(1) Contemplating the certainty of death

The first root category, contemplating the certainty of death, is made up of these three supporting reasons: (1) contemplating that the Lord of Death is certain to appear and cannot be turned back by any means; (2) contemplating that our life span cannot be increased and that it is constantly growing shorter; and (3) contemplating the certainty of death in the sense that we do not have much time to practice, even while we are alive.

(a) Contemplating that the Lord of Death is certain to appear and cannot be turned back by any means

It is absolutely certain that we are going to die. Whatever body we might have, whatever place we might go to, whatever means we might try, nothing can turn back the Lord of Death.

There is no soundness of body that can turn back the Lord of Death. Even Lord Buddha who attained the adamantine bodyalong with many other Indian and Tibetan masters who achieved the united pair state, only seem as though they are still with us because we continue to speak of their spiritual lives. In actuality, they have all passed on. As the Section on Impermanence declares:

If the Buddhas, Buddhas' Listeners,
And Solitary Realizers

Must give up their physical bodies,
What need be said of common beings?[1]

When even our Master Buddha Sakyamuni and other exalted beings give the appearance of dissolving their adamantine bodies and passing into nirvana, how could beings like ourselves not be subject to death? When the time of the Master's nirvana was approaching, Shariputra and many tens of thousands of other followers passed into nirvana before him. Soon after this, the Master directed that a final bed be prepared between two Sala trees outside the town of Kusinara[2] Then he converted his final two disciples, the gandharva king Pramudita[3] and the non-Buddhist Wanderer[4] Subhadra.[5] Immediately afterward, Subhadra passed away himself, because he was unable to bear the sight of the Master's nirvana.

When the Master was about to pass into nirvana, he loosened his upper garment and admonished his disciples, "Gaze now upon the Tathagata, for he is a rare thing to see."[6] Then he singled out impermanence as his final teaching and showed it to be a principal object of meditation by declaring: "All composed things are impermanent. This is the Tathagata's final word." After that, he passed into nirvana.

When the arhats living in diverse locations heard of the Master's passing, most of them also entered nirvana, having achieved the power to pass away at will. Because of this, the number of arhats remaining fell short of five hundred by one.

Not only that, many great pandits and realized adepts of Indiasuch as the Seven Patriarchs of the teaching, the Eighty Great Spiritual Adepts, the Six Ornaments and Two Ultimateshave all passed away. The same is true for the great spiritual beings of Tibetsuch figures as the Trio of the Abbot, the Master, and the Dharma King;[7] Lord Atisha and his spiritual sons; as well as Jamgn Lama Tsongkapa and his spiritual sons. If nothing remains of these great persons now but accounts of their former deeds, how could such ordinary beings as ourselves escape death and continue living indefinitely?

It is said that in the past, when Tsechok Ling Yongzin Rinpoche[8] taught the Lamrim, many thousands would gather to hear him. And yet, not a single one of them neither teacher nor disciple remains alive today. We also know that Chusang Lama Rinpoche[9] and others gave teachings in this very place. Yet today nothing remains of them either, except for anecdotes of their activities. And within a hundred years' time, we who are present at this dharma teaching will all be dead as well. Nothing will remain except the record that such and such an event took place on this spot.

What's more, it is an absolute certainty that not a single person who is alive today in this entire Jambudvipa continent of India, Tibet, Mongolia, and so onincluding those infants born this very day will still be alive after a hundred years or so. Every one of them will have died. So it's quite evident that none of us here today will still be alive then either.

And when our time comes, there is no place anywhere that death cannot overcome us. As a verse in the Section on Impermanence declares:

Nowhere in the sky, nor in the middle
Of the ocean, nor in a mountain cleft
Is there a place to be found on this earth
Where one will not be overcome by death.[10]

When Virudhaka, the son of King Prasenajit, was preparing to kill all the Sakya clansmen, Maudgalyayana wanted to use his miraculous powers to transport Virudhaka and all his army beyond the outer ring of iron mountains.[11] The Buddha, however, declared that there was no way the massacre could be stopped. Several young men and women were hidden in the Tathagata's food bowl, while a few others were placed inside the sun's mansion. Yet on the day that the Sakya clan was massacred, these persons died as well.

When death comes to us, there is nothing that can help us. None of us is swift enough to outrun death. We cannot buy our ransom with wealth. Nor can we overwhelm death by our physical strength. The Collection of Uplifting Sayings declares:

Though a great sage with five super wisdoms
May even fly far up into the sky,
He is unable to reach any place
Where he can avoid experiencing death.[12]

If we could escape him by fleeing, a sage who has attained the five supernormal knowledges and who possesses miraculous powers should be able to take flight and evade the Lord of Death. Yet even such a person cannot escape by fleeing; he, too, must experience death.

Nor can we avert death through strength. A powerful lion has the strength to destroy an elephant by delivering blows to its head with his paws. Yet, when death comes to the lion, he simply draws in these paws and dies. Neither is the great power of a wheel-wielding monarch of any benefit; he, too, must experience death.

If we analyze the extent to which we delight in wealth and material things, we will find our attachment so great that we must think death could be ransomed with wealth. And yet, not even the precious wishing jewel of a wheel-wielding monarch is sufficient ransom, let alone any lesser form of wealth.

