What Is Death?
When we talk about impermanence, automatically the subject of death always comes up. Why death? What is the definition of death? Any volunteers?
An ending of life.
When this embodied experience is over.
When the consciousness leaves the body.
Okay. Great. For sure, you all got A+! Of course, when consciousness leaves the body, then we can say that the person is dead. Here there is a bit of a difficulty, because we have to believe in consciousness, and that this consciousness is able to leave. What did you say?
An ending of life.
Okay, but that’s a little bit like the “soul” dissolves, the dissolution of the coarse elements. For me, death is when there is no longer the ability to enjoy or experience the appearances of this life. Your family, they are no longer your family. Something that belonged to you, now it is no longer yours. We say, “This is my right.” Now, we have no more rights. This is something that every person can accept. No more rights.
Maybe you have read or listened to teachings on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path. Let me paraphrase. Lama Tsongkhapa says, “The freedoms and opportunities of this life are rare, and there is no time to waste. Reflect on this again and yet again to dispel attachment to this life, to dispel attachment to future lives. Contemplate repeatedly the unfailing effects of karma and the sufferings of samsara.”
In short, we need to overcome attachment to this life and attachment to next lives. I don’t know, maybe you people are the experts in English, but when we talk about attachment in general, is it always negative or it can be positive? Usually negative? It’s very debatable. In Tibetan, when we say döpa, desire, that is not negative in and of itself. We need chag, Tibetan for “clinging,” which gives us clinging attachment. Then it becomes negative. Do you agree? Sort of?
That’s why whatever things you have in this life, you should enjoy them! You can have them – unless there is a clinging toward them! His Holiness the Dalai Lama loves watches. Some of my very close friends, Rinpoches, love so many gadgets. And then these great masters talk about the downsides of attachment and everything, while they need so many things! So, it’s confusing sometimes. We should try to see if they have this clinging attachment or not. Do they have sadness or expectation from things? And once they have something, do they go completely crazy? Once they lose it or they don’t have it anymore, do they become sad? Those are the behaviors we can see to tell whether someone has clinging attachment or not. If not, we are safe.
Overcoming the Thought “I Will Not Die”
(7) Friends from the past, similar to us in age and strength, have been taken, all of a sudden, by the Lord of Death. So, with what confidence can we possibly claim that we shall not fear when death’s time arrives?
One of the most negative consequences of believing that we won’t die is overconfidence. Through this, we do so many negative things. Sometimes, when great masters hear or learn that close friends or masters have passed away, they become worried. It becomes a signal for them to tighten up their practice. For us, we make supporting prayers for when people pass away. I place a little offering on the altar and pray. Not much effect for me, and perhaps not for you either.
You might have the same experience. You switch on the TV and see a terrorist attack where innocent people have died, and you think, “Oh, so sad.” It is sad “out there,” but nothing sad “inside.” We don’t think, “Maybe something terrible will happen to me too. Perhaps not from this blast but maybe when I am travelling.” This thought never comes to us, because we are overconfident.
That’s why Konchog Tenpe Dronme gave this very good example: this comparison to those similar in age and maybe stronger in health than ourselves who have died. Maybe we are mentally very peaceful, and then suddenly someone passes away. We are shocked to hear this news. What happened? He was healthier than me. All of this comes into our heads, right? People say that voidness is very profound, but the great Kadampa masters say that impermanence is very profound. For ordinary people like us, once we hear of strong, healthy people younger than us or the same age passing away suddenly, we automatically react, “This can’t be right. This is unbelievable.”
Automatically we have this inner response. That is why impermanence can be called profound. Do you agree? There is a big difference as to why voidness and impermanence are profound. We can discuss tomorrow why voidness is profound. It is very important that when we hear of terrible news happening around the world, we don’t see it as some far-away thing. The great Kadampa masters’ way of practicing is inspiring. When they hear this kind of news, their response is not ordinary. They look at their own body made of flesh and bones and say, “Of course this will happen, because we are made of this nonsensical gross thing. I feel uncomfortable and sick, well, of course. This guesthouse, this body that I have, is the source of all the suffering. I will suffer for sure.” This way of accepting reality is strong! For ordinary beings like me, I can only imitate this response, but when the time actually comes, forget about it!
