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

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 39 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

12 thoughts on “Matters of life and death”

  1. Great article, deep topics, very thought-provoking. I often wonder about Buddhists’ conception of climate change. On the one hand, it shows us clearly the functioning of cause and effect. It doesn’t really matter if people “believe” in climate change – it’s going to happen because the causes for it have been assembled. Science has been exploring and elucidating that causal chain in detail. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas for reasons we understand very well, and so on.

    On the other hand, as you mention, climate change also shows us emptiness. Neither the CO2 molecule, nor the “climate” exist substantially from their own side. (As a physicist I am comfortable with the notion of ‘continuity without identity’, which is a strong theme in quantum physics.) And Chandrakirti and Gesha-la have explained beautifully how causation is not in conflict with emptiness but in fact relies on it. It is precisely because CO2 is empty of inherent existence that it can cause anything.

    The question in my mind, however, is this. Since we know cause and effect function in samsara, don’t we have an obligation to act accordingly. It seems that even though this world does not exist substantially, nonetheless we (both individually and societally) need to reduce the causes of climate change and move towards decarbonization. If we don’t, so many living beings (animal and human) will experience terrible suffering in the future, right? We will see unprecedented destruction of habitat, starvation, forced displacement and migration. All of these things are empty, but suffering will still be experienced. We work towards solutions without getting attached to outcomes. Is this a correct way of conceptualizing climate change?

  2. I am a baby in Buddhism only 20 years but you have definitely encouraged me to go to the summer festival of HYT I’ve only gone once in England for the empowerment so thank you so much for all your wisdom I enjoyed the article so much

  3. In my close karmic circle, I have one dear brother. He has three grown children, my nephew and two nieces. Today the nephew and his wife had their second baby. One niece and her boyfriend have Covid. And the other daughter is due in two months to give birth to her first child. Everything impermanent — the cycle of (contaminated) life. The line from your excellent article that really touched me is “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.” Geshe-la has said our bodies are actually inanimate objects. What a great reminder. There’s a real freedom in living as if the body is already dead. Just an appearance as if in a dream. Couple that with Tantra, and samsara will quickly cease.

  4. I read this with the concentrative mind that I achieved by studying dharma to the best of my ability. I am beginning to
    live my life as tho I had dissolved from life. This has become enhanced by the present situation whereby my life has completely changed and still changing. I have two young grand/daughters and a grandson due in early June. I have no intention of trying to explain the impermanence of every life which would confuse them, but when animals die I can gently explain that this happens to every one of us.
    On Tantric Teachings I still have an element of fear in completely
    Letting myself go free so I have some clinging, self-grasping to deal with.
    Thank you for this enlightening and intelligently written experience of your own whilst practising Dharma deep within yourself. Blessings, joy, peace and love. 💜📖🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Leave a Reply to Jacqueline Burrough Cancel reply