The Sutra of Instruction for a King presents a metaphor of four massive and solid mountains that are swiftly converging on us and reducing to dust all bushes, trees, and plants that lie in their path. The scripture goes on to say that just as there would be virtually no way of stopping four such mountains, so too is it with the four mountains of old age, misfortune, sickness, and death. Here is the passage from the sutra:

O great king, it is as if four mountains were coming toward us from the four directionsmountains so massive, solid, without fragments or fissures, free of cavities, exceedingly dense, and uniformly compact. And it is as if they were coming toward us touching the sky, ripping up the earth, and pulverizing all grasses, sticks, branches, leaves, and foliage, as well as [175b] all animate beings, spirits, and living things. And as they did so, we could not escape from them through swiftness, nor turn them back by force, wealth, magic spell, or medicine.

In just the same way, O great king, there are four very fearsome things coming toward us. And we cannot escape from them through swiftness, nor turn them back by force, wealth, magic spell, or medicine.

What are these four? They are old age, sickness, death, and misfortune. O great king, old age comes toward us destroying youth; sickness comes toward us destroying health; misfortune comes toward us destroying all prosperity; and death comes toward us destroying our life-force. And we cannot outrun them through swiftness, nor turn them back by force, wealth, magic spell, or medicine.[13]

(b) Contemplating that our life spans cannot be increased and that they are constantly growing shorter

It is an absolute certainty that we are going to die. This is because whatever amount of time our past karma has determined to be the length for our present life spans, not the slightest bit more can be added to them. Moreover, with each passing moment, we move ever closer to our rendezvous with the Lord of Death.

As a verse from Engaging in Bodhisattva Activities states:

My life continues its depletion
Day and night without interruption
And no extension is forthcoming.
How could it be that I shall not die?[14]

The Collection of Uplifting Sayings also declares:

Just like yarn that ever shortens
As it is being intertwined
With the threads of an outstretched loom
Such is a mortal being's life.[15]

The Supreme Conqueror Kelsang Gyatso wrote on this same theme as well:

Not since our birth have we been free to rest for even a moment.
We're racing at full speed to come before Yama, the Lord of Death.
Though we are said to be alive, it's death's great road that we are on.
'Tis sad the image of a convict being led to the killing ground.[16]

As this verse states, we are speeding toward death from the moment we are born, with no chance to rest even for the length of time it takes to draw a single breath. We are speeding toward this destination faster than a horse racing at full gallop. Even a galloping horse is able to stop once in a while to rest. Yet we are rushing toward death without pausing for even an instant. Thus, we are coming ever closer to death with each passing moment.

The Collection of Uplifting Sayings declares:

Just like those men condemned to death
Who draw near to the killing ground
With each and every step they take
Such is a mortal being's life.[17]

When a sheep is led to the place of slaughter, it comes ever closer to death with each step. For us, too, from the time we are born there is never a moment that we are not moving straight toward death [176b].

Moreover, when we subtract from our overall life span the time that has already passed, the amount that remains is extremely short and continues to be used up with each breath, hour, day, month, and year that goes by. Then suddenly the time will one day come when we have to say, "Now, it's time for me to die. It's time for me to go." Thus, it's wrong for us to remain complacent, thinking that we're not going to die.

(Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche concluded by saying that even when we relax and lie down comfortably as we prepare to go to sleep, our life spans keep their gaze fixed on the Lord of Death and continue racing toward him.)

(c) Contemplating the certainty of death in the sense that we do not have much time to practice, even during the time that we remain alive

The period of time during which we remain alive is extremely short. Ultimately, we will meet with death without having had much opportunity to practice dharma. Assuming that we will live for about sixty years, we use up half our lifetime sleeping, since that is how we pass the entire night. And if we exclude from the remaining thirty years the amount of time we spend eating and doing other mundane activities, we are left with no more than five years in which to practice dharmafor instance, by staying in retreat and practicing during the four meditation periods.[18]

On the first day of the new year we hold a feast as the most important of auspicious celebrations. Each month we celebrate a different holiday, such as the Great Prayer Festival,[19] and distract ourselves with all manner of busy activities. In this way the year goes by in a flash.

Gungtang Rinpoche wrote:

Twenty pass without thinking to practice;
Twenty more with "I'm going to, I'm going to";
Over ten pass saying "I've failed, I've failed"
This is a tale of a life spent in vain.[20]

As this verse suggests, during the first part of lifeour childhoodwe don't even think about the dharma. Following that, we may form a desire to practice dharma; but typically we just tell ourselves over and over, "I must practice dharma, I must practice dharma," without ever following through on this intention. Thus, we never achieve anything of spiritual value. This leaves us in old age unable to do anything except lament our failure in this life and offer some prayers for the future.

Right now we can look around and see many who keep telling themselves that they intend to practice dharma; yet they continue to allow themselves to be distracted. Others have already reached the point at which they can only say with regret that they failed to practice dharma. We must recognize the error of a life spent in this way and not allow ourselves to think up meaningless activities to do each day, investing them with a false sense of importance. Otherwise, we will deprive ourselves of any opportunity to practice dharma. The proper course is to strengthen our resolve[21] and practice dharma as best we can before Yama, the Lord of Death, sets upon us. As Je Ngawang Jampa wrote:

Imagine, for instance, that a great mound of barley has been heaped in the middle of a wide valley, and that it is about to be swept away by a great flood of water coming down from the highlands. If we just sit there and watch, the water will wash all the barley away without leaving a single grain. We should then, without delay, mount a great effort and do our utmost to gather it in. By doing so, we may be able to save at least one or two parts of it. And if we're lucky, we might even be able to gather it all in, pulling off a truly great accomplishment. Similarly, before death comes we must do our utmost to practice the path associated with the three types of practitioner.

After contemplating the three reasons described above, we should recognize the certainty of death and generate the conviction that we must practice dharma.

(2) Contemplating the uncertainty of the time of death

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