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Transcribing the oral tradition...
Mary, FBA Team
Aileen, Shetland Islands
Candradasa, FBA Team
Sheila Groonell, Aryaloka, USA
Ratnaghosha, FBA Chairman
Suvarnagarbha, Cambridge, UK
Ratnavyuha, Auckland, NZ
... beginning. Is there no
insight to be gathered here by us? Only a single point of a wheel ever touches the ground
even as it speeds along. So it is with the moments of our human lives, which each in its
turn rises and falls, appears and disappears. Short is our moment of life in the ultimate
sense. Is there no insight to be gathered here by us?
That’s a paraphrase by Buddhaghosa. Buddhists view death then as a natural part of life.
It is one of the conditions we could say for life to arise, without which it would not arise.
The Arising of the Buddhadharma
One of the core stories of the arising of the Buddhadharma concerns the Four Sights. So
we go right to the very core of the human condition with the Buddhist Dharma, right
from the beginning. The human being who became the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama saw
these sights and such was the effect on his life that he left everything he knew and had
and went forth in search of wisdom and truth. And these Four Sights were: sick person,
an old person, a dead person and a seeker after truth.
For the first time Siddhartha Gautama understood the processes of dissolution that are
inherent in our lives. Once born there is no turning back from death, no standing still of
the stream of life, no ever-clear sky of perfect health. Yet wisdom, he understood, was
possible. Insight can be gained into the nature of the life we lead. This seeker after truth
that Siddhartha saw, seeded with the gaze of aspiration, reminded him.
So the Buddhadharma’s foundation is in human experience, perennial, incisive, of the
heart of our matter. No divine voice spoke or ordained the Buddhadharma. No angels
poured out of a heaven to announce Siddhartha’s fate. He was born in the breath and
blood like us, carried within his mother’s flesh for the necessary months. His place of
maternity was the side of a road where his mother stood holding a tree for stability as the
child left her body and fell to the earth. Dust was his fate from the beginning. He had the
same marks as ourselves, similar experiences. A human being born as we are born who
awakened his mind to become a Buddha.
Overcoming Fear of Death, Mirrors to View Death
Thus Buddhists have always tried to face our human reality as openly as they can. They
try to be realistic, they oppose pessimism, they encourage themselves and others to live to
a purpose and wise happiness even in the face of death. Fear of death, then, is something
a Buddhist tries to overcome - to conquer it before he or she is conquered by it. It is not a
passive relationship between Death and the Buddhist. It is a struggle to the finish,
whatever that would be, but which would ideally be an emancipation, a profound
understanding of mind. If this seems strange to you, what you have to realize is that the
Buddhist life is a strenuous one. It is a life of active awareness. Even in the deepest
stillness a Buddhist would express vivacity. Death we know is not unexpected for a
Buddhist. This is reflected doctrinally in the teaching of the Three Marks or Lakshanas of
The first mark is that everything is impermanent – all things change.
The second is that everything is insubstantial in itself. Everything is a composite of other
things, composed in endless processes, combined and interrelated.
The third mark is that everything is dukkha, is unsatisfactory. Happiness always bears
its burden of pain. Joy today, gone tomorrow, it can be suffering, it can be sorrow.
The second and third view can be included in the first, for they arise in consequence of it.
Everything is impermanent. Things then are not really things. They are more properly to
be understood as processes, as dynamics, as streams combining and dissolving endlessly,
interpenetrated. Because nothing is fixed, we need not remain in the chains of our
upbringing. Not only can we free ourselves, we can decide a direction in which to shape
our mind. That direction for the Buddhist is the awakened mind, Enlightenment,
Buddhahood. Life therefore takes on the aspect of practice. For a Buddhist death is a part
of life, death is a part of the practice of the Buddhists life. This is easy to say, but we
have already agreed that death can be a source of great fear. Dealing squarely with death
as part of life requires sensitivity, not only towards others but especially towards ourself.
