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The Meaning of Parinirvana

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by Sangharakshita

... pull you down. You'd start getting depressed. Or again, if you took up the practice of the recollection of death without having established mindfulness first, if you happened to think of someone whom you disliked who had died, you might even feel rather pleased, you might feel rather happy - 'Well, thank god he's gone' - you see? So this would be very undesirable, this would be an unskilful thought, a negative emotion on your part - feeling glad that so-and-so had died - and that would also pull you down.

Or again, if you took up the practice of the recollection of death without experiencing true mindfulness first, and if you either thought of or even actually saw people who were dead, you saw people even suffering death, undergoing death, and you didn't feel any particular reaction, you just felt completely indifferent about it in a purely mundane sense, that also would be bad; this would be a negative indifference, an indifference of not-caring. You wouldn't feel compassion, you wouldn't feel objective sorrow for them, and this would be bad.

So therefore one is advised very strongly that before one takes up the recollection of death, you must be firmly established in mindfulness; otherwise you may experience feelings of depression or you may experience feelings of - in English we haven't got a word for it, but the Germans have got a word - a sort of sadistic joy. Or you may just feel a very negative indifference. So one should experience awareness, mindfulness, even if possible a higher state of consciousness first, and then take up the practice of the recollection of death.

So, having done that, having established one's awareness and mindfulness, and being in this state of higher, serene consciousness, and able to start thinking about death without any morbid feelings or any feeling of depression, without any feeling of being rather glad that other people are out of the way and so on, what does one do? In this serene, happy frame of mind, you start reflecting that death is inevitable. This may seem rather a truism, but it's the sort of thing that people acknowledge when they hear it but which they never actually realise. You say to yourself that death will come. It's as simple as that. You recollect death in this way; in this happy, serene frame of mind you say to yourself, 'I'm going to die. Death is inevitable.' And you really try to see that fact.

Now one might say that, broadly speaking, other factors as it were being equal, the younger you are the more difficult this is. When you are very young it is practically impossible. You don't really feel that you're going to die. You've got this irrational feeling as though you're going to go on living for ever and ever and ever, that's your real feeling. You can't really think, you can't really feel, you can't really experience, that one day you are going to die. You might even see people dying all around you, but it may not occur to you really to apply this to your own self.

You can't grasp it, you can't imagine it, it seems so absolutely remote, absurd, ridiculous, that you are going to die. But it's a fact, and the older one gets the more one begins to see this, and the more clearly one sees this; and you begin to see, you begin to realise, that so far you've never seen at all, you hadn't really understood this, this simple fact that you were going to die.

So at the beginning of this practice this is all that you do. In this serene, happy, concentrated frame of mind you just say to yourself: 'I'm going to die.' Or, the tradition says, you can simply say to yourself, 'Death. Death.' And you can go on saying this like a sort of mantra at intervals: 'Death. Death' - and just letting the thought of death sink in, and especially the thought that you are going to die. The traditional practice says it's helpful, under these circumstances, at this stage in your practice, if you can actually see dead bodies. But notice - if you are in, if you've already achieved, this state of mindfulness and awareness, as you should have done before your practice began. It's no use tryihg to take a look at dead bodies, at corpses, if your mind is unconcentrated, is not very calm, is liable to depression, and so on. You've got to have not only steady nerves in the ordinary sense but real inner calm, otherwise if you take up this sort of practice and start looking around for corpses you can do yourself more harm than good.

Or if you don't want to go so far as actually to take a look at a corpse - which many people, of course, in this country have never seen in the course of their whole lifetime, unlike in the East, where you can see a corpse almost any day of the week if you want to, as they are passing by being carried to the burning ground every day down the main road, not discreetly hidden away in a coffin as we have them in this country - what you can do if you don't want to go to the extent of actually seeing a corpse is - and this is what is very often done in Buddhist countries - you can keep a skull by you. You might have wondered sometimes why Tibetans have skull cups and things like that, why they even wear ornaments of human bone and have thighbone trumpets. It's partly with the idea of familiarising themselves with the idea of death, of handling things which have got to do with death, and overcoming their natural fear of death. So if you don't want to go the whole hog, as it were, if you don't want actually to go and look at a corpse, then you can either keep a skull cup by you or just a fragment of a skull - even that will do.

Some people in the Buddhist East have a rosary made, even, of human bone. You can't get nice round beads, I'm afraid, but they have sort of discs of human bone and they use them in the same say; and it's all to bring home to themselves the fact of death. And once again I must repeat there is nothing morbid about it. You have to be quite sure to begin with that you are already in a state of calmness and concentration and peacefulness within yourself, before you begin this sort of practice. In other words, minfulness, serenity of mind, is the indispensable basis of this kind of practice, the recollection of death.

Tradition goes on to say that if the simple methods I have so far described don't seem to be very successful, if they're not enough, if they don't seem to be producing results, there are other reflections in which one can engage to assist one's recollection of death. For instance, you can start thinking systematically of the precariousness of human life, in fact of life in general - the precariousness of it; can reflect that it's hanging all the time by a thread. Your life, the continuance of your life, depends on all sorts of factors.

You need air; if you stopped breathing for a minute or more, you'd just die. You're totally dependent on breath; you're totally dependent on that pair of bellows inside your chest called your lungs. If they stopped pumping air - finish. If all the air were sucked out of this room - finish; we'd all be gone. In the same way we are dependent upon warmth, dependent upon temperature. If the temperature goes up a little bit, we can't carry on living. If it goes down a little bit, we can't carry on living. If the earth was to wander just a little bit, just a few miles, out of its orbit, we couldn't carry on living. And in the same way if we didn't get food for a few days or a few weeks, or a few months at the most, we couldn't carry on living. Life is dependent on all these factors. It's so precarious it's a marvel that anyone is alive at all. Life is continually treading this tightrope over an abyss, it's continually just walking along the edge of a precipice.

It's so difficult to be alive, yet we are alive, we've achieved it somehow; but all the time that life is just hanging by a thread.

Then we can reflect, again, that there are as it were no special conditions for death. This is very interesting, we don't usually realise this. There are no special set of conditions for death. It's not as though you die at night but you don't die during the day, so that during the day at least you're safe, you know you're not going to die; it isn't like that. You can die either during the night or during the day. You can either die when you are young or when you are old. It isn't that if you are young, you can think, 'I'm young, so therefore I'm not going to die. I'll only die when I'm old.' No, you can die either when you're young or when you're old. You can die when you're sick or when you're healthy. You can die in your home or outside, or you can die in your own country or in a foreign land. In other words, there's no set of conditions which, if you come within those conditions, you can be sure that you are not going to die. You can't be sure. Death doesn't abide by any conditions. There are no special conditions for death. In other words, it's something you can't possibly escape. You can't go anywhere to escape it. You can't be sure at any time that, because of such-and-such conditions, therefore you're not going to die that particular instant. You can never be sure of that. You never know. So this also is another subject for reflection - that death does not have any special conditions. There are no special conditions for death. It can come at any time under any circumstances whatsoever. There's absolutely no foolproof barrier between you and death at any time, in any place. So this also one can reflect upon. It's a rather sobering thought.

Also one can reflect upon the fact that everybody has died. Every single member of the human race, however great, however distinguished, however noble, however famous, they all had to die ...

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