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LIFE IS UNCERTAIN - DEATH IS CERTAIN
Venerable Sri Dhammananda Mahathera
"Life is uncertain - Death is certain"
This is a well known saying to Buddhism. Knowing very well that death is certain and it is a natural phenomenon that everyone has to face, we should not be afraid of death. Yet, instinctively, all of us fear death because we do not know how to think of its inevitability. We like to cling to our life and body and so develop too much craving and attachment.
A child comes into this world bringing joy and happiness unto all near and dear ones. Even the mother who had to bear extreme labour pains is pleased and delighted to behold her new-born child. She feels that all the trouble and pain borne by her were well worth it. However, by crying, the child seems to suggest it too has its share of suffering for coming into this world. The child grows into an adolescent and later into an adult, performing all sorts of good and bad deeds. He eventually grows old and finally bids farewell to this world leaving his kith and kin in deep sorrow. Such is the nature of existence of a human being. People try to evade and escape from the clutches of death but no one is able to do so. At the moment of death, they have their minds hovering over their hoard of acquired wealth, unduly worrying about their dear children surrounding them. Last but not least, they keep evincing much concern over their own precious bodies, which, despite the tender care and attention, lavished by them are now worn out, decaying and exhausted. It grieves one's heart to separate oneself from the body. It is unbearable though unavoidable. This is the way most people take leave of this world -- with moans and groans. The pangs of death are considered dreadful, an attitude fed by ignorance.
Fear of Death
Men are disturbed not by external things, but by beliefs and imaginations they conjure up in their minds with regard to the form of their future Iives.
Death, for example, is not by itself dreadful: the dread or terror exists only in our minds. It is not often that we are brave enough to come face to face with the thought of our own mortality. Insistence upon the truth of suffering may seem horrible and unacceptable to the mind which is unable to face realities, but it certainly helps to reduce or eliminate the dread of fear by knowing how to face death. Once life is launched, like a bullet it rushes to its destination -- death. Realising thus, we must bravely face that natural occurrence. To be considered free in life, we must also be free from the fear of death. Fear only comes to those who are not able to comprehend the laws of Nature. 'Wheresoever fear arises, it arises in the fool, not in the wise man," says the Buddha in the Anguttara Nikàya. Fears are nothing more than states of mind.
Remember what science teaches us about the process of dying? It is only a physiological erosion of the human body. We needlessly frighten ourselves with imagined or anticipated horrors which never come to pass. As a famous physician, Sir William Osler puts it:-
"In my wide clinical experience, most human beings die really without pain or fear."
A veteran nurse once said: "It has always seemed to me a major tragedy that so many people go through life haunted by the fear of death -- only to find when it comes that it's as natural as life itself. For few are afraid to die when they get to the very end. In all my experience only one seemed to feel any terror -- a woman who had done her sister a wicked thing which it was too late to put right."
"Something strange and beautiful happens to men and women when they come to the end of the road. All fear, all horror disappears. I have often watched a look of happy wonder dawn in their eyes when they realise this is true. It is all part of the goodness of Nature."
Attachment to life on earth creates the unnatural fear of death. It creates strong anxiety on life; the man who will never take risks even for what is right. He lives in fear worrying that some illness or accident might snuff out the precious little life he cherishes. Realizing that death is inevitable, the one who loves life on earth will go into a devout prayer expressing the hope that his soul will survive 'in heaven. No man can be happy in such a tempest of fear and hope. Yet it is hard to despise or ignore these manifestations of the instinct for self-preservation. There is however a method of overcoming this fear. Forget the concept of self; turn one's love of the inward outwards, i.e. provide humanitarian service and to shower love on others. Whoever constantly keeps in mind the fact that he would someday be subjected to death and that death is inevitable, would be eager to fulfil his duties to his fellow human beings before death, and this would certainly make him heedful in respect of this world and the next. Being engrossed in service to others, you will soon release yourself from the heavy selfish attachments, hopes, vanity, pride and self-righteousness.
Illness and Death
Both illness and death are natural happenings in our lives and must be accepted as such with understanding. According to modern psychological theory, undue mental stress is caused by our refusal to face and accept life's realities. This undue stress, unless overcome or subdued, actually causes grave physical illness. Maintaining a sense of undue worry and despair over an illness will certainly make it worse.
