Matters of life and death

11 mins read.

The law of entropy shows that despite all our best efforts to hold things together somehow, everything is being flung apart all the time – our relationships, our families, our friendships, our jobs, our figures, our skin, our peace, our comfort, our safety, our favorite hobbies, our passions, our life itself. None of these last.

I read this striking article on climate change the other day, and enjoyed the wisdom the author Roy Scranton has gained from his lived experience. 

“I’d been a soldier in Baghdad in 2003-2004, where I saw what happens when the texture of the everyday is ripped apart. I realized that what we call social life was like a vast and complex game, with imaginary rules we all agreed to follow, fictions we turned into fact through institutions, stories, and daily repetition. Some of the rules were old, deeply ingrained and resilient. Some were so tenuous they’d barely survive a hard wind.”

The fact of impermanence may be more obvious in war zones, refugee camps, and so on, but the texture of the everyday is being ripped apart all the time in more subtle ways as well. Things everywhere are changing fast all the time due to numerous causes and conditions, including, and especially, our intentions or karma. Everything is in fact coming in and out of existence every moment, nothing lasts for even a moment

Yikes!

When changes are so small that we cannot detect them, we call that subtle impermanence; and when changes are big enough to become apparent, that is gross impermanence. We are all subject to both. According to this article, for example, climate change is happening faster than the models predicted:

“Normal means more fires, more category 5 hurricanes, more flooding, more drought, millions upon millions more migrants fleeing famine and civil war, more crop failures, more storms, more extinctions, more record-breaking heat. Normal means the increasing likelihood of civil unrest and state collapse, of widespread agricultural failure and collapsing fisheries, of millions of people dying from thirst and hunger, of new diseases, old diseases spreading to new places and the havoc of war. Normal could well mean the end of global civilization as we know it.”

We may be extinct soon. Or we may not. I know a lot of people who don’t believe in climate change, and that is their freedom. But one way or another — climate change or no climate change — every single one of us is still going to die. The whole of samsara is a hoax.

The biggest hoax of all

“This world is definitely done, for sure,” a young friend said tonight in reply to me half-jokingly wondering if the human race would be extinct by the time he got to my age. Samsara is always done. We keep trying to make it work, but it can’t. It has never worked out for anyone. All our dreams are broken in the end. If pondering climate change gives us pause to ponder our impermanence and vulnerable position, and even develop a little healthy fear, that’s not a bad thing. It is better than pretending that everything is fine when in actual fact it is not. We all have to get our acts together.

“But sometimes those breaks are openings. Sometimes those breaks are opportunities to do things differently.”

The point is that we have an enormous part to play in creating our entire reality. Things change not only in dependence upon physical or external causes, such as recycling, but more significantly in dependence upon the internal causes of our karma. The intentions or mental actions we perform every minute of every day are continuously sowing the seeds for future experiences. You can read in Joyful Path of Good Fortune how our karma is responsible for our tendencies, our environments, our experiences, and even which world we are born into in the first place.

We can see how in our nightly dreams there seems to be an external causality — I say something to them, they say something back to me, and so on. Trees grow and people are born. But the substantial causes of the entire dream, including ourselves in the dream, are the karmic potentialities in the mind – our mind is the projector, the movie reel our karma. And this is just as true when we are awake – ripening karma results in our entire dream-like world.

Every change we experience, both individually and collectively, takes place in dependence on our karma. Until we realize this, and are in the process of mastering our minds and our actions, we remain intensely vulnerable. Our karma changes just like that. At any point we can be thrown into an entirely different situation in this life or into an entirely different life altogether. This is happening to us all the time and has been happening since beginningless time.

The fragility and transience of our collective existence

Although when we pause to think about it we can gather that things are changing all the time, our normal default is to grasp at everything as static and fixed. This is unless something like a pandemic or an article about accelerated climate change shocks us out of our comfort zone (which by the way is not that comfortable because living in denial never is.)

We live our lives as if everything is going to go on forever, instead of changing literally moment by moment in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions, including our karma. We cling onto this life as if it is our only life. We cling onto our friends as if they are our forever friends. We cling onto this body as if it is our real body. This is called permanent grasping, and we have a lot of it. Especially the sense that we are not going to die — that at some point this life will not be as over as last night’s dream, that this day could not possibly be our last! 

Larry King died last week, aged 87. Where is he now? Where did he go?! He gave 50,000 interviews in his career, which, at the time, probably felt like they were really happening. From Larry King’s point of view, where is all that now? Where has his very full life gone? If he was like anyone else, he was probably very invested in that life and believed it was the be-all and end-all of his existence: “I am Larry King and this is my life.” But now that sentient being is somewhere else entirely with zero recollection of this past life, unless he happens to have high spiritual realizations, who knows. But if he didn’t, he will have taken an uncontrolled death and now be in the intermediate state, waiting to take rebirth in a whole different life. He (or she) will have a different body, personality, job, and name. Everything that he spent 87 years building went away forever in just the time it took for him to die. All that has travelled with this sentient being is his mental continuum and the karma he created in this and previous lives, whether good or bad. 

