The Great Matter of Life and Death

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

The Buddha taught us to be emptied of everything in this way, not to carry anything with us. To know, and having known, let go.
Realizing the Dhamma, the path to freedom from the Round of Birth and Death, is a task that we all have to do alone. So keep trying to let go and to understand the teachings. Really put effort into your contemplation. Don't worry about your family. At the moment they are as they are; in the future they will be like you. There's no one in the world who can escape this fate. The Buddha told us to put down everything that lacks a real abiding substance. If you put everything down, you will see the truth. If you don't, you won't. That's the way it is and it's the same for everyone in the world. So don't worry and don't grasp at anything.

This is your own work, nobody else's. Your sole responsibility right now is to focus on your mind and bring it to peace. Leave everything else to others. Forms, sounds, odors, tastes—leave them to others to attend to. Put everything behind you and do your own work, fulfill your own responsibility. Whatever arises in your mind—be it fear of pain, fear of death, anxiety about others or whatever—say to it, "Don't disturb me. You're not my business anymore." Just keep saying this to yourself when you see those dhammas arise.

Thinking that you'd like to go on living for a long time will make you suffer. But thinking you'd like to die right away or die very quickly isn't right either. Conditions don't belong to us, they follow their own natural laws. You can't do anything about the way the body is. You can prettify it a little, make it look attractive and clean for a while, like the young girls who paint their lips and let their nails grow long, but when old age arrives, everyone's in the same boat. That's the way the body is, you can't make it any other way. But what you can improve and beautify is the mind.

As soon as we're born, we're dead. Our birth and our death are just one thing. It's like a tree: when there's a root, there must be twigs. Where there are twigs, there must be a root. You can't have one without the other. It's a little funny to see how at a death people are so grief-stricken and distracted, fearful and sad, and at a birth how happy and delighted. I think if you really want to cry, then it would be better to do so when someone's born. For actually birth is death, death is birth, the root is the twig, the twig is the root. If you've got to cry, cry at the root, cry at the birth. Look closely: if there were no birth, there would be no death. Can you understand this?

You needn't worry about anything because this isn't your real home, it's just a temporary shelter. Having come into this world, you should contemplate its nature. Everything there is, is preparing to disappear. Look at your body. Is there anything there that's still in its original form? Is your skin as it used to be? Is your hair? It's not the same, is it? Where has everything gone? This is nature, the way things are. When their time is up, conditions go their way. This world is nothing to rely on—it's an endless round of disturbance and trouble, pleasure and pain. There's no peace.

One who is nursing parents should fill his or her mind with kindness, not get caught in aversion. This is the one time when you can repay the debt that you owe them. From your birth through your childhood, as you've grown up, you've been dependent on your parents. That we are here today is because our mothers and fathers have helped us in so many ways. We owe them an incredible debt of gratitude.
So today, all of you children and relatives gathered here together, see how your parents become your children. Before you were their children, now they become yours. They become older and older until they become children again. Their memories go, their eyes don't see so well, and their ears don't hear. Sometimes they garble their words. Don't let it upset you. All of you nursing the sick must know how to let go.

Let the patient remember the kindness of those who nurse and patiently endure the painful feelings. Exert yourself mentally, don't let the mind become scattered and agitated, and don't make things difficult for those looking after you. Let those who nurse the sick fill their minds with virtue and kindness. Don't be averse to the unattractive side of the job, to cleaning up mucus and phlegm, or urine and excrement. Try your best. Everyone in the family, give a hand.

These are the only parents you've got. They gave you life; they have been your teachers, your nurses, your doctors; they've been everything to you. That they have brought you up, taught you, shared their wealth with you and made you their heirs is the great beneficence of parents. Consequently the Buddha taught the virtues of katannu and katavedi, knowing our debt of gratitude and trying to repay it. These two dhammas are complementary. If our parents are in need, they're unwell or in difficulty, then we do our best to help them. This is katannukatavedi; it is a virtue that sustains the world. It prevents families from breaking up; it makes them stable and harmonious.

Anyone can build a house of wood and bricks, but the Buddha taught that that is not our real home. Our real home is inner peace.

Ajaan Chah Subatto (1918-1992) trained in the Theravada practice of meditation and lived as a simple forest monk in Thailand for more than seventy years. His teachings are collected in the volume A Still Forest Pool, edited by Jack Kornfield and Paul Breiter (Quest, 1985).

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