Death and Buddhism: preparing for the inevitable

Posted by on Oct 28, 2012 in Buddhism | No Comments

I’m going to continue with the discussion of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and related gubbins today.

I mentioned last week that the main point of the book is to help the dying/recently deceased person to recognise what is happening to them, with a view to relaxing into it, not getting scared, and hopefully attaining enlightenment right then and there.

One thing to point out about this is that we shouldn’t just hope for a ritual at the end of things to sort us out. Whether it’s the last rites from the local priest, our own frantic prayers to whoever or whatever we believe in, or the recitation of the Bardo Thodol.

We can, and should, start now.

Dude, are you depressed or something?

People often find the idea of preparing for death a bit morose. Depressing even.

‘Lighten up!’ they cry, before drowning out any creeping awareness of their own mortality with anything they have to hand – humour, ipod, X-Box, lover, or perhaps there’s some snooker on the telly we can watch. Failing that there’s almost definitely going to be some kind of reality TV show to pretend to care about for a while.

It can seem like something to put off for later, thinking about dying. It hardly seems worth thinking about when in the prime of one’s life.

The thing is, the end will come. To you. For definite. And you have no idea when that will be. It may well come as an interruption. It might not feel like you’re at the end of things.

One thing is sure. When it comes, it will be a big deal. Way beyond anything you’ve experienced up to now in your life. WAY beyond.

We can decide to believe that it’s of no real significance. A simple ceasing to be. Unplugging the power supply for good. In which case, the sensible course of action is to live for today. Enjoy it while you’ve got it.

A couple of thoughts on that:

1. That idea is a theory. A belief based on scant evidence – similar to the beliefs you’ve decided are wrong. The truth of the matter could be quite different.

2. How do you enjoy it while you’ve got it? Do you genuinely ‘seize the day’ right now? Or have you got too much on your plate to ever quite get around to it? How might a full and frank awareness of the fleeting nature of your life change your priorities and what you do with your remaining days? From one perspective, we all have a terminal illness. It’s called life. What will you do with the days that are left? More hours in the office anyone?

How to enjoy it while you’ve got it

A full awareness of the temporary nature of something seems to increase our ability to really appreciate it. That goes double when we’re talking about life itself.

Meditation practices that help us to be fully present in the present are great for both enjoying it while we’ve got it AND staying present during the dying process. Win win.

Personally, I have full confidence in this approach, since I have been at the moment of death. Fortunately, I made it through, but I know exactly what I want to be doing when that moment comes again.

To be able to stop the mind and relax into a process as all-encompassing as one’s own death takes practice. But it’s not as out of reach as you might think. Dying is a natural thing and when we get to it we may be surprised to find that we’re OK with it. And if we have a practice that makes sense to us during this process – something that we’ve done so many times that it has become second nature – we might find that we naturally slip into it when the time comes.

Death practices

I used to go and meditate with a Thai monk who had been ordained since he was five years old. When he was nine, his teacher used to take him to the cremation ground to meditate all night among the corpses. Believe it or not, this is a traditional Buddhist practice. But until I met this guy, I figured ‘traditional’ meant no one actually did it anymore. Certainly not at the age of nine.

He said that the corpses often had a sheet over them. Sometimes during the night a breeze would blow through and the sheet would move and he thought the corpse was alive. He was, as you can imagine, a little unsettled by this.

But over time, he was able to do this practice without fear. Not only that, he lost the fear of his own death.

Another friend of mine (in England) saw his medical records once. One doctor in the hospital had noted “Keeps on asking if he can go and visit the corpses”.

This was seen as a sign of potential mental instability. Buddhism is still a pretty fringe religion in the West :-)

The ‘corpse position’ taught at the end of even the most mainstream, lycra-clad yoga class, while often taught as ‘relaxation and re-setting the body’, is in fact a profound spiritual practice. It is designed to bring us in touch with an experience of the end of our life. A complete surrender of muscle tone. A final out-breath.

I’m not suggesting you hunt out corpses. And certainly not suggesting you take your children to cremation grounds! But meditating on death, perhaps even using visualisation or the corpse posture, can be very powerful. It can help with overcoming fear, bringing a deep peace into your daily life, and reminding you on a regular basis not to sweat the small stuff.



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