Preparing for Death

The subject of death is a difficult, sensitive one. Everyone is upset by death when it touches them. Yet death is everywhere, it is an important aspect of life. We have a need to look at the reality of death, because it is going to happen to us and everyone around us. Because it is going to happen to everyone, we all owe it to ourselves not to allow our upset to get in the way of our understanding it and in some way coming to terms with it.  

Because death is something we need to prepare for. We are all going to enter the gateway of death. None of us knows what to expect. None of us, I’d guess, is really at all prepared for it. But then, what would it mean, to prepare for death? 

Most people seem rather blasé about death, but it’s because they avoid thinking about it. But then why shouldn’t they be blasé. How are they going to think about it? No one knows what to think about death. That’s the problem. We are in ignorance here, and where there is ignorance there is just an empty space on to which we can project all kinds of hopes and fears.  

In Buddhist tradition, death is not the end of existence, but a gateway, a portal to a different mode of existence. That existence is as temporary, and as impermanent, and as unowned, as every other moment of our existence. But this stream of existence continues, in various different kinds of embodiment, into the future. This can seem like a matter of blind faith – apparently you’re supposed to believe it – which can add to the sensitivity of the topic, or rather the insensitivity of it, because we can feel that Buddhism is somehow trying to force us into believing something we feel might be dodgy. But that would really be a very wrong view about Buddhist faith. It is acknowledged that confidence in Buddhist practice can come only from what you can know and understand from your own experience. So for a practitioner looking into the issue of death, it’s essential to enquire what is my experience of my present temporary and impermanent existence? What do I notice, what do I observe when I look deeply and with sensitivity into my wild and precious life?  

Mary Oliver’s famous phrase captures the sensitivity of the topic… somewhere she says:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

When I say death is a sensitive topic, it’s partly because I feel inadequate to speak about it when my experience is so limited. I know I don’t have the big soul of a real poet. Death has only touched me a few times, and I haven’t dealt with it well when it has. However, the older I get the more often I notice death’s touch, like a little tap on the shoulder. I was with my mother when she died at home, twenty years ago now. My father died in hospital, and though I’d lived with him over the previous six months and was around him constantly, he managed to die alone. According to the nurses in intensive care, who were seeing people die on the wards every night, my father waited until the family had gone home to bed, thinking he’d last the night. That’s when he decided to go. He wanted to die alone, and I have often thought that I’d like that as well. I am currently visiting an Order member who seems quite likely to die in a hospital in London, and though it is heartwarming to see so many friends visiting and expressing their love for him, I think if it was me – or rather I should say when it is me – I think I shall try to leave quietly, away from all the confusion and mixed emotions people have at these times, and I hope that will be possible. I can only hope. I know it may not be possible to die peacefully, and I need to remember that as I try to come to terms with my own death. 

I dare say most of us will feel inadequate to speak about death because in our culture it is somewhat hidden for various reasons, and most of us have only limited personal experience.  

Added to that, death is obviously something very frightening and confusing. How can we do justice to death. It is so much bigger than us.  

So all of us are fearful of death. Do you think that perhaps we are unnecessarily fearful of death? People sometimes say, well, it’s not death itself I’m afraid of, what I’m afraid of is the pain, the humiliation, the confusion, that I associate with death. Death itself will be OK. Sometimes people say that with such conviction that I wonder, what makes you so sure it will be OK?  

Sometimes I think people say that because they believe that death is simply annihilation. That is the materialist view. We are all somewhat influenced by that. Materialists say, there is no evidence that anything will continue after death, it’s quite simple. Death is simply the end of life, so get used to it! You are just hanging on to the idea of continuing indefinitely, you Buddhists, you think you will simply reincarnate in another life and everything will be OK.  

Now, even aside from the fact that it’s not OK even in this life, that is a terrible distortion of the Buddhist view of death. But annihilation is the common view, and actually it’s quite a disempowering one, one that’s hard to argue against, even if you want to talk about such a topic. It’s obvious there can be no hard evidence of continuance after death because, by definition, no one can come back. For the same reason, there’s also no evidence that there isn’t some kind of continuity.  

But just briefly returning to whether fear of death is unnecessary, or inappropriate, I’m not so sure. Surely part of our fear is a natural respect for something profound, something we sense is far greater than we are, and which is frightening because it is simply so unknown. So I would like us tonight to explore that feeling more. I think there’s a message there for us. That kind of fear seems more a messenger from beyond that has something we can learn from.  

Buddhism has a very particular understanding of what death is, and the mind processes that are involved in dying. These are based on the testimony of those who have entered the dying process but didn’t actually die, yogi’s investigations into other states of awareness in meditation, and the great masters’ actual experiences of Enlightenment or insight. 