One of my friends in Canada was in his nineties. He was an ex-monk, and he had received so many teachings from great masters like His Holiness Dalai Lama, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, Trijang Rinpoche and all those great masters. And he was so proud to be a Tibetan. He did all of his commitments without much knowledge. When we were discussing Buddhism, I wanted to dig something out of him. He looked like a real practitioner and he was so proud. I asked him many questions. It got to the stage where he said, “I don’t have detailed answers, but I feel very confident that when I die, I’ll die proudly with the blessings of His Holiness Dalai Lama and others. I’m a very lucky person. Even if I die tonight, I will die with a smile.” I thought, “Okay, well that’s one way to die.” No more worries, no more attachment, go smoothly.
Two years later I received news from some of his relatives. They said that he was in the hospital in a critical situation and couldn’t speak. Whoever might approach him, he would begin to cry. I don’t know whether this was from happiness. Maybe not. Sometimes we are very overconfident.
That’s why, in day-to-day life, whenever you hear news or come across something in your family of someone dying, keep this example in your mind. It is a blessing for your practice. We need this kind of example. That’s why Konchog Tenpe Dronme is setting this example here.
Using Death to Bring a Sense of Urgency to Practice the Dharma
(8) Even sheep, among the most foolish of creatures, are alarmed when seeing their fellows butchered. So, failing to apply their example to ourselves, are we not more insensible than such beasts?
Why sheep? Do you have any clue? Why are sheep regarded here as being among the most foolish of all the creatures?
Because they follow blindly?
Okay, they follow blindly.
Because even if other sheep are going to be killed, the sheep is still…It knows, but...
It doesn’t fear? No, it’s not that. This is an example of even sheep being afraid. Sometimes I’m not sure if many of the examples make sense to non-Tibetans. I see sheep as very foolish because of how they fight. When fighting, they headbutt each other, and then they go far apart and bang again. This is their way of fighting. For us, this looks very foolish. I don’t know if that makes sense to you or not, but this is how sheep are used as an example.
For sure animals know when others are being butchered. I experienced that one time in Manali, when I was visiting my family. I wanted to eat chicken, but my parents and brother were busy with something, so I told them, “I want to eat chicken, so I will go and buy some.” I went to the butcher and it was the first time I had been to such a horrific place. There were maybe four or five sheep with no heads, blood dripping. Next to them was a cage full of chickens. They were frozen on the spot, I thought they had already been killed. As I stepped closer, I saw their eyes were blinking. Now I couldn’t leave empty handed. I’m full of compassion, but I wanted to eat! What I said to the butcher was, “Do you have meat that isn’t fresh?” “We do have, yes.” He went to the fridge and took out a chicken. I took the chicken and then ran away! I was looking at this flesh thinking, “Now it is already dead, so it’s okay, I can eat this.” But still the blinking of those poor chickens was in my brain. It was quite a shock for me.
My mother cooked the chicken and asked, “Where did you find this chicken?” She noticed as she cooked it that it was a female. She had an egg inside. It was really a strong experience, but still I eat chicken! I keep seeing the blinking eyes of the chicken. Whenever I talk about chicken, this is what comes up inside me. The same thing applies here. When sheep are butchered one by one, they don’t have any wisdom to call for help because they are so frightened. These are animals. They are not as smart as us. We go to the funeral of friends and family and say, “Rest in peace.” In the West we wear suits, in India the attire to show respect is white. Once you leave the funeral, the family of the deceased has the burden of sadness, but for us, not so much.
The author wants us to compare: who is more sensible? Either the dumb animals are more sensible, or we are more sensible. If we are taken hostage by a terrorist, then we will have a sense of urgency for sure! Unless we feel our time is up, we always have more important things to do.
One time in Upper Tibetan Children’s Village, His Holiness was giving an introduction to Buddhism to Tibetan youth. One student asked him a question, “Your Holiness, I feel very happy. I don’t have a lot of problems in my life, so do I need to practice?” I was thinking that His Holiness would say, “Yes, of course!” But instead, he said, “No, you don’t need to. Whether you want to study or do practice, do it seriously.” That was His Holiness’ advice. That was profound for me. A practitioner is someone who takes things very seriously. Beginners can take it slowly, but people who have already studied Buddhism a lot, they have to take it in a more serious way. I took that as direct advice from His Holiness to me while I was watching it live in Canada at the time. Through fear of death, we gain so many qualities. Without this fear, we won’t practice anymore. That’s the advantage of being afraid about death.