As for death, it must never be feared by those who are pure in heart and action. We are all a combination of mind and matter and as such there is actually no individual self to die. The kammic reactions arising from past evil deeds may linger with us on our rebirth thus causing us to shoulder the kammic sufferings in a new life. Such an eventuality can be obviated if we make every effort to acquire merit by leading a virtuous life and by doing meritorious deeds wherever and whenever possible. By doing so we can face death bravely and realistically since in accordance with the teachings of Buddhism there is no "saviour" upon whom we could entrust our burdens in order to relieve ourselves from the consequences of our wrong actions.
We should constantly remind ourselves of the Buddha's advice:
Buddhists should not go into grief and deep mourning over the deaths of relatives and friends. There can be no halting of the wheel of circumstance. When a man dies, the kammic sequence of his conduct passes on into a new being. Kith and kin, friends and relatives can accompany the dead body up to the grave, but not further. Only a man's deeds, good or bad, go forth with him. Those left behind should bear their bereavement with calmness and understanding. Death is an inevitable process of this world. That is the one thing which is certain in this universe. Forests may be turned into cities and cities into sand dunes. Where mountains exist, a lake may be formed. Uncertainty exists everywhere but death is certain. All else is momentary. We had our forefathers, and they in their turn had their own, but where are they all now? They have all passed away.
Let not the sophisticated assume that a pessimistic view of life is being presented here. This is the most realistic view of all realisms. Why should we be unrealistic and blind our eyes to real facts? For does not death consume everything? It certainly does. Let this not be forgotten. The role of death is to make every man aware of his destiny; that however high he may be placed, whatever advanced aid in technology or medical science he may have, his end is all the same, either in a coffin or merely reduced to a handful of ashes. The sequence of birth and death is a continuing process until we become perfect.
Man's Influence Persists
The Buddha said: "Man's body turns to dust, but his name or influence persists." The influence of a past life is sometimes more far-reaching, more potent than that held by the living body with certain limitations. We occasionally act on thoughts inspired by personalities whose mortal remains have turned to dust. In our accomplishments, such thoughts also play an important role. Every living person is deemed a composite of all his ancestors who have gone before him. In this sense, we may assume that the past heroes, great philosophers, sages, poets and musicians of every race are still with us. As we link our selves to the past martyrs and thinkers, we are able to share their wise thoughts, their noble ideals and even the imperishable music of the ages. Even though their bodies are dead, their influence lives on. The body is nothing but an abstract generalisation for a constantly changing combination of chemical constituents. Man must realize that his life is but a drop in an ever-flowing river and must be happy to contribute his part to the great stream which is called life.
Not knowing the nature of his life, man is sunk in the mud of ignorance of this world. He weeps and wails. But when he realises what his true nature is, he renounces all transient things and seeks the Eternal state. Prior to achieving the Eternal state he will have to face death again and again. Since death itself is meaningless, man should not try to overcome the continuous repeated births and deaths.
According to Buddhism, this is not the first and last life we have in this world. If you do good with confidence, you can have a better futurelife. On the other hand, if you feel that you do not want to be reborn again and again, you should work towards this end by making every effort to develop the mind by eradicating all craving and other mental impurities.
The Noble saint who has attained the stage of highest perfection does not weep at the passing away of those dear and near to him as he has completely eradicated his emotional feelings. Ven. Anuruddha, who was an Arahant, did not weep at the passing away of the Buddha. However, Ven. Œnanda, who was at that time only a Sotàpanna, having attained only the first stage of sainthood, could not but express his deep sorrow. The weeping bhikkhu had to be reminded of the Buddha's view on situations of this nature, as follows:- "Has not the Buddha told us, Ànanda, that what is born, what comes to being, and what is put together, is subject to dissolution? That is the nature of all conditioned formations; to arise and pass away -- Having once arisen they must pass away -- And when such formations cease completely, then comes Peace Supreme." These words describe the foundation on which the structure of Buddhist philosophy is built.
