by V.F. Gunaratna
To the average man death is by no means a pleasant subject
or talk for discussion. It is something dismal and oppressive —
a veritable kill-joy, a fit topic for a funeral house only. The
average man immersed as he is in the self, ever seeking after the
pleasurable, ever pursuing that which excites and gratifies the
senses, refuses to pause and ponder seriously that these very objects
of pleasure and gratification will some day reach their end.
If wise counsel does not prevail and urge the unthinking pleasure-seeking
man to consider seriously that death can knock at his door also,
it is only the shock of a bereavement under his own roof, the sudden
and untimely death of a parent, wife or child that will rouse him
up from his delirious round of sense-gratification and rudely awaken
him to the hard facts of life. Then only will his eyes open, then
only will he begin to ask himself why there is such a phenomenon
as death. Why is it inevitable? Why are there these painful partings
which rob life of its joys?
To most of us, at some moment or another, the spectacle of death
must have given rise to the deepest of thoughts and profoundest
of questions. What is life worth, if able bodies that once performed
great deeds now lie flat and cold, senseless and lifeless? What
is life worth, if eyes that once sparkled with joy, eyes that once
beamed with love are now closed forever, bereft of movement, bereft
of life? Thoughts such as these are not to be repressed. It is just
these inquiring thoughts, if wisely pursued, that will ultimately
unfold the potentialities inherent in the human mind to receive
the highest truths.
According to the Buddhist way of thinking, death, far from being
a subject to be shunned and avoided, is the key that unlocks the
seeming mystery of life. It is by understanding death that we understand
life; for death is part of the process of life in the larger sense.
In another sense, life and death are two ends of the same process
and if you understand one end of the process, you also understand
the other end. Hence, by understanding the purpose of death we also
understand the purpose of life.
It is the contemplation of death, the intensive thought that
it will some day come upon us, that softens the hardest of hearts,
binds one to another with cords of love and compassion, and destroys
the barriers of caste, creed and race among the peoples of this
earth all of whom are subject to the common destiny of death. Death
is a great leveler. Pride of birth, pride of position, pride of
wealth, pride of power must give way to the all-consuming thought
of inevitable death. It is this leveling aspect of death that made
the poet say:
"Scepter and crown
Must tumble down
And in the dust be
With the poor crooked scythe and spade."
It is the contemplation of death that helps to destroy the infatuation
of sense-pleasure. It is the contemplation of death that destroys
vanity. It is the contemplation of death that gives balance and
a healthy sense of proportion to our highly over-wrought minds with
their misguided sense of values. It is the contemplation of death
that gives strength and steadiness and direction to the erratic
human mind, now wandering in one direction, now in another, without
an aim, without a purpose. It is not for nothing that the Buddha
has, in the very highest terms, commended to his disciples the practice
of mindfulness regarding death. This is known as "marananussati
bhavana." One who wants to practice it must at stated times,
and also every now and then, revert to the thought maranam bhavissati
— "death will take place."
This contemplation of death is one of the classical meditation-subjects
treated in the Visuddhi Magga which states that in order
to obtain the fullest results, one should practice this meditation
in the correct way, that is, with mindfulness (sati), with
a sense of urgency (samvega) and with understanding (ñana).
For example, suppose a young disciple fails to realize keenly that
death can come upon him at any moment, and regards it as something
that will occur in old age in the distant future; his contemplation
of death will be lacking strength and clarity, so much so that it
will run on lines which are not conducive to success.
How great and useful is the contemplation of death can be seen
from the following beneficial effects enumerated in the Visuddhi
Magga: — "The disciple who devotes himself to this contemplation
of death is always vigilant, takes no delight in any form of existence,
gives up hankering after life, censures evil doing, is free from
craving as regards the requisites of life, his perception of impermanence
becomes established, he realizes the painful and soulless nature
of existence and at the moment of death he is devoid of fear, and
remains mindful and self-possessed. Finally, if in this present
life he fails to attain to Nibbana, upon the dissolution of the
body he is bound for a happy destiny."
Thus it will be seen that mindfulness of death not only purifies
and refines the mind but also has the effect of robbing death of
its fears and terrors, and helps one at that solemn moment when
he is gasping for his last breath, to face that situation with fortitude
and calm. He is never unnerved at the thought of death but is always
prepared for it. It is such a man that can truly exclaim, "O death,
where is thy sting?"
In the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha has said, "Oh Monks,
there are ten ideas, which if made to grow, made much of, are of
great fruit, of great profit for plunging into Nibbana, for ending
up in Nibbana." Of these ten, one is death. Contemplation on death
and on other forms of sorrow such as old age, and disease, constitutes
a convenient starting point for the long line of investigation and
meditation that will ultimately lead to Reality. This is exactly
what happened in the case of the Buddha. Was it not the sight of
an old man followed by the sight of a sick man and thereafter the
sight of a dead man that made Prince Siddhattha, living in the lap
of luxury, to give up wife and child, home and the prospect of a
kingdom, and to embark on a voyage of discovery of truth, a voyage
that ended in the glory of Buddhahood and the bliss of Nibbana?
The marked disinclination of the average man to advert to the
problem of death, the distaste that arouses in him the desire to
turn away from it whenever the subject is broached, are all due
to the weakness of the human mind, sometimes occasioned by fear,
sometimes by tanha or selfishness, but at all times supported
by ignorance (avijja). The disinclination to understand death,
is no different from the disinclination of a man to subject himself
to a medical check-up although he feels that something is wrong
with him. We must learn to value the necessity to face facts. Safety
always lies in truth. The sooner we know our condition the safer
are we, for we can then take the steps necessary for our betterment.
The saying, "where ignorance is bliss it is folly to be wise" has
no application here. To live with no thought of death is to live
in a fool's paradise. Visuddhi Magga says,
"Now when a man is truly wise,
His constant task will surely
This recollection about death,
Blessed with such mighty
Now that we have understood why such potency attaches itself
to reflections on death, let us proceed to engage ourselves in such
reflections. The first question that the reflecting mind would ask
itself will be, "What is the cause of death?" Ask the physiologist
what is death, he will tell you that it is a cessation of the functioning
of the human body. Ask him what causes the cessation of the functioning
of the human body, he will tell you that the immediate cause is
that the heart ceases to beat. Ask him why the heart ceases to beat,
he will tell you that disease in any part of the human system, if
not arrested, will worsen and cause a gradual degeneration and ultimate
breakdown of some organ or other of the human system, thus throwing
an undue burden on the work of the heart — the only organ that pumps
blood. Hence, it is disease that ultimately cause the cessation
of the heart beat.
Ask the physiologist what causes the disease, he well tell you
that disease is the irregular functioning (dis-ease) of the human
body, or by the violation of rules of healthy living or by an accident
— each of which can impair some part or other of the human system,
thus causing disease. Ask the physiologist what causes the entry
of a germ or the violation of health rules or the occurrence of
an accident. He will have to answer. "I do not know, I cannot say."
Certainly the physiologist cannot help us at this stage of our reflections
of death, since the question is beyond the realm of physiology and
enters the realm of human conduct.
When two persons are exposed to germ infection, why should it
sometimes be the man of lower resistance power who escapes the infection
while the man of greater resistance succumbs to it? When three persons
tread the same slippery floor, why should one slip and fall and
crack his head and die, while the second slips and sustains only
minor injuries, while the third does not slip at all?
