Advice for Someone Who is Dying

Ajahn Chah gives simple, profound advice to an aging student as she approaches her death.

Ajahn Chah
14 March 2024
Death of the Historic Buddha, Japan. 14th century, ink and gold on silk. Metropolitan Museum of Art, #12.134.10. Rogers Fund, 1912

Today I have brought nothing material of any substance to offer you, only Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha. Listen well. You should understand that even the Buddha himself, with his great store of accumulated virtue, could not avoid physical death. When he reached old age, he relinquished his body and let go of its heavy burden. Now you too must learn to be satisfied with the many years you’ve already depended on your body. You should feel that it’s enough.

You can compare it to household utensils that you’ve had for a long time—your cups, saucers, plates and so on. When you first had them they were clean and shining, but now after using them for so long, they’re starting to wear out. Some are already broken, some have disappeared, and those that are left are deteriorating: they have no stable form, and it’s their nature to be like that. Your body is the same way. It has been continually changing right from the day you were born, through childhood and youth, until now it has reached old age. You must accept that. The Buddha said that conditions (sankharas), whether they are internal conditions, bodily conditions, or external conditions, are not-self—their nature is to change. Contemplate this truth until you see it clearly.

Keep mind and body separate

This very lump of flesh that lies here in decline is saccadhamma, the truth. The truth of this body is saccadhamma, and it is the unchanging teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha taught us to look at the body, to contemplate it and to come to terms with its nature. We must be able to be at peace with the body, whatever state it is in. The Buddha taught that we should ensure that it is only the body that is locked up in jail, and not let the mind be imprisoned along with it. Now as your body begins to run down and deteriorate with age, don’t resist that, but don’t let your mind deteriorate with it. Keep the mind separate. Give energy to the mind by realizing the truth of the way things are. The Lord Buddha taught that this is the nature of the body. It can’t be any other way. Having been born, it gets old and sick and then it dies. This is a great truth that you are presently encountering. Look at the body with wisdom and realize it.

Allow the mind to let go of its attachments. The time is ripe.

Even if your house is flooded or burnt to the ground, whatever the danger that threatens it, let it concern only the house. If there’s a flood, don’t let it flood your mind. If there’s a fire, don’t let it burn your heart. Let it be merely the house, that which is external to you, that is flooded and burned. Allow the mind to let go of its attachments. The time is ripe.

You have been alive a long time. Your eyes have seen any number of forms and colors, your ears have heard so many sounds, and you’ve had any number of experiences. And that’s all they were— just experiences. You’ve eaten delicious foods and all the good tastes were just good tastes, nothing more. The unpleasant tastes were just unpleasant tastes, that’s all. If the eye sees a beautiful form, that’s all it is, just a beautiful form. An ugly form is just an ugly form. The ear hears an entrancing, melodious sound, and it’s nothing more than that. A grating, disharmonious sound is simply so.

The Buddha said that rich or poor, young or old, human or animal, no being in this world can maintain itself in any one state for long; everything experiences change and estrangement. This is a fact of life that we can do nothing to remedy. But the Buddha said that what we can do is to contemplate the body and mind so as to see their impersonality, see that neither of them is “me” or “mine.” They have a merely provisional reality. It’s like this house: it’s only nominally yours, you couldn’t take it with you anywhere.

It is the same with your wealth, your possessions, and your family—they are all yours only in name; they don’t really belong to you, they belong to nature. Now this truth doesn’t apply to you alone; everyone is in the same position, even the Lord Buddha and his enlightened disciples. They differed from us in only one respect, and that was in their acceptance of the way things are. They saw that it could be no other way.

Don’t wish it were otherwise

The Buddha taught us to scan and examine this body, from the soles of the feet up to the crown of the head, then back down to the feet again. Just take a look at the body. What sort of things do you see? Is there anything intrinsically clean there? Can you find any abiding essence? This whole body is steadily degenerating and the Buddha taught us to see that it doesn’t belong to us. It is natural for the body to be this way because all conditioned phenomena are subject to change. How else would you have it be? Actually there’s nothing wrong with the way the body is. It’s not the body that causes you suffering, it’s your wrong thinking. When you see the right wrongly, there’s bound to be confusion.

