Nova Article-Embracing Death in the Buddhist tradition PART 1


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 The word coffin as been replaced by a cas­ket, and a funer­al has become a memori­al ser­vice.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.


About Olivier Lejus

I was born in France and I emigrated to Australia in 1980. I worked as a circus performer, puppeteer and actor before I began studying Traditional Chinese Medicine a the University of Technology of Sydney in 1997. I graduated in 2000 with a Bachelor of of science degree in Traditional Chinese medicine. I am now specializing in Japanese style acupuncture for the treatment of female and male infertility, pain, and anxiety.

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