These are questions which clearly show that the answer is not
to be expected from the physiologist whose study is the work of
the human body. Nor is the answer to be expected from a psychologist
whose study is the work of the human mind only. Far, far beyond
the confines of physiology and psychology is the answer to be sought.
It is here that Buddhist philosophy becomes inviting. It is just
here that the law of Kamma, also called the law of Cause and Effect
or the law of Action and Reaction makes a special appeal to the
inquiring mind. It is Kamma that steps in to answer further questions.
It is Kamma that determines why one man should succumb to germ-infection
while the other should not. It is Kamma that decides why the three
men treading the same slippery floor should experience three different
results. Kamma sees to it that each man gets in life just what he
deserves, not more, nor less. Each man's condition in life with
its particular share of joys and sorrows is nothing more nor less
than the result of his own past actions, good and bad. Thus we see
that Kamma is a strict accountant. Each man weaves his own web of
fate. Each man is the architect of his own fortune. As the Buddha
said in the Anguttara Nikaya, "Beings are the owners of their
deeds. Their deeds are the womb from which they spring. With their
deeds they are bound up. Their deeds are their refuge. Whatever
deeds they do, good or evil, of such they will be heirs." As actions
are various, reactions also are various. Hence the varying causes
of death to various persons under various situations. Every cause
has its particular effect. Every action has its particular reaction.
This is the unfailing law.
When Kamma is referred to as a law, it must not be taken to mean
something promulgated by the state or some governing body. That
would imply the existence of a lawgiver. It is a law in the sense
that it is a constant way of action. It is in the nature of certain
actions that they should produce certain results. That nature is
also called law. It is in this sense that we speak of the law of
gravitation which causes a mango on the tree to fall to the ground,
not that there is a supreme external power or being which commands
the mango to fall. It is in the nature of things, the weight of
the mango, the attraction of the earth, that the mango should fall.
It is again a constant way of action.
Similarly, in the realm of human conduct and human affairs, the
law of cause and effect, of action and reaction, operates. (It is
then called Kamma or more properly Kamma Vipaka). It is not dependent
on any extraneous arbitrary power, but it is in the very nature
of things that certain actions should produce certain results. Hence
the birth and the death of a man is no more the result of an arbitrary
power than the rise and fall of a tree. Nor is it mere chance. There
is no such thing as chance. It is unthinkable that chaos rules the
world. Every situation, every condition is a sequel to a previous
situation and a previous condition. We resort to the word 'chance'
when we do not know the cause.
Sufficient has been said for us to know that in Kamma we find
the root cause of death. We also know that no arbitrary power fashions
this Kamma according to its will or caprice. It is in the result
of our own actions. "Yadisam vapate bijam tadisam harate phalam"
— as we sow, so shall we reap. Kamma is not something generated
in the closed box of the past. It is always in the making. We are
by our actions, every moment contributing to it. Hence, the future
is not all conditioned by the past. The present is also conditioning
If you fear death, why not make the wisest use of the present
so as to ensure a happy future? To fear death on the one hand and
on the other, not to act in a way that would ensure a happy future,
is either madness or mental lethargy. He who leads a virtuous life,
harming none and helping whom he can, in conformity with the Dhamma,
always remembering the Dhamma, is without doubt laying the foundation
of a happy future life. "Dhammo have rakkhati dhamma carim"
— The Dhamma most assuredly protects him who lives in conformity
with it. Such conformity is facilitated by the contemplation of
death. Death has no fears for one who is thus protected by Dhamma.
Then shall he, cheerful and unafraid, be able to face the phenomenon
of death with fortitude and calm.
Another approach to the understanding of death is through an
understanding of the law of aggregates or Sankharas which states
that everything is a combination of things and does not exist by
itself as an independent entity. "Sankhara" is a Pali term used
for an aggregation, a combination, or an assemblage. The word, is
derived from the prefix san meaning "together" and the root
kar meaning "to make." The two together mean "made together"
or "constructed together" or "combined together." "All things in
this world," says the Buddha, "are aggregates or combinations."
That is to say, they do not exist by themselves, but are composed
of several things. Any one thing, be it a mighty mountain or a minute
mustard seed, is a combination of several things. These things are
themselves combinations of several other things. Nothing is a unity,
nothing is an entity, large or small. Neither is the sun nor moon
an entity, nor is the smallest grain of sand an entity. Each of
them is a Sankhara, a combination of several things.
Things seem to be entities owing to the fallibility of our senses
— our faculties of sight, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting,
and even thinking. Science has accepted the position that our senses
are not infallible guides to us. A permanent entity is only a concept,
only a name. It does not exist in reality. In the famous dialogues
between King Milinda and Thera Nagasena, the latter wishing to explain
to the King this law of aggregates, enquired from the King how he
came there, whether on foot or riding. The King replied that he
came in a chariot.
"Your Majesty," said Nagasena, "if you came in a chariot, declare
to me the chariot. Is the pole the chariot?" "Truly not," said
the King. "Is the axle the chariot," asked Nagasena. "Truly
not," said the King. "Is the chariot-body the chariot?" — "Truly
not," said the King. "Is the yoke the chariot?" — "Truly not,"
said the King. "Are the reins the chariot?" — "Truly not," said
the King. "Is the goading stick the chariot?" — "Truly not,"
said the King.
"Where then, Oh King," asked Nagasena, "is this chariot in
which you say you came? You are a mighty king of all the continent
of India and yet speak a lie when you say there is no chariot."
In this way by sheer analysis, by breaking up what is signified
by chariot into its various component parts, Nagasena was able to
convince the King that a chariot as such does not exist, but only
component parts exist. So much so that the King was able to answer
"Venerable Nagasena, I speak no lie. The word 'chariot' is but
a figure of speech, a term, an appellation, a convenient designation
for pole, axle, wheels, chariot-body and banner staff."
Similarly, "human being," "man," "I" are mere names and terms,
not corresponding to anything that is really and actually existing.
In the ultimate sense there exist only changing energies. The term
"Sankhara" however refers not only to matter and properties of matter
known as "corporeality" (rupa), but also to mind and properties
of mind known as "mentality" (nama). Hence, the mind is as
much a combination or aggregate as the body.
When it is said the mind is a combination of several thoughts,
it is not meant that these several thoughts exist together simultaneously
as do the different parts of the chariot. What is meant is a succession
of thoughts, an unending sequence of thoughts, now a thought of
hatred, thereafter a thought of sorrow, thereafter a thought of
duty near at hand and thereafter again the original thought of hatred
etc., etc., in endless succession. Each thought arises, stays a
while and passes on. The three stages of being are found here also
— uppada, thiti, bhanga — arising, remaining and passing
Thoughts arise, one following the other with such a rapidity
of succession that the illusion of a permanent thing called "the
mind" is created; but really there is no permanent thing but only
a flow of thoughts. The rapid succession of thoughts is compared
to the flow of water in a river (nadi soto viya), one drop
following another in rapid succession that we seem to see a permanent
entity in this flow. But this is an illusion. Similarly, there is
no such permanent entity as the mind. It is only a succession of
thoughts, a stream of thoughts that arise and pass away.
If I say that I crossed a river this morning and recrossed it
in the evening, is my statement true as regards what I crossed and
what I recrossed? Was it what I crossed in the morning that I crossed
in the evening? Is it not one set of waters that I crossed in the
morning, and a different set of waters that I crossed in the evening?
Which of the two is the river, or are there two rivers, a morning
river and an evening river? Had I recrossed at mid-day, then there
would also be a mid-day river. Asking oneself such questions one
would see that every hour, every minute it is a different river.
