“He is terribly afraid of dying because he hasn’t yet lived.”
― Franz Kafka
Oh, yeah! Those Buddhists sure know how to have a good time! As if the first Nobel Truth, “Life is suffering,” weren’t heavy enough!
Clearly, I jest.
“Death and impermanence” is the second of 21 “Lamrim,” (Stages of the Path) meditations, which prepare practitioners for enlightenment.
https://kadampa.org/buddhism/stages-of-the-path, March 10, 2019
Lamrim is a special set of instructions that includes all the essential teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni arranged in such a way that all his Hinayana and Mahayana teachings can be put into practice in a single meditation session.
I’m hardly an expert on Lamrim and I don’t want to misdirect anyone, so I’ll keep this to what I know and what I’ve experienced. The first Lamrim meditation is that we have a precious human life. It’s precious because, unlike animals, we are able to study the dharma (Buddha’s teachings) and, through our meditation practice, develop bodhicitta (the desire to attain enlightenment for the sake of others) and end the cycle of samsara (endless life, death and rebirth).
The second Lamrim meditation, as I mentioned above, is on death and impermanence. In a nutshell:
- My death is inevitable. I am going to die. It’s non-negotiable.
- I don’t know when I’m going to die. It could be when I’m old and gray. It could be today.
- I need to prepare for it.
At first read, this may seem like a major downer. Yes, I know that I’m going to die someday. Why on earth would I want to dwell on it?
The answer is twofold:
- If I really believe that I may die today, I will live life more fully, more virtuously and more skillfully. I will spend time with my loved ones doing things that matter. I won’t squander the time that I have. I will be kinder, more compassionate and more generous.
- Preparation will eliminate fear of death. It’s just part of life, one that I can train for by preparing my mind through meditation. If I know what to expect, what will happen to my consciousness (known in some traditions as the “very subtle mind”) when I die, I can meet death, if not joyously, then at least peacefully.
Kadam Morton spent the morning session explaining the meditation on death in much greater detail than I have and walking us through a basic breathing meditation designed to focus and relax our minds. After a brief lunch break, he guided us through our deaths. I won’t try to recreate the process here because I am not a dharma expert and I can’t possibly do it justice. Suffice it to say that first he asked us to imagine — in great detail — ourselves on our deathbeds. Over the course of about an hour, he guided us through each stage of death, telling us exactly what we could expect based on the experience of meditation masters who described the process in great detail.
I’m sure that everyone’s experience of this meditation is unique. For me, it was extremely realistic and emotional. To my surprise, at no point did I think, “No! I don’t want to die.” Rather, I had a profound sense of acceptance and peace, knowing that I have taken refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and that, to the best of my ability, I have lived a virtuous life, so I can rest assured that I will have a fortunate rebirth. Tears of joy rolled down my cheeks and onto my collarbones. Then, my mind was flooded with the clear light of death.
It was beautiful.
It was peaceful.
There was nothing to fear.
When the meditation was over, I felt as if I had awakened from a long, restful sleep. I bundled up and stepped out into the brisk winter air, grateful for this precious human life and excited to enjoy every moment of my afternoon, starting with a mocha-mint Frappuccino at Starbucks.