Take this feeling of letting go as your refuge.

It’s like the water of a river. It naturally flows down the gradient; it never flows against it, and that is its nature. If a person were to go and stand on a river bank and, seeing the water flowing swiftly down its course, foolishly want it to flow back up the gradient, he would suffer. Whatever he was doing, his wrong thinking would allow him no peace of mind. He would be unhappy because of his wrong view, thinking against the stream. If he had right view, he would see that the water must inevitably flow down the gradient, but until he realized and accepted that fact, the man would be agitated and upset.

The river that must flow down the gradient is like your body. Having been young, your body has become old and now it is meandering towards its death. Don’t go wishing it were otherwise; it is not something you have the power to remedy. The Buddha told us to see the way things are and then let go of our clinging to them. Take this feeling of letting go as your refuge. Keep meditating even if you feel tired and exhausted. Let your mind dwell with the breath. Take a few deep breaths and then establish the mind on the breath using the mantra Buddha. Make this practice habitual.

Let go of all externals

The more exhausted you feel, the more subtle and focused your concentration must be, so that you can cope with the painful sensations that arise.

When you start to feel fatigued, then bring all your thinking to a halt, let the mind gather itself together, and then turn to knowing the breath. Just keep up the inner recitation: Bud-dho, Bud-dhu. Let go of all externals. Don’t go grasping at thoughts of your children and relatives, don’t grasp at anything whatsoever. Let go. Let the mind unite in a single point and let that composed mind dwell with the breath. Let the breath be its sole object of knowledge. Concentrate until the mind becomes increasingly subtle, until feelings are insignificant and there is great inner clarity and wakefulness. Then when painful sensations arise, they will gradually cease of their own accord.

Finally you’ll look on the breath as if it were a relative come to visit you. When a relative leaves, we follow him out and see him off. We watch until he’s walked or driven out of sight and then we go back indoors. We watch the breath in the same way. If the breath is coarse, we know that it’s coarse; if it’s subtle, we know that it’s subtle. As it becomes increasingly fine, we keep following it, while simultaneously awakening the mind. Eventually the breath disappears altogether and all that remains is the feeling of wakefulness. This is called meeting the Buddha. We have that clear wakeful awareness that is called Buddho, the one who knows, the one who is awake, the radiant one. It is meeting and dwelling with the Buddha, with knowledge and clarity. For it was only the historical flesh-and-blood Buddha that entered Parinibbana. The true Buddha—the Buddha that is clear, radiant, knowing—we can still experience and attain today, and when we do, the heart is one.

Just be still

So let go, put everything down—everything except knowing. Don’t be fooled if visions or sounds arise in your mind during meditation. Put them all down. Don’t take hold of anything at all. Just stay with this non-dual awareness. Don’t worry about the past or the future. Just be still and you will reach the place where there is no advancing, no retreating and no stopping, where there is nothing to grasp at or cling to. Why? Because there’s no self, no “me” or “mine.” It’s all gone.

The Buddha taught us to be emptied of everything in this way, not to carry anything with us. To know, and having known, let go.

Realizing the Dhamma, the path to freedom from the Round of Birth and Death, is a task that we all have to do alone. So keep trying to let go and to understand the teachings. Really put effort into your contemplation. Don’t worry about your family. At the moment they are as they are; in the future they will be like you. There’s no one in the world who can escape this fate. The Buddha told us to put down everything that lacks a real abiding substance. If you put everything down, you will see the truth. If you don’t, you won’t. That’s the way it is and it’s the same for everyone in the world. So don’t worry and don’t grasp at anything.

Even if you find yourself thinking, that’s alright too, as long as you think wisely. Don’t think foolishly. If you think of your children, think of them with wisdom, not with foolishness. Whatever the mind turns to, then think and know that thing with wisdom, aware of its nature. If you know something with wisdom, then you let it go and there’s no suffering. The mind is bright, joyful, and at peace, and turning away from distractions, it is undivided. Right now, what you can look to for help and support is your breath.

