The concept of death is something that, we as human beings have always struggled to come to term with. In our western culture, we live in denial of the simple fact that we are all going to die one day. In this materialistic world where consumerism has become a religion, attempting to reach happiness thru the accumulation of worldly goods leaves us totally unprepared when the end is near.
When it does occur, our society constantly invents new words to distance us from the reality of this experience. For example, one is no longer called a mortician, or an undertaker, but a funeral director. The word coffin as been replaced by a casket, and a funeral has become a memorial service. Unfortunately, hiding behind weasel words does not make the problem disappear, by avoiding this painful subject throughout our life, when we reach the end of our journey we are unprepared, and terrified of steeping into the unknown. This also leaves us feeling hopelessly inadequate, and unable to cope when someone close to us is terminally ill.
In contrast, in Tibetan Buddhism, one is taught very early on, that every experience in life is only temporary, and that death is unavoidable. We learn that the time of our death is uncertain, that our life is fragile as a burning flame, and that the separation between this life and the next one only a few breaths away. Even with the support from our loved ones, we will have to face death alone knowing that no amount of money, wealth, or material possessions will affect the ultimate outcome. Nor will our dearest friends be able prevent it, or go along with us. It is considered that unless we accept these fundamental life principles, we will not reach a lasting happiness.
To remove that fear of the unknown, we need to practice dying on a regular basis, so that when the time will come, we will be prepared. Following the saying “Die before you die, and you shall never die”, in Tibetan culture, monks and nuns practice meditation towards dying every day. The eastern practitioners learn to pack their belonging every night as if it was their last one in their life. Every morning they wake up, to experience an additional day lived as a bonus which needs to be enjoyed to its full extent. While for a westerner, it might sound morbid to have such an obsession with death. It is on the opposite liberating to be able to remove that fear, and to accept dying as an integral part of the cycle of our existence, especially if we believe that we will be reborn into another life.
So what makes us so scared of dying?
Buddhism teaches us that our greatest cause of unhappiness is attachment. When we learn to let go, we become free. Everything in life is impermanent, so we must enjoy it while it last, and then move on. Instead we cling to temporary material, sensory, or emotional pleasures while pretending that these will last for ever, so we are bound to be disappointed when it doesn’t occur. Often people who have been close to dying come out of the experience more spiritual. They mention how they have learnt to treasure every single moment of their life. Buddhism considers that there are only two important considerations when we reach our last breath: whatever we have done in our lives, and the state of mind we are in at the time of our death. This is why it is so important to prepare for this transition. The aim of spiritual practice is to have no fear or regrets at the time of our death. It is believed that our mental attitude as we expire our last breath, will determine how our next life will be. With meditation, the moment of death can become an extraordinary spiritual experience, where a moment of great liberation often occurs.
This explains why suicide is considered such a tragic act in Buddhism. The act of killing one self doesn’t end human suffering. Those who die in a depressed and negative state will be reborn into a lower form of life where their misery will be extended. The physical atmosphere, and the spiritual attitude of those who are present of the time of someone’s death, are both regarded as very important in assisting the patient into their next journey. So, meditations sessions projecting feelings of comfort, peacefulness, love, and acceptance will be more helpful to the patient than tears, anguish, and emotional outbursts.
In Tibet, it is a tradition to read The Tibetan book of the Death, for several days at the bedside of someone who has died, to guide the person thru the six various transitional Bardo (in between) states between one existence to another. The first three stages are said to take place when one is still alive, while the last three stages occur between the time of the death, and the rebirth into another life.
Olivier Lejus MHSc (TCM), BHSc (acup.) is an accredited acupuncturist, and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney.