Disadvantages of Not Being Mindful of Death
It is beneficial to be aware that you will die. Why? If you are not aware of death, you will not be mindful of your practice, but will just spend your life meaninglessly, not examining what sorts of attitudes and actions perpetuate suffering and which ones bring about happiness.
If you are not mindful that you might die soon, you will fall under the sway of a false sense of permanence “I’ll die later on, later on.” Then, when the time comes, even if you try to accomplish something worthwhile, you will not have the energy. Many Tibetans enter a monastery at a young age and study texts about spiritual practice, but when the time comes to really practice, the capacity to do so is somehow lacking. This is because they do not have a true understanding of impermanence.
If, having thought about how to practice, you make a decision that you absolutely have to do so in retreat for several months or even for many years, you have been motivated by your knowledge of impermanence. But if that urgency is not maintained by contemplating the ravages of impermanence again and again, your practice will peter out. This is why some people stay in retreat for years but experience no imprint on their lives afterward. Contemplating impermanence not only motivates your practice, but also fuels it.
If you have a strong sense of the certainty of death and of the uncertainty of its arrival, you will be motivated from within. It will be as if a friend is cautioning, “Be careful, be earnest, another day is passing.”
You might even leave home for the monastic life. If you did, you would be given a new name and new clothing. You would also have fewer busy activities; you would have to change your attitude, directing your attention to deeper purposes. If, however, you continued busying yourself with the superficial affairs of the moment — delicious food, good clothing, better shelter, pleasant conversation, many friends and acquaintances, and even making an enemy if someone does something you do not like and then quarreling and fighting — you would be no better off than you were before you entered the monastery, and perhaps even worse. Remember, it is not sufficient to withdraw from these superficial activities out of embarrassment or fear of what your friends who are also on the path might think; the change must come from within. This is true for monks and nuns as well as lay people who take up practice.
Perhaps you are beset by a sense of permanence, by thinking that you will not die soon and that while you are still alive, you need especially good food, clothing, and conversation. Out of desire for the wondrous effects of the present, even if they are of little meaning in the long run, you are ready to employ all sorts of shameless exaggerations and devices to get what you want — making loans at high interest, looking down on your friends, starting court proceedings — all for the sake of more than adequate provisions.
Since you have given your life over to such activities, money becomes more attractive than study, and even if you attempt practice, you do not pay much attention to it. If a page falls out of a book, you might hesitate to retrieve it, but if some money falls to the ground, there is no question. If you encounter those who have really devoted their lives to deeper pursuits, you might think well of that devotion, but that would be all; whereas if you see someone dressed in finery, displaying his or her wealth, you would wish for it, lust after it, hope for it — with more and more attachment. Ultimately, you will do anything to get it.
Once you are intent on the fineries of this life, your afflictive emotions increase, which in turn necessarily bring about more bad deeds. These counter-productive emotions only lead to trouble, making yourself and those around you uncomfortable. Even if you briefly learn how to practice the stages of the path to enlightenment, you acquire more and more material things and get involved with more and more people to the point where you are, so to speak, practicing the superficialities of this life, meditatively cultivating desire for friends and hatred for enemies and trying to figure out ways to fulfill these afflictive emotions. At that point, even if you hear about real, beneficial practice, you are apt to feel, “Yes, that is so, but…” One “but” after another. Indeed, you have become accustomed to afflictive emotions throughout your beginningless cyclic existence, but now you have added on the very practice of superficiality. This makes the situation even worse, turning you away from what will really help.
Driven by such lust, you will find no comfort. You are not making others happy — and certainly not yourself. As you become more self-centered — “my this, my that,” “my body, my wealth” — anyone who interferes immediately becomes an object of anger. Although you make much out of “my friends” and “my relatives,” they cannot help you at birth or at death; you come here alone, and you have to leave alone. If on the day of your death a friend could accompany you, attachment would be worthwhile, but it cannot be so. When you are reborn in a totally unfamiliar situation, if your friend from the last lifetime could be of some help, that too would be something to consider, but it is not to be had. Yet, in between birth and death, for several decades it is “my friend,” “my sister,” “my brother.” This misplaced emphasis does not help at all, except to create more bewilderment, lust, and hatred.
