painting and as a result of that dream my whole approach to spiritual practice was changed.

These things surprised me and although I have some explanations, the explanations seem to be inadequate to the experience. Life can be surprising and even mysterious.

Perhaps another way to think about the Goal of the spiritual life is to accept that we just need to stay open to the mystery of life. Forget our measuring, forget our categories and labels and just accept that life is bigger than us - accept that what we don't know greatly outweighs what we do know. There are mysteries and surprises in store for us if we simply practis ethe Dharma as it has come to us from Bhante.

As Bhante puts it in one of his poems
Above me broods
A world of mysteries and magnitudes.
I see, I hear,
More than what strikes the eye or meets the ear.
Within me sleep
Potencies deep, unfathomably deep,
Which, when awake,
The bonds of life, death, time and space will break.
Infinity
Above me like the blue sky do I see.
Below, in me,
Lies the reflection of infinity.






Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Fifteen Reflections on Death

A talk given at Cambridge Buddhist Centre on Parinirvana Day 2014

Parinirvana day is a time to reflect on death. The reason for reflecting on death is not to be morbid or become depressed, but in order to enhance life. Reflecting on death gives us a heightened sense of what is important in life - what is really important - to us individually and to the world. By being fully aware of death we can have an experience of the significance and wonder of being alive. We become even more alive.

I have come up with fifteen reflections on death and sometimes I may repeat myself - that is in the nature of reflecting on something - you see the same thing from different angles. The purpose of these reflections is to spark off your own reflections and stimulate discussion. After I have spoken you will have an opportunity to break into smaller groups and explore some of the topics further.

1. Death is Inevitable
Here is how Kukai puts it in his poem 'To a Nobleman in Kyoto'

Have you not seen, O have you not seen,
That billions have lived in China, in Japan,
None have been immortal, from time immemorial:
Ancient sage kings or tyrants, good subjects or bad,
Fair ladies and homely – who could enjoy eternal youth?
Noble men and lowly alike, without exception, die away;
They all have died, reduced to dust and ashes;
The singing halls and dancing stages have become the abodes of foxes.
Transient as dreams, bubbles or lightening, all are perpetual travellers.
Have you not seen, O have you not seen,
This has been man’s fate, how can you alone live forever?

This seems so obvious. It's a truism to say 'everyone will die'. But it is only obvious on a superficial level. It's something we know but don't really know. Bhante recalled that he was in his early thirties when he first realised that he was going to die. I myself was in my forties when I first had a distinct realisation that death applied to me. It was very different from just knowing in a conceptual way. It was more like a physical shock. I was lying on my bed reading a Shakespeare play ( a phase I was going through) and I was suddenly hit by the impact of the realisation that I was going to die. It just hit me. I knew before this experience that I was going to die, but afterwards I knew in a different, more thorough way.

It is worth reflecting on the inevitability of death. The inevitability of your own death and the inevitability of the death of everyone you know and the inevitability of the death of every one you don't know. And of course the inevitability of the death of all animals, insects , birds, plants and so on. This is how nature works and we are part of nature.

The purpose of reflecting on the inevitability of death is to enable and encourage us to live a life of meaning rather than a life of escapism. It is also to give us a sense of how precious and fragile our life is - all life is - more precious and fragile than any beautiful Chinese vase or Vermeer painting. Death is the only thing we can be sure of and therefore is a good basis for living a life based in reality rather than fantasy.

2. The Time of Death
The time of death is of course uncertain. We may assume, especially when we are under the age of 50, that death is a long way off and we'll have plenty of time to think about that later. However people can die at any age - from disease, in accidents and so on.
There is a Buddhist practice which recommends living as if you were going to die today. This may be too difficult but it might be worth reflecting sometimes - How would I live if I knew I had only 1 year left or if I had just 5 years left. This kind of reflection helps us to distinguish what is important to us. Of course it is possible to do a reflection like this superficially, so that you don't really get the benefit. So you really have to reflect deeply and in detail to develop a greater degree of self knowledge with this kind of reflection.
The time of death is uncertain for us and it is also uncertain for everyone we know. How would you relate to another person if you knew that they had only 6 months or a year to live.

