Talking Dharma – Talking Death
The only way we can actually prepare for death is to acknowledge, with integrity, that we are actually going to die. A significant part of that realization is that we have no idea when that will happen. Recognizing our own mortality and the uncertainty of its timing provides the opportunity to opens our eyes to the actuality of the situation and reduce or eliminate any worries about death and dying. Keeping that actuality at the forefront of our minds in each moment will eventually be very liberating as it offers the opportunity of actually living each moment fully as if it was your last. The problem is that although we all know that we’re going to die, we don’t know it as an internalized insightful experience. If we did, our commitment to go for refuge to the three jewels would become central to everything we think, say and do. As they say in Zen we would practice as if our hair were on fire. One way to swallow the bitter actuality of our own mortality and impermanence and realize that insightfully is to be aware of and constantly bear in mind the teaching of the four reminders.
The four reminders, or the four thoughts that turn the mind, are an important preparation for death because they turn the mind from constantly looking outward to finally looking within. Symbolically, they could be said to represent the part of the traditional story when the Buddha-to-be is purported to have made four trips outside of his compound and for the first time encountered old age, sickness, death, and the idea of renunciation. They are the perfect antidote to the times when complacency or settling down into comfort zones arise within your practice but if contemplated regularly it is unlikely that those times of doubt and indecision will not be so difficult to manage.
The first reminder is being aware of the amazing opportunity of being born a human being. This is an area that we are inclined to take for granted, especially when things are not going so well for us. But actually, even in those moments when the mind is not at peace, at least there is a mind there and we have the tools to work with it and transform it. What a total waste of human life it would be not to take up the opportunity to realize clarity.
The second reminder is that the whole world and its inhabitants are impermanent. In particular, the life of beings is like a bubble that can burst at any moment. Death, even when you are ill comes without warning. One moment you are there and the next moment you are not. All that remains is a lifeless shell, a corpse consisting of just physical matter. The most helpful way to meet that experience is with a mind that is at peace with itself so it is always helpful if your practice remains authentic.
The third reminder is that when death arrives, the quality of that experience will be defined by your mental state. This in turn is defined by the preceding thought, spoken word or action. So, paying attention at all times to the quality of our mind state and working to keep it in a helpful state will define the quality of the mind state in our death moment.
The fourth reminder is that our homes, friends, wealth and comforts are the ever present opportunity to worry because of want, not want and confusion. Just like a feast before the execution they can lead us to our death whilst clinging to the attachments to things, so we need to work to lessen our grip on our wants and focus on our need to realize peace of mind through the realization of clarity.
The purpose of these four reminders is to work with them until the mind turns away from the worries of everyday life and the madness of trying to find happiness in external experiences and the centre of our life is focused on the Dharma journey. Most of us spend our lives looking out at the world, chasing after thoughts and things. We’re distracted by all kinds of objects and rarely look into the mind that is the actual source of these objects. If we turn our mind inwards, however, we will find our way to a peaceful life and a peaceful death. Instead of being carried along with the external constructs of mind, we finally examine the internal blueprints of mind itself.
The significance of these four reminders cannot be overstated. If we could authentically take them to heart, we would probably be half way to the realization of clarity. These contemplations develop revulsion to conditioned appearances, point out their utter futility, and cause awareness to prefer itself rather than outwardly appearing objects. They turn the mind away from substitute gratifications and direct it toward authentic gratification, which can only be found within. The four thoughts remind us of this amazing opportunity of human life; that we are going to die; that our preceding thoughts, words and actions follow us everywhere and that the worries of this everyday world is a total waste of time. Memorize them. They will reframe your life, focus your mind, and advise you in everything you do. When a man knows he is going to be hanged in the morning it tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully. What would you do if you had six months to live? What would you cut out of your life? What would you do if you had one month, one week, one day? If you do not contemplate death in the morning, the morning is wasted. If you do not contemplate death in the afternoon, the afternoon is wasted. If you do not contemplate death in the evening, the evening is wasted. The four reminders remove the waste.