Where then is a permanent thing called 'river'? Is it the river
bed or the banks?
You will now realize that there is nothing to which you can point
out and say, "This is the river." "River" exists only as a name.
It is a convenient and conventional mode of expression (vohara
vacana) for a continuous unending flow of drops of water. Just
such is the mind. It is a continuous stream of thoughts. Can you
point to any one thought that is passing through the mind and say,
"This truly is my mind, my permanent mind?" A thought of anger towards
a person may arise in me. If that thought is my permanent mind how
comes it that on a later occasion a thought of love towards the
same person can arise in me? If that too is my permanent mind, then
there are two opposing permanent minds.
Questioning on these lines one comes to the inevitable conclusion
that there is no such thing as a permanent mind; it is only a convenient
expression (vohara vacana) for an incessant and variegated
stream of thoughts that arise and pass away. "Mind" does not exist
in reality. It exists only in name as an expression for a succession
of thoughts. Chariot — river — body and mind — these are all combinations.
By themselves and apart from these combinations they do not exist.
There is nothing intrinsically stable in them, nothing corresponding
to reality, nothing permanent, no eternally abiding substratum or
Thus if body is only a name for a combination of changing factors
and the mind is likewise only a name for a succession of thoughts,
the psycho-physical combination called "man" is not an entity except
by way of conventional speech. So when we say a chariot moves or
a man walks it is correct only figuratively or conventionally. Actually
and really, in the ultimate sense there is only a movement, there
is only a walking. Hence has it been said in the Visuddhi Magga:
"There is no doer but the deed
There is no experiencer but
Constituent parts alone roll on.
is the true and correct view."
Now, how does this cold and relentless analysis of mind and body
become relevant to the question of death? The relevancy is just
this. When analysis reveals that there is no person but only a process,
that there is no doer but only a deed, we arrive at the conclusion
that there is no person who dies, but that there is only a process
of dying. Moving is a process, walking is a process, so dying is
also a process. Just as there is no hidden agent back and behind
the process of moving or walking, so, there is no hidden agent back
and behind the process of dying.
If only we are capable of keeping more and more to this abhidhammic
view of things, we will be less and less attached to things, we
will be less and less committing the folly of identifying ourselves
with our actions. Thus shall we gradually arrive at a stage when
we grasp the view, so difficult to comprehend, that all life is
just a process. It is one of the grandest realizations that can
descend on deluded man. It is so illuminating, so enlightening.
It is indeed a revelation. With the appearance of that realization
there is a disappearance of all worries and fears regarding death.
That is a logical sequence. Just as with the appearance of light
darkness must disappear, even so the light of knowledge dispels
the darkness of ignorance, fear and worry. With realization, with
knowledge, these fears and worries will be shown as being empty
It is so very easy to keep on declaring this. What is difficult
is to comprehend this. Why is it so difficult? Because we are so
accustomed to thinking in a groove, because we are so accustomed
to overlook the fallacies in our thinking, because we are so accustomed
to wrong landmarks and wrong routes in our mental journeying, we
are reluctant to cut out a new path. It is we who deny ourselves
the benefits of samma ditthi (Right views) The inveterate
habit of identifying ourselves with our actions is the breeding
ground of that inviting belief that there is some subtle "ego" back
and behind all our actions and thoughts. This is the arch mischief
maker that misleads us. We fail to realize that the ego-feeling
within us is nothing more than the plain and simple stream of consciousness
that is changing always and is never the same for two consecutive
moments. As Professor James said, "The thoughts themselves are the
In our ignorance we hug the belief that this ego-consciousness
is the indication of the presence of some subtle elusive soul. It
is just the mind's reaction to objects. When we walk we fail to
realize that it is just the process of walking and nothing else.
We hug the fallacy that there is something within us that directs
the walking. When we think, we hug the fallacy that there is something
within us that thinks. We fail to realize that it is just the process
of thinking and nothing else. Nothing short of profound meditation
on the lines indicated in the Satipatthana Sutta can cure
us of our "miccha ditthi" (false belief). The day we are
able by such meditation to rid ourselves of these cherished false
beliefs against which the Buddha has warned us times without number,
beliefs which warp our judgment and cloud our vision of things,
shall we be able to develop that clarity of vision which alone can
show us things as they actually are. Then only will the realization
dawn on us that there is no one who suffers dying, but there is
only a dying process just as much as living is also a process.
If one can train oneself to reflect on these lines, it must necessarily
mean that he is gradually giving up the undesirable and inveterate
habit of identifying oneself with one's bodily and mental processes
and that he is gradually replacing that habit by a frequent contemplation
on anatta (n'etan mama, this does not belong to me).
Such contemplation will result in a gradual relaxation of our tight
grip on our "fond ego." When one thus ceases to hug the ego-delusion,
the stage is reached when there is complete detachment of the mind
from such allurements. Then shall one be able, cheerful and unafraid,
to face the phenomenon of death with fortitude and calm.
We have seen how reflections on the great law of Kamma and the
great law of Aggregates or Sankharas can assist us to form a correct
view of death and help us to face death in the correct attitude.
Now there is a third great law, a knowledge of which can assist
us in the same way, namely, the law of change or anicca.
It is the principle behind the first noble truth, the truth of
dukkha or Disharmony. It is precisely because there is change
or lack of permanency in anything and everything in this world,
that there is suffering or disharmony in this world.
This principle of change is expressed by the well known formula
Anicca vata sankhara — "all sankharas are impermanent." Nothing
in this world is stable or static. Time moves everything whether
we like it or not. Time moves us also whether we like it or not.
Nothing in this world can arrest the ceaseless passage of time and
nothing survives time. There is no stability anywhere. Change rules
the world. Everything mental and physical is therefore transitory
and changing. The change may be quick or the change may be perceptible
or it may be imperceptible. We live in an ever changing world, while
we ourselves are also all the while changing.
A sankhara, we have learned, is a combination of several
factors. These factors are also subject to the law of change. They
are changing factors. Hence a Sankhara is not merely a combination
of several factors. It is a changing combination of changing factors,
since the combination itself is changing. It is because there is
change that there is growth. It is because there is change that
there is decay. Growth also leads to decay because there is change.
Why do flowers bloom only to fade? It is because of the operation
of the law of change. It is this law that makes the strength of
youth give way to the weakness of old age.
It is on account of the operation of the law that though great
buildings are erected, towering towards the sky, some distant day
will see them totter and tumble. It is this aspect of the law of
change, the process of disintegration, that causes color to fade,
iron to rust, and timber to rot. It is such reflections that must
have led the poet Gray, contemplating a burial ground in a country
church yard, to say:
"The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
All that beauty,
all that wealth ever gave,
Await alike the inevitable hour.
The path of glory leads to the grave."
Sometimes the working of this law is not apparent. Even that
which looks so solid and substantial as a rocky mountain will not
always remain as such. Science tells us, that maybe after thousands
of years, it will wear down by the process of disintegration, and
that where a lake now is, a mountain once was. If things arise they
must fall, Uppajjitva nirujjhanti, says the Buddha — "having
arisen, they fall."
Aeons and aeons ago the earth and the moon were one. Today, while
the earth is still warm and alive, the moon is cold and dead. The
earth too, science tells us, is very slowly, but surely losing its
heat and water. Gradually and slowly it is cooling down. Aeons and
aeons hence it will cease to support life. It will be a cold and
lifeless planet. It will be a second moon. This is just one of several
instances where the mighty law of change works imperceptibly. The
Buddha also has foretold the end of the earth.