Cause of Sorrow
The cause of our grief and sorrow is Attachment in all its various forms. If we want to overcome sorrow, we have to give up attachment -- attachment not only to persons but also to possessions. This is the ultimate truth; this is the lesson that death signifies. Attachment provides us many things to satisfy our emotion and to lead a worldly life. But the same attachment becomes in the end the cause of all our sorrows. Unless we learn this lesson, death can strike us and fill us with terror. The fact is beautifully illustrated by the Buddha, who said: - "Death will take away a man though he is attached to his children and his possessions, just as a great flood takes away a sleeping village."
This saying implies that if the village had not been asleep but remained wake and alert, the havoc created by the flood could have been avoided.
Death is Universal
Let us now examine how the Buddha solved this problem for two persons who, through attachment, were both deeply grieved by death. One person was Kisà Gotami. Her only child had died after being attacked by a serpent. She went to the Buddha carrying the dead child in her arms to ask for help. The Buddha asked her to bring a few mustard seeds from a family where no one had died. But she could not find such a family. Every house she visited was either in mourning or had mourned over a death at one time or another. Then she realized the bitter truth: that death is universal. Death strikes all and spares none. Sorrow is the heritage of everyone.
The other person whom the Buddha advised was Patàcàrà. Her case was sadder. Within a short period she lost her two children, husband, brother, parents, and all her possessions. Losing her senses, she ran naked and wild in the streets until she met the Buddha. The Buddha brought her back to sanity by explaining that death is to be expected as a natural phenomenon in all living beings.
"You have suffered from similar situations, not once, Patàcàrà, but many times during your previous existences. For a long time you suffered due to the deaths of a father, a mother, children or relatives. While you were thus suffering, you indeed shed more tears than there is water in the ocean."
At the end of the talk, Patàcàrà realised the uncertainty of life. Both Patàcarà and Kisà Gotami comprehended suffering and each learned through their tragic experiences. By deeply understanding the First Noble Truth of "suffering", the other three Noble Truths were also understood. "Whoso monks, comprehends suffering," said the Buddha, "also comprehends the arising of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering."
The Five Aggregates
Death is the dissolution of Khandhas. The Khandhas are the five aggregates of perception, sensation, mental formations, consciousness and corporeality or matter. The first four are mental aggregates or nàma, forming the unit of consciousness. The fifth, rùpa is the material or physical aggregate. This psycho-physical combination is convention-ally named an individual, person or ego. Therefore what entities that exist are not individuals as such, but the two primary constituents of mind and matter, which are rare phenomena. We do not see the five aggregates as phenomena but as an entity because of our deluded minds, and our innate desire to treat these as a self in order to pander to our self-importance. We will be able to see things as they truly are if we only have patience and the will to do so. If we turn inwards to the recesses of our own minds and note with just that bare attention, note objectively without projecting an ego in the process, and then cultivate this practice for a sufficient length of time, as laid down by the Buddha in the Sati Patthàna Sutta, then we will see these five aggregates, not as an entity, but as a series of physical and mental processes. Then we will not mistake the superficial for the real. We will then see that these aggregates arise and disappear in rapid succession, never being the same for two consecutive moments, never static but always in a state of flux, never being but always becoming.
The four mental aggregates, viz, consciousness and the three other groups of mental factors forming Nàma or the unit of consciousness, go on uninterruptedly, arising and disappearing as before, but not in the same setting, because that setting is no more. They have to find immediately a fresh physical base as it were, with which to function -- a fresh material layer appropriate and suitable for all the aggregates to function in harmony. Kamma acts as a law and this law operates to re-set the aggregates after death. The result is "re-birth".
A Bundle of Elements and Energies
In brief, the combination of the five aggregates is called birth. Existence of these aggregates as a bundle is called life. Dissolution of these things is called death. And recombination of these aggregates is called rebirth. However, it is not easy for an ordinary man to understand how these so called aggregates could recombine. A proper understanding of the nature of elements, mental energies and the law of Kamma and co-operation of cosmic energies is important in this respect.
To some, this is a simple and natural occurrence. To them death means the separation of the five elements and thereafter nothing remains.
To some, it means transmigration of the soul from one body to another; and to others, it means indefinite suspension of the soul; in other words, waiting for the Day of Judgment.
