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AN EYE ON DEATH: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Death's adventure

SO WE MUST CHANGE our attitude toward death. Instead of seeing it as an unfortunate error or something to be avoided, we need to learn to understand it as a natural process. Everything that has been born has to die. We all know this on some level, but we live our lives as if we didn't. And, of course, we don't know what happens after death. Not knowing what will happen to us makes us fear death.

In meditation, we try to see death as an adventure, as growth, as a graduation. As most of you probably know, Buddhists espouse the theory of rebirth. They believe that each being, or the mental process of each being, has been undergoing birth and death since the beginning of time. They also believe that the effects of what is learned or done now carries over into the next life, at least from the standpoint of the Dhamma.

The practice of Dhamma evolved from the Buddha's discovery that out of our awareness of the wheel of suffering, birth and death, we can eventually transcend this endless round of suffering. Through this awareness, we see death not as something to be feared, but as a natural phenomenon in the unfolding of our existence.

People who live in the future and who cling to it with desire, who resist life now, will also resist death. If we run away from physical and mental pain and other unpleasant experiences as many people do, when death --- the biggest pain of all -- comes, we will run away from that, too.

Cultivating the reflection that death can come at any moment helps keep us more in the present moment. It helps us let go of past evils, restrictions, greed, anger, resentment and other unpleasant states of mind.

When we realize that our time is limited and that the present is really all we have, we can care more for others. When we're clinging to the past and future, we're usually worrying about ourselves. "Will I do this right?" "What will people think of me?" "Can I get what I want and avoid what I don't want?" "Can I save myself?" "If I can, how?"

When we're living in the present moment, we're not so self-preoccupied and can be more present and open to others, more compassionate, more loving and more caring. Being grounded and centered in the present moment and being open to whatever arises prepares us to cope with anything that comes up, even death. It is said, "I you're here now, you'll be here then." You will be able to let go gracefully and move into whatever future experience lies ahead without fear.

Reflecting on Death

USUALLY, WHEN BUDDHISTS talk about death, they are referring to the death of the ego. This is the real death. The death of the body is like discarding one old suit of clothes and putting on another, or going out on one door and entering another. But, ultimately, in the attainment of enlightenment and liberation, one dies to greed, hatred and ignorance, which is to say, one dies to a sense of self and all the trappings of ego.

We must reflect on the meaning of life. How, in life, can we make the best use of our experience of our living, precious, human bodies and our awareness of them in the presence of death? Life is very short and we have little time.

Reflection on death is one of the 40 subjects of meditation that is found within the Buddhist scruptures. In the Visuddhimagga, a very comprehensive text on Buddhist meditation, relfection on death is listed as one of the subjects.

Meditation on death is a discursive meditation. That means that it involves thinking. Many people regard meditation as watching the breath (Vipassaba) and consider thinking a hindrance. But of the 40 subjects of meditation, at least 10 of them involve discursive thinking. Mindfulness is one of those objects. We can attain high levels of concentration, even while thinking.

Access concentration is a stage that's just shy of full absorption, a highly elevated state of mind. In this state, the jhana factors arise in their weak stages and the hindrances to absorption are suppressed. You can achieve a debree of bliss during discursive contemplation. Discursive meditation on death belongs to the classification of Right Thought on the Eight-Fold Path, i.e., thinking about the Dhamma. This meditation helps us to see reality as it is, leading us to dispassion, leading to enlightenment.

These kinds of reflections are often overlooked. In their zeal to develop one-pointed concentration and certain imagined high states of meditation, people often ignore some of the basic practices that prepare the groundwork.

The Visuddhimagga recommends eight different ways of contemplating death. The basic one is repeating to yourself, "Death will occur, death will occur." But for those who don't find that helpful, here are some other ways of contemplating death.

We can think of death as a murderer. Just as a murderer rushes out of nowhere to kill us, so, too, death can come upon us at any time. Not only a human murderer, but even a snake can crawl into our beds and bite us. A bolt of lightning can strike us in the forest or a tree can fall on our kuti [hut] and crush us. Death can come out of nowhere and take us. No matter how many riches, how much fame, productivity, power or achievement we have amassed in life, it will all be destroyed by death.

All health ends in death. People who appear to be the epitome of vigor, youth and strength can just drop dead for seemingly no reason. Even though we try to, and sometimes do, find causes for these deaths, the fact remains that death can come unexpectedly to anyone at any time. No matter how rich we are, we can't buy off death.

PAGE 4: The Frailty of Life

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