Most Buddhists put flowers on the altar. We know flowers are beautiful, but that isn’t their purpose here. Flowers begin to die as soon we cut them; we carefully lay death in the place that symbolizes our awakening. We bow and make offering to this crucial truth, built into the bones of the world.
The Buddha spoke volumes of words, an immense canon, but most of what he said comes down to this: Things change. Change cannot be avoided. Change hurts. The fundamental teaching of all Buddhism can be stated as everything dies. The Buddha taught this, it fills the sutras, it is repeated by our teachers. But most of all, we learn this from our own daily lives.
Do we believe that we will dissolve? No. Not deep down in the root of the small self, because the small self plans to live forever.
You have probably learned a traditional formula or two for this insistent teaching about the transitory nature of all things:
Anicca vata sankhara: “Impermanent, alas, are all formations!”
Sabbe saokhara anicca: “All conditioned factors of existence are transitory.”
In the Maha Satipatthana Sutta: “[One] abides observing the phenomenon of arising…abides observing the phenomenon of passing away…”
As a new practitioner, I learned the catechism this way: “All compounded things are subject to dissolution.” The language was strange when I first heard it, and as a young practitioner I found myself parsing the words: Compounded. Dissolution. Notice, I was told, how everything is put together from other things and will be taken apart. I began to notice. A table, a house, a nation—I could see this.
But if all things are compounded and will dissolve, then I am compounded and I will dissolve. And this was not something I could easily accept.
I pretend to accept my own death. Most senior practitioners do; many of them may even believe they accept it. Buddhists have their own peculiar points of pride, outside the usual stream of things we pride ourselves on, like humility and asceticism. Plenty of us are proud of our equanimity in the face of extinction, at least until we see the headlights bearing down.
So how deep does this acceptance really go? It’s not just Buddhists who kid themselves about being prepared for death. It’s people. It’s all of us who don’t want to admit that we are organisms fighting for life, that we can sagely repeat, “Annica, annica, all compounded things are subject to dissolution,” without really confronting what it means.
Do we believe that we will dissolve? No. Not deep down in the root of the small self, because the small self plans to live forever. When we say that “Everything dies,” we mean everything dies but me. And we can get kind of fancy about this point: Everything dies, including my body (but not my awareness—not me). Everything is subject to dissolution, but something passes through to a new form and doesn’t ever go away (that’s me). In a thousand ways, most of them not entirely conscious, we hold on to the hope that something of this self, somehow, will remain, and we hold on to that even as everything we touch slides away like sand in running water.
Why should we pretend to more confidence than we feel? Everyone is a beginner when it comes to death. We can’t practice it. When my mother died, it was the very first time that my mother died, and I didn’t know how to do that, to be a daughter whose mother was dying, to be a daughter whose mother had ceased to exist. When my best friend died—when my teacher died—I didn’t know how to do it. Each death I’ve known has been the very first one of its kind. Even with experience—I know how grieving feels, I know the altered state of a vigil, I know a lot about that—I can’t entirely prepare. And when I die, it will be the first time this particular me dies, and I will be a beginner.
Yes, I know that we are all dying all the time. That’s what it means to be a compounded thing dissolving—this self, this moment, gives way to the next as the girl gives way to the woman who gives way to the crone. I know that the me of today is not the me of yesterday, and I was also taught that if you die once, you never need to die again. But the real teaching of that formula, the falling away of body and mind for a ceaseless moment, is that you are already dead. I know this, but I don’t think my body does.
Slay the demons of hope and fear. My teacher would say this to me at a time when I was knocking up against deepening anxiety. My stubborn refusal to submit to the meaning of that anxiety made me more anxious still. The stronger I resisted, the deeper my anxiety became, until I sank well into true fear. How could I slay that demon when I was afraid to walk out the door?
We need to talk about death bluntly, honestly, and often.
The original Pali word for aversion, dosa, is various and shaded. It can be translated as anger or hatred, denial, projection, distortion, aggression, repulsion, even disgust. That is how it can feel to talk about death, about our own death. But I want you to think about it and I want you to talk about it. Even if you have considered your own death deeply, how often do you talk about it? Do you talk about your private conflicts or confusion, your questions, your plans?
How do we begin? Begin with the fear. Begin with the resistance. We know the question. It is why we begin to practice in the first place: Why do we suffer? And we know the answer. It is why we keep practicing: We suffer because of change and resistance to change.