It might be surprising to learn that insight entails an understanding of death. Insight into universal conditionality, for example, can sound more like philosophy or science. So it’s a reminder that Buddhist insight is existential, to do with existence itself, to do with life and death, to do with the fact that we have all been born.

The nature of Enlightenment includes a deep understanding of the nature of death and what the Buddha called becoming. The Buddha’s enlightenment experience, that arose on the night of his full enlightenment, consisted of what are called the Three Vidyas or Knowledges. These were first of all a total recall of his previous lives, secondly a vision of all beings being born and reborn in various situations according to the mind states created by the momentum of their deeds, and thirdly the dropping off of all asravas, all mental defilements. That last one was the defining enlightenment experience, the experience that made him a buddha. The other two are considered to be short of enlightenment, yet they are associated with it. The visions of his own previous lives and of other’s rebirths according to their deeds seem to be the preliminary part of the climax of his realisation, as though they represented a vast expansion as the buddha’s consciousness started moving away from all self clinging, away from the assumption of me and mine, away from all ego identification. And then it is as though the final dropping off of the mental defilements was the result of seeing others’ lives in a way that at the final point was completely free from ego clinging. The process of letting go then became complete.  

It is pretty hard for us to know how literally to understand any of this. Present day yogic tradition, stemming from the developed Buddhism of India and Tibet, looks at death and dying, not to mention life and living, from the perspective that our present way of seeing things is illusory. There are two levels of reality. There’s the relative reality, and the absolute reality. On one level we naturally feel as though we really exist in a world that we have literally been born into, that everyone else seems also to experience and in which we all seem to have an experience of time, space, and matter. At death we shall leave, maybe as some kind of spirit who will journey through the strange lands of the intermediate state and be reborn in another body as the accumulated result of the actions, the karma, we have performed. The more profound perspective, the ultimate level of reality, the way things really are, is that all the appearances of life and death actually take place in our awareness. We never literally go anywhere. Even though it is real in the sense that it is really happening, still our existence is like a dream that we could wake up from and all the appearances are misreadings of what is actually going on. 

I think it is on the whole to much to expect us to find this perspective useful in a practical way, but it is worth contemplating. Because according to Buddhism at least, at death we come into contact with that absolute level of reality and we leave the relative. This means at least that the physical body, that is the experience of physicality, definitely comes to an end. This is probably the scary part for many of us, because we think of the physical body as the basis for ‘me’. But then the mental basis for ‘me’ also dissolves, and that is even more difficult to deal with. That tension is only resolved through insight practices in which we strive to realise the real nature of body and mind, which have never actually had anything to do with a self, with a me. They function perfectly well without that idea.  

So death consists of a dissolution process, which comprises an outer and an inner aspect. The outer aspect has more to do with the physical body, with the five physical elements of solidity, cohesion, temperature, movement and location, symbolised by earth, water, fire, air and space. The inner aspect is the dissolution of the conditioned, ego-identified mind with its emotions of wanting, not wanting etc.  

Sangharakshita, the founder and main inspiration for the Triratna Order, who himself is an old man who no doubt is very aware that his own death can’t be far away, has written a poem that looks at the first of these dissolution processes. It’s called ‘The Six Elements Speak’: 

I am Earth.
I am rock, metal, and soil.
I am that which exists in you
As bone, muscle, and flesh,
But now I must go,
Leaving you light.
Now we must part.

I am Water.
I am ocean, lake, rivers and streams,
The rain that falls from clouds
And the dew on the petals of flowers.
I am that which exists in you
As blood, urine, sweat, saliva and tears,
But now I must go,
Leaving you dry.
Now we must part.

I am Fire.
I come from the Sun, travelling through space
To sleep in wood, flint, and steel.
I am that which exists in you
As bodily heat, the warmth of an embrace,
But now I must go,
Leaving you cold.
Now we must part.

I am Air.
I am wind, breeze, and hurricane.
I am that which exists in you
As the breath in your nostrils, in your lungs,
The breath that gently comes, that gently goes,
But now I must go,
For the last time,
Leaving you empty.
Now we must part.

I am Space.
I contain all,
From a grain of dust to a galaxy.
I am that which exists in you
As the space limited by the earth, water, fire, and air
That make up your physical being,
But now they have all gone
And I must go too,
Leaving you unlimited.
Now we must part.

I am Consciousness.
Indefinable and indescribable.
I am that which exists in you
As sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and thought,
But now I must go
From the space no longer limited by your physical being
Leaving nothing of ‘you’.
There is no one from whom to part,
So no goodbye.

