Despite common misconceptions, buddhists are not obsessed with death, they are obsessed with happiness.
Embracing Life by letting go of Death
What is the point of thinking about death? Is it morbid or is it useful? And how can it be used by non-Buddhists to cope with dying, death, or loss?
Ask a Buddhist what the leading cause of death is, and the Buddhist will say: "birth."
While it's true that Buddhism has a deep interest in the subject of Death, it is just a true to say that Buddhism has a deep interest in a great number of the things that seem to plague the human experience. However, the comfort with which Buddhists can talk about Death seems to make a lot of people uncomfortable and, as a result, it gets over-played in our media and culture.
So why does Buddhism have such a focus on Death?
First, let's clear up this ever-present misconception: Buddhism does not have a focus on Death. Death is one of the many topics, that apply to each and everyone of us, and as such, it is addressed in-depth within the canon of Buddhist mind-training. One can spend an entire lifetime meditating and practicing the dharma without ever touching on the subject of Death beyond that of rebirth and karma (which are separate and distinct subjects). The subject of Death is almost entirely an optional subject for practice and along those lines, some schools of Buddhism barely touch on the subject, while others perhaps over-emphasise it (...I am looking at you, Tibetans!)
Okay, so why all this Death then?
The reason that Buddhism has so many teachings on death is because at some point we will each experience death and dying from a very personal perspective: our own. After all, death is the inevitable conclusion to birth, and so it's really important to have a healthy relationship with it before we are forced to approach our own death.
At its core, Buddhism is a philosophically positive approach to life that puts happiness and peace-of-mind at the forefront of its purpose, and there are few things that can shatter a person's happiness and peace-of-mind the way that Death can. It's so shattering in fact, that many people refuse to even talk about it in any meaningful way, even when it's too late.
To quote one of my teachers, "thinking that someday we will die isn't being morbid, it's being realistic. Death is only fearful when we don't have a method to relate to it properly."
The Buddha didn't instruct on Death and its related problems and difficulties in order to make us depressed. Those things will continue to exist whether we think about them or not; however, by recognising the dis-satisfactory nature of our relationship with Death, we can then ask ourselves if we want to continue having those fearful attitudes and discomforting feelings about it, or not. And, "if not," then fortunately there are many practices that we can start adopting today to help us slowly come to terms with it that will make a profound impact when the time inevitably comes.
This isn't just for Buddhists. The teaching are practical and apply to everyone regardless of beliefs or dogma. After all, we are all going to die, regardless where we stand on the spiritual spectrum. This is important to emphasise, because no matter how much we love someone, they are going to die too, and taking the time now to develop a healthier relationship with Death will enable us to have healthier relationships with those who are dying. This is even more important when we think about how we would like to be there for the people whom we love and cherish when the time comes for them to experience first-hand what it's like to die.
In order to really appreciate why the focus on the end-of-life is so strong, it's important to understand the three most basic characteristic of Death from the Buddhist perspective, albeit reduced significantly for the purposes of this article, which are:
Looks basic, right? Let's dig in a little to figure out what all the fuss is about:
1. It's a certainty. What is born, must die.
You certainly will go through the experience of dying, and when you do, it will be in your present and not at some time in the distant future. This is important and a lot of people put off facing the notion of their own death because of a false belief that they will have time to prepare for it at some point in the future when it's more relevant. That's unwise and reflects a dangerous misunderstanding of life, the universe, and everything. It bears keeping in mind that our bodies are shockingly fragile and susceptible to injury and sickness; and that there are far many more causes for death out there then there are for life.
Remember, things never happen to us at some point in the future. When things happen to us, they happen to us 'in the Now.' That is to say, we can only experience things that happen to us in the present tense; and when things get real, you want to be at a place where you've already prepared your mind for the experience.
2. What you take with you matters.
You can't take anything material with you when you die, but what you can take is much more important, and that's the state of your mind. And the best way to condition your mind for a loving, positive, and peaceful death is by learning, understanding, and getting comfortable with the notion of it before you are called upon to face it personally. Too many people unnecessarily face death filled with panic, anxiety, denial, and fear... and life doesn't have to end that way. Speaking of which:
3. The time and conditions of your death are unknown.
Avoiding the preparation for the inevitable creates a fertile ground for fear, uncertainty, lack of acceptance, regret, clinging, manipulation, negotiating, and a near-endless list of afflictions that cause suffering to take root and flourish as Death approaches. This hurts us, and everyone else around us. This is especially true for the countless number of people who experience unexpectedly painful, traumatic, and violent deaths. Note: our deaths are never what we imagine them to be and we rarely consider the fact that we may become one of the many people whose deaths are unexpectedly very raw in-nature; so it can be very helpful for your practice regarding Death to know that not only will you die, but that your death may be very painful and violent. Oh my.
These three points are tightly inter-connected and serve to underscore the fact that heading into the "big D" scared as heck is not a conducive way to lay the foundations for a peaceful and loving death (for you, or for those around you)...but even forgetting about anything even remotely related to Buddhism: being so scared or profoundly terrified of something that we can't even talk about it, lays the foundation for a very painful experience for everyone who is touched by it.
The thing to be afraid of isn't death itself, it's dying with an uncontrolled and terrified mind.
When Death can really be explored and understood, not only is the fear of death no longer an influencer in how you live, but it fundamentally enhances your capacity for happiness by appreciating each precious moment of "not-being-dead."
When it comes to Death, something that we are all guaranteed to experience first-hand, wilful ignorance and denial is not just counter-productive and short-sighted, it has the unfortunate side effect of being inconsiderate to those who care for us so deeply. Learning to approach death is an act of compassion, not just for yourself, but for everyone you love.
Compassion. Love. That's why there are so many resources within Buddhism to help us become skilful with death, dying, and loss. Because, sooner or later, we know that everyone we know will meet their deaths, ourselves included, so it makes a lot of sense to have a healthy relationship with it before it becomes too late... and too scary and too hard. :(
Fortunately Buddhism has many teachings and practical step-by-step instructions for practicing with, and meditating on, that oh-so important topic. And countless sages, gurus, teachers, and enlightened ones have provided us with rich commentaries on the source materials to help bring the practices to a wider audience.
When one is comfortable with Death, it becomes much easier to appreciate what we have, the time we have, and the precious opportunity we have to use our time in life purposefully and with compassion, but that's another subject entirely and worthy of its own article.
May this article inspire you.
Buddhist Ācariya and Anagārika
Recommended reading: The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche
Articles are updated periodically. This one was updated on 26-Jul-2020
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The Sagacious Buddhist Blog
Michael Turner is a pre-monastic ariya-puggala and a full-time Buddhist anagārika; and he is also a deeply accomplished streamentry mentor and applied-dharma teacher. He emphasises and teaches the practical application of the Buddha's teachings in our everyday lives to overcome our human problems that stand in the way of making measurable progress toward Buddhist enlightenment and he is particularly adept at explaining them in ways that can be easily understood and practiced by Western Buddhists. He has been meditating and cultivating the views and techniques that generate indestructible resilience, inner-strength, and direct experience for almost 30 years and has helped countless numbers of students and peers enhance and course-correct their practice to make veritable progress along the path toward Nibbāna.
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