There are at least two general ways of dealing with death in life amongst us which aren’t
very good. I forgot to say that.
One is flight, into sentimentality, the booze, etc. or plunging our head into a TV set,
metaphorically speaking. A story from the Sufis that I might have got slightly wrong,
A young man goes to the market. He’s standing there looks up there’s death. Death is
looking at him. Death waves. Young man runs away. Jumps on a horse and rides out of
Isfahan fast and furious. Rides for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours... to
Samakan. When he’s in Samakan, finds a house, locks the door, sits down, its dark. Says
to himself, I’ve done it, I’ve made it. Knock on the door, he opens the door. Death is
standing there. Death says, “I was just waving at you this morning to say I’d meet you in
Samakan this evening!” [Audience laughs]
Aaargh! oooh. I got that line from Parami and she got it from Rumi or somebody or
The other failing way to deal with death is by fight. For example, cynicism or looking
resolutely the other way, or fitting dentures to our heart - metaphorically speaking - so
that we can grip them. And I have an example here, which gives me a chance to sing a
song. An example of fight when we deal with death and it’s from an image I remember
seeing, a scene from the movie Oh What a Lovely War. I don’t know if you know this
one, but it’s a trench, and all the live soldiers are in the trench and it’s a sunny day and a
guy comes out and he’s stripped to the waist and there’s a foot sticking out the trench,
right, a leg sticking out the trench with a boot on it. And it’s a dead soldier’s limb and he
hangs his mirror on the foot. And there’s the mirror, there’s the foot, and there’s the
mirror and he’s shaving and they are all there. And as he shaves he sings:
“Bombed last night and bombed the night before.
Bombed again tomorrow if you’ve never been bombed before.”
And they all sing like that, right? And there’s this dead body as a prop with the guy being
able to shave. So, in a way, I think that this is an example of hardening, that’s about
fighting death and armoring ourselves and it doesn’t actually work either.
As usual there is a middle way between these opposites, where we neither run away nor
harden ourself. But death and all it implies is best not treated lightly in view of the fear
that it can create and this is hard for us, as our culture is full of superficial death dealing
Now just last week I came back from an Order weekend. It was Saturday I came back
early and I go in and I switch on the television and what I saw was one movie. I saw a bit
of one movie and there were four people killed in that movie in the time I saw it right.
And then I switched onto another movie, Married to the Mob or something, and the bit I
saw two people were killed. And they were all brutally killed. So I’m looking at this and
what I noticed too is that in addition to the deaths some of the people involved in these
killings, either directly or tangentially found love at the end of the film, which solved
everything, like an all conquering amphetamine. [Laughter] Now from the deeper end of
the swimming pool of our ordinary mind, limited and self-limiting we might think being
able to sit through a stream of such brutalized images could mean that we have dealt with
death, like the cigarette smokers deal with the fumes in their lungs, in casual exhalation,
imaging ease and resolution. [exhales as if exhaling cigarette smoke] Sorted! So this is
how one might foolishly think one has dealt with death. I love doing this. I did this
several times on Tuesday. [Inhaling and exhaling as if smoking] And then you say,
“Sorted!” Right, that’s death, “Sorted!” Voice of truth here speaking now. Not so! Not so.
It’s not sorted at all.
A personal experience. When Buddhists practice the spiritual life they challenge their
minds, they upset their prejudices, habits and their usual human vacuousness. Ajita and I
once set out to challenge our minds on the issue of death and every night we would recite
the root verses of the six Bardos seven times. These Bardos are traditionally seen as the
intermediate states between death [Sound effect] and birth [Baby crying] [Laughter] and
all this we did at midnight when the country slumbered. And all unintegrated forces could
find a place in the I. And we practiced and after a week or so people walked around, large
white it seemed to us through drifts of futility, every action contained in itself and equal
and opposite grey shadow of destruction. We were in fact succeeding in making death