The Yaksa asked, “What is the most wonderful thing?”
Yudhisthira Maharaj replied, “The most wonderful thing is that although everyday innumerable humans and their animals go to the abode of death, still a man thinks he is immortal.”
– [Mahabharata, Meditation 128: The Lake of Death]
There is an old joke that Buddhists spend their whole lives preparing for death, and there is some truth to that. We are constantly being reminded that we are all subject to aging, sickness, and death. In one of the most common Pāli chants, The Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection, the first three recollections are just that. The fourth recollection is that when we die “all that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.” [AN 5.57]
For most people, that sounds pretty depressing. But in the Buddha’s teaching, death is a natural and normal part of life. It is most definitely not a cause for grief, torment, and anguish. As one Tibetan teacher once told me, “In a certain sense, there is no such thing as death. There is simply the next moment.”
Death for a Buddhist is a simple reality. It is also a tool. While we are living, the recollection of death gives us a healthy sense of urgency. This life is precious. It is an opportunity to do something important. We have this chance to develop the path. When we die, we do not know how we will be reborn. So now, while we can, we need to devote ourselves to the path. And we need to train our minds so when the moment of death does come, we will be prepared, and we will not be subject to the whims and fears of a wild, untrained mind.
That sense of urgency is not limited to Buddhist training. My father died five days before my 18th birthday. It happened suddenly. The night before he died, we had an argument, so my last words to my father were angry ones. It took me a very long time to get over his death, and there was a lot of guilt over the argument. But when I did finally get over it, what I learned was not to put things off. Treat people as if you will never see them again. Never put off telling someone that you love them. Death can come at any time to anyone. It happens every day. Live your life with that thought always in mind.
That lesson came in very handy some years later. Shortly after my father died, I met the man who would become my father-in-law. We were close almost from the very beginning. In retrospect, we had a very unusual relationship. We did things together all the time. It all felt normal and natural.
Then we got the phone call. He was only in his mid-50’s, but he had a heart attack and died just as suddenly as my own father had. I was in shock and upset, of course, but the bigger part of me was grateful. I had been given a second chance, and while I was sad that he was gone, the larger part of me was simply grateful that we had the time together that we did. The glass was more than half full.
When the time of our own death comes, it is very important to have a calm and supportive environment. People who have had near death experiences tell us how sensitive the consciousness is at the moment of death. So it is very important to be around people who will be calm and loving. For many Buddhists, having a monk or a nun in attendance is a wonderful boon. Conversely, being in an emergency room full of frantic nurses and doctors and loudly screaming machines and wailing family members is without doubt a worst-case scenario.
My mother died in 2012, and she was in a coma for the last week of her life. Because I knew about near death experiences and the state of the consciousness, I spent a lot of time with her. And after she died, I spent the entire night with her, thinking thoughts of gentle loving-kindness. It was actually quite wonderful for me. My final hours with my mother were spent in love and gratitude for all of the kind things that she did for me and all the good things that she gave to me. By the end of the night, I was completely at ease with her death, and I never really experienced any grief. What I did experience was love and gratitude.
During our death and after our death, the trained mind gives us a better chance to either escape from the rounds of rebirth completely, or to at least have an auspicious rebirth, one where we can continue the practice. This is not necessarily a human rebirth, as some schools of Buddhism believe. We know from the Buddha’s teachings that there are once returners and non-returners who are reborn in the heavenly realms. And if you don’t have to worry about a fussy human body and all of its relentless demands, and you don’t have to deal with so many cranky people and getting an education and finding a job and paying a mortgage, etc., doing the practice may be quite a bit easier.
Because of the Buddha’s teachings and his transcendent understanding of existence, we are very fortunate to have a rational, sensible way to think about life and death. This is why those of us who are his followers are so deeply grateful to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṇgha. Without the Three Jewels, we are just lost, wandering around in the desert with no way out.