Larry King felt like a solid person who was around for a long time, yet now he has disappeared. This is happening every day and eventually to every one. None of us can slow down the change. Within a few hundred months at most we will be dead – forced to leave this life and go to the next. The entire infrastructure of this life on which we have fully depended will dissolve away like a dream, or like virtual reality when the power is switched off. This could even happen this week, or tonight. We may feel right now like this world is the only world we have ever known, but in fact we have known countless worlds and had relationships with every single living being.

Fragile as kittens.

It is not just Larry King of course – this last year has been a massive shock for everyone:

“In March last year, watching an unknown plague stalk the land, I felt fear, but I also felt hope: the hope that this virus, as horrible as it might be, could also give us the chance to really understand and internalize the fragility and transience of our collective existence.”

It does seem that we generally have a bit more awareness of our fragility and transience than usual. And this doesn’t have to be a bad thing — it is in fact the dawning of spiritual awareness. Buddha said that of all animals it is the elephant who leaves the deepest footprint and, in a similar way, of all meditations it is meditation on death that leaves the deepest impression on our minds. Deep awareness (as opposed to a shallow intellectual understanding) of our impermanence and mortality changes us. It changes us for the better. As the author puts it:

“How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?”

Making meaningful choices

I looked at another article this author had written, and was even more inspired with how he dealt with this constant change and threat of dissolution while soldiering in Iraq:

“I found my way forward through an 18th-century Samurai manual, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure,” which commanded: “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” Instead of fearing my end, I owned it. Every morning, after doing maintenance on my Humvee, I’d imagine getting blown up by an I.E.D., shot by a sniper, burned to death, run over by a tank, torn apart by dogs, captured and beheaded, and succumbing to dysentery. Then, before we rolled out through the gate, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry, because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive. “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead,” wrote Tsunetomo, “he gains freedom in the Way.” I got through my tour in Iraq one day at a time, meditating each morning on my inevitable end.” 

Being aware of impermanence and especially the inevitable disappearance of this world can in fact give us the freedom to change things the way we want to and become the person we want to be, including an enlightened being. I do something similar when I look back at this life from the point of view of being in my next life, as I explain here. What are the benefits of imagining that I have already died from this life and am in my next life?:

It makes me feel free to take each day as it comes, as if each day is a bonus, yet I have nothing to prove or gain because I’m already over it. I find less need to buy into each dream-like appearance or invest in the day-to-day drama because I have already left this life – the only reason for doing anything now is to keep journeying toward enlightenment and help others. There is naturally less attachment, aversion, and worldly concerns. Instead of being an avatar in a virtual reality who believes they are a real person in a real world, wandering around bumping into people and things with no real clue as to what is going on or what is around the corner, I can instead feel that the entire world is not outside my mind and therefore I can do whatever I want with it. Maybe that is what Tsunetomo means by, “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body gains freedom in the Way.”

I’m not guaranteeing this works for everyone, but right now it’s working for me!

Tantric precedent

And most significantly, to me at least, is that there is a powerful precedent in Buddhism for living as if we have already died from this life. It is taught in Tantra. We do a practice called bringing the result into the path where we imagine dying from ordinary samsaric life and being born as a pure enlightened being. We imagine that all our gross and subtle minds dissolve away into emptiness, just as they do during the death process, and with them all the appearances of this life. This leaves us absorbed in the deepest level of awareness, the clear light mind, from which we go on to transform the intermediate state and rebirth.

We don’t need to come back to this life after the first bringing. There is nowhere in our self-generation sadhana that says, “Now you reappear as an ordinary being.” Also, as I explain in this article, once we have died from this life and arisen as a Buddha in a Pure Land, we have always been a Buddha. And providing we don’t forget that we engaged in the three bringings, we can live our life from that blissful place – in the world but not of it.

This is just to pique your curiosity. To learn the techniques for this profound practice of self-generation as a Buddha we need Highest Yoga Tantra empowerments and commentary – coming up in both this Summer and Fall Kadampa International Festivals

Okay, I am out of space but would love to hear your comments in the box below.

Related articles

Lost and unfound 

Law of entropy 

What’s karma got to do with it?

An existential wake-up call

Keeping the hope alive

I was wondering recently if Dharma is what comes out when our Buddha nature is manifest. For example, when someone speaks directly from the heart and to the heart about love, compassion, equality, helping others, our mutual dependence and responsibility, and so on, or about our courage and ability to withstand discouragement and defeat, to me that sounds like Dharma.

On one level, Dharma or Buddhism is just profound common sense, and as such can be practiced by anyone at all who wants to practice it. Parts of it are already being practiced by people all over the world from different backgrounds, faiths, and traditions.