Just as the law of change can cause decline and decay it can
also cause growth and progress. Hence it is that a seed becomes
a plant and a plant becomes a tree, and a bud becomes a flower.
But again there is no permanency in growth. Growth again gives way
to decay. The plant must die. The flower must wither. It is an unending
cycle of birth and death, integration and disintegration, of rise
and fall. Hence it is that Shelley has aptly said,
"Worlds on worlds are rolling over from creation to decay,
Like bubbles on a river, sparkling, bursting, borne away."
It is no arbitrary power that brings about these changes, progressive
and retrogressive. The tendency to change is inherent in all things.
The law of change does not merely declare that things change but
also declares that change is of the very essence of the things.
Think of anything, and you will find it to be a mode of change and
a condition of change. Change (aniccata) is the working hypothesis
of the scientist. One of the mightiest tasks of the scientist, also
his proudest boast, was to destroy the idea of stability and fixity
in the organic world. We have heard of the supposed entity of the
atom being shown up as a combination of energies.
While science has applied the law of change to the physical domain
to split up unity into diversity, the Buddha has applied the self-same
law to the entire mind-body complex and split up the seeming unity
of being into the five aggregates known as "Pañcakkhandha."
The Buddha has gone further and explained why this aggregate is
temporary, why it should some day disintegrate and why a fresh integration
should arise upon the disintegration. Everything works upon a triple
principle of uppada, thiti and bhanga — arising, remaining
and passing away. Even in the case of a thought these three stages
When the Buddha dealt with the four chief elements of the world
of matter and showed that they too are subject to the great law
of change, he proceeded to show that the human body which is also
formed of the same elements must necessarily be subject to the same
great law of change. "What then of this fathom-long body" asked
the Buddha. "Is there anything here of which it may rightly be said,
'I' or 'mine' or 'am'? Nay verily nothing whatsoever."
The sooner one appreciates the working of this law of change,
the more will one be able to profit by it, attuning oneself to that
way of living, that way of thinking and speaking and acting, where
this law will work to his best advantage. The man who knows the
subtle working of this law of change, will also know how "nama"
(mentality) can change by purposeful action. However deeply he gets
involved in evil, he will not regard evil as a permanent obstruction
because he knows that the evil mind can also change.
He knows that by constant contemplation on what is good, good
thoughts tend to arise in the mind. The constant contemplation of
good will cause kusala sankharas (good tendencies) to arise
in the mind and these kusala sankharas will dislodge the
akusala sankharas (evil tendencies) — a process which hitherto
appeared to him to be impossible. When his thoughts and tendencies
change for the better, when his mind is permeated thus with good
tendencies, his speech and deeds automatically change for the better
— a pleasant surprise for him. With purer and purer conduct (sila)
thus acquired, deeper and deeper concentration (samadhi)
Increased power to concentrate accelerates the pace towards the
achievement of that Highest Wisdom known as pañña. Thus the
bad in him changes into good. A bad man changes into a good man.
By purposeful action the law of change is made to operate to his
highest benefit. He now becomes a good man in the truest sense of
the word. The good man is always a happy man. He has no fear of
death because he has no fear of the life beyond. Of such a man has
it been said in the Dhammapada:
"The doer of good rejoices in this world.
He rejoices in
the next world.
He rejoices in both worlds."
The powerful change brought about in his life will ensure upon
its dissolution, the birth of a more fortunate being — a result
which he can confidently expect at his dying moment. Not for him
then are the fears and terrors of death. Furthermore when one follows
minutely the working of the Law of Change in respect of one's own
body and mind and also in respect of another's body and mind, one
begins to acquire so close a familiarity with change that death
will not appear as just one more example of the process of change
to which one has been subject all along since birth. It will appear
as something to be expected, something that must occur to fit in
with what had occurred earlier. To one who can thus reflect on death,
there is nothing to fear. Cheerful and unafraid, he can face the
phenomenon of death with fortitude and calm.
There is another angle from which we can study death and that
is from the angle of law of conditionality which is closely akin
to the law of anicca or Change. Not only are sankharas
made up of several things but they are also conditioned by several
factors, and when these conditioning factors cease to exist, the
conditioned thing also ceases to exist. This is the law of conditionality
and has been thus expressed in very general terms: Imasmim sati,
idam hoti — when this exists, that exists, Imassa uppada,
idam uppajjati — when this arises, that arises. Imasmim asati,
idam na hoti — when this is not, that is not. Imassa nirodha,
idam nirujjhanti — when this ceases that ceases.
As this principle is of universal applicability, the working
of the process of life and death also comes within its operation.
The chain of life-conditioning factors consists of twelve links
or nidanas which together are known as the paticca samuppada
or Law of Dependent Origination. A knowledge of this law is most
necessary. In the Maha-nidana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya,
Buddha addressing Ananda said, "It is through not understanding,
through not penetrating this doctrine, that these beings have become
entangled like a ball of thread."
The formula of Dependent Origination runs as follows:
Conditioned by ignorance, activities arise.
activities, consciousness arises.
Conditioned by consciousness,
mentality and corporeality arise.
Conditioned by mentality
and corporeality, the six faculties arise.
the six faculties, contact arises.
Conditioned by contact,
Conditioned by sensation, craving arises.
Conditioned by craving, grasping arises.
Conditioned by grasping,
Conditioned by becoming, rebirth arises.
Conditioned by re-birth, old age and death arise.
This is the process that goes on and on ad infinitum.
Hence has it been said:
"Again and again the slow wits seek re-birth,
Again and again
comes birth and dying comes,
Again and again men bear us
to the grave."
This important law is easier told than understood. This is one
of the profoundest doctrines preached by the Buddha. It is only
frequent and hard thinking on it that will bring out its deepest
meanings. This is not the place to explain these twelve links in
full, but in order to dispel some of the misconception surrounding
the notion of death, it is necessary to make some observations on
the first link — avijja, or Ignorance, and thereafter on
the second and third links, viz. activities and consciousness,
because it is these two links that involve death and re-birth.
These twelve links, it must be understood, do not represent a
pure succession of cause and effect, a straight line of action and
reaction. It is wrong to call this a causal series, as it is not
a chain of causes in strict sequence of time. Some of the links
(though not all) arise simultaneously, and the next is of condition
rather than cause. There are 24 modes of conditioning (paccaya)
which may operate in the relation of one factor to another. Each
factor is both conditioning (paccaya dhamma) and conditioned
(paccayuppanna dhamma). Many of these factors are both simultaneously
and interdependently working.
A few observations now, on the first link of avijja or
ignorance. When it is said the Ignorance is the first link, it does
not mean that Ignorance is the first cause of existence. The Buddha
has definitely said that the first cause, the ultimate origin of
things is unthinkable, Anamataggayam sansaro, pubba-koit na paññayati,
"Beginningless, O monks, is this course of existence. A starting
point is not to be found." Bertrand Russell has stated, "There is
no reason to suppose that this world had a beginning at all. The
idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty
of our imagination."
Ignorance, then, is not the primary origin of things but is the
originating factor of suffering in the process of life and death,
so far as man is concerned. All the twelve factors are continuing
factors. It is only if we ponder deeply that we will be convinced
of this truth, namely, that there can be no beginning to a process
that has no end.
What is meant by Ignorance as being the first link in the series?