Another aspect of not knowing the time of death is that we may live for much longer than we expect. A few years ago when I was in my mid-50's I noticed that I had started thinking of myself as old - prematurely. I was feeling that I was to old to learn new things or take on new projects. When I became aware of this attitude things changed for me and I suddenly felt that I could do whatever I wanted and my age was not necessarily any indication of how long I had to live or what I could achieve in my life.

3. The Manner of Death
In England and Wales there are about 500000 deaths per annum and about 85% of those are for people over the age of 65. The major causes of death are heart disease, cancer and chronic respiratory problems. For those over 80 Alzheimers and dementia also features strongly.
We need to prepare ourselves for the reality that illness and death, like everything else, arises in dependence on conditions and the manner of our death will also arise in dependence on conditions. However there are no conditions that will free us from physical death.
No matter how much exercise we do, no matter what food we eat - we will eventually have to go and it is likely that heart disease or cancer will take us. This is not to say that taking exercise and eating well is pointless. So long as we are alive it is best that we maintain our health as best we can, so that we can enjoy life and do something worthwhile with our energy and life force.
We can reflect that the manner of our death is likely to be quite ordinary and similar to that of others - heart disease, cancer, chronic bronchitis, liver disease etc.. By reflecting on this ordinary road to death we can be to some degree prepared, at least mentally. When our time comes we are less likely to be surprised or angry or have a sense of injustice. We will be able to accept with relative tranquillity that our illnesses are normal and not some special trial or punishment that we alone are being subjected to.

4. Preparation for Death.
How can we prepare for our own death? How can we prepare for the death of those close to us? or even those we don't like?
Reflecting on death is in itself a preparation - reflecting on the certainty of death, the uncertainty of the time of death and the likely manner of death - all of that increases our awareness and prepares us to some degree.
Reflecting deeply on the values we want to live by and making an effort to live by those values also prepares us to some degree. We are less likely to have regrets or a sense of being unfulfilled if we live a meaningful life of growing awareness. We can reflect on what is important to us and what we want to give our time and energy to - and if we live by these values we are likely to feel satisfied with our lives and have less regrets and less fear of dying. In fact we may even welcome death - feeling that we have completed our life's purpose.
We can also try to prepare for death in practical ways - by making a will, putting our affairs in order, making a list of things that need to be done in the event of our death - so that everything is clear to those who have to look after our affairs. ( Manjusvara's example). As you get older you can also arrange to give someone power of attorney as preparation for a time when you might be too ill to look after your own affairs.

We can also go through all the accumulated possessions and papers of a lifetime and decide what we want to do with them now and what we want to happen to them after we've gone.
Another important aspect of preparing for death is keeping our friendships and relationships in good repair. In the end it is love and friendship that will matter most..

5. Fear of Death
Why do we fear death? Perhaps because we see it as annihilation? Or perhaps because we have some lingering fear that there will be some judgement passed on our lives when we come to die. Of course we ourselves will pass judgement on our lives when we near the end. Inevitably we will look back, either with satisfaction or regret or (more likely) some mixture of both. So to avoid the fear of having to pass a bad judgement on our lives we need to live  according to our higher values as much as much as we can.

But really it is our clinging to an ego identity that is the main source of fear. We protect and defend our ego-self, trying to avoid unpleasant experience and increase pleasant experience. And that means we keep up a constant effort to control reality. Death is not something we can control and that which is outside our control is a source of fear to our ego-self. By becoming less ego-centric and more selfless we can begin to lessen our fear of death.

