Four Axioms for Thinking about Death and Impermanence

We’ve seen that meditation is part of a threefold process that entails listening to teachings, thinking about them, and then meditating upon them. Meditation, as this third step, is actually about how we integrate the teachings into our lives, which comes about through repetition. We basically build up the positive state of mind that we want to achieve through repeating it, so that it becomes a habit.

We listen to teachings, and from this we get discriminating awareness, where we can distinguish, “Yes, this is a teaching of the Buddha” and become certain about it. We’ve also seen that we relate to the teachings presumptively; we don’t necessarily understand all of the teachings, but at least because of our motivation and interest, we presume them to be true until we have proven otherwise. If we find that something is not true, then we can forget about it. But it’s important to have an open mind to at least presume that something is true, and decide to examine it to see if it really is. And we also have to presume it’s of benefit, just like vitamins. You wouldn’t take poison, thinking, “Let me test it to see if it really will kill me,” but you do so with vitamins. So we presume it’s of benefit, because many people say it is, and so we can try and see for ourselves.

When we think about the teachings, we’re examining them in order to reach the end of a process known as “discriminating awareness that comes from thinking.” This is where we become totally convinced that we have understood the teaching, that what the Buddha taught is true, that it does indeed have benefit, and that we want to achieve is actually possible to achieve. When people leave out the above steps, as many do, after a while they end up having “indecisive wavering,” in other words doubts, where they aren’t sure if it’s all really possible. And then they give up.

What Is Liberation?

When we read about liberation or enlightenment, and the methods to achieve them, we really need to understand correctly what it actually means to be liberated. What does it actually mean to become enlightened? And what happens after that? The teachings say that a Buddha is omniscient, knowing absolutely everything correctly and simultaneously. A Buddha also has equal concern for every single being, and is able to communicate perfectly with each of them. So a Buddha helps everyone in whatever way is best.

Is this possible or is it just a fairy tale? If we think that it’s ridiculous, then what are we doing trying to achieve it? If we think it’s a fairy tale, we obviously don’t really believe it’s possible to achieve it. We have to look critically at the goals that are discussed in Buddhism, and examine our own motivation.

What Is Our Goal?

This word, “motivation,” has a very specific meaning in Buddhism. We often say, “Reaffirm or generate your motivation,” which has two parts. One is the aim – the goal that we have – and the other, the emotion or feeling behind it that drives us to achieve that goal. Normally in English, the word motivation has the connotation of mainly the second part, the emotion that drives us to do something.

I think for many people practicing the Buddhist teachings, the “Dharma,” if we’re sincere, we find that our goal is really just to make this life a little bit easier and more happy. And this is fine – it’s what I call “Dharma-Lite” rather than “Real Thing Dharma.” It’s a first step. The real thing is to work for better rebirths, basically to continue having a precious human rebirth lifetime after lifetime. But if you don’t believe in rebirth, how can you sincerely aim for getting a good one? To understand rebirth, we need to understand what is reborn, the nature of the continuity of the mind, the nature of the self, and so on. Actually, aiming for a good rebirth is not specifically Buddhist. Christians and other religions aim for this too; in the case of Christianity, it’s a rebirth in heaven.

The next goal would be to achieve liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Hindu religions aim for this too. So we have to understand what Buddhism actually means by this liberation, and what the methods to achieve it are. Then of course, the ultimate goal is to aim for the enlightened state of a Buddha – this is unique to Buddhism.

Step by Step

When we look at the Buddhist teachings, we can see that they are in stages. One insight follows another, and it’s important to respect this because if we just say, “I want to become a Buddha so I can help all sentient beings” without any basis for it, then it’s just meaningless words. Are we really aiming to liberate and bring to enlightenment every insect in the universe? Probably not. It requires an almost unimaginable scope of mind to actually aim for that and really mean it, and so we have to build up to that gradually. We do that by examining each of the teachings with what I translate as the “four axioms,” the four points of view for examining something, and we start with the most basis points of the Dharma.

As an example, then, of using the four axioms, let's think and meditate on death and impermanence. I’m choosing this perhaps for a little bit of a selfish reason, because my closest friend died last week. Anyhow, the four axioms are:

  • The axiom of dependency – what does the state of mind we want to generate, an awareness of death, depend on?
  • The axiom of functionality – if we achieve this state of mind, what does it do and what are the benefits or disadvantages?
  • The axiom of reason – if we examine the teaching in order to determine if it’s true, does it fit in with the rest of the Buddha’s teachings? Is it logical? When we try it out, does it produce its stated effect?
  • The axiom of nature – is death an example of the nature of things? Does everybody die?

What we do is to take a certain teaching, like about death, and analyze it from the point of view of these four axioms, spending as much time as we need to. There’s no formula that says you have to spend ten minutes on this and twenty minutes on that. But it’s good not to go too quickly, because then often what you’re focusing on has no meaning to it. It’s nice to let something sink it, and really work with it.