By Ignorance is here meant the Ignorance of the essentially fundamental
facts of existence, namely, the fact of suffering or disharmony,
the fact of the cessation of suffering or disharmony, and the fact
of the way leading to the cessation of suffering or disharmony.
In other words, it is the ignorance of that which the Buddha has
called the Four Noble Truths. Ignorance is always a dangerous condition.
In such a condition you are at the mercy of everyone and everything.
"'Tis Ignorance that entails the dreary round
Now here now
there — of countless births and deaths.
But no hereafter
waits for him who knows."
The second link is Activities. By Activities is here meant volitional
activities, called in Pali sankhara. The formula states —
"Dependent upon Ignorance arise activities." This means that ignorance
of the essentially fundamental facts of life becomes a conditioning
factor for the volitional activities of man. It is only a knowledge
and a realization of the Four Noble Truths that, according to the
Buddha, enables a man to see things as they actually are. In the
state of ignorance of these Truths man, prevented as he is from
seeing things as they actually are, adopts various courses of action.
These activities are not merely the outcome of ignorance once
and for all, but ignorance continues to condition these volitional
activities so long as existence continues. These volitional activities
or mental energies are multifarious. In the context of the paticca
samuppada, "Sankhara" can therefore be said to signify
"Kamma" or "Kammic Volition." The first link of Ignorance
and the second link of Activities refer to the past birth. The next
eight links refer to the present existence and the last two refer
to the future existence.
The third link is viññana or Consciousness. The formula
states — "Dependent upon Activities arises Consciousness." By consciousness
is here meant re-linking consciousness or re-birth consciousness.
By this formula is therefore meant that the conscious life of man
in his present birth is conditioned by his volitional activities,
his good and bad actions, his Kamma of the past life. To put it
in another way, the consciousness of his present life is dependent
on his past Kamma. This formula is highly important since it involves
a linking of the past life with the present and thereby implies
re-birth. Hence, this third link is called patisandhi viññana
or re-linking consciousness or re-birth consciousness.
It may be wondered how activities of the past life can condition
a present birth. Material sciences seek to explain birth on the
premises of the present existence only. The biologist says that
it is the union of father with mother that conditions birth. According
to the Buddha, these two conditioning factors by themselves are
insufficient to result in birth, otherwise every complete union
of father with mother should result in birth. These two are purely
physical factors and it is illogical to expect that a psycho-physical
organism, a mind-body combination known as man could arise from
two purely physical factors without the intervention of a psychical
or mental factor. Therefore, says the Buddha, a third factor is
also necessary in addition to the two purely physical factors of
the sperm and the ovum.
This third factor is patisandhi-viññana or re-linking
consciousness. The wick and the oil will not alone produce a flame.
You may drown a wick in gallons of oil but there will never be a
flame. You may use a wick of the most inflammable type but there
will never be a flame. Not until a bright spark of light comes from
elsewhere will the action of the oil and the wick produce a flame.
We have considered that the activities of the past are certain energies
— mental energies. The Kamma of the past releases these energies
which are potent enough to create the condition for the being to
be reborn in an appropriate place according to the nature of activities
performed. These energies it is that produce the patisandhi viññana,
the third factor.
It will thus be seen that these potential energies work in cooperation
with the physical laws to condition the natural formation of the
embryo in the mother's womb. Just as sleep is no bar to the continuance
of bodily operations in consequence of the principle of life continuing
within it, even so death is no bar to the continuance of the operation
of being which is only transformed to another suitable realm or
plane there to be reborn and to re-live, in consequence of the will-to-live
remaining alive and unabated at the moment of dissolution. The life-stream,
the process of being thus continues, while the Kammic forces it
generates give it shape and form in the appropriate sphere of existence,
investing it with its new characteristics and securing for it "a
local habitation and a name."
A seed coming in contact with the soil produces a plant, but
the plant is not born of the seed and the soil only. There are other
factors drawn from unseen extraneous sources that come into play,
such as light and air and moisture. It is the combined presence
of all these factors that provide the opportunity for the birth
of the plant. The unseen extraneous factor where the birth of a
being is concerned is the terminating kammic energy of the dying
man, or to express it in another way, the reproductive power of
Is there any need to doubt the potency of the past Kamma to create
a present existence? Do you doubt that the activities of one existence
can condition consciousness in another existence? If so, calmly
reflect on the incessant and multifarious nature of human activities,
the one feature of human life, the unfailing characteristic of every
moment of individual existence. When you have sufficiently grasped
the fact of the incessant and multifarious nature of human activities,
ask yourself the question who or what propels these activities?
A little reflection will reveal that the activities of man are propelled
by a myriad of desires and cravings which ultimately spring from
the desire to live. This will-to-live by whatever name you may call
it, motivates all activities.
We eat, we earn, we acquire, we struggle, we advance, we hate,
we love, we plot, we plan, we deceive — all in order that we may
continue living. Even the desire to commit suicide, paradoxical
as it may seem, arises from the desire to live — to live free from
entanglements and disappointments. Just consider the cumulative
effect of hundreds of desire-propelled activities performed by us,
day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute for a long period of
years. These are all Kammas, these are all energies released. These
are all strong creative forces that are generated.
It is difficult to imagine that with the present life will end
all the desire-forces it has brought into existence. There will
always be at any given moment an outstanding balance of unexpected
Kammic energies. These powers, energies or forces contain within
themselves the potentialities of attracting for themselves the conditions
for further existence. These energies or forces are potent enough
to create the conditions for re-living when the body which sustained
these forces ceases to live. These then will constitute the terminating
Kammic energy of the dying man, or to express the same idea in another
way, this is the reproductive power of the will-to-live. In short,
the will-to-live makes it possible to relive. Now we see how the
terminating Kammic energy of the dying man becomes the third factor,
the psychical factor which along with the two physical factors of
the sperm and the ovum, conditions future birth.
It is this relinking consciousness that becomes the nucleus of
a new nama-rupa or mind-body combination. This is the resultant
terminal energy generated by the volitional activities of the past.
Science teaches us that energy is indestructible but that it can
be transmuted into other forms of energy. Why then cannot these
powerful energies of the past Kamma, impelled as they are by the
pulsation of craving and motivated as they are by the will-to-live,
continue to exert their potent influences albeit in some other manner
and in some other sphere? What is it that travels from one existence
to another, you may ask. Do activities (Kammic energies) travel
or do their resultant forces travel? Or does consciousness itself
The answer is an emphatic, "No." None of these travel, but the
Kammic energy of actions performed is a tremendous force or power
which can make its influence felt and to effect this influence,
distance is no bar. Distance is never a bar to Kammic energies making
themselves felt. In the Maha-tanha-sankhaya Sutta of Majjhima
Nikaya, the Buddha strongly reprimanded the bhikkhu Sati for
declaring as the Buddha's teachings that viññana or consciousness
travels from existence to existence. "Foolish man," said the Buddha,
"has not consciousness generated by conditions been spoken of in
many a figure of speech by me saying, 'apart from conditions there
is no origination of consciousness'?" No physical contact is necessary
for mind to influence matter. Sir William Crooke, in his Edinburgh
lectures on mental science has said, "It has also been proved by
experiment that by an act of will the mind can cause objects such
as metal levers to move."
When the matter on which mental energies act is situated far
away, in other planes and spheres of existence, we are only employing
a figure of speech when we say that Kamma has traveled or that energy
has traveled. Many a simile has been employed by the Buddha to show
that nothing travels or transmigrates from one life to another.
