My old friend and teacher Devapriya reduced the teachings of Buddhism into one line: “Death is certain. Its time is not. What to do?”
He died two weeks ago. Up until that point he lived with this question as a central motivating force, informing his decisions.
He never answered the question for me, only asked it. I’ve pondered it for many years.
Devapriya also used to like quoting those great fonts of wisdom, the Spice Girls: “Tell me what you want, what you REALLY REALLY want.”
This is one important factor to bear in mind when answering the first question!
Death is certain, its time is not
When we think of our death, the knee-jerk reaction is to ‘live for today’. Why make plans? You don’t decorate a hotel room.
If we’re going to fade away, why not try to burn out while we’re doing it?
But actually, the second clause is as important as the first: it’s time is not.
It’s a massive koan. A koan is a zen thing – an unanswerable question that you ponder until it devours you, leaving something a bit smarter where you used to be.
On the one hand you want to live for today, on the other you have to plan for tomorrow. Tomorrow may not come. But then again, it probably will. Right up until the day it doesn’t.
1. You won’t look back and wish you’d spent more time in the office.
2. What do you want people to say at your funeral?
3. You can’t take it with you.
I’ve heard every one of these spoken by teachers in Buddhist environments. They’re fine as far as they go – to spark a little thought about something you may have never thought about before. But really, they have nothing to do with Buddhist practice.
There’s nothing wrong with the office
Firstly, there is nothing wrong with the office. In an office, you do a bunch of stuff, interact with people, breathe in and out, get older. Some things go your way, some things don’t. You probably dislike it to a certain extent. In some ways your work probably enriches your experience.
It gives you a routine. It takes care of the money bit so you don’t have to go on alms round.
Essentially, the office is as significant or insignificant as all life. Sure you’d like to spend more time with your family. But you have to pay the bills.
In Buddhism, we call this dukkha – the unsatisfactory nature of unenlightened existence. Basically, you can’t have it all your own way. That’s a pain. You wriggle and try to solve it. You get old. You die.
Dealing with dukkha is what Buddhist practice is all about and you can do it in the office just as well as in the temple.
In the temple you have another kind of routine. And people, some of whom you like, some of whom you don’t. You find it enriching in some ways. In others you wonder what the hell you’re doing there. Surely it’s a pointless waste of this precious life? What about riding through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in your hair? Not only don’t you have a sports car, you don’t even have any hair.
The Vimalakirti Nirdesa is a text from the Mahayana tradition about a lay person who was a highly realised being.
The Buddha said he wouldn’t die before there were monks, nuns, lay men and lay women who were enlightened.
So, from a traditional Buddhist perspective, the office probably isn’t a total waste of time.
What do you want people to say at your funeral?
This question feeds the sense of self that, as a Buddhist, you’re trying to undermine. Forget about it. They may love you, they may hate you, they may be stuck at the office and unable to attend. It’s of no consequence. Live for other reasons than this.
You can’t take it with you
This is true. But why are you earning it anyway? Is it all for you? To me, money is energy. The more you have, the more you can do. David Beckham has done far more for charity than I most likely ever will. He’s literally given millions away. Now, I’m not condoning capitalism particularly. But nor am I worrying about it. And I’m neither trying to spend my money quickly nor slowly. I am trying to live a simple lay life. I’d rather not have to think about money at all. Earning enough is the best way to achieve this. Whether I can take it with me or not is of little interest to me.
The ordinary life
It’s important to know what you really really want. And that takes time to work out. And it takes even longer to build your life around it.
In the meantime, you must live. Yes life is precious, but before you’re a Buddha, it’s also dukkha.
To live an ordinary life well is a great achievement. Between now and Buddhahood, I think that this is what life is all about. And after you reach Buddhahood, my guess is what you really really want is nothing much. Job done!
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