Don’t know how, don’t know when

Joan Halifax Roshi offers the following 9 contemplations of Atisha (an 11th century Tibetan scholar), with an acknowledgement to Larry Rosenberg (a living Dharma teacher):

1. All of us will die sooner or later
2. Your life span is decreasing continuously
3. Death will come whether you are prepared or not
4. Your life span, like that of all living beings, is not fixed
5. Death has many causes
6. Your body is fragile and vulnerable
7. Your loved ones cannot keep you from death
8. At the moment of your death, your material resources are of no use to you
9. Your own body cannot help you at the time of your death

The complete exercise can be found here – http://www.upaya.org/roshi/dox/Contemplations.pdf

WOW. Thinking of these things can take our breath away, can’t it? The whole list points to realities that we know intellectually, but that are emotionally challenging. This is the chink in the armor where wisdom can get in; please don’t shy away from it. By turning towards these facts and also towards our discomfort with (at least some of) them, we can fulfil our potential for understanding.

I find it useful to contemplate each of these truths in relation to my own life and also to the lives of others whom I know and love. We all don’t know when we’ll die; we are all fragile and vulnerable; we can’t protect each other from death; whatever we accumulate and hold dear in this life will have no meaning and be of no use to us as we die. There is no certainty anywhere. This is the liberating reality that we’re invited to investigate.

A confusing complication of modern life is that even when we are given a fatal diagnosis, we really still have no idea when we’ll die. More and more people are living full life spans with grave, chronic illnesses – cancers, AIDS, failing organs, etc. What are we to make of this? We still don’t know what will be.

Each of Atisha’s contemplations is a direct hit on our most common delusions. We like to pretend that we won’t die, that we are strong, that the love of others protects us, that we’re getting better as we age (not decaying). Notice how comforting each of those beliefs is – and how completely false. We are inclined to self-delusion; to see reality requires openness and effort.

If this exercise interests you, please do undertake these contemplations in a methodical way. Put them on your calendar, discuss them with friends, make a study group around them, keep a journal with your thoughts and feelings. Though they represent deep wisdom, they are only as useful as we make them.

2 Comments

Filed under Death and dying

2 responses to “Don’t know how, don’t know when

  1. Frank

    Yes a good teaching, but it must not lead to nihilism. We must live our lives and give them purpose.

  2. Thom De Mann

    This is a great teaching…Thank you!

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