When friends are overemphasized, enemies also come to be overemphasized. When you are born, you do not know anyone and no one knows you. Even though all of us equally want happiness and do not want suffering, you like the faces of some people and think, “These are my friends,” and dislike the faces of others and think, “These are my enemies.” You affix identities and nicknames to them and end up practicing the generation of desire for the former and the generation of hatred for the latter. What value is there in this? None. The problem is that so much energy is being expended on concern for a level no deeper than the superficial affairs of this life. The profound loses out to the trivial.
If you have not practiced and on your dying day you are surrounded by sobbing friends and others involved in your affairs, instead of having someone who reminds you of virtuous practice, this will only bring trouble, and you will have brought it on yourself. Where does the fault lie? In not being mindful of impermanence.
Advantages of Being Mindful of Impermanence
However, if you do not wait until the end for the knowledge that you will die to sink in, and you realistically assess your situation now, you will not be overwhelmed by superficial, temporary purposes. You will not neglect what matters in the long run. It is better to decide from the very beginning that you will die and investigate what is worthwhile. If you keep in mind how quickly this life disappears, you will value your time and do what is valuable. With a strong sense of the imminence of death, you will feel the need to engage in spiritual practice, improving your mind, and will not waste your time in various distractions ranging from eating and drinking to endless talk about war, romance, and gossip.
All beings want happiness and do not want suffering. We use many levels of techniques for removing unwanted suffering in its superficial and deep forms, but it is mostly humans who engage in techniques in the earlier part of their lives to avoid suffering later on. Both those who do and do not practice religion seek over the course of their lives to lessen some sufferings and to remove others, sometimes even taking on pain as a means to overcome greater suffering and gain a measure of happiness.
Everyone tries to remove superficial pain, but there is another class of techniques concerned with removing suffering on a deeper level — aiming at a minimum to diminish suffering in future lives and, beyond that, even to remove all forms of suffering for oneself as well as for all beings. Spiritual practice is of this deeper type.
These techniques involve an adjustment of attitude; thus, spiritual practice basically means to adjust your thought well. In Sanskrit it is called dharma, which means “that which holds.” This means that by adjusting counterproductive attitudes, you are freed from a level of suffering and thus held back from that particular suffering. Spiritual practice protects, or holds back, yourself and others from misery.
From first understanding your own situation in cyclic existence and seeking to hold yourself back from suffering, you extend your realization to other beings and develop compassion, which means to dedicate yourself to holding others back from suffering. It makes practical sense for you, just one being, to opt for taking care of many, but also, by concentrating on the welfare of others, you yourself will be happier. Compassion diminishes fright about your own pain and increases inner strength. It gives you a sense of empowerment, of being able to accomplish your tasks. It lends encouragement.
Let me give you a small example. Recently, when I was in Bodh Gaya, I fell ill from a chronic intestinal infection. On the way to the hospital, the pain in my abdomen was severe, and I was sweating a great deal. The car was passing through the area of Vulture Peak (Buddha taught here) where the villagers are extremely poor. In general, Bihar State is poor, but that particular area is even more so. I did not even see children going to or coming from school. Just poverty. And sickness. I have a very clear memory of a small boy with polio, who had rusty metal braces on his legs and metal crutches up to his armpits. It was obvious that he had no one to look after him. I was very moved. A little later on, there was an old man at a tea stop, wearing only a dirty piece of cloth, fallen to the ground, left to lie there with no one to take care of him.
Later, at the hospital, my thoughts kept circling on what I had seen, reflecting on how sad it was that here I had people to take care of me but those poor people had no one. That is where my thoughts went, rather than to my own suffering. Though sweat was pouring out of my body, my concern was elsewhere.
In this way, though my body underwent a lot of pain (a hole had opened in my intestinal wall) that prevented sleep, my mind did not suffer any fear or discomfort. It would only have made the situation worse if I had concentrated on my own problems. This is an example from my small experience of how an attitude of compassion helps even oneself, suppressing some degree of physical pain and keeping away mental distress, despite the fact that others might not be directly helped.
Compassion strengthens your outlook, and with that courage you are more relaxed. When your perspective includes the suffering of limitless beings, your own suffering looks comparatively small.
Excerpts From “Advice on Dying: And Living a Better Life” by Dalai Lama Copyright © 2002 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D.