This is your own work, nobody else’s. Leave others to do their own work. You have your own duty and responsibility and you don’t have to take on those of your family. Don’t take anything else on; let it all go. That letting go will make your mind calm. Your sole responsibility right now is to focus your mind and bring it to peace. Leave everything else to others. Forms, sounds, odors, tastes—leave them to others to attend to. Put everything behind you and do your own work, fulfill your own responsibility. Whatever arises in your mind—be it fear of pain, fear of death, anxiety about others or whatever—say to it, “Don’t disturb me. You’re not my business any more.” Just keep saying this to yourself when you see those dhammas arise.

The world is the very mental state that is agitating you at this moment. “What will this person do? When I’m dead, who will look after them? How will they manage?” This is all just “the world.” Even the mere arising of a thought fearing death or pain is the world. Throw the world away! The world is the way it is. If you allow it to arise in the mind and dominate consciousness, then the mind becomes obscured and can’t see itself. So whatever appears in the mind, just say “This isn’t my business. It’s impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self.”

Parinirvana of the Buddha; statue at Polonnaruwa Gal Vihara, Sri Lanka. Photo © Saman527 / Dreamstime.

Find your real home

Thinking that you’d like to go on living for a long time will make you suffer. But thinking you’d like to die right away or die very quickly isn’t right either. It’s suffering, isn’t it? Conditions don’t belong to us, they follow their own natural laws. You can’t do anything about the way the body is. You can prettify it a little, make it look attractive and clean for a while, like the young girls who paint their lips and let their nails grow long, but when old age arrives, everyone’s in the same boat. That’s the way the body is, you can’t make it any other way. But what you can improve and beautify is the mind.

Anyone can build a house of wood and bricks, but the Buddha taught that that sort of home is not our real home; it’s only nominally ours. It is a home in the world and it follows the ways of the world. Our real home is inner peace. An external, material home may well be pretty but it is not very peaceful. There’s this worry and then that, this anxiety and then that. So we say it is not our real home, it is external to us. Sooner or later we’ll have to give it up. It’s not a place we can live in permanently because it doesn’t truly belong to us, it’s part of the world.

Our body is the same: we take it to be self, to be “me” and “mine,” but in fact it’s not really so at all. It’s another worldly home. Your body has followed its natural course from birth until now; it’s old and sick and you can’t forbid it from doing that. That’s the way it is. Wanting it to be different would be as foolish as wanting a duck to be like a chicken. When you see that that’s impossible—that a duck has to be a duck, that a chicken has to be a chicken and that bodies have to get old and die— you will find strength and energy. However much you want the body to go on and last for a long time, it won’t do that.

Conditions are impermanent and unstable; having come into being they disappear, having arisen they pass away. And yet everyone wants them to be permanent. This is foolishness.

As soon as we’re born, we’re dead. Our birth and our death are just one thing. It’s like a tree: when there’s a root there must be twigs. When there are twigs, there must be a root. You can’t have one without the other. It’s a little funny to see how at a death people are so grief-stricken and distracted, fearful and sad, and at a birth how happy and delighted. It’s delusion; nobody has ever looked at this clearly. I think if you really want to cry, then it would be better to do so when someone’s born. For actually birth is death, death is birth, the root is the twig, the twig is the root. If you’ve got to cry, cry at the root, cry at the birth. Look closely: if there were no birth, there would be no death. Can you understand this?

Don’t think a lot. Just think, “This is the way things are.” It’s your work, your duty. Right now nobody can help you; there is nothing that your family and your possessions can do for you. All that can help you now is correct awareness.

So don’t waver. Let go. Throw it all away.

Even if you don’t let go, everything is starting to leave anyway. Can you see that, how all different parts of your body are trying to slip away? Your eyes, ears, nose, tongue—everything is trying to leave because this isn’t their home. You can’t make a permanent home in a sankhara; you can stay for a short while and then you have to go. It’s like a tenant watching over his tiny little house with failing eyes. His teeth aren’t so good, his ears aren’t so good, his body’s not so healthy, everything is leaving.