Gaining a Thorough Understanding

Basically we want to become convinced that we understand the topic, where we don’t go back and forth wondering what things are like. This is why Tibetans have the educational method of debate, which forces us to question our understanding. Everyone has to do it – you can’t just sit at the back of the class quietly. One person will state something, and the opponent has to accept or reject it. The point of all of this is not to find out the correct answer, but to gain certainty in our understanding of a topic. It’s an excellent method because other people will challenge our thinking much more than we could ever challenge it ourselves. During the debates, there’s often a tremendous amount of energy as people find it great fun and laugh a lot when they cause the other person to contradict themselves. But it’s all done in good humor, and everyone enjoys it.

Another benefit of this style of learning is that, no matter who you are, at some point you’re going to contradict yourself and say something stupid, which is good for deflating the ego and pride. It also overcomes shyness – you definitely can’t be shy to get up in front of the assembly to argue.

We shouldn’t dismiss debate as “Oh, this is intellectual stuff; I want to be intuitive and just meditate.” Debate helps you to meditate, which is the whole purpose. After debating, you have no more doubts and you become certain of your understanding, and then you can meditate to integrate this insight with complete confidence. Otherwise, your meditation isn’t that firm. Of course, you might not formally debate with each other here, but it’s great to discuss the teachings, without pride or arrogance, and without being defensive, thinking the other person is attacking us personally.

Another two technical Buddhist terms are “to believe a fact to be true,” and “firm conviction.” We can believe something to be true that is incorrect, so we have to be careful in our examination of the teachings that we don’t come to the conclusion that we have correct understanding, when we don’t. Firm conviction is when we’re so convinced that absolutely nothing can shatter our belief, which is what we really need to develop.

Keep On Going

All of this can become distorted into stubbornness and close-mindedness. We have a wrong understanding and become so stubborn that nobody can correct us – this is sometimes translated as “wrong view.” We hold something incorrect and are so stubborn about it that we are hostile to and will attack anyone who tries to say something different.

Until we’re Buddhas, we have to try and understand things more and more deeply. So we are always told, “Never be satisfied with your level of understanding, with your level of achievement, because you can always go deeper, always achieve higher, until you become a Buddha.” So even when we have correct understanding, it might not be the deepest understanding. Trijang Rinpoche, one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, used to say, “I’ve read the Lam-rim chen-mo (The Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path by Tsongkhapa – a fundamental and huge text) a hundred times, and every time I’ve read it, I’ve gotten a different and deeper understanding.” This is a good example of how, despite getting a correct understanding to begin with, we need to continue going deeper and deeper.

Death Meditation

Now we can look at the four points with respect to death meditation, so we can have an example of what they refer to and how to apply them. Of course we would do this only after we’ve received teachings on death and on death meditation. When looking at death, there are three basic facts that we’re working with:

  • Death is inevitable.
  • The time of death is uncertain.
  • At the time of death, nothing will be of help except the Dharma.

We’re all going to die. It’s inevitable – me, you, everyone we personally know, and everyone else as well. We also have no idea when death will strike, and when we do die, nothing helps us except for the positive habits we’ve built up and made a part of our mental continuum.

Death is inevitable, but what does this depend on (the axiom of dependency)? We can analyze this on several levels. Firstly, death depends on life. Without being alive, you can’t die. And every day, we’re getting older, and our bodies, which at the start are quite strong, become weak. So death also depends on a body that can get sick, get hit by a car and so on.

Why Think about Death?

On a deeper level concerning this axiom of dependency, what we need to understand before death meditation is the amazing, precious human life that we have. Awareness of death is intended to motivate us to take advantage of this precious human life now. If we don’t appreciate our lives and our having the opportunity to work on ourselves, then we’re not going to really think about losing our lives so much. Because the majority of people don’t appreciate that “I’m alive, and I can use my body and mind in accomplishing something constructive,” they waste away their lives. So, death awareness actually depends on an awareness of life.

We recognize that we have this precious human life and are free from the worse situations that could prevent us from being able to really take advantage of being alive. We haven’t been born a cockroach that anyone who sees just wants to step on. We haven’t been born as a tiny fish that gets eaten alive by a bigger fish. We haven’t been born as a fly. Think about it, what could we do or accomplish if we’d been born as a fly? Not much, we would spend our whole lives attracted to feces and garbage!

Thus, the purpose of being aware of death (the axiom of functionality) is not merely to get depressed, “Oh how horrible! I’m definitely going to die!” This is not the point. The function is to make us want to take advantage of the precious time we now have, because we really never know when it’s going to end. Just like my friend last week, who was perfectly healthy and not particularly old. He didn’t smoke or drink alcohol, he didn’t have high blood pressure, he did lots of exercise, he was an intense meditator and practitioner. And one morning last week, he took a shower, had a heart attack, and dropped dead. Just like that.