To Buddhists, however, death is nothing but a temporary end of a temporary phenomenon.
It is not the complete annihilation of this so-called being.
Causes of Death
According to Buddhism, Death can occur in any one of these four ways.
There is an excellent analogy to explain these four types of death. It is the analogy of the of the oil lamp. The light in the oil lamp can be extinguished due to any one of four causes:-
Therefore, Kamma alone is not the cause of death. There are external contributory causes also. The Buddha's teaching categorically states that Kamma does not explain all happenings in our lives.
How should one best face this unavoidable occurrence? By being forewarned -- that is, by reflecting that death will, and must come sooner or later. This does not mean that Buddhists should view life with gloom. Death is real, and has to be faced -- and Buddhism is a religion of reason that trains its followers to face facts, however unpleasant they may be. The Founder of the Sikh religion Guru Nanak said, "The world is afraid of death, to me it brings bliss." It clearly shows that great and noble people are not afraid of death but are prepared to accept it. Many great people have sacrificed their lives for the welfare of others. Their names are recorded in the history of the world in golden letters for posterity.
Death is Inevitable
It is rather paradoxical that although we so often see death taking its toll of lives, we seldom pause to reflect that we too can similarly sooner or later be victims of death. With our strong attachment to life, we are disinclined to carry with us the morbid thought, although a reality, that death is an absolute certainty. We prefer to put off this awful thought behind us as far away as possible -- deluding ourselves that death is a far-away phenomenon, something not to be worried about. We should be courageous enough to face facts. We must be prepared to face stark reality. Death is a factual happening. If we appreciate such eventualities and equip ourselves with the realisation that death is inevitable; even that has to be accepted as a normal occurrence and not as a dreaded event which we should be able to face when it eventually comes, with calmness, courage and confidence.
Our Duties and Responsibilities
With the certain knowledge that death will ultimately overtake us one day, we should decide, with the same calmness, courage and confidence, to discharge our duties and responsibilities towards our immediate dependents. We should not procrastinate our responsible duties. We should not leave things for tomorrow when they can be done today. We should make good use of time and spend our lives usefully. Our duties to our wives, husbands and children deserves priority and should be performed in due time. We should execute our last will and testament, without waiting for the last moment, so that we may not cause undue distress, difficulties and problems to our families due to our neglect. Death may call at any time -- it is no respecter of person or time. We should be able to face this ultimate event bravely with hope and confidence if we prepare for the next existence.
Craving and Ignorance
Can death be overcome? The answer is - Yes!
Death exists because of birth. This repetition of countless births is called Samsàra. If this cycle of existence is to be stopped, it can be cut off only at the stage of Avijjà (ignorance) and Tanhà (Craving) -- These are the roots in this cycle of births and have to be exterminated. Therefore, if we cut off Craving and Ignorance -- birth is overcome, death conquered, Samsàra is transcended and Nibbàna attained.
We should try to understand that everything in this universe is uncertain. Existence is only a vision. When we analyse everything either scientifically or philosophically, in the end we find nothing but void.
"To be afraid of dying is like being afraid of discarding an old worn-out garment". (Gandhi)
It is hard to bear the loss of people whom we love because of our attachment to them.
This happened to Visàkhà a well-known lady devotee during the time of the Buddha. When she lost her beloved grand-daughter she visited the Buddha to seek advice in her sorrow.
"Visàkhà, would you like to have as many sons and grandsons as there are children in this town?" asked the Buddha. "Yes, Sir, I would indeed!"
"Then, Visàkhà, in such a case would you cry for all of them when they die? Visàkhà, those who have a hundred things beloved, they have a hundred sorrows. He who has nothing beloved, has no sorrow. Such persons are free from sorrow."
When we develop attachment, we also must be prepared to pay the price of sorrow when separation takes place.
The love of life can sometimes develop into a morbid fear of death. We will not take any risks even for a rightful cause. We live in fear that an illness or accident will put an end to our seemingly precious life. Realising that death is a certainty, we hope and pray for the survival of the soul in heaven for our own security and preservation. Such beliefs are based on strong craving for continued existence.
Each and every individual should be aware of the role of death in his or her destiny. Whether royalty or commoner, rich or poor, strong or weak, a man's final resting place for his body is either in a coffin lying buried six feet underground or in an urn or in the water.