6. Death as Loss
Sometimes we find it hard to take on board that we are going to die and sometimes we find it perhaps even more difficult to come to terms with the fact that others will die. How can we come to terms with the fact that all those we love and care for will one day die? I don't think it's possible to come to terms with the death of our loved ones - if coming to terms means not being upset  and not experiencing a sense of loss.
Of course we will be upset and feel bereft when someone close to us dies. We can accept that as conscious, loving and emotional beings we will experience upset and grief.. However by reflecting on the inevitability of death throughout our life, we will be creating a context in which our grief is an expression of love rather than of regret or depression.
Sometimes when people close to us die we may not experience being upset or grief stricken. When my mother died after a long 5 or 6 year period of illness I experienced joy that she had been able to let go and her physical suffering was over. I experienced a heightened awareness of life and of it's significance. For a week or two I was in a state of consciousness that was dislocated from everyday activities and concerns - a kind of continuous state of contemplation. After a couple of weeks that faded and a couple of months later I spontaneously composed a written eulogy for my mother and felt at peace and as if that was the final goodbye. I'm telling you this to make the point that sadness and grief are not always the response to death of loved ones. Different conditions can give rise to different responses and we don't need to feel that we have to have one particular response. At Buddhist funerals of course we try to concentrate on celebrating the life of the deceased person rather than on our own emotional responses - at least for a time.
This is perhaps something we could apply while people are still alive- - celebrating their qualities.

7. Death and Illwill
The sixth verse of the Dhammapada says " Others do not realise that we are all heading for death. Those who do realise it will compose their quarrels."
This is pointing to another aspect of reflecting on the fact that we will all die. If we are annoyed with someone or experiencing a lot of illwill or hatred towards them, we can ask ourselves whether this is how we want our last interaction with them to be.
We may not be able to resolve all our quarrels and disagreements, but we can work on ourselves to dispel our hatred and illwill. One way of doing this is to reflect on death, which may put our quarrels and disagreements into a perspective that makes it easier to calm down our emotions.

8. Death as opportunity
Because all living things die and because we are confronted with this fact in our own lives and all around us - death is an ever present reminder of impermanence. Of course, impermanence implies growth and life and flowering as well as decay and death, but somehow we are able to see impermanence more clearly in endings than in beginnings. So death, whether our own or that of others, gives us food for thought.

When someone dies it is a great opportunity for us to come a little closer to reality - the reality of impermanence. It is also an opportunity for us to appreciate life fully and experience gratitude for all that is vital and beautiful in life.

9. Death and honesty
In her excellent book - Intimate Death - Marie de Hennezel tells many stories from he work in a hospice - stories about the final few months or weeks of people's lives. I remember one story in particular about a woman whose family could not accept that she was dying. The poor woman felt very lonely and confused because she couldn't talk honestly to those closest to her about the biggest thing in her life.
I have seen this myself - where people can think they are cheering someone up by saying things like " you'll be up and about soon" or " you'll be alright", when it is clear that it's not true.
Of course sometimes it's the other way around and it is the dying person who can't accept the truth and may even be quite angry at any suggestion that they are not going to recover. They can say things like " you're trying to get rid of me " or hurtful things like " you want me to die".
Honesty in the face of the fact of death is not easy, but as in most cases, honesty is the best policy - honesty tempered by kindness and sensitivity. By frequently contemplating the fact of death we will become very familiar with it and it will be easier to be frank about it. Our whole tendency and culture in Europe tends to hide death and hide from death and that is a kind of escapism that Buddhism does not recommend. So, let's be honest about death - whether our own or that of others,

10. Old Age and Death
I looked up the statistics and in England and Wales only 15% of deaths are under the age of 65. Most of the other 85% go on into old age. So, based on these figures, although some of us will die before reaching old age the majority of us will experience old age.
Old age is a process of dying. It is, put poetically, the winter of our lives. Biologically it is a period of decay.
Part of contemplating death is also contemplating old age. We should try to be aware of older people and try to be aware of what life is like for them - physically, mentally and emotionally.
It is good to get used to the idea that we may become less mobile or our hearing may deteriorate or our short term memory may disappear. It can have the effect of making us more appreciative of our capacity to walk and hear and see and remember and it also prepares us a little for the process of aging and dying.

