Death as teacher

There are five things that have been well taught by the Blessed One, the one who knows and sees, the worthy one, perfectly enlightened by himself, that are to be contemplated daily by women and men, by householders and monks.

What are the five?

“I am of the nature to grow old, I have not gone beyond old age” is to be contemplated daily.

“I am of the nature to become ill, I have not gone beyond sickness” is to be contemplated daily.

“I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond death” is to be contemplated daily.

“All that is dear and delightful to me will change and vanish” is to be contemplated daily.

“I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related to my actions, and abide supported by my actions. Whatever action I do, whether good or evil, of that I will become heir” is to be contemplated daily.
– Anguttara Nikaya 5.57, translated by John Kelly

These three: old age, sickness and death, are inextricably linked, and form an important lesson. If we can move towards seeing ourselves as part of nature, not separate from and more significant than everything else, then these facts will become more acceptable.

Of course, even the smallest animals fear death and cling to life. This is built into our very nature; that’s why it takes a deep understanding to tame our emotions on the subject. It’s characteristic of all of us to fear things that we don’t want to have happen, even though we know they WILL happen – a test, a job interview, a competition in sport, meeting our future in-laws for the first time. The events that make up an ordinary life instill fear in us. We could just shrug and say, “That’s how it is”, or we could look into this curious phenomenon.

Fear is always about the future, so one way to deal with it is to NOT deal with it, that is, to live in the present until the event comes around, and then our attention may be taken up with something other than our fear. Often there’s something constructive we can do to reduce the fear factor – study for the test, research the company/job we’re interviewing for, train in sport for a contest, learn what we can about others we might be nervous to meet. Many times we discover that the fear (in anticipation) was worse than the event itself.

So how can we prepare to meet our own death without fear? We can try to see that we are part of nature; the fact of our birth leads to our eventual death, just like every insect, plant and mammal. One obvious way to prepare our minds is to do the contemplation proposed above. The Buddha recommended calling these facts to mind frequently, so that we might come to see the truth of them. Another helpful activity is to seek out, rather than avoid, those who are aged, ill or dying. The facts of life are before us, if we choose to look at them.

More on this next time…

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