Contemplating the uncertainty of the time of death

The second root category is made up of these three supporting reasons: (1) the life span of a person in the Jambudvipa is uncertain in a general sense and also, in particular, because this is a degenerate age; (2) the time of death is uncertain both because the factors that contribute to death are numerous and because those that sustain life are few; and (3) the time of death is uncertain because the body is extremely fragile.

(a) The life span of a person in the Jambudvipa is uncertain in a general sense and also, in particular, because this is a degenerate age

If there were any certainty about the time of our death, we could spend the first part of our life doing worldly activitiessuch as subduing our enemies and supporting our friends. Then, after living comfortably this way for some time, we could undertake to practice dharma just prior to our death. But because the duration of our lives is not fixed, it is important to contemplate that the time of death is uncertain. As the Treasury of Higher Learning states:

A life for the Kurus lasts a thousand years;
For two others, it reduces twice by half.
Here, it is indefiniteten years at the end,
While beyond measure at the beginning.[1]

The life spans for most inhabitants of three of the four continents is fixed. In the Jambudvipa, though, it is said that at the beginning of a great kalpa humans can live for an immeasurably great number of years. Nevertheless, at the end of an intermediate kalpa the human life span is a maximum of ten years. This is the general sense in which the life span of a human being in the Jambudvipa is uncertain.

During a degenerate age, there is also a particular sense in which a human life span is uncertain. While none of us think that we can escape death forever, right up to the time we die most of us do think, "I will surely die sometime, but it probably won't be this year."

Some try to rationalize things this way: "I won't die for some time to come, because I'm still young." But the fact that one is young provides no advantage. Death does not come according to a person's age. There are many instances in which a child has died before his parents, leaving his mother and father to carry his remains to the cemetery. All of us have also witnessed the death of many persons who were younger than ourselves. Some even die as soon as they are born.

There are others whom we would never expect to die because they were in such good health; but that is no guarantee either. Many healthy persons may die unexpectedly during the time that a person suffering from an illness lies in his bed without passing away [178a]. Some die in the middle of a meal. Yet when they began eating, not even in some deep corner of their minds did they think they would die before they had finished their food.

Many times when there is a large gathering of people, a certain individual will enter a hall under the power of his own two legs and then emerge as a corpse which has to be carried out by others on a stretcher.

High government officials may also devise plans for many different projects only to die in the middle of their work, without having been able to see them through to completion.

The collected writings of great religious figures also sometimes contain a piece that is called an "unrealized composition."[2] This is a euphemism which simply means that the work was left uncompleted by the author because he passed away in the middle of writing it.

When we hear that so-and-so has diedwhether he was a neighbor who lived just to the right or left of us, or he was someone who lived in the upper or lower part of some valleywe don't usually think to ourselves that this same fate will come to us one day. Instead, we react impassively, as if we were mere witnesses to an event which has no connection with our own lives. We might even think to ourselves hopefully, "He owned an excellent set of monk's robes which I'd really like to have for myself now." But what we should be thinking is this: "The very same experience of death will surely come to me one day; yet I can't be sure exactly when it will come." As a verse states:

Tomorrow or my future lifebecause
I can't be sure which of them will come first,
I should strive on behalf of future lives
And not strive for the sake of tomorrow.[3]

The Collection of Uplifting Sayings also states:

Of the many people seen at daybreak,
Some will not be seen when the evening comes.
Of the many people seen at nightfall,
Some will not be seen with the coming dawn.[4]

[178b] Is there really any certainty that our death will not come even tomorrow? Because there isn't, we should reflect in this way: "It's definitely a mistake that I don't prepare for death; for it is sure to come, though I don't know when. And since there's no certainty that I will live to an advanced age, I shouldn't be making all these plans to insure that I will be comfortable in my later years."

Even if we can't imagine ourselves dying today or tomorrow, we should at least reflect like this: "I can't be sure whose turn will have come by this time next year." Among those gathered at this teaching, there's no way of knowing who will be the first to die, or if the person will come from those sitting at the head of a row, the middle part, or the end.

Nor will any written announcement be sent to us before we die, with the message "Now it's time to go." Suddenly one day, as if struck by lightning, we will have to leave behind all our unfinished work. Everyone down to humble monks will have to leave everything behind, including their tea, butter, and tsamba. The fact that we may even have to depart for our next life without finishing the noodle soup we were drinking is a sign that the time of death is uncertain.

The belief that we will go on living for many years represents a form of grasping at the permanency of things.[5] This belief can deceive us up to the very brink of death. But then one day we'll come to realize that the time to die has arrived. Yet even on the very day that a sick person in fact does die, he may still find himself thinking, "I don't believe I'll die today."

Some persons do wonder about the possibility of dying during a year that is inauspicious for them.[6] Yet of all the years which are not inauspicious, from the age of one to a hundred, there isn't a single one for which we can say: "I won't die this year." For instance, someone who is twenty-eight years old should hold this thought: "It's quite possible that I will die this year, [179a] because several persons I knew died at this age."

If someone should say to us, "Take an oath that you definitely won't die this year," we couldn't do it. Our death is something about which we could never be sure. Since the uncertainty of death is unlike such difficult subjects as the insubstantiality of the self, only a lack of reflection keeps us from realizing it. For if we were to reflect on this fact while staying in a place where many people congregate, or in a city with a large population, it would become as clear as something we could see with our eyes and touch with our hands.

