Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winters rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finish’d joy and moan;
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
– William Shakespeare
Fact: Human life involves both birth and death. We all come to dust. We all die.
Our Cultural Approach to Death
Our society seems out of whack: it celebrates birth and yet avoids contemplation of death. There are birthing classes in every city. But when was the last time you heard anyone say that they were taking classes on learning how to die with full presence and joy?
Most of the world lives either in denial of death or in terror of it. Even talking about death may be considered morbid or depressing. But if we are fully present and aware of our oncoming deaths, the process of dying can be a precious period. It is a time when we are confronted with one of life’s deepest truths. To be able to learn from and be transformed by this truth is one of the ultimate tasks of one’s spiritual practice.
The Buddhist Approach to Death
Buddhism encourages people to prepare for death by living mindful, clear-eyed lives. Buddhist practices help us accept our finite lives. Experienced mindfulness meditators have a deeper appreciation for moment-to-moment impermanence – the arising and passing away of all things. The ability to practice mindfulness on one’s deathbed is considered one of the most opportune times for liberation. We are ready for the ultimate letting go – of life!
With deep mindfulness, the ordinary mind and its delusions die at life’s very end. When we realize death is near, the boundless sky-like nature of our mind is uncovered. So it is vital for us all to familiarize ourselves with the nature of mind while we are still alive. Only then will we be prepared when it reveals itself spontaneously and powerfully as death approaches. We recognize it, says Sogyal Rinpoche, “as naturally as a child running into its mother’s lap.”
Buddhist Preparation for Death
Buddhism teaches us that the mental and emotional state with in we die will create karma that carries us into the next rebirth. Thus, one of the main goals in dying is to die with as much awareness as possible and in a wholesome state of mind. Maintaining mindfulness while dying is considered a wholesome activity of mind, so one should continue one’s mindfulness practice as long as possible while dying. In order to avoid being plagued by unwholesome feelings while one is dying, one will also want to heal any unresolved interpersonal relationship issues if there is time and opportunity.
A number of practices are recommended for improving the quality of one’s mind during the death process. For example, one can recall one’s good virtues, deeds, or memories. One can practice loving-kindness to gladden the mind. One may also choose to think about the Buddha or other inspiring spiritual teachers. One can perform acts of generosity. Others can arrange for the dying person’s environment to be as peaceful and spiritually supportive as possible. Some people set up an altar with pictures of loved ones or important spiritual teachers placed around their rooms.
Death in Tibetan Buddhism
Tibetan Buddhists view death as a transition point to the next life. They see death as a series of stages involving disintegration of physical elements into more and more subtle elements, until consciousness finally leaves the body. Tibetan Buddhists believe one’s consciousness enters a “Bardo” or intermediary spirit body, which is the precursor to the next life. The consciousness may remain in this intermediary form a very brief time or up to 49 days before the soul finds a new womb to be reborn into and the new life is begun.
Death in Theravada Buddhism
Theravada Buddhist teachings differ from Tibetan in that they say that there is no interval of time between one’s death and one’s rebirth into another realm. One is immediately reborn into one of 31 different planes of existence. These teachings rely heavily on “dependent origination” (the chain of causes which result in rebirth and suffering) as the key to the state of one’s rebirth.
One’s karma is the collection of unwholesome, wholesome, and neutral karmic energies developed during one’s lifetime. Karma dictates into which plane of existence one’s karmic awareness will become reborn. Those who reach arahantship (the status of a “perfected” person who has attained nirvana) in both the Tibetan and the Theravadan traditions stop this cycle of rebirth; their karmic awareness will experience eternal nirvana. Those who are not yet enlightened will end up in one of the 31 different realms or planes of existence, which range from the “heavens” all the way down to “hell-like” realms, with several different realms in between (including our human realm).
According to these teachings, unless we break free from this iron grip of karma, we are doomed to wander aimlessly from one of these planes of existence to another, without any true peace or satisfaction. The Buddha devoted his lifetime after his awakening to give us the keys to breaking free from this wearisome wandering, once and for all.
Contemplation of Death
Buddhism encourages people to take the time to actually contemplate the topic of death. Instead of avoiding the topic, one is encouraged to confront it, not with dread, but in a direct, mindful manner. This is meant to help us develop a celebratory attitude towards death as well as to recognize it as an inherent part of life. Some Dharma teachers instruct students to maintain death as a constant companion, like your shadow that constantly follows you.
I am a hospice volunteer, and I am humbled and honored to be able to sit with people who are dying. Many of the dying talk at length to me while they still have the strength. What I’ve noticed is that they really don’t care anymore about any of their physical acquisitions. Instead, they want to talk about the people they have loved – friends and family alike. They also want to talk about their regrets and sorrows.
Buddhism teaches us that at death, if you’ve lived a loving and caring life, you’ll think about all the special, magical moments of your life, and thereby have a more peaceful, joy-filled death. On the other hand, if you’ve lived a self-serving, disconnected life, you will die an emotionally painful death filled with remorse and regrets.
Preparing Your Heart and Mind for Death
Because none of have personally experienced death or what follows it, we can only guess at what the experience may be like. And even though people blame karma for atrocities that kill many, we also cannot really understand or explain why good people die horrible or early deaths. Any theories we have are nothing more than pure speculation. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, I believe that it would still be greatly beneficial to prepare for death while you are still very much alive. To prepare your mind and heart for death, contemplate the following questions regularly:
- How prepared am I to die?
- What truly matters most to me?
- Have I led a meaningful life?
- Have I loved well, with an open and generous heart?
- Is the world a better place because I was here?
- How present have I been for each moment of my life?
Today may be our last day. There are no guarantees we will be here tomorrow. So each day that we wake up and are still here, we have been given a second chance – at loving and caring more deeply, engaging in our spiritual practice with greater diligence, and being present to actually enjoy, appreciate, and embrace each moment as though it were our last.
Resources for Contemplation of Death
- One of the best resources for practicing the contemplation on death is Larry Rosenberg’s book Living in the Light of Death (Shambhala, 2000), in which he offers a variety of helpful death-awareness practices.
- The Thirty-One Planes of Existence are clearly delineated at Access to Insight’s website: The Thirty-One Planes of Existence
- The Tibetan Book of the Dead outlines the Tibetan death rites, death process, and rebirth process.
- The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche