The Meaning of Death in Buddhism

Experiencing the death of a loved one, or witnessing the death of others, can be one of the most profound events in one's life. Especially in Western culture, death is something we pretend does not exist. We are constantly encouraged to hold onto life, and even if we're with someone we know is dying, the subject is rarely, if ever, mentioned. Never acknowledging this universal experience of the unknown is like an individual who admits he has a mind but not a body, or vice versa; in short, by hiding from such an inherent part of life as death, we deny ourselves a truly integrated understanding of life's possibilities and its meaning. Buddhism has a lot to say about the role of death in human life, as well as its true nature. Death can be a teacher. Only in facing death, those of loved ones and our own, can we be free from the fear of it and learn the lessons it has to teach about life.

I lost my mother four months ago. She was 52 years old and no one realized how ill she was. I don't think she even knew. In fact, she had been to the doctor just days before and the doctor had diagnosed her as having a bladder infection, and sent her home with some antibiotics. She died two days later in her bathroom from sepsis, a toxification of the system, resulting from a blocked and inoperative kidney. The bedside scene we always envision when contemplating the death of a loved one never came into play. She died alone and I, along with the rest of her family, never got to say goodby, or communicate one last time how much we loved her. Trusting in some sort of design in the universe, I hope her spirit is safe in the care of higher beings and involved in a process constructed to guide the millions of people who die and leave the planet every day. I am left here on earth to cope with loss, regrets and grief, and with the gut realization that death is present, a pervasive reality, and it has now changed my life forever.

Buddhism addresses the subject of death, and I will only deal with a small portion of the Bhuddist texts called the Dhammapada. The texts of the Theravadin school of Buddhism are collectively known as the Pali Canon. The Pali Canon is divided into three sections: the Vinaya (the disciplinary rules governing the daily behavior of monks), the Abhidhamma (the psychological writings which postdate the historical Buddha's lifetime), and the Sutta (the discourses of the Buddha). The Suttas are, in turn, sub-divided into five sections. One of these, the Khuddaka Nikaya, is comprised of fifteen books, and the best known is the Dhammapada. Loosely translated, Dhammapada means the "path of perfection," or the right path of life which leads one to the supreme Truth. In section 20 of the Dhammapada, I found some verses that seemed to speak to my situation:

286 "Here shall I dwell in the season of rains, and here in winter and summer"; thus thinks the fool, but he does not think of death.

287 For death carries away the man whose mind is self-satisfied with his children and his flocks, even as a torrent carries away a sleeping village.

288 Neither father, sons nor one's relations can stop the King of Death. When he comes with all his power, a man's relations cannot save him.

289 A man who is virtuous and wise understands the meaning of this, and swiftly strives with all his might to clear a path to Nirvana.

These verses clearly call attention to our powerlessness when it comes to death. It sweeps through our lives, often without warning, and nothing can prevent it. They also point out how most people hide their heads in the sand, pretending death will never affect them, that this life will go on forever. After reading this, I realized it was true; I never thought my mother would be taken so suddenly and so soon. I wanted to turn back the clock and tell her so many things that, now, I will never be able to say. Grief over the loss of someone I love so much has, over the past months, opened me up, deepened my understanding of how temporal life is and how much more important people are than anything else. My heart was torn open, and I experienced my own humanity perhaps more than I ever have. Life has an urgency now, I feel impelled to enjoy others more fully, to assess my time carefully, to be in the present as much as I can. I must be in this moment because I will never have this moment, with this person, again. But my new awareness is not the Nirvana that is mentioned. What does Nirvana have to do with death, and can Buddhism give a more precise idea of what death is?

In section 2, I found a somewhat startling verse:

21 Watchfulness is the path of immortality: unwatchfulness is the path of death. Those who are watchful never die: those who do not watch are already as dead.

I understood some sense of this verse because of class lectures. The watcher is that kernal of pure awareness possessed by every human being that transcends every other aspect of the human experience. The watcher, or witness, watches us think, watches us feel, it watches everything we do and everything we experience. By watching ourselves experience we gain a certain detachment from the experience itself, and with this detachment comes freedom. But here, it is claimed those who connect with the watcher in themselves never die and those who do not are already dead. This is different from physical death, or is it? When so much of what human beings are has to do with consciousness, can it be that a life lived without this awareness is like death because we are only half alive, and life lived with this awareness makes it possible for us to carry this awareness with us into death? Perhaps the freedom the watcher imparts has something to do with it. If one is free from willing certain things to happen or not happen, one is open to a wider range of possibilities. Keeping oneself open to the experience of death also allows one to let go into life. By cultivating the watching of everything that happens, one can make sure they are as fully present as possible in each experience. One becomes very awake, and this is an awareness that death cannot affect. Even death can be an O.K. experience.

This idea is confirmed and expanded in section 18:

237 You are at the end of your life. You are going to meet Death. There is no resting place on your way, and you have no provision for the journey.

238 Make therefore an island for yourself. Hasten and strive. Be wise. With the dust of impurities blown off, and free from sinful passions, you will be free from birth that must die, you will be free from old age that ends in death.

It seems that when we think of dying, we think of losing the little "I," the ego, along with all the things we've built up in connection with the ego. The stronger the ego is, the greater the fear of death. But if the ego has already been abandoned during life, when we face death, "Death, where is thy sting?" This is where Nirvana seems to fit in, for the ultimate abandonment of the ego is Nirvana. Both death and Nirvana seem to entail the letting go of the ego. Buddhism is often perceived as a religion whose aim is nothingness. But can't nothingness simply be the absence of everything we do know of to make room for the unknown? The more I have thought about it, the more I see the similarities between death and Nirvana. Perhaps Buddha did not define Nirvana as "something" because no concept or experience we could ever have could approximate or represent it. Nirvana can only be described by what it isn't. It is an experience beyond the limitations of the human mind, and beyond the phenomenal world. So it is with death. Death is the closest concept we have of the unknown, of nothingness, the opposite or negation of life as we know it. It is so frightening because it is so mysterious and inexorable. Therefore, death can be a teacher, because it brings home to us life's temporality, its ultimate illusory quality. Viewed from the center of consciousness called the watcher, or from its ultimate fulfillment, Nirvana, Buddhism offers us a place from which to perceive life and death as two parts of the same temporal experience.

Section 18:

255 There is no path in the sky and a monk must find the inner path. All things indeed pass away, but the Buddhas are forever in eternity.

Buddha says life is suffering, caused by desire. To end the suffering, we must end desire. From a greater perspective, death causes pain because of our desire for life. We fear death because we hold onto life. Here, the folly of attachment is brought into the sharpest relief, because we know the body is as sure to die as it was born. Death is all around us. We will die and all the people we love will die. Understood this way, the only sensible course of action seems to be to seek that state where death cannot follow: Nirvana, the state of being awake. This is how Buddhism addresses the issue of death, and it has an intuitive, practical logic to it.

I cannot help wishing I had been able to discuss these ideas with my mother.


Levine, Stephen. Who Dies? New York: Doubleday, 1982

Mascaro, Juan. (Translator). The Dhammapada. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.

Saddhatissa, H. (Translator). The Sutta-Nipata. London: Curzon Press,1985.

1992 Shirley Galloway

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