The Nature of the Body Is to Die
(9) That this body’s nature is to die at a time uncertain can be understood without reference or citation. But if with bare senses you still do not see it, then surely “idiot” must be your designation!
When we talk about voidness, we need so much logic and reasoning. With bodhichitta, we also need so much logic and reasoning. To develop shamatha, we need so much research and hard work as well. But here, the author is showing how this is a practice that doesn’t need reasoning by the power of facts or scriptural reasoning. We don’t need this as a support to understand that we will all die and that the time of death is most uncertain. If your attitude is still one of, “I don’t know about this and I don’t care,” here it says you must be an idiot. In the Tibetan, it says you are a person that goes blind after birth. There are people who are born blind, so their eyes look like they can see, but they do not. You look like you are looking at objects, but you don’t see anything. This should be the right translation.
The Nature of Gathering Together is Separation
(10) This gathering of dear ones, servants and dependents, is like a mound formed of leaves fallen from a tree – a gust of wind will scatter them through hill and vale, and once dispersed, they’ll never converge again.
Whenever His Holiness gives teachings to a large audience, he will always say that once gathered together, at that moment, the separation is already implicit. You are all here, and I am here too. Some had a plan to come, others came like leaves blowing in the wind gathering together, right? Then, another wind comes, and you go your own way and I go my own way. Our family members and ancestors have left this world and left the family. They gather together and then dispersed. We might say, “Hopefully, we can meet again,” but there is no guarantee. This can help people to stay friendly with their families.
Once you accept this, when you have the opportunity to be together with your family, it will bring more peace. But you have this fear that one day you will lose your family. You don’t know where you might be going, and you don’t know where your sisters, brothers and parents might be going, and not only in relation to death. In the West, it’s very common, right? A family doesn’t generally stay altogether. Mostly when a child gets a job, they get their own apartment. In Tibet, families stay altogether. In India, they are all together. It’s really painful to separate. But in the West, I don’t think it’s such a painful thing, right? But it’s especially sad for Tibetan people to be parted from their families.
The Transience of Everyday Life
The next verse contains very strong advice. I think we need this, especially in the West.
(11) People from different places crowded in a market are like the bees gathered at the end of autumn, dispersing no sooner than they’ve come together: a teaching on transience for those of understanding.
I did this practice in Times Square, New York. I went to Times Square in 2005. There were so many people. Very busy. This kind of energy also makes you feel strong and energetic, even if it’s nighttime. I stopped on a corner and tried to recall this quote. I didn’t stay for long. I went to the main square, while some Punjabis came to enjoy music and do crazy things. After 2 a.m., the beautiful feeling was gone, and all that was left was garbage, cups and bottles. All of the beautiful energy was gone.
It’s the same thing in a nightclub, right? I went there one time. This is a dark secret of mine! One of my friends invited me. He said, “Serkong, you have to come to a party.” I agreed, thinking it was a house party. We had our classmates with us, somewhere in Calgary. There was a large building with two big strong men in front. I wasn’t expecting this. I was with my friends and two Korean girls, my classmates. Girls enter for free and can go straight inside. Boys have to stay outside where it’s freezing cold – minus 20. My friend and I were shivering! We waited for more than 30 minutes. Finally, they allowed us to go inside. I thought, “Yes, we did it!” It felt so good inside because it was so freezing cold out there.
Then there was another big man in front of a huge door. He opened the door and what I saw was the craziest thing I had ever seen. I couldn’t hear my friends talking. Even if I spoke close right into their ears, they couldn’t hear. The music was so loud. And the people there didn’t seem to know each other well, but they become so friendly. This is amazing! People told me I had to drink beer. I replied, “No, I don’t drink beer. Sorry.” I texted my host to come pick me up. I can say I’ve been to hell now! I quickly ran away from the party.
At that time, I couldn’t practice this verse. Maybe when you go home, you might go to a nightclub. For sure you must go, but please try to think in this way. Maybe after your hangover, meditate on this. This is a very powerful teaching.
Examples of Impermanence
(12) Take the outer world of the elements as an example – don’t be deceived by labels of “summer” and “winter” – it too does not last, and with each ten days that pass, the mountains and river valleys change their colors.
For us, this is not really a teaching. Most of us think, “Yeah, let’s enjoy it.” Summer is here. Autumn is the time when leaves fall. In Canada, it’s really beautiful. But even the elements and seasons show impermanence. This is also a great teaching.
