by Ven. Visuddhacara
I have written this book to share some thoughts on death with anybody who may care to read it. Thoughts about how we can go about facing death – with courage and equanimity. With dignity. And, if you like, with a smile. Thoughts about how to cope with suffering, to live with wisdom and compassion, or with as much of it as we can muster, until we die.
But people generally do not like to talk about death. Whenever the subject is broached, they might start to feel uncomfortable. It is especially considered taboo on auspicious occasions such as a birthday or a New Year to talk about death. It is as if mentioning the word, death, on an auspicious occasion would mar that occasion and bring about bad luck or an earlier death! Of course, I do not agree with such notions. To me, it is just a superstition. I can understand, though, if people were to consider it bad taste to talk about death on auspicious occasions. But I think it is good and wise to reflect often on death and even on occasions such as a birthday or New Year, perhaps even more so on such occasions. Why? Because we can consider that we are not growing any younger but older, that each year brings us but one year closer to the grave. During such reflections we can take stock of our life, reassess our position and see whether we are going in the right direction – the direction of wisdom and compassion.
As a monk, I constantly meditate on death. It reminds me to lead a more meaningful life, not to waste my days away, though I must confess I still fritter away precious time from time to time; for the mind, as you know, can be very stubborn and lazy at times. Nevertheless by frequent contemplation on death, I am reminded that I must find more time to practise insight meditation so I can clean my mind of the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion. The Buddha advised us to contemplate often on death, as often as daily or every now and then. It will arouse in us samvega – the sense of urgency to strive harder to eradicate the suffering that comes from a defiled mind and deluded mind. I like to talk about death. It's my favourite subject. (Am I morbid? It's all right. Go ahead. You can say I'm morbid and whatever you like. It's fine with me. I don't mind. People i.e. not only me but also you, must be allowed their basic human right to express their views and feelings as long as they do so in a legitimate, sensitive, non-imposing and non-violent way. No one should get angry with a person on account of his expressing his views in such manner, though unfortunately, sometimes we forget and get all heated up.) But coming back to the subject, I have always pondered, I have always wondered and am still wondering: "Why do we live? Why do we die? What is it all about? What is it all for? To what purpose? For what end?"
I have tried in this book to share my limited understanding of life and death. I feel that we need to discuss the question of death frankly. We should not be afraid to bring up the subject. Otherwise, how can we discuss and learn? When we can openly discuss and learn and understand, then it is good; for we can come to terms with death. We can know better how to deal with it. This is important; for the simple reason that all of us must die. There is no escape. And if we cannot relate to death now, how can we relate to it when we are lying on our deathbed, about to breathe our last? Might we not be overcome with fear and confusion then? So it's better to learn all about death now. It will surely stand us in good stead. Then we need not fear any more. We'll have confidence, and when death comes we can go with a smile. We can say: "Death, do your worst. I know you and I can smile."
As I'm a Buddhist monk, readers will find that the contents contain a lot of Buddhist values and concepts. Of course, some values, such as that of love and compassion, are universal. They belong to no one religion but to all. All religions teach love and compassion. They are all good religions. But it's we, the followers, who do not follow. So we kill and maim and hurt in the name of religion. Who's to be blamed but ourselves! Not the religions or their founders who always preached love, wisdom, mercy, forgiveness and compassion. If we can awaken to our ignorance, then we can love truly. We can live as brothers and sisters with tolerance, patience and understanding, with love and compassion.
I wrote this book mainly for Buddhists. But non-Buddhists too might read and find some benefit, some common areas of agreement, appreciation and understanding. At the very least, they would know the Buddhist point of view, the Buddhist approach and understanding. It's good to know each other's viewpoints; it leads to more tolerance, understanding and appreciation of each other's approaches and beliefs. There is no desire on my part at all to convert anybody. That should be very clear. Let everybody practise their own religion and let them do so well; for as has been well put by Nobel peace laureate, the Dalai Lama, compassion is, after all, the essence of all religions.
I have tried to share my understanding to the best of my ability. But I have no doubt that there will be some shortcomings here and there. Or some areas where there may be differences of interpretation or understanding. You may not like or agree with certain things I say. Or you may not like the way I put it. You might think it is improper, flippant, insensitive, sentimental, abrasive, distorted, absurd, or whatever. It is all right. This is natural. As long as there are even two persons, there will be some disagreements. You can just reject those things you do not agree with, throw them out, so to speak. You need not have to accept everything I say. Why should you? Of course you have a good mind of your own, and you can (and must) think and decide for yourself. We can agree to disagree, without getting upset or angry. We can agree to disagree and still remain good friends. Can we not? That is the most wonderful thing, the quintessence of mental maturity. It is for each of us to decide sincerely and honestly for ourselves what we can relate to and what we cannot. We need not believe everything or anything.
The Buddha himself said it's better that we carefully consider, investigate and verify for ourselves before accepting anything. Even the Buddha's own words too should come under the same intensity of scrutiny. After all, the Buddha made no exception whatsoever. He never believed in blind faith. He never told us to simply believe what he said and to simply reject what others said. But he told us to investigate, practise and verify for ourselves. If we find that a certain teaching is good, that it is wholesome and leads to the eradication of greed, hatred and delusion, then we can accept it. If not, we should reject it. It's excellent advice. And, therefore, taking a cue from the Buddha, I always like to say: Believe nothing. But I think, practise and verify for yourself. That's to me the best and safest approach. But as for any mistakes on my part in the writing of this book, I do apologize and ask for forgiveness.
May all beings be happy. May we all find the wisdom and happiness that we seek, each in our own way. And happy reading!