Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Four Reminders, Part Two: Impermanence and Death

Second, the whole world and its inhabitants are impermanent:
In particular, the life of beings is like a bubble.
Death comes without warning: this body will be a corpse.
At that time, the Dharma will be my only help: I must practice it with exertion.

-- The second of the Four Reminders, on Impermanence and Death

Our habitual attitudes towards death are deeply unrealistic. We strive to keep the reality of death at arm's length, as if it were merely an abstract possibility -- something that might happen to other people, but probably not to me. Even when we hear the words of the traditional verse, "This body will be a corpse," we know intellectually that it's true -- and yet, somehow, the reality of it still does not entirely sink in. We coddle and cherish our bodies and pride ourselves on looking a certain way, and we may take it for granted that our bodies will continue to serve us well into the distant future. But of course this is not guaranteed -- in fact, it's not even bloody likely.

As we get older it becomes harder to live in denial of our body's gradual progression towards decrepitude and decay. Looking at photographs of ourselves when we were children, however, it's easy to see how quickly our lives are passing by. How much time do we have left, even under the best of circumstances?

The body is literally like a bubble -- so easily ruptured, it might be here one instant and gone the next. It would be madness to place our trust and identification in such a fleeting and fragile mirage. And yet that is what we do.

Our denial and ignorance about death arises on the basis of our fear of death. Our fear of death, in turn, thrives upon our denial and ignorance of it. This cycle of ignorance and fear of death causes us so much unnecessary suffering.

One reason we are so afraid of death is because we keep it at arm's length, and deny the reality of it. Losing our fear of death is synonymous with becoming more aware of death, more open to it -- which also means living our lives with a greater sense of urgency, remembering how little time we have left.

Our habit is to put off until "tomorrow" what we should do today, thinking that "tomorrow" we'll have more convenient circumstances. When we get this or that, we think, then we'll be able to really settle down and practice. But what if that never happens?

We spend so much of our lives focused on trying to fulfill our desires and passions. For example, if we are single we may devote our thought and energy to the idea that if we only had a partner, then things would be great and we could really start living. We get caught up in pursuing sex and romance, thinking maybe that will bring us lasting happiness. But looking at it from the larger perspective, isn't this just a distraction from what's really important? The clock is ticking, and when death comes for us, how are sex and romance going to help?

At the time of death, what will we be able to take with us? Not lovers, friends, family, possessions, or our bodies. The only "things" we might be able to carry with us into the bardo -- the Tibetan Buddhist term for the space between lives -- is our karma (both good and bad), and, perhaps, our intention to wake up from the cycle of suffering (if we've really formed that intention). But the 'color' of our karma and the strength of the intention we carry depend upon what we do and how we practice here and now. This is why we should practice with diligence.

With so little time left, what is really most important to you?

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