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Dying to Live

by Vidyamala

Dying To Live

by Vidyamala

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM636


I have been asked to give a talk on Spiritual Death – the third great stage of Bhante’s System
of Meditation.

We can get a poetic sense of what is meant by spiritual death in Lama Govinda’s poem to

Give me the strength to burst the sheath of self-hood.
And like the seed that dies in order to be re-born
Let me fearlessly go through the portals of death,
So that I may awaken to the greater life:

The all-embracing life of thy love,
The all-embracing love of thy wisdom.

Essentially, spiritual death is all about letting go – letting go, or going beyond, a fixed sense
of self. Letting go into the present moment, investigating our experience in the present
moment, and discovering that this experience is constantly changing. It is empty of anything
whatsoever that is fixed and unchanging – including a sense of self.

As Bhante said in his original lecture on the system of meditation:

‘Meditation is a bardo, an intermediate state, because when we meditate – in the true
sense – we die.

In other words, the subject/object distinction itself must be transcended; the mundane
individuality, pure and perfect though it may be, must be broken up. Here the key
practice is the recollection of the six elements... involving the giving back of earth,
water, fire etc elements in the universe, relinquishing in turn earth, water, fire, air,
space, even our individualised consciousness. This is the key practice for breaking up
our sense of relative individuality.’

Bhante also mentions other practices that are relevant to this particular stage of spiritual
death. E.g. the recollection of impermanence, the recollection of death including the
contemplation of the decomposition of the corpse, reflection on the root verses of the Tibetan
Book of the Dead, meditation on change, and also the sunyata meditations including the
meditation on the nidana chain. But he favours the six element practice as being the most
concrete and practical way of practising this particular stage. So, this is the meditative
approach that most of us are probably familiar with – specifically linking the stage of
spiritual death with the six element practice.

However, in this talk I am going to broaden things out a little. Rather than linking spiritual
death with the specific meditation practices mentioned above, I am going to look at what
spiritual death means as actual experience and how we can bring this attitude into whatever

meditation practice we are engaged with at any given time. Accordingly this stage of
Bhante’s system of meditation can be explored in a wide variety of ways and I think there is
room for a lot of creativity, inclusivity and flexibility in our approach within the WBO.

In this talk I’ll cover the following areas:

• Death and fear
• Death and love
• Spiritual death in different practices

1. Death and Fear

It would be dishonest to give a talk on spiritual death without tackling the closely related
topic of fear. Death and fear are two sides of a coin for most of us. Even the words sound
similar! It is good to ask ourselves why we are so afraid of death and letting go. I think it is
partly the sheer incomprehensibility of it all and it being so thoroughly out of our rational
control – be it actual physical death or the moment by moment journey into the void that is at
the heart of our spiritual practice. That we will one day all physically die is one of the few
certainties in life and yet, paradoxically, the whole business of death is shot through with
uncertainty and an encounter with the unknown.

I remember vividly my first encounter with death. I was about 20 and my grandmother had
just died aged 94. My father invited me and my twin sister to go into Nanny’s bedroom. He
wanted us to see her body and to say our good-byes. I am grateful to him for seeing that this
would be a good thing for us to do. I have the whole scene embedded in my memory – the
smells of her lovely oak-panelled bedroom in her house by the sea; the position I was
standing in to the right of her head, looking down at her body and finding it shockingly
foreign. How had she become this lifeless shell rather than a real person? I remember the
tears streaming down my face as I looked into her, searching for my Nanny and not finding
her anywhere. Where had she gone? More urgently, who had she been when she was alive?
What had made her my Nanny that bought me pyjamas each year for my birthday, had a lolly
jar for the grandchildren on the mantelpiece, and made fantastic sponge cakes? I remember
the moment when I decided it was the light in her eyes that had made her my Nanny, and that
this light had gone out at her death. This raised another problem: what is the light in the eyes
that makes a person who they are? This is one of the questions that got me on the spiritual
path and I’m still on a journey of finding the answer.

The other aspect of death that is frightening is the crushing loss that accompanies death.
When someone we love dies we not only have to cope with the loss of them as companions in
life, but also, by implication, have to cope with knowledge that one day we too will die. This
can be overwhelming and terrifying. Also, in facing this fact of loss, we are confronted with
the fact that the process of death is not some far off event, but that in truth, according to
Buddhism, we are dying all the time. We are impermanent, we have no fixed self. This in
turn can lead to the terrible fear and suspicion that ‘I’ am not real right now. Who am I? What
am I? become burning questions that are of course desperately uncomfortable and riddled
with insecurity.

So we have arrived at our core spiritual problem: the truth of anicca or impermanence and the
truth of annatta, or insubstantiality. If everything is changing then this must, by implication,

include my sense of self. I am therefore empty of anything fixed and unchanging. So, we are
back to the question, who am I? How do I make sense of my life? Is this death in life a
terrible bleak thing or is it a gateway to freedom? These are very important questions for us
to face, but in order to face them we must be willing to accept, even embrace, fear as part of
that enquiry.

“Fearlessness” is an interesting word. Obviously it is a quality highly praised in the Buddhist
tradition as being crucial to the spiritual life. But what does it mean? Does it mean an absence
of fear? (as I used to think, which meant I felt I was constantly failing every time I
experienced fear), or does it mean more an ability to face fear, to meet it, without reaction? I
am increasingly thinking it is the latter. After all fear is going to be so fundamental to our
experience as we face up to the truth of anicca and annatta. It will be with us all the way to
Enlightenment I should think. Remember that the higher fetters include conceit and
ignorance. One must surely still have traces of fear when under the sway of these fetters. So, I
think this great quality of fearlessness could also be described as courage in the face of fear
and an ability to stand firm, to not react with aversion. To be with fear in the face of
impermanence so one can truly live. Pema Chodron says that being afraid of death is being
afraid of life, which is worth reflecting on. If we aren’t willing to be present to the truth of the
flux of the moment, we will continually find ways to avoid being present at all. If we don’t
face the fear of death and impermanence with a willingness to experience it, we will never be
fully alive. Akasasuri told me recently that her friend Vajrayogini had a phrase she used
within her work as a therapist: ‘If you die before you die, you won’t die when you die’!

When we are unwilling or unable to stay with the truth of annicca or annata we tend to be
propelled into eternalism, nihilism, the past or the future. When we think about it we can see
how all these habitual reactions are ways of avoiding being with the naked truth of whatever
we are experiencing in the moment. They help us stay asleep in the illusion of security and
the pretence that life is under control and that we can cheat the lord of death. They are like
the blind fold that prevents us facing what is staring us in the face.

When under the sway of eternalism we bargain with life and turn our spiritual practice into
some kind of insurance policy. One is motivated by a personal agenda: if I meditate well,
then I’ll reap good karma and avoid suffering. It is the view of the optimist who
fundamentally follows the spiritual life to strike some kind of deal with reality that will lead
to protection from harm, albeit often on very subtle levels. It is the view of the person who
lives under the tyranny of hope as a refuge. Always straining ...

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