Preparing for death

The Stoics knew life as a rehearsal for death (see last entry), but so, too, did the early Christian desert hermits in their realization that the world was eremos or desolation and that solitude was the deliverance of self to nature and the divine.

On his deathbed, the hermit Pambo said only that since he had come to the desert he had eaten nothing not of his own hand, that he had said nothing to offend God, and that he had not even reached the point of being pious. Pambo’s mind and heart recede from a self-consciousness that would make him aware of his weaknesses — or strengths. His no-mind is paralleled in Eastern thought. When asked for a word of wisdom he kept silent, saying that he had not yet found something worthy enough to say. Implying that he probably never would.

This purity of heart is the great challenge. Virtue performed for vainglory or ostentation is worse than participation in the world because it denotes more about the content of the mind. Death shakes thoughts into a marching order, and the most vainglorious are accorded the highest rank for fullness of the world. Emptiness of mind is emptiness of the world, the worldly, and the impermanent. Even hermits fall who follow ascetic practice in order to flatter themselves or show off to others. Their deeds are circumscribed. They could well be jostling the elite and powerful in the marketplace and the theater, attracting worldly adulation, for they have misunderstood eremos (desolation, empty space). The desolation of the world remains in their hearts and they have not realized it.

That is why desert hermit stories always feature hermits who have been tempted in one way or another to return to the city, to resume a worldly life. There is the story of the hermit who believed himself wise and articulate enough that he should now go to the city and preach. There is the young woman in her house performing acts of piety and asceticism, who could hear the sounds of laughter and enjoyment in the streets, who at last flung open her window and invited the first man she saw passing by to enter.

Not pious acts will save or enlighten but the presence of death in our minds and hearts. As Palladius, the compiler, says: “For those who keep death always in mind, that it will come of necessity and will not tarry, shall not greatly fall.” But not death as a morbidity or fear, as a hypochondria or madness, but simply as a point on the arc of life, an arc that remains a mystery and cannot even be quantified.

The Dalai Lama has published many books, and they do read much like one another. He wants to emphasize his ideas, of course, and one can pick up nearly any of his titles fruitfully. In Becoming Enlightened, he offers a section on death and how to think and account for it; the chapter is titled “Knowing You Will Die.” The Dalai Lama offers a summary (adapted here) of what we should contemplate concerning death:

First, that death is definite because

  1. death cannot be avoided
  2. our life span cannot be extended and grows ever shorter
  3. even when we are alive there is little time to practice.

Thus, our first decision must be: “I must practice.”

Second, death is uncertain because

  1. our life span in this world is indefinite,
  2. the causes of death are many and the causes of life are few,
  3. the time of death is not knowable due to the fragility of the body.

This leads to the second decision: “I must practice now.”

Third, at the time of death, nothing but what the Dalai Lama calls “transformative practice” will help us because

  1. at the time of death our friends are no help,
  2. at the time of death our wealth is no help, and
  3. at the time of death our body is no help.

This leads to the third decision: “I will practice non-attachment to all of the wonderful things of this life.”

The urgency is in confronting death and emptying it of its terror and its power. Death is like a tool that excavates the mind and heart of its attachments, a painful process of wrenching us from the world and from the world we have constructed. But how do we cheat death in this inevitability? We have, use, and enjoy many innocuous things daily. Not simply the pleasure of food, books, music, kind words from others, (friends, wealth, and the body mentioned above) but also nature, birdsong, trees, and wind. Must we disassociate ourselves prematurely from these, as if we should stare at white sanitarium walls all day?

In fact, staring at a wall is what Bodhidharma (who brought Buddhism to China) did, according to legend. But this is a metaphor for understanding what the mind is, especially in the face of death. Bodhidharma taught that

As long as you are subject to birth and death, you will not attain enlightenment. To attain enlightenment you must see your nature. Unless you see your nature all talk about cause and effect is nonsense. … The nature of the mind is basically empty, neither pure nor impure. … The capacity of the mind is limitless. The manifestations of the mind are inexhaustible. Seeing forms with your eyes, hearing sounds with your ears, smelling odors with your nose, tasting flavors with your tongue — every movement and every state is all your mind. At every moment, where language cannot go, that is your mind.

Whoever knows that the mind is a fiction and devoid of anything real knows that his own mind neither exists nor does not exist. Mortals keep creating the mind, claiming that it exists. And arhats keep negating the mind, claiming it does not exist. But bodhisattvas and buddhas neither create nor negate the mind. This is what is meant by the mind that neither exists nor does not exist. …

And that is the point about “the wonderful things of this life.” We sift and select and refine from the myriad things that which serves as a mirror to the mind, a mind that is empty, a mind that is neither existent nor non-existent — like death itself. We need to practice in order to live, not in order to die. Because living correctly is dying correctly. And practicing these is to embrace the wonderful things for what they are, and thus empty ourselves completely in them.