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Death and the Buddhist

by Danavira

Death and the Buddhist

by Danavira

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=OM468
Talk given at Padmaloka Retreat Centre, Men's Event 2000


These by the way are my new bifocals. It’s only the second time I've actually worked
with them and they are great. As long as I don’t do this and it goes all blurred, but I do
this, that means I can look up at you. That’s why I got bifocals. [Laughter] All right, this
is a talk – you mean taking them off, that was the joke, right? That might be the only joke
in the talk, but I do have a joke. Now, those of you who have ever told a joke to this
number of sophisticated urbane people, you are going to be with me on this. It’s a joke I
heard on the radio and it’s about death and there aren’t that many jokes about death, but if
you’ve heard it please do not shout out the answer.

So a married couple aged 90 decide that t hey are going to get divorced. So someone
goes along to them and says, “Look you’ve left it a bit late haven’t you?” And they say,
"Well, we decided we would wait until the children were dead.”
[Audience laughter]

I couldn’t have paid all of you to laugh, that must be funny.

Now this talk started out as “Death and the Buddhist” and I’d not long got into avoiding
doing it when my mother took ill. And then, without aplomb and timing, there she is,
down there, she died. And I thought, “Well, it’s good that - I have a good excuse and
good reason for not doing this and I could just ring up the people in Norwich and say,
‘My mother died, etc.’” But, then I thought about it and thought, actually one of the
things about my mother I remember is that in her prime she was operated on by the
doctors, I’m told five times, and she used to be knocked down and then she’d bounce
back up. She had a lot of resilience. And I thought, “Well it’s not fair of me just to use
her as an excuse for basically not wanting to do any work.” So I decided I would do the
talk and then because Paranirvana day came up, the Council thought, “Well why don’t I
do the talk here as well?” So that’s why I'm standing here. So it’s not the same talk as the
one I did on Tuesday, I’ve cut out huge chunks of it – of poetry – you’ll be glad to know.

Being Human and Being Buddhist

Right, I'm going to try to work with you now. Here we go. So the very first thing to say is
this. As far as death goes, I know nothing, right? I don’t know anything. But, actually as I
look round I know none of you know anything either. So we are in a way in the same
boat – we are none the wiser about death, though we have to make an effort and we do
try. But the first thing I’d like to say about death and the Buddhist is that first of all I’m a
human being. I’m a human being first and a Buddhist second. And that’s important to me
because I think that historically people with religious views don’t mind persecuting and
oppressing folk who don’t actually believe their views or even their version of the same
views. So I’m a human being first, and I actually feel that the Buddhist Dharma - that’s
its whole tendency. The tendency is, humanity comes first before, in a way, the doctrine
and the Dharma. There’s no point being a great Buddhist, but having no sense of concern
for human beings just as themselves, as human beings. The Buddhadharma is first and
foremost a compassionate view.

The other thing I’d like to also say in preparation for saying a wee bit more is a line by
Padmasambhava that I remember and I like. I believe Padmasambhava said this to his

“Always remember this and you won’t go far wrong.
I do not know, I do not have, I do not understand.”

I like that again because it gives me a lot of leeway. I don’t have to pretend to you that I
know, or I have, or even that I understand. There’s a sense of freedom for me in that. I
remember when I was a student how, and I don’t know how it happened, I got into this
mindset where I had to know, everything. But the thing about being a student is that the
more you learn, the more you understand, you don’t know, if you see what I mean - it’s
an endless process. And one day when I was a student somebody asked me something. It
could have been perfectly trivial, but I broke the habit that several years in an education
industry had developed in me. I said, “I don’t know.” And it was a bit of a liberation, it
was a bit of a relief to say, “I don’t know.” So, that’s fair enough, I’m all right about that.
I don’t know, I don’t have, I don’t understand.

Life as a Condition for Death

Now a little quote here:

“Death has 10,000 several doors for men to take their exits.”

That’s by John Webster in the Duchess of Malfey (1612). Now, just to let you know, by
reading through a few books on death one comes across quotes like this. And that’s
where I got that actually. I haven’t read the Duchess of Malfey and I’m never likely to
actually. But we all know that, about death having 10,000 several doors, okay.
But for the Buddhadharma what we have to remember if nothing else is that death (might
seem a strange thing to say) only arises in dependence on birth. If you aren’t born then
you don’t die, which seems a bit nonsensical to us, but from the Buddhist perspective this
is something that we have to understand about death. You only die if first you are born.

And we are born, that’s the thing. We have been born and now we are alive and yes, we
will all die. Every one of us is going to die. Say that again? Every one of us has got to
die. There’s a wee protestant in here, a wee Kirk minister in a previous life, perhaps,
wants to make sure you understand that you are all going to die. And myself as well. As I
said earlier, I was saying to someone in Norwich, “Look I’m going to say we are all
going to die.” and this guy said, “Could you exclude me from that please?” [Audience
laughter] I knew him as well, he’s been around the FWBO for donkeys’ years, and I said,
“Okay.” [Laughter] So when I said, "We are all going to die, except for my friend here,"
he smiled and we all laughed. And he knew it - he knew there were no exceptions to this
rule whatsoever.

Posing Questions - Where Were We Born and Do We Know We are Going to Die?

So there’s all sorts of ways to die. And when I was thinking about that, and bearing in
mind you don’t die unless you are born, I asked myself a question which I’m going to ask
you. We might find something interesting. Let me say this, in Norwich there was no
response of any interest at all to this question.

Do we have in the community here any interesting places of birth? Is there anybody born
in an interesting place, e.g. the back of a black cab, between Heathrow and Victoria?

[Audience member] I wasn’t born in the back of a cab. I was born in Africa. I find that
I’m sure we all find that quite interesting as well. Okay, so Africa, not bad, Africa. But
wait, wait, hold it, was it in a house or was it in a hospital in Africa ?
[Audience member] A hospital.
Aaah no, everybody gets born in a hospital these days. No, something, anybody else,
anything? Yes?
[Audience member] I was born on the side of a volcano.
[Ooooooooooooh] … now is there anybody on these islands that’s got somewhere
interesting? Nothing else? We’ve got a volcano, we’ve got Africa. Anything else?
Nobody? No? So it’s true, we are born at home or else in hospital. Right, oh fair enough.
Now the next question I’ve got to ask people is a sort of serious question. Does everyone
actually know that they are going to die? Does anybody actually know this?
[Audience silence]
No... [Audience laughter] Well look, is it a surprise for anybody to know that they are
going to die? Are you surprised? Are you sure you’re not surprised? Right, so everybody
here knows they are going to die. Right, this is great. I was telling a friend of mine who
said, “You’ve got to ask those questions, its called ‘audience participation.’” [Laughter]
And believe me you really have participated, thank you. [Laughter]

Definitions of Death and Life

Anyway, my Shorter Oxford Dictionary makes these suggestions for death:

The final cessation of the vital functions of an animal or plant.
The loss or cessation of life.
Now it does actually go on, but it doesn’t really say much more than that. That’s
essentially what it does say. Now life meanwhile is equally broad in meaning. For life
what we get is:

The period from birth to death, primarily the condition, quality or fact of being a living
The property which differentiates a living person from a dead one.

So the definition of “dead” is if you’re not alive and the definition of “alive” is if you’re
not dead. [Laughter] That seems to be it. But since we all know we are going to die we all
have a working idea of what death is, we’ve got a working idea. But there can be
exceptions, and I was reading Lyall Watson’s book on the Biology of ...

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