Contemplations on Death

contemplation death dying eight worldly winds lam rim meditation preciousness of life tibetan buddhism Jul 03, 2020

Like many many spiritual traditions, the lam rim (gradual path) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism teaches how to prepare for death. This is done by three contemplations, designed to evoke a sense of the preciousness of life and a sense of urgency to make it meaningful. Dr. Miles Neale explains in this excerpt from Return with Elixir

I think we all can agree that our culture isn't going to prepare us for death yet that's an inevitability that awaits all of us. From the Lam Rim point of view, the gradual stages of the path, the teaching on death has three levels of contemplation. The first one is the inevitability, the fact that death is certain. No matter how much our culture or family system, evolutionary instinct or habit wants to convince us to be in denial about it, from the gradual stages of the path training it becomes essential at the outset of the path to include the reflection, the constant reminder that death is certain and inevitable.

It's not just in the Buddhist tradition. Recently in Greece I was talking with somebody who was talking about a sacred monastery, I think it's on Mt. Athos where the monks there have a room where there is a wall of skulls. They go into that room and they meditate there and they meditate and they reflect on the fact that one day their skull too, will just be another brick in the wall there.

For some of us that that might be a morbid contemplation. From the point of view of the spiritual person who's committed to exercising agency over the course of evolution, it is a necessary prerequisite to galvanize one's attention and to make a pressing effort, maximizing all the causes and conditions of the human life. It is considered a motivating principle or motivating contemplation.

How much time do we spend taking life for granted? How often are we lured by the siren song into a kind of haze only to find that days, weeks, months and years go by and then we are rudely awakened with a diagnosis of cancer or somebody else dies and it's we're rudely shaken from the stupor.

When we were in Nepal at Pashupatinah, I remember keenly when Tiffany and Kanchi were leading us through kirtan. We were on a bank of a sacred river, high above the river. On that river where the ghats, the stairs that lead into the sacred river and on those banks were the pyres. While the sound of the kirtan was happening, I noticed almost an attraction of the gaze of the pilgrims reflecting on the cremations that were occurring almost like a gravitational pull.

The yogi opens their eyes. In a way you can say that the spiritual path is about the end of denial, as we learned from our last course on trauma, the end of denial. So the first level of the lam rim contemplation is that it's certain. It's not just that it's going to happen to somebody else, it's gonna happen to me, which is sobering. 

There's a sub contemplation. We can think that we're not well prepared. In four years of college, did you ever take a class on death? Universities have dispelled with all the essential ingredients that would make for a good life. We don't have home economics anymore. We don't know how to cook for ourselves. There's no more art or music. There's certainly no death class. There's no class on meditation. We're due for a complete revolution of our educational program.

The first contemplation is on the inevitability of death. The second contemplation is that the time of death is uncertain. That is another great contemplation. Even those of us that are healthy can turn a corner and die. Nobody is exempt. Nobody's special. Nobody has a hall pass. An older person can outlive a younger person. A healthy person can succumb to an illness even though somebody else hasn't lived a healthy lifestyle, hasn't had their vegan juices and all that. You can go out for a run, or your partner can go out for a run and not come back. Your kids can go to class and you might not see them again.

It's a funny thing, the imagery of the Odysseus, who's tied himself to the mast on his odyssey because he wants to hear the siren song but not be lured into their gravitational pull. There is such an a strong lure to become anesthetized to the facts that we have to collectively resist. What would life be like if we didn't take it for granted? What would our interactions on a microscopic level be like if we didn't take it for granted? What would every parting be like if we didn't take life or death for granted? If you didn't operate under the false assumption that you're definitely going to meet again? What would life be like? How would it shift your priorities? How would it shift your interactions?

The final level of the contemplation, death is certain, the time of death is uncertain, death is inevitable, the time of death is uncertain. Third one is that the only thing that you take with you, if you follow the paradigm of multi-life continuity, the only thing that you take with you is your experiences, what you have cultivated. You don't take your material possessions. You don't take your money. You don't take your fame. You don't take your status. You don't take your relationships. If you think about it from the point of view of modern secular life, an entire life is devoted to those endeavors and yet none of them go with you.

If you start to evaluate your motivation in this life according to those standards and that paradigm, you can see from a Buddhist perspective just how absurd, what a waste of precious human life that is. They call these the Eight Worldly Winds. Most people live caught ensnared in the current of the eight worldly winds of chasing fame and avoiding blame, of chasing acquisition of wealth and avoiding the loss of it. Praise and blame, most of life is oriented towards that. Yet from a from a contemplative point of view none of those things go with you. The only thing that goes with you is your virtue and vice, your wisdom or your blindness, the intangibles, the lessons not learned or the lessons learned.