The Great Matter of Life and Death

Introduction, Like A Hair Pulled Out Of Butter, Our Real Home, What Is Death?

"Love and Death are the great gifts that are given to us; mostly, they are passed on unopened." - Rainer Maria Rilke

In Buddhist teachings, the great divide between life and death collapses into an integrated energy that cannot be fragmented. In the Buddhist view, to deny death is to deny life; to live well is to die well. It is easy enough to repeat the truism that death is a part of life and is the only known fact of our existence. This, however, is not the place from which most Westerners function. Throughout most of our culture, the denial of death runs rampant, leaving us woefully unprepared when it is our time to die, or our time to help others die.

The movement that is now called Death and Dying arose in response to the life-denying, antiseptic, drugged-up, tube-entangled institutionalized version of "the good death." The glaring absence of meaningful ritual, manuals, and materials for a conscious death has, in the past ten years, generated a plethora of literature. Yet although much of it has been developed specifically for dying people and caregivers, the traditional Buddhist teachings on death address healthy adventurers, acolytes eager not only to explore the full range of life's possibilities, but also to pragmatically focus on the one and only certainty of our lives.

In Buddhism, the acceptance of death influences not only the experience of dying but the experience of living. The Buddhist view holds life and death to be a continuum. One cannot—as so many Westerners try to do—lead life fully and struggle to keep the inevitable at bay.
A well-known Woody Allen joke typifies the attitude that most of us find "normal": "I'm not afraid of dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens." Funny, yes, but the tragic distortion from a Buddhist view is that the avoidance of death is the avoidance of life.
People who are sick or suffering, who are dying of old age or terminal illnesses may be more receptive to exploring the great matter of life and death than those who are young and healthy, or immature enough to still believe in their own immortality. Yet the sooner we can embrace death, the more time we have to live completely, and to live in reality.

As someone who works with dying people, I used to feel somewhat apologetic about being Buddhist, concerned that Buddhism might seem sectarian and inappropriate for the Judeo-Christian West. But over the past twenty-five years, these reservations have been dissolved by seeing how much the teachings of the Buddha have helped the living and the dying of every faith.
At the turn of the millennium it seems crucial that we discover a vision of death that valorizes life. The encounter between East and West has unwrapped the gifts of love and death, and now we can see that they are two sides of the coin of life.

Joan Halifax, guest editor of this special issue, is a senior teacher in Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh's Order of Interbeing and the director of Upaya in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she also runs the Project for Being with Dying.

Even the Buddha himself, with his great store of accumulated virtue, could not avoid death. When he reached old age, he relinquished his body and let go of its heavy burden. Now you too must learn to be satisfied with the many years you have already depended on your body. You should feel that it's enough.

You can compare it to household utensils that you've had for a long time—your cups, saucers, plates, and so on. When you first had them they were clean and shining, but now after using them for so long, they're starting to wear out. Some are already broken, some have disappeared, and those left are deteriorating: they have no stable form, and it's their nature to be like that. Your body is the same way. It has been continually changing right from the day you were born, through childhood and youth, until now it has reached old age. You must accept that. The Buddha said that all conditions (sankharas), whether they are internal conditions, bodily conditions, or external conditions, are not-self—their nature is to change. Contemplate this truth until you see it clearly.

This very lump of flesh that lies here in decline is a saccadhamma, the truth. The truth of this body is saccadhamma, and it is the unchanging teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha taught us to look at the body, to contemplate it and to come to terms with its nature. We must be able to be at peace with the body, whatever state it is in. The Buddha taught that we should ensure that it is only the body that is locked up in jail, and not let the mind be imprisoned along with it. Now as your body begins to run down and deteriorate with age, don't resist that, but don't let your mind deteriorate with it. Keep the mind separate. Give energy to the mind by realizing the truth of the way things are. The Lord Buddha taught that this is the nature of the body. It can't be any other way. Having been born, it gets old and sick and then it dies. This is a great truth that you are presently encountering. Look at the body with wisdom and realize it.

You needn't worry about anything because this isn't your real home. It's just a temporary shelter. Everything there is, is preparing to disappear. If you look at it like that, your heart will be at ease.

You have been alive a long time. Your eyes have seen any number of forms and colors, your ears have heard so many sounds, and you've had any number of experiences. And that's all they were—just experiences. You've eaten delicious foods and all the good tastes were just good tastes, nothing more. The unpleasant tastes were just unpleasant tastes, that's all. If the eye sees a beautiful form, that's all it is, just a beautiful form. An ugly form is just an ugly form. The ear hears an entrancing, melodious sound, and it's nothing more than that. A grating, disharmonious sound is simply so.

The Buddha said that rich or poor, young or old, human or animal, no being in this world can maintain itself in any one state for long; every thing experiences changes and estrangement. This is a fact of life that we can do nothing to remedy. But the Buddha said that what we can do is contemplate the body and mind so as to see their impersonality, see that neither of them is "me" or "mine." They have a merely provisional reality. It's like this house: it's only nominally yours, you couldn't take it with you anywhere.

It is the same with your wealth, your possessions, and your family—they are all yours only in name; they don't really belong to you, they belong to nature. Now this truth doesn't apply to you alone; everyone is in the same position, even the Lord Buddha and his enlightened disciples. They differed from us in only one respect, and that was in their acceptance of the way things are. They saw it could be no other way.

The Buddha taught us to scan and examine this body, from the soles of the feet up to the crown of the head, then back down to the feet again. Just take a look at the body. What sort of things do you see? Is there anything intrinsically clean there? Can you find any abiding essence? This whole body is steadily degenerating, and the Buddha taught us to see that it doesn't belong to us. It is natural for the body to be this way because all conditioned phenomena are subject to change. How else would you have it be? Actually there's nothing wrong with the way the body is. It's not the body that causes suffering, it's your wrong thinking. When you see the right wrongly, there's bound to be confusion.

The more exhausted you feel, the more subtle and focused your concentration must be, so that you can cope with the painful sensations that arise. When you start to feel fatigued, then bring all your thinking to a halt, let the mind gather itself together, and then turn to knowing the breath. Just keep up the inner recitation: Bud-dho, Bud-dho. Let go of all externals. Don't go grasping at thoughts of your children and relatives, don't grasp at anything whatsoever. Let go. Let the mind unite in a single point and let that composed mind dwell with the breath. Let the breath be its sole object of knowledge. Concentrate until the mind becomes increasingly subtle, until feelings are insignificant, and there is great inner clarity and wakefulness. Then when painful sensations arise, they will gradually cease of their own accord.

In truth, there's no self anywhere to be found. There are only things continually arising and passing away, as is their nature. This is the way things are, yet everyone wants them to be permanent. This is foolishness.

So let go, put everything down—everything except knowing. Don't be fooled if visions or sounds arise in your mind during meditation. Put them all down. Don't take hold of anything at all. Just stay with this non-dual awareness. Don't worry about the past or the future. Just be still and you will reach the place where there is no advancing, no retreating, no stopping, where there is nothing to grasp at or cling to. Why? Because there's no self, no "me" or "mine." It's all gone.

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