But knowing the answer does not stop the question from being asked, and knowing an answer today doesn’t mean we will remember the answer tomorrow. Ignorance is the first link in the twelve-fold chain of causation—ignorance of impermanence, of anicca, of anatta, of no-self. This chain feeds itself endlessly—our ignorance of the ephemeral nature of the self building a self over and over. The chain is broken only by the transformation of that first mistake, being ignorant about the compounded nature of the self, which is not separate or bounded at all.
What do you fear about death? Make a list. Be honest. Autopsy? Being alone? Pain? Loss of privacy? Do you fear soiling your bed? Do you fear needles? For what do you hope? Make a list. Be honest. Do you want to see it coming? Do you want to be asleep? Do you want to be very old?
Ask the question again. Why am I afraid? Because I will die. What does that mean? (Wait a minute. Will I die? Do I have to die?) Ask yourself: Are you ready to die? Don’t answer too quickly, because that last one is a doozy. Even people who have made great strides in accepting the fact of their own inevitable dissolution will be flooded with adrenaline when the headlights bear down. The body has its own hopes.
Talk about death. Talk about everything. Imagine it. Write a description of the scene of your death. Where are you? What do you see? What do you smell, taste, touch? Who is there? Are you inside or outside? Is it warm or cool? Is there music, or words?
Imagine it. Write it down. Then tell everyone who needs to know—your family and friends and teacher and doctor—what you want. Make a record of your wishes and don’t forget to decide how your body should be handled after you’re done with it. Make copies and pass them out.
Then tear it up. Let it go with all your heart. This will be the work of the rest of your life.
We can do all this. We can make a plan, buy a plot, fill out the advance directive, decide what music we want to hear as we go. But we can’t plan not to die. The essence of dying is the loss of control. This is the hardest part for many of us—not that death will happen, but that it will happen without our hand on the controls. It will happen as it happens, when it happens, where it happens, and chances are it won’t go according to plan. The only thing we can control, and only with practice, is how we face whatever happens.
These days it is common to talk about a “good death.” (There are many official, even government-issued, definitions of a good death.) A good death is usually defined as one where a person is comfortable and at peace.
For myself, I want to think about a right death, a death that fits the life I’m trying to live. Most deaths include what anyone might call good moments and bad moments, desired and undesired consequences. So it is with our lives, and so it is with death. Right deaths are all different; you can’t define the details. For me, it means a death unhidden—from me and from those who love me. It means a death met with grace and willingness when the time comes. Achieving this will be the work of the rest of my life.
If we can face it, recognizing the reality of death will transform our lives.
Flowers are beautiful because they are brief. Beauty is a measure of fragility and brevity and transformation, created in part by our awareness of the precious value of this moment—this moment is what we love. Death is utterly natural, shared by all; it is also heartbreaking. That equation isn’t dissonant; it’s the nature of love. With our eyes open to change, each thing we meet is luminous and sparkling. To love means to lose. To lose means to love. The last breath allows us to cherish another without reservation, holding nothing back.
Slay the demons, my teacher told me. That meant accepting my anxiety, my fear. It meant coming to see that hope and fear are one thing: fantasies of the unborn future. Hope pulls and fear pushes and together they keep us stuck in what has not happened, living a half-life of imaginary events. I exhausted myself on that mountain, until I gave up. Giving up was the key. Accepting the demons of hope and fear until they slew me, which was what my teacher had been saying all along.
The parable of the burning house told in the Lotus Sutra is a familiar one. The children do not know the house is on fire, so they won’t leave until their father tempts them with carts full of treasure. So we are with our own suffering, our ignorance. The Buddha offers us treasures, including one so great we couldn’t even imagine it.
Some years ago, I had a brief, vivid dream. I saw a room completely engulfed in flames, and several people were walking calmly through the room, smiling. One turned and looked at me and said, “I can’t tell you how safe I feel in this house.”
When I begin to truly accept myself as this compounded thing—a dewdrop, a bubble, a cloud—when I really believe for a moment that my precious me is a passing sigh in the oceanic cosmos of change, then I begin to find safety inside the burning house. I don’t need to escape if I know how to live inside it. Not needing to escape, I no longer need rewards. I just walk through it, aware of dissolving.