It is just a process of one condition influencing another. The resultant
Kammic energies of human activity, not yet expanded, are so powerful
that they can condition the formation of an embryo in another world
and give it consciousness.
One important point must not be overlooked. The patisandhi-viññana
or re-linking consciousness arises only in the unborn child. In
the pre-natal stage the re-linking consciousness may be said to
exist only passively (in the bhavanga state) and not actively,
since the child is still part of the body of the mother and has
no separate, independent existence nor does it contact the external
world. When however, the child is born and assumes a separate existence
and begins to contact the external world, then it may be said that
the bhavanga nature of the pre-natal state of mind gives
way for the first time to a fully conscious mind process, the
Distance is no bar to the sequence of cause and effect. Reference
had already been made to the Buddha's reprimand of a bhikkhu called
Sati for declaring as having been taught by the Buddha that consciousness
passes from existence to existence. In the re-linking consciousness
arises the whole energy of the previous consciousness, and thus
the embryo while inheriting the characteristics of the new parents
inherits also the impressions of the past experiences of the dying
man. How else can one explain characteristics not accounted for
by heredity? How else can one account for different characteristics
in twins born of the same parents and growing under the same environment?
We have now studied death from several angles. From whatever
angle we look at death it is an integral part of the great process
of life. Death is like the break up of an electric bulb. The light
is extinguished but not the current, and when a fresh bulb is fixed
the light re-appears. Similarly there is a continuity of life current,
the break up of the present body does not extinguish the current
of Kammic energy which will manifest itself in an appropriate fresh
The simile is not on all fours with life. Whereas there is nothing
to bring the electric current and the fresh bulb together (a conjunction
left to chance), the type of life led, the nature of thought entertained,
the quality of deeds performed will be strong enough to cause an
immediate relinking consciousness of like nature to arise, on the
principle that like attracts like. Thus the dying man is drawn to
an environment, good or bad, which he has created for himself by
his thought, word and deed, for on these depend the nature of our
future life. Every moment we are creating our future. Every moment
then we must be careful.
If we can visualize the immensity of the past and the immensity
of the future, the present loses its seemingly compelling importance.
If we could but visualize the vistas of innumerable births and deaths
through which we will pass in the future, we should not, we could
not fear just this one death out of the endless series of birth
and deaths, rises and falls, appearances and disappearances which
constitute the ceaseless process of samsaric life.
There is yet another law the understanding of which helps in
the understanding of death. It is the Law of Becoming or bhava,
which is a corollary to the Law of Change or anicca. Becoming,
or bhava, is also one of the factors in the scheme of Dependent
Origination. According to Buddhism the Law of Becoming, like the
Law of Change, is constantly at work and applies to everything.
While the Law of Change states that nothing is permanent but is
ever-changing, the Law of Becoming states that everything is always
in the process of changing into something else.
Not only is everything changing, but the nature of that change
is a process of becoming something else. Not only is everything
changing, but the nature of that change is a process of becoming
something else, however short or long the process may be. Briefly
put, the Law of Becoming is this: "Nothing is, but is becoming."
A ceaseless becoming is the feature of all things. A small plant
is always in the process of becoming an old tree. There is no point
of time at which anything is not becoming something else. Rhys Davids
in his American lectures has said, "In every case as soon as there
is a beginning, there begins also at that moment to be an ending."
If you stand by the sea and watch how wave upon wave rises and
falls, one wave merging into the next, one wave becoming another,
you will appreciate that this entire world is also just that — becoming
and becoming. If you can stand by a bud continuously until it becomes
a flower, you will be amazed to see that the condition of the bud
at one moment appears to be no different from its condition at the
next moment and so on, until before your very eyes, the change has
taken place through you could not discern it at all.
The process is so gradual, one stage merging into the next so
imperceptibly. It is a becoming. If you close your eyes to this
process, if you see the bud one day and then see it a day later,
then only will you see a change. Then only will you speak in the
terms of "buds" and "flowers" and not in terms of a process of a
If you can keep on looking at a new-born babe without a break
for ten years you will not perceive any change. The baby born at
10 a.m. appears just the same at 11 a.m. or at 12 noon. Each moment
shows no difference from the next. One condition merges into the
next so imperceptibly. It is a becoming, a continuous process of
becoming. Close your eyes to this process and see the baby once
a month. then only will you perceive a change. Then only can you
speak in terms of "baby" and "boy" and not in terms of a process
or a becoming.
If you think you can watch minutely the progress of time, see
whether you can divide it into present, past, and future as do grammarians
speaking of present tense, past tense and future tense. In the view
of Buddhist philosophy, time is one continuous process, each fragmentary
portion of time merging into the other and forming such an unbroken
continuity that no dividing line can precisely be drawn separating
past time from present, or present time from future.
The moment you think of the present and say to yourself "this
moment is present time" it is gone — vanished into the past before
you can even complete your sentence. The present is always slipping
into the past, becoming the past, and the future is always becoming
the present. Everything is becoming. This is a universal process,
a constant flux. It is when we miss the continuity of action that
we speak in terms of things rather than processes or becomings.
Biology says that the human body undergoes a continual change,
all the cells composing the body being replaced every seven years.
According to Buddhism, changes in the body are taking place every
moment. At no two consecutive moments is the body the same. In the
last analysis, it is a stream of atoms or units of matter of different
types which are every moment arising and passing away. The body
is thus constantly dying and re-living within this existence itself.
This momentary death (Khanika marana) takes place every moment
of our existence.
In the Visuddhi Magga it is said that in the ultimate
sense, the life span of living beings is extremely short, being
only as much as the duration of a single conscious moment. "Just
as a chariot wheel" continues the Visuddhi Magga "when it
is rolling, touches the ground at one point only of the circumference
of its tire, so too the life of living beings lasts only for a single
conscious moment. When that consciousness has ceased, the being
is said to have ceased." Thus we see that every moment of our lives
we are dying and being reborn.
This being so why should we dread just one particular moment
of death, the moment that marks the end of this existence? When
there are innumerable moments of death, why fear the occurrence
of one particular moment? Ignorance of the momentary nature of death
makes us fearful of the particular death that takes place at the
last moment of existence here, especially as the next moment of
living is not seen nor understood. The last moment in this existence
is just one of the innumerable moments of death that will follow
It is not life in this existence only that is a process of becoming.
The process of becoming continues into the next existence also,
because there is a continuity of consciousness. The last consciousness
(cuti-citta) in one life is followed by what is known as
a re-linking consciousness (patisandhi-viññana) in the next
life. The process of one consciousness giving rise to another continues
unbroken, the only difference being a change in the place where
such consciousness manifests itself. Distance is no bar to the sequence
of cause and effect. Life is a process of grasping and becoming,
and death is a change of the thing grasped leading to a new becoming.
Grasping is a continuous feature where human living is concerned.
It is this grasping that leads to becoming.
What causes grasping? Where there is thirst, there is grasping.
It is this thirst, this desire, this craving, this will-to-live,
this urge which is known as tanha that causes grasping. The
Kammic energy resulting from this tanha is like fire. It
always keeps on burning and is always in search of fresh material
upon which it can sustain itself. It is ever in search of fresh
conditions for its continued existence. At the moment of the dissolution
of the body, that unexpected desire-energy, that residuum of Kamma,
grasps fresh fuel and seeks a fresh habitation where it can sustain
itself. Thus proceeds the continuous flux of grasping and becoming
which is life.
