November 19, 2012

Do Not Waste Time: Week Three of Caroline Yongue's Retreat

This week begins "Do Not Waste Time," the third week of Caroline Yongue's retreat on preparing for death. In this third installment, Caroline advises us on how to eliminate distractions from our daily routines, how to create new habits to live more meritoriously, and walks us through the Essential Phowa Practice and the Dissolution of the Elements instruction.

"When we are in the Bardo of Becoming, we are not guaranteed another human birth. Do not waste this precious human life. Live a meritorious life. This is our rare opportunity to practice the dharma."

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Alex Kelly's picture

Selling Buddhism

I recently recieved an email from Tricycle advertising for an online retreat which says:

“In our retreat teaching this week, “Do Not Waste Time,” Soto Zen minister Caroline Yongue implores us not to squander the precious opportunity we have been handed to contemplate our own death. By becoming aware of death—and its inevitability—we begin to feel enormous gratitude for the opportunity of life, and are awakened to the joys within it.”

While the sentiments may seem at first glance to be worthwhile on reflection it has very little to do with what the real Buddha actually taught about the contemplation and preparation for death. When I say real Buddha I am talking about the Buddha’s teachings in the pali Suttas. I realise there are many Buddhist traditions in the world today and that have quite different and divergent teachings. This is all fine as folks are free to follow whatever religious ideas/practices they wish (though not in all societies of course). What is quite damaging I think to Buddhist practices is the modern contention that by contemplating death you can appreciate and enjoy life more. This is spiritual materialism dressed up as pseudo Buddhist philosophy and has no basis in what the Buddha actually taught contemplation of death for. It is simply spiritual consumerism.

The Buddha taught contemplation of death to instil a sense of urgency in the practitioner. This emotion is called samvega in the pali. Most Buddhists probably know the life-story of Buddha which is pretty much the same across all traditions. Samvega is the emotion the Buddha felt on encountering aging, illness and death. It is a sense of oppressive shock and dismay at life’s futility which leaves one feeling chastened. However there is another emotion which the Buddha felt on seeing a recluse, called pasada. This is an encouraging and uplifting sense that there is an escape from the round of birth and death.

The fact is the Buddha gave instructions to both renunciants and laity to contemplate aging, illness, death, loss and kamma on a daily basis. On the one hand it stills both samvega and pasada . Urgency and heedfulness concerning the precarious predicament of life but also confidence that there is way out by cultivating skilful action (kamma) in terms of the Noble Eightfold Path.

So the contemplation of death has absolutely nothing to do with enjoying life in the Buddha’s teachings. If that had been the case he would been very unlikely to renounce the worldly life of a prince surrounded by luxury. It would have been a better option to do his utmost to enjoy life whilst bearing in mind that death could come at any time.

Samvega and pasada are very rarely taught in Western Buddhism at all which says a lot about the not so hidden agenda of mainstream Buddhism. The irony is that these are precisely the kind of teachings that are needed in a lot of Western culture and society so that instead of just reinforcing the same old materialistic-consumerism a more wholesome alternative is made available to those who would appreciate it.

Ref: Affirming the Truths of the Heart: The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega and Pasada by Thanissaro Bhikkhu