(13) Blue spring water ripples like a dancer and makes pleasant music with its flow, but when gripped by winter’s icy chill, can only whisper, as if sobbing in sorrow.
This is another beautiful way to show impermanence. I don’t need to explain anything here.
(14) How pleasant the meadow with its flowers as it dances to the singing of the bees, but all turns to lament and desolation, when autumn brings fierce frost and hail.
With this one also, I have nothing more to say.
(15) The cord of life is as fragile as a rope of straw, on which two mice – day and night – do gnaw; and with each and every moment that goes by, our meeting with death, the enemy, draws nigh.
Again, nothing special to say about this. It’s a poem, right? It’s very helpful. If you try to sing along, you’ll get a beautiful energy. This is how it works, I think.
The Young and Old, Rich and Poor: All Can Face Death at Any Moment
(16) When a child, young and bright, can sicken unto death, to be mourned by parents whose hair is white as a conch and whose backs are hunched over, bent like a bow, who then dares to say it’s the old who are first to go?
We cannot guarantee anything. When we buy something, we want a guarantee and a warranty. But for our life, we cannot get a guarantee. That is why we need life insurance! Maybe something happens to me, and I can get some money to give to my family. This is the way people think. But it won’t help us to extend life. This is something everyone knows.
Most people take it for granted that once a person is quite old, they are going to die soon. And people who are babies or teenagers, and those in their 30s and 40s, they feel lots of energy. We think, “Now I have so many things to do. I’m not ready to die yet.” Most people think like that, right? This is overconfidence. That’s why we need to have this kind of awareness. His Holiness gives advice, saying, “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” He always tells people this.
(17) Struck by adversity, as when a crop is stung by hail, the rich man may lament his loss and sorry situation, but his cries for help will likely go unanswered even by the poor servants he cared for in the past.
Overconfident people who have wealth, friends, good reputation – once their reputation declines and they become bankrupt, or an unexpected situation arises and how people look at them changes – for people who have lots of ego, this a big problem. When these things happen, they cannot stand this it. They felt very confident about their name, fame, and wealth. But when they are no longer wealthy and respected, other people will act like they don’t even know who they are anymore.
We will be prepared for this kind of situation if we understand that a good name and wealth are impermanent and temporary. To help prepare, we can recite the word repeatedly, “Temporary, temporary.” Then in the future, we can face reality. Not grasping at permanence is something we should always remember. This is one strong teaching, I think.
(18) Today’s ally can transform into tomorrow’s foe, as unguarded words are often misconstrued; yet this can provide a teaching that’ll put an end to false notions of distant enemy and intimate friend.
I have this experience, and maybe most of you have this kind of experience too, for sure. You don’t need to nod your head but, still, I know that you have. We have those we call friends, and with or without intending it, we might make a silly joke that can end up causing harm to our friendship.
Our friendships are made of very thin ice. There is no guarantee, even if we feel strongly about who our friends and enemies are. Mostly I make very sensible jokes. Sometimes I don’t know why my friends take them so seriously. Maybe because it’s very disturbing for them. I can tell by the way they look at me. It can be become a condition for losing friendships. I’m trying to be very careful. Kadampa masters advise, “When you are outside with people, place awareness on your mouth. When you are inside alone, put awareness on your own way of thinking.” This is a very powerful message.
We love gossip, right? Lots of it. You tell your friend a deep secret and request them not to tell anybody, “You are my close friend, and I will tell you this. I trust you.” And then your friend will go to somebody else and repeat what you said and tell them the same thing. And at some point, your secret gets told back to you. And around we go!
It’s better to be aware of what we’re going to say, if we want to keep our friendship pure. Of course, even that is still not a guarantee, as with or without motivation or intention, we can lose friends. For people who really practice impermanence, when such situations happen, they can accept reality very easily. There is no big shock. We might also fight and become enemies. Some of my friends say, “Once you have a big fight with someone, if you then become friends, that friendship is very strong.” But there’s no guarantee.
Fame and Fortune are of No Help at the Time of Death
(19) Samsaric riches are deemed fortune in abundance; but, as a burning lamp is as if a palace to a moth, their alluring appearance serves only to deceive and to lead us from the real happiness that lasts.
There are many helpful quotes everywhere, but this one is especially helpful. This one I can recite from memory. It is very helpful to me. Steve Jobs, before dying, realized this. He said that he’s been busy doing so many things his whole life, always keeping busy. He felt that eventually he would get to enjoy his life. But finally, he realized that death is coming before he had time to enjoy what he had made.