11. Premature Death
Although the majority of us in England and Wales at least, will live into old age, nevertheless, 15 in every 100 will die prematurely and that figure will be higher in some other countries.
So, it is best not to think that your life will inevitably follow the pattern of old age, sickness and death. You may die young. You may have some warning of approaching death or it may happen suddenly.
How you relate to death may depend on what you believe about what happens after death. But in all honesty, whatever we believe about the after death state, none of us actually knows. We have the Buddhist tradition, which teaches rebirth (but not reincarnation). We have materialism which teaches annihilation and we have theistic religions with their visions of heaven and hell.
Personally, I have no idea what happens after death. I am curious about it and I am very open to the Buddhist tradition. But I really don't know. If there is rebirth, then we are experiencing it now and we can see that it is not problem free. Of course the Buddhist position is a subtle one - there is rebirth ( or more precisely rebecoming -punarbhava) but there is no being who is reborn.

Whether our death is premature or comes at the end of a long period of old age, it is subject to the law of conditionality - everything arises in dependence on conditions and what happens after death will arise in dependence on conditions too. The conditions that we have most control over are our actions of body , speech and mind. Our values and behaviour, our karma, will bear fruit in one way or another and that is why we need to pay attention to ethics and our mental states.

12. Death as experience and non-experience
We tend to think of death as something that will happen to us or to others - we will experience death. However experience is through the senses and death is when the senses no longer function. When we die we have no sight, sound, taste, touch or smell. In terms of how we normally understand experience - death is not an experience.
Of course in Buddhism the mind or consciousness is considered to be a sense too - so we may have a mental experience that corresponds to death - which could be blissful or horrible depending on how we have lived our life.
But in ordinary terms we can experience the process of dying but not death itself.
Also from a Buddhist perspective, what we think of as 'I' or 'me' or 'my self', our ego-identity, is just an illusion. We are a process, an ever changing process - physically, mentally, emotionally - in every way we are a process of constant change. There is not fixed and substantial about us and therefore there is nothing fixed and substantial to die. There is just change and what we refer to as death is simply another change. It's a non-experience - there is in reality no fixed and substantial person to experience anything. To be even more paradoxical - there is experience but no-one who experiences it. As Buddhism says - there is rebirth but no-one who is reborn.

13. Death is natural
We are part of the natural world. Nature operates in us in the same way that it operates in a blade of grass, an oak tree or an elephant. One of the processes of nature is the process of growth and decay. Growth and decay is a natural and necessary process, which runs through all of the natural world. Without growth and decay everything would be completely lifeless. Because we are part of the natural world, because we are alive, we grow and decay like the flowers and the clouds, the trees and the wind. Death is natural and necessary and we can embrace it in our love of the natural world.

14. A Buddhist attitude to death
All of these reflections we have gone through constitute a Buddhist attitude to death.
Death is natural and inevitable. There is nothing morbid about reflecting on death. In fact we need to reflect on death in order to make the most of life. But we should, of course, be in a positive state of mind when we do so. Awareness of death can lead us to celebrate life - life in general and the lives of the people, animals and plants all around us.
Our sense of a fixed and unchanging self is an illusion and the death of that fixed self is an illusion.
Death is not a grim reaper - just a breeze that floats the leaves to the ground.

15. Reflecting on death
We reflect on death because it is the big question mark over our lives. It is inevitable so it makes sense to be at peace with it. It's time is uncertain, so we need to be prepared now. It is the background to our lives and being aware of death we can embrace our lives by heightening our awareness of what is truly most important for us - our values, the activities, the people and the purposes that are really important.
If we are aware of what is important and directing our energy towards what is important, we will lead satisfying and fulfilling lives.
According to the Buddha we cause ourselves suffering by craving and clinging. Reflecting on death can help us to let go of grasping and attachment. We can have a sense of stewardship rather than ownership towards our possessions and our bodies and hold them lightly.
By reflecting on death we can learn to enjoy and celebrate this wonderful life without grasping anxiously at it. As the English poet William Blake put it,

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise. 

Finally when we talk about reflecting on anything we mustn't expect that we can reflect once and then that's the job done. No, we have to return again and again to the same topics and allow our reflections to go deeper and take root, like tending a garden, until our reflections flower in our lives as wisdom and energy.