There’s no certainty whatsoever of when we will lose this precious life, and death usually arrives quite unexpected. You don’t need to be old, and you don’t need to be sick in order to die. So the main purpose of being aware of death is to overcome laziness and procrastination, always putting things off until tomorrow. My friend, Alan, who died, provides a good example. His mother was very old and not in good health, and he really wanted to help her, physically and financially. So he would always go every weekend to help take care of her – do the shopping and so forth. He always said that as soon as his mother died, he would retire from work and first of all do a one-year Vajrasattva retreat for purification, and then do some longer retreats. This was his intention.

As I’ve said, he was a very intense practitioner, but he never went into meditation retreat because he wanted to be available to help and provide for his mother, so he had to work. Should he have continued working to help his mother, or just gone into retreat while he had the opportunity, and let other people take care of her? What would the Dharma instruct us to do? What would the teachings on death urge us to do? It's good to think, what would I do in that situation?

One idea would be to do shorter retreats and to help your mother at the same time. Retreats don’t necessarily need to be a full time activity – we can do a morning session and an evening session, and take care of whatever we need to during the day. It’s good to do retreats, but the teachings always say that it’s important to repay the kindness of all beings, especially our mother who actually gave us life. When you take care of your parents, especially without resentment like, “I wish they would die already because I hate my job and I want to retire,” you build up huge amounts of positive potential. If we don’t need to worry about our parents, then of course we need to take advantage of our life as much as we can.

Often, Tibetan lamas don’t take Western Dharma students very seriously, because many of us don’t really have the dedication and commitment to the Dharma and a real appreciation of its value that many Tibetans have. Westerners are often quite relaxed with their attitude, thinking, “I’m tired today, I’ll go to that teaching next time.” But if we were really serious, and had awareness of death and this precious human life we have, it would make us go to the teachings every day they’re available, no matter how we feel.

Death Is Coming: Relax!

Our precious life is going to end. We don’t know when. We could drop dead in the shower from a heart attack; we could be hit by a bus. And we don’t want to waste our life. Awareness of death helps to overcome laziness and allows us to take full advantage of all the opportunities that we have. But, in doing so, it’s important not to be stressed and uptight. Often we’re so uptight and stressed over rather unimportant, trivial things, we also get stiff with the Dharma. We need to be sincere in our practice, but in a relaxed way – this however does not mean being lazy. When you’ve built up positive habits, then at the time of death it’ll be no problem because you know those habits will help you.

Death Is the Logical Conclusion of Life

Then, we establish by reason, whether the teachings are consistent with what Buddha taught (the axiom of reason). To do this we usually need to have received quite a few teachings or read a lot of Buddhist books to know. Many Buddhist teachings talk about impermanence, and so it is consistent with what Buddha taught.

Is it logical? Well, yes, every day we get closer to death. At some point the show will be over. Death will come for sure, because there’s no circumstance that can turn death away when it arrives. Our lifespan cannot be extended, with the remainder of our lifespan decreasing day by day, minute by minute, second by second. For this to really sink in emotionally is really quite profound, when we can do it in a way where we’re not totally freaked out, but can be relaxed about it, while taking it seriously. Even if we haven’t had the time while alive to practice the Dharma, we’ll have to die. Everybody who has ever lived has died.

The Beneficial Results

How about the result? Well, if we really become convinced that death is coming and that we have this precious human life, the result would be it would reduce our laziness, and make us take advantage of all the opportunities we have. We can see that this is beneficial from our own experience.

The fourth axiom, regarding the nature of things, is that yes, the nature of everything that lives is that it dies. This is the way things are, this is reality, and there’s nothing we can do except accept this fact.

Through this example we can see how we can use these four axioms, related with our own experience, to analyze the teachings. This is an on-going process, for it takes a lot of work to become convinced 100% and integrate it into our lives. It’s easy to become convinced intellectually, but very hard to become convinced emotionally. The mind and body are also different – for instance in terms of my friend’s death, mentally, emotionally, I feel quite at peace, but my body feels very drained of energy.

So there is sadness on the physical level, because it’s hard to get that feeling on the body level of “Everyone dies.” And sadness will arise on the mental level from time to time because it’s natural. We’re not Buddhas; we’re not liberated beings. We’re not free from all the disturbing emotions or suffering, yet. But that’s what we aim for.


Once we really know what liberation and enlightenment are, we can set our goal. When we’ve worked out what we really want, we can work out steps to get there. The four axioms are useful in helping us to gain certainty in what we’re doing.

When we meditate upon death, and truly come to understand that we’re all going to die, yet we have no idea when, we’re spurred to get on with what really matters. An awareness of death brings about an incredible change within us, making it impossible to succumb to laziness or depression.