All human beings face and share the same fate. Due to ignorance of the true nature of life, we often weep and wail. When once we realise the true nature of life, we can face the impermanence of all component things and seek liberation. Until and unless we achieve our liberation from worldly conditions, we will have to face death over and over again. And in this respect, too, the role of death is very clear. If a person finds death to be unbearable, then he should make every endeavour to overcome this cycle of birth and death.
Contemplation on Death
Why should we think about death? Why should we contemplate it?
Not only did the Buddha encourage us to speak about death, he also encouraged us to contemplate it and reflect on it regularly. That which is born will die. The mind and body which arise at the time of conception develop, grow and mature. In other words, they follow the process of ageing. We call it growing up at first, then growing old, but it is just a single process of maturing, developing, and evolving ultimately towards inevitable death.
Today, according to a world record, about 200,000 people die, on the average, everyday. Apparently about 70 million people die every year.
We are not used to contemplate death or come to terms with it. What we usually do is to avoid it and live as if we were never going to die. As long as there is fear of death, life itself is not being lived to its fullest and at its best. So one of the very fundamental reasons for contemplating death, for making this reality fully conscious, is that of overcoming fear. The contemplation of death is not for making us depressed or morbid; it is rather for the purpose of helping to free ourselves from fear.
The second reason is that contemplation of death will change the way we live and our attitudes towards life. The values that we have in life will change quite drastically once we stop living as if we are going to live forever, and we will start living in a quite different way.
The third reason is to develop the ability to approach and face death in the right and peaceful way.
The contemplation of death has three-fold benefits:
What else do we need?
The contemplation on the following factors are encouraged in Buddhism:
When we contemplate this reality with a peaceful mind and bring it into consciousness, it has a powerful effect in overcoming the fear of old age, sickness, death and separation. It is not for making us morbid, rather it is for freeing ourselves from fear. That is why we contemplate death: it is not that we are eagerly looking forward to dying, but that we want to live and die without fear.
Death is Part of Life
Death comes to all and is part of our life cycle. Some die in their prime, others in old age, but all must inevitably die. Uninvited we came into this world and unbidden we leave it. Inevitably I am going to die - so does everybody, every plant, every form, every living being, which follows the same path. Soon it will be autumn, the leaves will fall off the trees. We do not cry, it is natural, that is what the leaves are supposed to do at the end of the season. Human beings experience the same thing. Religious people usually have less fear of death than very materialistic people, because materialists are particularly interested only in this life to satisfy their five-fold senses.
But from the Buddhist perspective, death is not the end and each birth too is not the beginning of a life. In fact death is the beginning of life and conversely birth is the ending of life. It is just one part of a whole process, a whole cyclic process of birth, death, rebirth and dying again. If one has some understanding of this on-going process, death begins to lose its ability to create morbid terror, because it is not so final after all. It is only the end of a cycle; just one cycle along the way and then the way continues ad infinitum with other cycles. The leaves fall off the trees, but it is not the end. They go back to the soil and nourish the roots; next year the tree has new leaves. The same can be said of human life. Conditioned by the moment of death is rebirth. An understanding of this basic principle helps to relieve ourselves of the fear about death.
We live our lives in many foolish ways without even considering how much time we waste for nothing. How much time have we wasted today worrying about next year, about the next twenty years, thinking about the future, to the extent that we have not been fully living even this very day?
And our values in life will change. What is important in life? What is motivating us? What is the driving factor in our lives? If we really contemplate death it may cause us to reconsider our values. It does not matter how much money we have for we cannot take any of it with us. Even our own body has to be left behind for others to dispose of in one way or another; it is just a heap of refuse left behind. We cannot take our precious body with us when we leave this world.
The quality of life is more important than mere material acquisitions. The quality of life is primarily the quality of our minds. How we are living today may be more important to us than many other external things. But the condition for rebirth, and that of rebirth is conditioned by death and the quality of the mind. This is one thing we take with us.
This is the one inheritance that we do not leave behind for others:
All that which will follow us will be the qualities that we develop within us, the qualities of mind, the spiritual qualities and the good or bad qualities. These are all what we inherit.