Let us now examine the unduly dreaded dying moment which marks
the end of man's present existence, only to commence another. The
physical condition of any dying man is so weak that the volitional
control by the mind at the dying moment lacks the power to choose
its own thoughts. This being so, the memory of some powerfully impressive
and important event of the dying man's present existence (or his
past existence) will force itself upon the threshold of his mind,
the forcible entry of which thought he is powerless to resist. This
thought which is known as the maranasañña-javana thought
and precedes the cuti-citta or terminal thought, can be one
of three types.
Firstly, it can be the thought of some powerfully impressive
act done (kamma) which the dying man now recalls to mind.
Secondly, the powerfully impressive act of the past can be recalled
by way of a symbol of that act (Kamma nimitta) as, for instance,
if he had stolen money from a safe, he may see the safe. Thirdly,
the powerfully impressive act of the past may be recalled by way
of a sign or indication of the place where he is destined to be
re-born by reason of such act, as for instance when a man who has
done great charitable acts hears beautiful divine music. This is
called gati nimitta or the sign of destination. It is symbolic
of his place of re-birth.
These three types of thought-objects which he cannot consciously
choose for himself, are known as death signs and any one of them
as the case may be, will very strongly and vividly appear to the
consciousness of the dying man. Then follows the cuti citta
or terminal thought or death consciousness. This last thought series
is most important since it fashions the nature of his next existence,
just as the last thought before going to sleep can become the first
thought on awakening. No extraneous or arbitrary power does this
for him. He does this for himself unconsciously as it were.
It is the most important act of his life, good or bad, that conditions
the last thought moment of a life. The kamma of this action is called
garuka kamma or weighty Kamma. In the majority of cases the
type of act which men habitually perform and for which they have
the strongest liking becomes the last active thought. The ruling
thought in life becomes strong at death. This habitual kamma is
called acinna kamma.
The idea of getting a dying man to offer cloth (Pamsukula)
to the Sangha or the idea of chanting sacred texts to him is in
order to help him to obtain a good terminal thought for himself
by way of asañña kamma or death-proximate Kamma, but the
powerful force of inveterate habit can supervene and in spite of
the chantings by the most pious monks available, the memory of bad
deeds repeatedly performed may surge up to his consciousness and
become the terminal thought.
The reverse can also occur. If the last few acts and thoughts
of a person about to die are powerfully bad, however good he had
been earlier, then his terminal thought may be so powerfully bad
that it may prevent the habitually good thought from surging up
to his consciousness, as is said to have happened in the case of
Queen Mallika, the wife of King Pasenadi of Kosala. She lived a
life full of good deeds but at the dying moment what came to her
mind was the thought of a solitary bad deed done. As a result she
was born in a state of misery where she suffered, but it was only
for seven days. The effects of the good Kamma were suspended only
There is a fourth type of Kamma that can cause the terminal thought
to arise. This last type prevails when any of the foregoing three
types of Kamma is not present. In that event one of the accumulated
reserves of the endless past is drawn out. This is called katatta
kamma or stored-up Kamma. Once the terminal thought arises,
then follows the process of thought moments lawfully linked with
it. This terminal thought process is called maranasañña javana
The terminal thought goes through the same stages of progress
as any other thought, with this differences that whereas the apperceptive
stage of complete cognition known as javana or impulsion,
which in the case of any other thought occupies seven thought-moments.
At this apperceptive stage the dying person fully comprehends the
death-sign. Then follows the stage of registering consciousness
(tadalambana) when the death-sign is identified. This consciousness
arises for two thought-moments and passes away. After this comes
the stage of death consciousness (cuti citta). Then occurs
death. This is what happens in this existence.
Now let us consider what happens in the next existence. Already
the preliminaries for the arrival of a new being are in preparation.
There is the male parent and there is the female parent. As explained
previously a third factor, a psychic factor, is necessary to complete
the preliminaries for the arising of a live embryo, and that is
the relinking consciousness (Patisandi-Viññana) which arises
in the next existence in the appropriate setting — the mother's
womb. On the conjunction of these three factors, life starts in
the mother's womb. There is no lapse of time, no stoppage of the
unending stream of consciousness.
No sooner has the death-consciousness in the dying man passed
away than rebirth consciousness arises in some other state of existence.
There is nothing that has traveled from this life to the next. Even
the terminal thought did not travel. It had the power to give rise
to the passive or bhavanga state. At the moment of birth
which marks a separate existence, through contact with the outer
world, the unconscious or sub-conscious bhavanga state gives
way to the vithi-citta or conscious mind.
From birth onwards activity again comes into play, propelled
by desire in some form or another. So proceeds the onward course
of the life-flux, desire-propelled and desire-motivated. Now what
is the relevancy of a knowledge of the law of conditionality to
the question of our attitude towards death? Once we thoroughly comprehend
the fact that the will to live proceeds from life to life, we come
to appreciate the view that this life and the next is but one continuous
process. So also the life following and the next thereafter. To
one who understands life thus as nothing more nor less than a long
continuous process, there is no more reason to grieve at death than
at life. They are part of the same process — the process of grasping,
the process of giving effect to the will-to-live.
Death is only a change in the thing grasped. The man enriched
with the knowledge of the law of conditionality comprehends that
birth induces death and death induces birth in the round of sansaric
life. He therefore cannot possibly be perturbed at death. To him
birth is death and death is birth. An appreciation of the law of
conditionality will reveal to him the importance of living his life
well and when he has lived his life well, death is the birth of
greater opportunities to live a still better life. That is how he
It all depends on the way one looks at death. Suppose there is
only one gate to a house, is that an exit gate or an entrance gate?
To one who is on the road side of the gate it is an entrance gate.
To the inmate of the house it is an exit gate, but for both of them
it is the self-same gate which is thus differently viewed.
As Dahlke says, "Dying is nothing but a backward view of life,
and birth is nothing but a forward view of death." In truth, birth
and death are phases of an unbroken process of grasping. Death is
a departure to those whom the dying man leaves behind. It is also
an arrival to the members of the new family into which he is re-born.
It is death or birth according to the way we look at it, but we
can only be one-way observers. If we observe the death-process,
we are not in a position to observe the birth process, and if we
observe the birth process, we are not in a position to observe the
death process. So, birth and death do not get co-ordinated in our
minds as one connected process.
By our failure to see the close sequence of the two processes,
the co-ordination of birth with death or death with birth, we are
led to the illusion, or at least the wish, that we can have the
one (birth) without the other (death). We want life but we do not
want death. This is an impossibility. Clinging to life is clinging
to death. The salient feature of life is clinging-grasping — and
the logical result of clinging according to the law of conditionality
is death. If you want to avert death, you have to avert life, you
have to reverse the process of conditionality. This can only be
done by abandoning the desire to cling, the desire to grasp. Let
there be no attachment to life. If you attach yourself unduly to
the things of life, happiness you may have for a brief time, but
some day when the things to which you have attached yourself disintegrate
and disappear as they must, by virtue of that mighty law of change
working in conjunction with the equally mighty law of conditionality,
then the very objects of joy become objects of sorrow.
To your disappointment and disgust you will find that all sources
of earthly joy are sources of sorrow. You will then agree with the
poet who said, "Earth's sweetest joy is but pain disguised." As
great was the joy of attachment so great will be the sorrow of detachment.
Is not this suffering? Is not this wearisome — one day to pursue
a phantom with excitement, next day to abandon it with disgust,
one day to be exalted and the next day to be depressed? How long
will your sense of self-respect allow you to be thrown up and down
this way and that, like a foot-ball? Is it not far more satisfactory,
far more dignified, far safer and far wiser to go through life unattached?