Thus, we must cultivate an attitude that conforms with an instruction given by my guru and precious savior. Along with several scriptural citations, he taught us to make this prayer: "If I don't die for one or two months, may I be able to achieve that which will benefit my next life. And if I don't die for one or two years, may I be able to achieve the ultimate aim for all my lives."

(b) The time of death is uncertain because the factors that contribute to death are many and because those that sustain life are few

The second reason why we can't be sure when death will come is that there are many factors which contribute to death, while there are only a few that sustain life.

The only things that protect us in this life are the prayers we made in our former lives, our merit, and the Buddhas' compassion. By contrast, there are indeed a great many factors that can bring about our death. For example, there are eighty thousand kinds of obstructing demons[7] that hover around us like flies around a rotten carcass. As they do, they are uncontrollably consumed by thoughts such as these: "When can I eat this person," or "If only I could steal away his vital breath." In addition, there are four hundred and four categories of disease that envelop us like a thick fog. Various other kinds of malevolent spirits also loom over us greedily, posing a continual threat to our livessuch as the three hundred and sixty types of overpowering demons,[8] the fifteen extraordinary overpowering demons that attack children, and the three hundred and sixty calamitous demons.[9]

Besides these outer factors, an imbalance of the four elements, or of the humors of bile, wind, and phlegm, can also steal away our vital force and bring about death. This aspect of our physical makeup is like four snakes that have been placed into a single pot, with the strongest one always trying to eat the others. As a verse states:

The causes of death are many;
The ones that sustain life are few.
The latter all can bring death too;
Therefore, always practice dharma.[10]

In addition to the numerous causesboth inner and outerwhich are commonly recognized as contributing to death, a great many of the causes that we normally think of as sustaining life can also become factors that bring about death. For instance, a house may collapse, a ship may become wrecked and sink, a horse may throw his rider and trample him, one friend may betray another, food may not be digested properly, and so on. Thus, as Nagarjuna said, a person's life-force is like the flame of a lamp that has been left out in a strong wind:

One dwells amidst factors that can cause death
Just like a lamp that sits in gusting winds.[11]

(c) The time of death is uncertain because our bodies are extremely fragile

The third reason we can't be sure when death will come is that our bodies are extremely fragile. If our bodies were firm and strong, it would not matter that the causes which bring death greatly outnumber the ones which sustain life. Yet not much force is needed to cause death. Like a bubble of water, this body can be destroyed by the mere prick of a thorn.

Here is how the Letter to a Friend tells us that it wouldn't help even if our bodies were strong:

If not even the ashes will remain
Of bodies like Earth, Meru, and the seas
When they are burned by seven blazing suns,
What need be said of humankind so frail?[12]

Another verse from the same work marvels that we don't die in our sleep. When we are asleep, our coarse breathing stops and only a subtle form of breath continues to function. Thus, it is truly a wonder that our coarse breathing, after having been still, begins once again so that we are able to wake up from sleep:

This life of many ills is more fragile
Than a water bubble stirred by the wind [180a].
A great wonder indeed is the leisure
To go on breathing and wake up from sleep![13]

Once we have reflected on the uncertainty of the time of death, we should resolve firmly to begin practicing dharma right away. We must be like a person who knows that an enemy is going to try and kill him, but doesn't know when he will come. Such a person starts working right away to try and thwart this enemy.

We only deceive ourselves when we have thoughts such as this: "I know I must practice dharma, but I have some work that won't be finished until around this time next year. When I've completed that, then I'll practice dharma." Je Gungtangba said:

To think: "I'll start a pure dharma practice
On this month or year, when I finish up
Some work connected with this life's affairs"
Is a ruinous fiend who tricks us all.[14]

Many of us tell ourselves that we will start practicing dharma as soon as we've finished this or that project. But worldly tasks are like ripples of water; they don't stop coming even for a moment. Before you finish one job, a new one will certainly come along that you will also want to complete. And then yet another will appear which you will again feel compelled to finish. This is described in the following lines:

Unfinished work is like an old man's beard;
You cut and cut, but it just grows thicker.[15]

As Je Gungtangba also said:

Before the tomorrow for dharma dawns,
The today for dying may well arrive.
Don't be a person who deceives himself;
Start practicing dharma this very day.[16]

Some persons try to schedule a time for dharma with thoughts like, "I'll start practicing dharma as soon as I finish this," or "I'll start practicing dharma tomorrow." But they will surely have to face a day when, even though their work remains unfinished, this realization hits them like a bolt of lightning: "Today is the day that I must die!"

After contemplating these three reasons which establish why the time of death is uncertain, we must completely lay aside all worldly activities. Then, without procrastinating until tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, we must generate the conviction to start practicing dharma right now.

This doesn't mean that student monks should stop attending the main prayer assembly, or the debate classes, and set out for some mountain cave. It means that they should transform into genuine dharma the very dharma which they are currently practicing. For instance, think of the kinds of recitations you perform. You must have recited the Buddha, Dharma, Assemblage verse[17] thousands of times. But try and remember if you've ever recited it even once after reflecting carefully on its meaning. You'll find that you've done that only very rarely.

Now it's true that those of you who are merchants or farmers can't transform your daily work into dharma practice. But those of you who have left the householder state and become monks must try to transform the very activities you perform every day into genuine dharma practice.

(Kyabje Rinpoche concluded by saying that those of us who find ourselves with very little dharma came to that condition mostly through a failure of practice, not merely through a lack of knowledge.)

(3) Contemplating that when we die nothing except the dharma can benefit us

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