When we gain insight into the continuum of our mind — and that death is the permanent separation of the mind and the body, not the death of consciousness — this realization expands our horizons and is very joyful, liberating.
People say that they don’t want to think about death, “I don’t want to think about leaving everything!” But we won’t even notice that we’ve left everything! Do you even notice that last night’s dream has come and gone? Do any of you miss last week’s dream? Do any of you miss any of your past lives at the moment? Attachment is all about, “I’ve got to keep having it, I’ll not be happy without it.” But as soon as attachment has gone, there’s nothing there to hang on to — it’s gone and we’ve forgotten it.
We all want to be happy and free from suffering, all the time. In which case, the only thing to do is to train the mind. Tweaking this body is a fool’s game — no matter how much Botox we inject into this thing, it is not going to last. It’s not going to look any prettier as we get older. It’s not going to serve us any better as time goes by. Despite years and years of devotion to our body – giving it pizza, washing it countless times, worrying about its slightest wrinkles, spending days and weeks (if you add it up) in front of the mirror, lugging it around all day, buying it expensive plane tickets – our body will betray us in the end.
Our body is an object of so much inappropriate attention. So much attachment, so much aversion, so much self cherishing, so much angst, worry, obsession, and time wasted goes into just thinking about these bodies. At the end of the day this body completely lets us down, becoming an inanimate lump of flesh that others cannot wait to get rid of. If we are relating to our body as ourselves, what does that make us – a lump of meat?!
As Shantideva, a great Indian Master who never minced his words, said, we are not so different to an animated corpse. Why is my body animated right now? When I die it will just be laying there and people will go, “Yuck.” When someone we have loved for 50 years dies, and we see them lying there, we know it is not them, at that point it is obvious. Why? Because they have gone. The body they inhabited is there the same as when they were alive, but it is now missing an essential ingredient. What animates the body? It is awareness, it is consciousness, it is life. When we die, this body that we invest so much energy and angst into, becomes “What was all that about?!” So much wasted time.
I’m not suggesting you all stop showering, by the way — we look after our body, of course, but rather as an ambulance driver looks after his ambulance the best he can, even when it is the worse for wear, seeing this body as a vehicle in which we can make a lot of spiritual progress and help others.
There is a powerful parallel scene in the movie Schindler’s List that has always struck me as the Bodhisattva way to look after our own body. Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth are both grooming themselves meticulously for a party, preparing to impress. But Goeth is seething with pride and self-absorption, whereas Schindler is making himself presentable with the view only to save others.
At the moment our mind and body are connected. Our body is like our vehicle or, if you like, our overcoat, so we need to keep it healthy and presentable; but it’s not where the real action is. Infinitely more important is the life of our mind.
Also, don’t take this to mean that you have to always forget that your body is there! It will remind us often enough. I’m talking about not relating to the body out of inappropriate attention and delusions that come from identifying with it as being who we are, when it is only part of who we are. As it inevitably gets older, and the bodies around it get older, we will experience nothing but loss and suffering for example, if we exaggerate its importance. We can enjoy it and its sense pleasures without grasping. We can learn not to cling so tightly to it when it is sick. We don’t need to worry so much about what others think when they look at our body. This is a work in progress but starts with the recognition that we are not just bodies.
If we understand the nature of consciousness then we really get a sense of who we are. Then we get a sense of who we can become.
As we go through the teachings of the Lamrim, or the stages of the path, we start off with this special initial scope, setting our sights beyond the vanishing appearances of this life, thinking about countless future lives. Within this we also understand karma, that everything we do resonates into the future as seeds and potentials carried in our consciousness from life to life, the only luggage we are going to take with us. Therefore, we need to practice pure behavior and pack the causes for happiness, not suffering, for our future lives.
As we journey further along the path, we understand that we need to be in a state where we never taken any uncontrolled rebirth ever again. We start thinking about the problems of our delusions and particularly how to get rid of our ignorance, which is what is keeping us trapped in the uncontrolled cycle of life. At this point we are identifying with a being of intermediate scope, or middling scope. That is who we are.
We don’t stop there. Thinking,
“I am just one person, one traveler. Everybody is a traveler forced to cycle through death, bardo, and rebirth over and over again. My friends my dog, everybody is caught and I need to help them.”
Our mind gets even bigger. Our sense of being, of self, of who we are, is growing bigger and bigger. Geshe Kelsang uses this word “growing” – we grow from a being of initial scope, to middling scope, to great scope, namely the Mahayana. We become a Bodhisattva, literally an “enlightenment being” – someone who has decided to realize their complete potential for enlightenment so that they can guide all the other travelers to the same state.
So that’s the spiritual path. It all hinges on our understanding of who we are, which in turn hinges on our understanding of what life is, which in turn hinges on our understanding of our own beginningless and endless consciousness.
(This is the last part of the articles on rebirth — all of them can be found together here.)