As, with a stick, a cowherd drives
Cows to pasture,
So aging and death drive
The lives of beings. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)
Just as a cow is reluctant to respond to the stick and will try to avoid it, we humans prefer to pretend that aging and death have nothing to do with us, and when they intrude into our consciousness, we resist and possibly resent them. Psychologically, fear and anger are related, and so we might respond with both to the prospect of our lives declining and having an end, even if that end is not imminent.
Whether we acknowledge death or not, it is like a shadow that follows us everywhere. The obituaries of famous or familiar people toll the bell of remembrance, reminding us that all lives, no matter how celebrated, must end.
We might think that because we’re going to die anyway, nothing we do matters; or we could think that things are as they are and we can’t do anything about them. Both of these positions deny the reality of karma, of dependent co-arising, a central principle of the Dharma. This denial is a way of deflecting our responsibility to manage our actions of body, speech, and mind.
“Master Gotama, does the person who does the deed experience the result?”
“‘The person who does the deed experiences the result’: this is one extreme, brahmin.
“Then does one person do the deed and another experience the result?”
“‘One person does the deed and another experiences the result’: this is the second extreme. (SN 12.46, translated by Sujato Bhikkhu)
This sutta goes on to say that the Buddha responded to both of these extreme positions by expounding dependent co-arising, which is impersonal, in flux, and complex. What this means is that what we do matters, but it’s not all that matters. Our actions of body, speech, and mind affect ourselves and others and are the only part of our fate or destiny that we have any hand in shaping. External events, natural disasters, political upheavals, pandemics, etc. affect us all but the causes are (mostly) not personal. Our actions happen (or don’t) and have some effect within an ever-changing context.
Any sensible advisor will say that if you want to prepare for death, the best way to do it is to live a good life. Lean in to your wholesome inclinations and away from the unwholesome. Make an effort to live by the Buddha’s precepts (harmlessness, generosity, non-harming with sensuality, truthfulness, and sobriety). Watch how abiding by them (or not) affects your state of mind and your overall contentment with life. Everything is in motion; let’s make our mark where we can.