We see others dying all around us but somehow feel entitled to an exemption. If we acknowledge death and use it as an advisor, however, it will prioritize our Dharma life, ignite our practice, and spur our meditation. The Buddha once said words to the effect: “Of all footprints, that of the elephant is the deepest and most supreme. Of all contemplations, that of impermanence is the deepest and most supreme.” Keep these four reminders close to mind and come to realize that life is like a candle flame in the wind. There are many practical ways to do this. Think of friends and family and consider that they are all going to die. Put pictures of dead loved ones on your desk or shrine. Put sticky notes with the word “death” or “I am going to die” inside drawers or cabinets to remind you. Read an obituary every day. Go to nursing homes, cemeteries, and funerals. The essence of Dharma practice is remembrance, whether it’s remembering to come back to the present moment or recalling the actuality of impermanence. Do whatever it takes to realize that time is running out and you really could die today. You are literally one breath away from death. Breathe out, don’t breathe in, and you’re dead.
One of the recognitions of authentic Dharma practice is that he or she finally realizes that today could be the day. Realizing impermanence is what provides the motivation for advancement along the journey. Sadly, for most their life will be spent moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic. No matter how we position ourselves, no matter how comfortable we try to get, it’s all going down at some point. This teaching encourages us not to spend our lives, literally and figuratively chasing rainbows and pink unicorns. Reinvest. Use this amazing opportunity wisely. Do not waste a moment of this life. The four thoughts that turn the mind, turn it from reckless spending to wise investing. We spend so much effort investing in our future. We invest in stocks and shares, bricks and mortar, pension plans, superannuation and retirement portfolios. Cultural religious Buddhism manipulates us to invest in our much more important, promised, post-death retirement plan as being our real future and that, yet again, flies in the face of this teaching of the Buddha. Investing in some idea of a future life is like checking into a hotel for a few days and redecorating the room. What’s the point? In the face of the actuality of death our mundane wants are seen for what they are. If our want for wealth, luxury, good food, praise, reputation, affection, and acceptance by other people, and so forth are worth nothing in the face of death, then that is precisely their ultimate value.
Realizing your own impermanence is the greatest gift the Dharma has to offer. It completely restructures everything and simplifies everything. Ask yourself these two questions: Do I remember at every moment that I am dying, and that everyone and everything else is, and so treat all beings at all times with compassion? Has my understanding of death and impermanence become so keen and so urgent that I am devoting every second to the development of clarity and peace of mind? If you can answer “yes” to both of these, then you really understand impermanence. These reminders may seem like a morbid preoccupation with death, but that is only because of our extreme aversion to non-existence. For most, death is the final defeat. We live in denial of death, and worry in direct proportion to this denial when death occurs. The four reminders remind us of the uncompromising actuality and prepare us to face it.
The four reminders, combined with awareness meditation, provide strength of mind that benefits ourselves, others and the world around us. Conscious awareness is stable enough to allow in the actuality, to really see it. Then when someone we know is dying, we aren’t so shaken up. We may be sad, in the sense of experiencing compassion, but we have thoroughly incorporated the notion of death to the point that it has profoundly affected our life. That is known as strength of mind. That stability naturally radiates to stabilize the mind of the dying person, which helps them when everything is being blown away. Dying people are sometimes jealous of those still alive. “Why do I have to die when everyone else keeps on living”? “It’s so unfair.” “Why me”? At that point they need to remember that those left behind are not returning to a party that lasts till infinity. Those left behind are returning to a challenging life that is filled with endless worrying. As you are dying, remember that it’s just a matter of time before everyone else does the same. All that is happening is that you are about to join the billions of others who have already left this life and so will everybody else. Those left behind are a minority. No one is going to get out of this alive. And he who dies with the most toys still dies.
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