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.


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