If misfortune has to come, it will; if sickness has to come, it
will. We cannot change the events of life but we can certainly change
our attitude towards them.
The laws of change and conditionality will help us here. Fears
and sorrows will change into hopes and joys. To such a one living
a life of calm and peace, viewing life with equanimity, death holds
no fears and terrors. Cheerful and unafraid, he can face the phenomenon
of death with fortitude and calm.
Let us now consider the cases of two persons who were overpowered
with grief at the bereavement they had to suffer. First let us consider
the case of Patacara. She lost her husband who was bitten by a snake.
She was too weak to cross a river with both her children — a new
born babe and a child about one year old. So she left the elder
child on the bank and waded through the water with her new-born
babe with the greatest difficulty. Having reached the thither shore
and having left the new-born babe there, she was returning through
the water to reach the elder child.
She had hardly reached mid-stream when a hawk swooped down on
the new-born babe and carried it away thinking it to be a piece
of flesh. When Patacara seeing this cried out in frantic grief raising
both her hands, the elder child on the other bank thinking that
his mother was calling him, ran into the river and was drowned.
Alone, weeping and lamenting, she was proceeding now to her parental
home whither she had intended going with her husband and her two
children, when one by one these calamities occurred.
As she was proceeding she met a man returning from her home town
and inquired from him about her parents and her brother. This man
gave the dismal news that owing to a severe storm the previous day,
her parental house had come down, destroying both her father and
her mother and also her brother. As he spoke he pointed to some
smoke rising into the air far away and said, "That is the smoke
rising from the one funeral pyre in which are burning the bodies
of your father, mother and brother." Completely distracted with
grief, she ran about like a mad woman regardless of her falling
garments. Agony was gnawing at her heart, agony of the most excruciating
type. Advised to go to the Buddha, she went and explained her plight.
What did the Buddha tell her? "Patacara, be no more troubled.
This is not the first time thou hast wept over the loss of a husband.
This is not the first time thou hast wept over the loss of parents
and of brothers. Just as today, so also through this round of existence
thou hast wept over the loss of so many countless husbands, countless
sons, countless parents and countless brothers, that the tears thou
has shed are more abundant than the waters of the four oceans."
As the Buddha spoke these words of wisdom and consolation, Patacara's
grief grew less and less intense and finally, not only did her grief
leave her altogether, but when the Buddha preached to her and concluded
his discourse, Patacara reached the stage of stream-entry (sotapatti),
the first stage of sainthood.
Now what is it that contributed to the removal of grief from
the mind of Patacara? It is the keen realization of the universality
of death. Patacara realized that she had lived innumerable lives,
that she had suffered bereavement innumerable times, and that death
is something which is always occurring.
While Patacara realized the universality of death by reference
to her own numerous bereavements in the past, Kisagotami realized
it by reference to the numerous bereavements occurring to others
around her in this life itself. When her only child died, her grief
was so great that she clung to the dead body, not allowing any one
to cremate it. This was the first bereavement she had ever experienced.
With the dead child firmly held to her body she went from house
to house inquiring for some medicine that would bring back life
to her child. She was directed to the Buddha who asked her to procure
a pinch of white mustard seed, but it should be from a house where
no death had taken place. She then went in search of this supposed
cure for her child which she thought was easy to obtain.
At the very first house she asked for it but when she inquired
whether any death had taken place under that roof she received the
reply, "What sayest thou, woman? As for the living, they be few,
as for the dead they be many." She then went to the next house.
There also she came to know that death had made its visit to that
house as well. She went to many houses and in all of them she was
told of some father who had died or of some son who had died or
of some other relative or friend who had died. When evening came
she was tired of her hopeless task. She heard the word "death" echoing
from every house. She realized the universality of death. She buried
the dead child in the forest, then went back to the Buddha and said,
"I thought it was I only who suffered bereavement. I find it in
every house. I find that in every village the dead are more in number
than the living." Not only was Kisagotami cured of her grief, but
at the end of the discourse which the Buddha delivered to her, she
too attained the stage of stream-entry (sotapatti).
Let us now contrast the cases of Patacara and Kisagotami with
that of the ignorant rustic farmer the Bodhisatta was in a former
life as mentioned in the Uraga Jataka. Rustic though he was,
he practiced mindfulness on death to perfection. He had trained
himself to think every now and then "Death can at any moment come
to us." This is something on which the majority of us refuse to
do any thinking at all. Not only did he make it a habit to think
so, but he even saw to it that all members of his household did
the same. One day while he was working with his son in the field,
the latter was stung by a snake and died on the spot. The father
was not one bit perturbed. He just carried the body to the foot
of a tree, covered it with a cloak, neither weeping nor lamenting,
and resumed his plowing unconcerned.
Later he sent word home, through a passer-by, to send up
one parcel of food instead of two for the mid-day meal and to come
with perfumes and flowers. When the message was received, his wife
knew what it meant but she too did not give way to expressions of
grief; neither did her daughter nor her daughter-in-law nor the
maid-servant. As requested they all went with perfumes and flowers
to the field, and a most simple cremation took place, with no one
Sakka the chief of gods came down to earth and proceeding to
the place where a body was burning upon a pile of firewood, inquired
from those standing around whether they were roasting the flesh
of some animal. When they replied, "It is no enemy but our own son."
"Then he could not have been a son dear to you," said Sakka. "He
was a very dear son," replied the father. "Then," asked Sakka, "why
do you not weep?" The father in reply uttered this stanza:
"Man quits his mortal frame, when joy in life is past.
as a snake is wont its worn out slough to cast.
lament can touch the ashes of the dead.
Why should I grieve?
He fares the way he had to tread."
Similar questions were asked from the dead son's mother who replied
"Uncalled he hither came, unbidden soon to go.
Even as he
came he went, what cause is here for woe?
No friends' lament
can touch the ashes of the dead.
Why should I grieve? He
fares the way he had to tread."
Sakka of the dead man's sister. She replied:
"Though I should fast and weep, how would it profit me?
kith and kin alas would more unhappy be.
No friends' lament
can touch the ashes of the dead.
Why should I grieve? He
fares the way he had to tread."
Sakka then asked the dead man's wife why she did not weep. She
"As children cry in vain to grasp the moon above,
idly mourn the loss of those they love.
No friends' lament
can touch the ashes of the dead.
Why should I grieve? He
fares the way he had to tread."
Lastly Sakka asked the maid-servant why she did not weep, especially
as she had stated that the master was never cruel to her but was
most considerate and kind and treated her like a foster child. This
was her reply:
"A broken pot of earth, ah, who can piece again?
to mourn the dead is nought but labor vain.
No friends' lament
can touch the ashes of the dead.
Why should I grieve? He
fares the way he had to tread."
Source: The Wheel Publication No. 102/103 (Kandy:
Buddhist Publication Society, 1982). Transcribed from the
print edition in 1994 by David Savage and Malcolm Rothman
under the auspices of the DharmaNet Dharma Book Transcription
Project, with the kind permission of the Buddhist Publication
Society. Copyright © 1982 Buddhist Publication Society.
Reproduced and reformatted from Access to Insight edition
© 1994 For free distribution. This work may be republished,
reformatted, reprinted, and redistributed in any medium.
It is the author's wish, however, that any such republication
and redistribution be made available to the public on a
free and unrestricted basis and that translations and other
derivative works be clearly marked as such.