These are the conditions which will determine our rebirth and shape the future. These in turn will give rise to a new value in our lives. We may enjoy the millions we have already gained but it is more important that we live more peacefully and start to build up some virtuous qualities. It can have a very good effect on the way we live our lives and on the values we develop. It is not just a matter of being successful; it is how we become successful.
Dying a Good Death
Having considered all of these, if dying becomes no longer an alarming event but an actual experience, we can with confidence face it. Not only that we can also do a lot towards dying a good death. If we have led a good life, dying is easier. But regardless of how we have lived, we can still endeavour to die a good death. To help in the dying process, we stress very much the development of the same quality of fearlessness. For many people, it's more the fear of pain and the fear of separation from all their loved ones, more than anything else, that is fearsome. At the time of dying, encouragement and reassurance are most essential. For a start you need to reassure yourself. The pain indeed will be excruciating and will be difficult to bear, but we are fortunate in that advances in modern medicines make it possible to reduce the amount of physical pain a human being has to experience before death. Pain need not be such an overwhelming object of fear.
I usually reassure a dying person, such as someone who is terminally ill, for example with cancer, that he will not needlessly be allowed to suffer and, that prompt treatment will be given to alleviate his pain. An important result of this is that the patient can relax and die more peacefully.
The other worry is the inevitable separation from one's possessions. Of course, if we've contemplated this before, it's a lot easier. We know that to come together implies separation. If a dying person hasn't done this kind of contemplation, then you need to gently encourage and reassure him or her that the children and those left behind will be well taken care of. They need to be reassured that it's all right, that there are friends to take care of them; they need to be encouraged to relax and be peaceful, not to worry about other things, that they'll all be taken care of.
The whole emphasis is on trying to encourage the dying person, to become more peaceful.
How can one die a good death? The Buddhist way is to maintain an atmosphere of peace in the room where someone is dying. It's not very conducive to have people shouting, screaming and crying. What does that do to the poor person who has this very important thing to do, to die? They make it very difficult for the dying person to die peacefully. It's good if friends and relatives who are present, show by their presence that they care, that they love, that they are willing to contribute something to support.
"Religious symbols are very useful and come in handy in such situations. If the dying person is a Buddhist, then a small Buddha statue, and possibly the presence of Buddhist monks with soothing words of chanting will be very beneficial so as to allow the dying person to pass away with the greatest peace and dignity. It's a wonderful thing for them to move into their new life in the best possible way." (Ajahn Jagaro)
Everyone hopes and desires to have a peaceful death after having fulfilled his lifetime duties and obligations. But how many have actually prepared themselves for such an eventuality? How many, for instance, have taken the trouble to fulfil their obligations to their families, loved ones, friends, country, religion and their own destiny? It will be difficult for them to die peacefully if they have not fulfilled any of these obligations. We must learn to overcome the fear of death by realising that the gods are also subjected to it. Those who have allowed fleeting time to pass away frivolously will have good cause to lament later on when they themselves are nearing the end of their lives. When people see their own lives as being only a drop in an ever-flowing river, they will be moved to contribute even their little part to the great stream of life. The wise know that to live they have to work for their liberation by avoiding evil, doing good and purifying their mind. People who understand life according to the Teachings of the Buddha never worry about death. Death is no cause for sorrow, but it would indeed be sorrowful if one dies without having done something for oneself and for the world.
I Died Today
David Morris was a well known Western Buddhist scholar who died at the age of 85. Soon after his death the writer of this booklet received a letter from him (obviously he had written it earlier with instructions for it to be posted on his death.) It went like this, "You will be happy to know that I died today. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, you will be relieved to know that my suffering from the sickness has finally ended. And secondly, since I became a Buddhist I have faithfully observed the five precepts. As a result you know that my next life cannot be a miserable one".
* * *
Life is like a dream. Death is a factual happening and rebirth a natural occurrence. In preparing for that eventuality one would either have to continue or to end the repeated cycle of births and deaths so as to be free from suffering and this is what human intelligence is all about.
Chân thành cám ơn Bác Phạm Kim Khánh đã gửi tặng bản điện tử (Bình Anson, 05-2002)
về trang Thư Mục]