To put it simply, impermanence is the Buddha.

So you needn’t worry about anything because this isn’t your real home, it’s just a temporary shelter. Having come into this world, you should contemplate its nature. Everything there is, is preparing to disappear. Look at your body. Is there anything there that’s still in its original form? Is your skin as it used to be? Is your hair? It’s not the same, is it? Where has everything gone? This is nature, the way things are. When their time is up, conditions go their way. This world is nothing to rely on—it’s an endless round of disturbance and trouble, pleasures and pain. There’s no peace.

So understand this point that all people, all creatures, are about to leave. When beings have lived an appropriate time, they go their way. The rich, the poor, the young, the old, all beings must experience this change. To put it simply, impermanence is the Buddha. If we see an impermanent phenomenon really clearly, we’ll see that it’s permanent, in the sense that its subjection to change is unchanging.

This is the permanence that living beings possess. There is continual transformation—from childhood through youth to old age—and that very impermanence, that nature to change is permanent and fixed. If you look at it like that, your heart will be at ease.

Let go, relax, and let your family look after you. Those who nurse the sick grow in goodness and virtue. One who is sick and giving others that opportunity shouldn’t make things difficult for them. If there’s a pain, or some problem or other, let them know and keep the mind in a wholesome state.

One who is nursing parents should fill his or her mind with warmth and kindness, not get caught in aversion. This is the one time when you can repay the debt you owe them. From your birth through your childhood, as you’ve grown up, you’ve been dependent on your parents. That we are here today is because our mothers and fathers have helped us in so many ways. We owe them an incredible debt of gratitude.

So today, all of you children and relatives gathered here together, see how your parents become your children. Before you were their children, now they become yours. They become older and older until they become children again. Their memories go, their eyes don’t see so well, and their ears don’t hear. Sometimes they garble their words. Don’t let it upset you. All of you nursing the sick must know how to let go. Don’t hold on to things; just let go and let them have their own way. When a young child is disobedient, sometimes the parents let it have its own way just to keep the peace, to make it happy. Now your parents are like that child. Their memories and perceptions are confused. Sometimes they muddle up your names or you ask them to give you a cup and they bring a plate. It’s normal, don’t be upset by it.

Let the patient remember the kindness of those who nurse and patiently endure the painful feelings. Exert yourself mentally, don’t let the mind become scattered and agitated, and don’t make things difficult for those looking after you. Let those who nurse the sick fill their minds with virtue and kindness. Don’t be averse to the unattractive side of the job, to cleaning up mucus and phlegm, or urine and excrement. Try your best. Everyone in the family give a hand.

These are the only parents you’ve got. They gave you life; they have been your teachers, your nurses and your doctors; they’ve been everything to you. that they have brought you up, taught you, shared their wealth with you and made you their heirs is the great beneficence of parents. Consequently the Buddha taught the virtues of katannu and katavedi, knowing our debt of gratitude and trying to repay it. These two dhammas are complementary. If our parents are in need, they’re unwell or in difficulty, then we do our best to help them. This is katannukatavedi; it is a virtue that sustains the world. It prevents families from breaking up; it makes them stable and harmonious.

Today I have brought you the Dhamma as a gift in this time of illness. I have no material things to give you—there seems to be plenty of those in the house already—and so I give you the Dhamma, something which has a lasting worth, something which you’ll never be able to exhaust. Having received it from me, you can pass it on to as many others as you like and it will never be depleted. That is the nature of the Truth. I am happy to have been able to give you this gift of Dhamma and hope it will give you strength to deal with your pain.

First published on January 1, 1994 by permission of the Abbot, Wat Pah Nanachat, Thailand.

Ajahn Chah

Ajahn Chah

Ajahn Chah trained in the Theravada practices of Buddhist meditation under Ajahn Mun, the greatest master of the Thai and Laotian forest tradition in many centuries, and lived the life of a simple forest monk for more than seventy years. His startling wisdom and simplicity attracted many western disciples, and in Thailand, more than a hundred forest monasteries grew up under his guidance.