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A Buddhist Perspective on Death

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A Buddhist perspective


Death in Buddhism is recognised as a natural process. In the scriptural language of Pali, death (mara) is also the tempter: the force or energy that keeps us bound into the human form. It is also a heavenly messenger, a chance for us to awaken to the way things are.

When a person dies in the Theravadin tradition monks chant the following:-


Transient are all compounded things;
To rise to fall, their nature is.
Having become, they pass away;
Their final rest is the highest bliss.


An early encounter with death


Before becoming an Anagarika (a postulant in Christian language or trainee monk) one of my services to the monastic community was to drive the monks around because, in the Theravadin tradition, they are not allowed to drive. One day I was invited to drive a monk to visit someone who was dying in a house thirty minutes away from the monastery. The person we went to was a famous London fashion designer, aged twenty-three, only a few years younger than me.

The monk went in to counsel the dying person and chanted whilst he drew his last breath. The family and I sat in the car. Eventually the monk returned to the car sort of glowing, which I thought was rather strange. Of course, all this was a bit strange for me.

A day later the body arrived to be laid out in the temple in the chapel of rest. The coffin lid was open and we could, if we wanted to, meditate with that person. So there I was sitting with a 'dead body', just thinking to myself about the strangeness of the situation. Me alive, him dead. His body stayed for seven days and you could still see the hair growing, the body cold and stiff, the smell. Then the embalmers came and the noxious smell of formaldehyde. I sat there watching, listening, expecting something ... it's like you are waiting for him to get up but there is no movement. So in my monastic duties these occurrences have happened again and again: suicides, cancers, accidents and just good old natural deaths.


The naturalness of death


In January 2007, a little known, great English mystic died. Before he finally departed we went again, just to sit with him. One monk was holding his hand. In the silence there was grief, joy and pain. I knew this person; he had been one of my teachers and now he lay in bed dying. All he said was 'thank you for coming', and he asked if we could read the last poem he had written. So there was the joy of the reality of everybody accepting this natural process together. There was also the grief his wife had and my own grief for the loss. How natural it all seemed, embraced in the knowledge that this is what happens to all of us.

So my practice as a monk is to reflect on death. In the Theravadin monastic form, we are even supposed to go to charnel grounds, watch autopsies (have a look on YouTube if you are interested). It's a bit difficult in the West to see a real autopsy but it is very common for monks in Asia. The best you can do in the West is to look at the body world exhibitions ( Most people are too frightened to explore death, which is understandable. So much of our existence,

especially in the West, is life-affirming. We usually say 'life and death' but from a Buddhist perspective, it's really 'birth and death'. When you have birth you have death. Can you think of anything that, when once born, does not die?


The cycle of birth and death


Then there is the old chestnut: what happens when we die? where do we go? Well, I just don't know – I have not experienced death yet. Although I must admit I have been extremely close to it. But you can experiment if you want: just watch your breath. When we breathe in, we give birth to ourselves, and then just notice the out-breath, where it stops before it automatically comes in. What happens then? A mini-cycle of birth and death. The other sort of death I know about is the little me, from the time when I was a baby, where is that person now? Science tells us that our cells are dying all the time, so who and where am I? Am I the same person that wrote this article just five minutes ago? The cycles of the season are a birth and death. Buddhists call this annicca or impermanence - nothing within the conditioned world seems to last.

In Tibetan Buddhism there are elaborate teachings about how to train yourself for death. These suggest that after death you enter and pass through various realms and it is your goodness factor, or merit or maybe mental state that determines where you get born for your next life. In Tibetan Buddhism there is a lot made of reincarnation. I'm not an expert on any of this but in many Asian countries recalling previous lives is common. On the internet you can look up Dr Ian Stevenson for the scientific basis for this information.

So although death is quite an interesting subject in itself, it does not really lead to freedom. All concepts, feelings, thoughts and perceptions are death-bound, all ideas are death-bound, our bodies are death-bound and those concepts only exist because we give them life. So for example, with mental concepts we give them life by recreating them using the power of the mind and our memory. This is why the tempter in Buddhism is called Death or the killer, it tempts you into things which are death-bound rather into ultimate freedom. So what is not death-bound? My name Amaranatho means 'refuge in the deathless' – I was given this name when I had my second birth on this planet as a Buddhist monk. So what is deathless? I leave you with this.


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