Advice on Dying by H. H. Dalai Lama
It is crucial to be mindful of death — to contemplate that you will not remain long in this life. If you are not aware of death, you will fail to take advantage of this special human life that you have already attained. It is meaningful since, based on it, important effects can be accomplished.
Analysis of death is not for the sake of becoming fearful but to appreciate this precious lifetime during which you can perform many important practices. Rather than being frightened, you need to reflect that when death comes, you will lose this good opportunity for practice. In this way contemplation of death will bring more energy to your practice.
You need to accept that death comes in the normal course of life. As Buddha said:
A place to stay untouched by death
Does not exist.
It does not exist in space, it does not exist in the ocean,
Nor if you stay in the middle of a mountain.
If you accept that death is part of life, then when it actually does come, you may face it more easily.
When people know deep inside that death will come but deliberately avoid thinking about it, that does not fit the situation and is counterproductive. The same is true when old age is not accepted as part of life but taken to be unwanted and deliberately avoided in thought. This leads to being mentally unprepared; then when old age inevitably occurs, it is very difficult.
Many people are physically old but pretend they are young. Sometimes when I meet with longtime friends, such as certain senators in countries like the United States, I greet them with, “My old friend,” meaning that we have known one another for a long period, not necessarily physically old. But when I say this, some of them emphatically correct me, “We are not old! We are longtime friends.” Actually, they are old — with hairy ears, a sign of old age — but they are uncomfortable with being old. That is foolish.
I usually think of the maximum duration of a human life as one hundred years, which, compared to the life of the planet, is very short. This brief existence should be used in such a way that it does not create pain for others. It should be committed not to destructive work but to more constructive activities — at least to not harming others, or creating trouble for them. In this way our brief span as a tourist on this planet will be meaningful. If a tourist visits a certain place for a short period and creates more trouble, that is silly. But if as a tourist you make others happy during this short period, that is wise; when you yourself move on to your next place, you feel happy. If you create problems, even though you yourself do not encounter any difficulty during your stay, you will wonder what the use of your visit was.
Of life’s one hundred years, the early portion is spent as a child and the final portion is spent in old age, often just like an animal feeding and sleeping. In between, there might be sixty or seventy years to be used meaningfully. As Buddha said:
Half of the life is taken up with sleep. Ten years are spent in childhood. Twenty years are lost in old age. Out of the remaining twenty years, sorrow, complaining, pain, and agitation eliminate much time, and hundreds of physical illnesses destroy much more.
To make life meaningful, acceptance of old age and death as parts of our life is crucial. Feeling that death is almost impossible just creates more greediness and more trouble — sometimes even deliberate harm to others. When we take a good look at how supposedly great personages — emperors, monarchs, and so forth — built huge dwelling places and walls, we see that deep inside their minds was an idea that they would stay in this life forever. This self-deception results in more pain and more trouble for many people.
Even for those who do not believe in future lifetimes, contemplation of reality is productive, helpful, scientific. Because persons, minds, and all other caused phenomena change moment by moment, this opens up the possibility for positive development. If situations did not change, they would forever retain the nature of suffering. Once you know things are always changing, even if you are passing through a very difficult period, you can find comfort in knowing that the situation will not remain that way forever. So, there is no need for frustration.
Good fortune also is not permanent; consequently, there is no use for too much attachment when things are going well. An outlook of permanence ruins us: Even if you accept that there are future lives, the present becomes your preoccupation, and the future takes on little import. This ruins a good opportunity when your life is endowed with the leisure and facilities to engage in productive practices. An outlook of impermanence helps.
Being aware of impermanence calls for discipline — taming the mind — but this does not mean punishment, or control from the outside. Discipline does not mean prohibition; rather, it means that when there is a contradiction between long-term and short-term interests, you sacrifice the short-term for the sake of long-term benefit. This is self-discipline, which stems from ascertaining the cause and effect of karma. For example, for the sake of my stomach’s returning to normal after my recent illness, I am avoiding sour foods and cold drink that otherwise appear to be tasty and attractive. This type of discipline means protection. In a similar way, reflection on death calls for self-discipline and self-protection, not punishment.
Human beings have all the potential to create good things, but its full utilization requires freedom, liberty. Totalitarianism stifles this growth. In a complementary way, individualism means that you do not expect something from the outside or that you are waiting for orders; rather, you yourself create the initiative. Therefore, Buddha frequently called for “individual liberation,” meaning self-liberation, not through an organization. Each individual must create her or his own positive future. Freedom and individualism require self-discipline. If these are exploited for the sake of afflictive emotions, there are negative consequences. Freedom and self-discipline must work together.
Broadening Your Perspective
From a Buddhist perspective, the highest of all aims is to achieve Buddhahood in order to be capable of helping a vast number of sentient beings; however, a medium level of achievement can liberate you from the painful round of birth, aging, sickness, and death; a lower, but still valuable level of achievement is the improvement of your future lives. From the gradual improvement of your lives liberation can be attained, and based on this, eventually Buddhahood can be attained. First, your perspective extends to include future lives; then by thoroughly understanding your own plight, your perspective deepens to include all of the round of suffering from one life to another, called cyclic existence or samsara. Finally this understanding can be extended to others, through the compassionate wish that all sentient beings be freed from suffering and the causes of suffering. This compassion drives you to aspire to Buddhahood.
You have to be concerned with deeper aspects of life that affect future lives before understanding the full nature of suffering and cyclic existence. This understanding of suffering, in turn, is required for the full development of compassion. Similarly, we Tibetans are seeking to achieve a measure of self-rule in Tibet in order to be of service to the beings in our homeland, but we are also striving to establish ourselves in a refugee situation in India. The accomplishment of the former, greater purpose depends upon our accomplishing the latter, temporary aim.
Excerpted 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.