It’s the same for most of us. We are very busy making money and developing a good name, but we are not going to be able to use all the money we make. The good name we work so hard to make, we don’t use in a good way. We waste so many opportunities. We spend our lives making money and garnering a good name, and then we die.
It’s the same with insects and moths. They jump around playing in front of a butter lamp, loving how it deceives them. They die through that. We die with our wealth. We die with our name. We develop them and that’s it. Even if you make a name for yourself like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, Jr., these great people, they also die. All they have left in the world is a good example.
Mao Zedong said in one of his lectures at a university, “You have to study very hard and become very successful. I’m not saying successful necessarily in a positive sense. You can also be negative. You have to get into the history books so that people will know that you existed. Otherwise, you are just born and then you die.” Half of his lecture I agree with, but we should be successful and set a good example to others. Otherwise, we live, eat, then die. That’s it. An insect dies and one person dies – kind of the same thing. I don’t mean we need to be successful with our example in the eyes of the whole world – perhaps only in New York or just within our family or even one or two friends that feel the value we have. That’s good enough. This differentiates us from the moth.
At the Time of Death, We Can Bring Nothing with Us
(20) In brief, the Lord of Death will soon arrive – that is for sure – even if the time is unknown. And when he comes, there’ll be no escape: for as you’re caught in his dreadful fangs,
(21) Even the body you’ve known for so long must remain in its bed, as you go on alone, denied even so much as a backward glance at your wealth, your friends or your servants.
It sounds like a horror story, right? But it’s true, whether we put it in a beautiful way or a terrifying way. At the time of death, wealth and friends cannot help. When you are jailed, maybe you can call your big boss and you’ll get bailed out. But when people have to face the reality of death, all of those who appear so confident - their faces become pale, and they cannot speak. It’s a great challenge: I call it the final test. At the time of death, a true practitioner should be very calm and accept it as a part of life. That’s what His Holiness says. Death is part of life. If we deny it, it becomes a problem.
(22) All help toward allies, all bettering of foes, carried out so tirelessly throughout this life, must now be abandoned for the final journey. The only baggage? – your virtues, your flaws.
(23) Then, on the intermediate stage’s unfamiliar path, you’ll face the army of the dreaded Lord of Death; and, deceived by samsara’s fortunes, you’ll be lost, for, even seeing your mistakes, regret is futile then.
Let me share one story. This happened with the father of one of my friends in Nepal. He loves to gamble. Tibetans don’t usually sleep in the room where there’s an altar, instead they have a special room for all of their holy objects. But this old man had no devotion, saying, “You made this altar room very beautiful, so I will live here.”
Oh, this is no good, but he stayed in the shrine room anyway and did many things there that he shouldn’t. And his family could not say anything due to his bossy attitude. One day, his breathing became labored, and he passed out. It wasn’t certain whether he was dead or not. His family gathered, along with visiting relatives, and started to cry.
After a few moments, he woke up. They were startled and didn’t know what to do. They asked him, “What happened?” He replied, “I think I was dead for a minute.” They just could not believe it. He slowly shared his experience: “Wow, the experience of my death was remarkable. I kept coughing with something stuck in my throat. I didn’t want to give up but then suddenly I wanted to give up very easily. And then I blacked out. There was nothing. Then it felt like I was running and searching for help, but it was very dark and suddenly I realized my physical body was not with me. But I still felt the urge to look for help. I could hear some screaming and someone chasing me. I didn’t dare look back. I felt like the only thing I must do is run. I felt as though somewhere must be a small mouse hole. If I can find a tiny hole, I can hide there. I felt so tired and just said, ‘Oh, Dalai Lama!’ Then a light appeared, growing more and more bright, and then I awakened.”
From that moment on, the poor fellow continued to sleep in the shrine room, but in a different way. He no longer gambled there and, instead, would spend time reading, practicing, and listening to great masters’ teachings in preparation for death. That was one experience to share.
Today we stop here. This ends the two categories of laziness with being busy with worldly things and the laziness of not wanting to do anything. It is your task to discern whether these quotations are in the correct category. For me, these two categories are finished. Tomorrow, we will talk about the laziness of discouragement or of feeling ourselves unworthy. Tomorrow we can finish this text.