Sunday, June 25, 2006

Meeting Death Wisely

[meditating on death]

For most of us, karma and negative emotions obscure the ability to see our own intrinsic nature, and the nature of reality. As a result we clutch on to happiness and suffering as real, and in our unskillful and ignorant actions go on sowing the seeds of our next birth. Our actions keep us bound to the continuous cycle of worldly existence, to the endless round of birth and death. So everything is at risk in how we live now at this very moment: How we live now can cost us our entire future.

This is the real and urgent reason why we must prepare now to meet death wisely, to transform our karmic future, and to avoid the tragedy of falling into delusion again and again and repeating the painful round of birth and death. This life is the only time and place we can prepare in, and we can only truly prepare through spiritual practice: This is the inescapable message of the natural bardo of this life.

~ Sogyal Rinpoche
In the nearly forty years I've been on this planet, I've lost a lot of friends and family to death. We all go there eventually, but how many of us make peace with that? How many of us befriend death well before we are in its grasp? Not one of the people I've known who have passed had any relationship at all with death.

When my mother passed last summer, she welcomed death. As a fundamentalist Christian, she was convinced she would be transported to heaven where all the pain in her body -- caused by the cancer -- would cease to exist. She envisioned an eternity of blissful life among the golden streets and fluffy clouds of the next life.

I'm guessing she was disappointed at first.

It's easy to latch onto whatever mythic story of the afterlife our religion or culture offers. But that does not really prepare us for the reailty. I often talk as though I believe in reincarnation. I don't -- I simply consider it one of those things we can never know until we get there. But my higher selves understand that talking about the next life makes my lower, mythical and magical selves feel better about the uncertainty. In reality, it's all a mystery to me.

I've made peace with that over the years. I'm sure that when that day comes, I'll be sad to leave those I love behind, and I may even fight it. But not because I fear death -- because I've learned to enjoy life.

Whether reincarnation exists, or whether my consciousness ceases to exist when this body exhales its last breath, it's all good, it's all part of the adventure. But if there really is a hell, I'm screwed.

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Mike said...

Hi Bill, this is a great post. I choose to believe in rebirth as expounded by the Buddha. But, honestly, right now I don't have any reason to believe that other than faith—the same thing Christians have to believe in heaven. From where I sit, there's just no way to know, as you said, until I die. I know the Buddha taught that we can directly experience that rebirth is what happens, and I think that comes from directly experiencing consciousness and it's flow from moment to moment in a digital fashion (which I discuss in a section in the paper I wrote here). I think from understanding consciousness, one can directly know that after death (the expiration of life consciousness), another instant of consciousness must be generated due to karma. But, I'm not at the point where I've experienced that yet, so it's all faith. But is that exposition by the Buddha symbolic, mythological, or is it meant to be literally true? I don't honestly know...

william harryman said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for the response. Yeah, I'm not at that place where I can intuit rebirth from the way each new moment is rebortn out of the previous moment. I can get that logically, but I haven't had that experience in meditation.

My mind struggles with the concept of "no permanent soul/self" and how that works with reincarnation. If self is an illusion, what gets reincarnated?

I've heard teachings on this and in the monment I feel like, "yeah that makes sense," but then I go home and a few days later I'm lost in my relative world.

So, maybe I'll get it down the road, or I'll just have to hang out and see what happens when the lights go out.