With respect to Kadampa Buddhism (Kadam Dharma), Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism:

Even without studying or listening to Dharma, some people often come to similar conclusions as those explained in Kadam Dharma teachings through looking at newspapers or television and understanding the world situation. This is because Kadam Dharma accords with people’s daily experience; it cannot be separated from daily life.

Take last Wednesday, January 20th, for example, the day of the inauguration. This was a hopeful and inspiring day for a lot of people, and a lot of amazing things were said, including that poem by Amanda Gorman. For example:

We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.

On one level that may seem obvious, that we are interdependent and so our collective well-being is completely undermined by grasping at our differences; yet still this sentiment has not been heard much of late in mainstream public discourse.

That poem was not about politics, was it? It was about all of us. I don’t use this blog to talk about politics because, regardless of our political persuasion, Buddhism works. It is open to everybody. Buddhists genuinely believe that every single living being has the exact same potential for compassion, wisdom, happiness, enlightenment. Therefore, Buddhism is open to everybody; and when we say “Everyone is welcome” — which we do on the doors and publicity of every Kadampa Center in the world — we really mean it.

Buddhism, or Dharma, is Buddha’s teachings and the experiences we get from practicing those teachings. It enables us to realize our truest potential or Buddha nature; and when someone talks from the heart about love and so on, it is as though that truest potential is shining through.

Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

And for Gorman, the light of her Buddha nature was shining through, which is why I think so many people were moved by her and why she has gone viral! (Along with Bernie Sanders memes, lol. Which, talking about our innate kindness, he capitalized on to make money for charity.) Gorman spoke from the heart and to the heart; and to me it sounded like Dharma words. This is true when anyone talks about the beautiful qualities of the human spirit.

Dharma provides the methods for bringing out and developing our Buddha nature – the good heart that every single person possesses, like a golden nugget, deep inside. When we learn Buddhism we are learning how to develop and increase all our innate qualities of tolerance, non-hatred, equanimity, and so on. We have a meditation, for example, called “equalizing self and others”, which, if everyone did it, would mean no more prejudice, racism, or bigotry – those faulty unpeaceful mental attitudes, or so-called delusions, would have to go away.  

As it says in Modern Buddhism:

The great Master Dromtonpa said, “Kadam Dharma is like a mala made of gold.” Just as everyone, even those who do not use a mala (or prayer beads) would be happy to accept a gift of a gold mala because it is made of gold, in a similar way everyone, even non-Buddhists, can receive benefit from Kadam Dharma. This is because there is no difference between Kadam Dharma and people’s everyday experiences….

… Everyone needs it to make their lives happy and meaningful, to temporarily solve their human problems, and to enable them ultimately to find pure and everlasting happiness through controlling their anger, attachment, jealousy, and especially ignorance.

In my job I meet people from all walks of life and political persuasions, and I love them all equally, why not, we’re all the same. With Dharma we can break down the divides, empathize, and bring out the best in each other because the best in all of us is the same. Democrat or Republican, no one has a monopoly on compassion. Or common sense, for that matter, or love. As this is the truth, we can work to become more unified by emphasizing these qualities.

Living beings are terribly misguided and confused a lot of the time — what we call in Buddhism “deluded”. When we speak or act out of anger, hatred, fear, or self-grasping ignorance, that’s coming not from our true nature but from our delusions, which are the real, albeit adventitious, common enemies of us all. Living beings are not our enemies, as Buddha kept pointing out. But we don’t have to stay deluded. And on a day like January 20th when everyone was making an effort, their better natures were shining through, showing that delusions are not an intrinsic part of our minds.

So while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe? Now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

A quick look at today’s headlines shows that at least some of our collective absurdities have already crept back! Nonetheless, these are not permanent, nor whom we really are. The United States has some cool ideals as a country, equality, freedom, and justice for all – on one level I reckon all Americans love these ideals and the whole country was supposed to be founded on them. Of course it wasn’t and isn’t, and there has always been a struggle between these ideals and the reality; but nonetheless is there not a significant part of us that would like us all to live up to this? So these glimpses are important:

For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.

The hill we climb

“End of an error”, one wit put it the other day. But it is not an error to pin on others, just an error that we individually and collectively can rectify by trying to put behind us the things that have gone wrong — the division, the violence – to herald a new world of tolerance and kindness.

Buddha showed how we could be like this all the time, choosing to actualize this incredible potential for equality and freedom in our minds and in our society. It is what Buddhism is all about. By following Buddha’s advice, we do get kinder, wiser, and closer to other people, and we do let go of our intolerance, faulty discriminations, bigotry, and the rest of it.

That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare.

If we could only spend more than one day feeling hopeful and connected, if we can make an effort to keep this mutual respect and unity going day after day after day, to actively choose this way of thinking, one day we’ll find that we’ve climbed that hill once and for all. And what a view!

Over to you, please put a comment in the box below.

Related articles

Some articles about Buddhism in society 

Living beings have no faults

How to get rid of problems according to Buddha