Earth dissolves into Water,
Water dissolves into Fire,
Fire dissolves into Air,
Air dissolves into Space,
Space dissolves into Consciousness,
Consciousness dissolves into – ?

HUM is the Mantric sound of final integration, which here just points into the mystery. 

The poem actually describes the experience of death. In the words of Lama Shenpen Hookham, a contemporary teacher, ‘the experience of earth dissolving is like an intensification of the sense of weight, as if something heavy were pressing down on one. It leaves one feeling weak and wobbly. Water dissolving is experienced as an intensification of the sense of fluidity, like being swept along by flood. It leaves one feeling parched and shrivelled. Fire dissolving is experienced as an intensification of heat and a sense of burning, and leaves one feeling cold’. These stages may take place over a few hours, or a few minutes, or they might be more or less instantaneous. But if we die more slowly, each stage is experienced. ‘Air dissolving is experienced as an intensification of a sense of movement, as if being blown about, and leaves us immobile’. At this point our breathing rattles in our throat and it stops, along with the heart, and the heat begins to leave the body. But it seems that at this point one can still be brought back to life.  

Next come the inner stages of dissolution, the dissolution of the thinking mind, the ego consciousness. It is described in terms of a white light, a red light and a black light, though accounts vary a great deal.  

The white light is experienced first, as thoughts of anger and hatred – aversion – dissolve. There is a feeling of great peace and contentment, as has been attested by people who have had near death experiences. It seems that it is possible to return to life even at this stage.  

Next comes the stage of the red light, as thoughts of desire dissolve. At some point you just know you have to give up. This can be frightening, it is said. It is also said that at this stage, and the previous stage, there can be a sense of being welcomed.  

Next comes the black light, when thoughts of delusion have to be given up – that is, all viewpoints, all views about who or what you are have to go because the basis for all that has disappeared. There is a sense that the whole world is dissolving and a sense that the person is about to be totally annihilated. This is very frightening, the worst suffering of death, and once the black light has appeared, that is the final moment of life in that body. 

At this point we are confronted with the absolute level of reality. We have been forced, through the dissolution of the body, to let go not only the physical elements, not only the very basis for our emotional reactions of aversion and desire, but also our most deeply held views that so much security is based on, views like ‘I am me.’ This is the moment that is described as the dawning of the Clear Light of Reality, which is our real nature beyond self clinging if we could only let go and recognise it.  

For most of us, again, this is not an easy experience. We cling on to our sense of self out of ignorance in a panicky way. In fact we try to flee from our real nature, we look for something familiar, we panic more and more and rush around looking for something familiar and to cut short a fascinating story, which you can read about in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, we seek a new existence that is not illuminated by the light of reality, but is a bit more comfortable to us.  

There is too much to say in a short talk, but I think the important points for us are: 

Dharma practice changes our tendency to cling to a particular, fixed view of self and this is the best preparation for the challenging experience of death.  

It is worth finding out more about death and making some kind of preparation for it. I recommend Shenpen Hookham’s book, There’s more to Dying than Death, for a good, open minded account.  

Before we can do such a thing it is essential that we realise that we are, in fact, going to die. I recommend making a will if you haven’t done so as a practical way to engage with the actual fact of it.  

It is a terrible truth, but the actuality of death really does focus the mind, and I think that if we have goodwill towards ourselves and others, we are likely to die as well as possible.  

Somewhere in her book Shenpen jokes that she doesn’t expect her dying day to be one of her good days. We are quite likely to be at our worst. So it seems to me that if we practice with that in mind, to have a motivation that transcends whether we are in a good mood or a bad mood, panicky or grumpy, sensitive or sad, that knows that is only a small part of what we are, we will die well.  

One of the commentaries on the Mind Training verses says that if a practitioner is attacked by a deadly illness and knows they are going to die soon, they should immediately give away all their possessions. Or make a will, if you haven’t already. That’s because at death we don’t want to be worrying about such things, you don’t want any trace of clinging to this life. That creates a very positive motivation. And it’s true that our options, as we age, diminish further and further. Don’t hoard things but develop an attitude of generosity and love for all beings. I remember dealing with my father’s possessions after his death, probably some of you have done similar things. It’s all really pathetic. You wonder what to keep. All these memories, this note, this photograph, this important book or picture or piece of outdated furniture… all this was so precious to my parents… you end up giving it all to some guy who looks it up and down and says, well, I’ll give you £150 for the lot. That’s what our precious possessions are worth to someone else!  

What is important can’t be measured, can’t even be described. That’s the clear light, our real nature beyond self clinging.  

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