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The Buddhist View of Death -
An Interview with Bhante Gunaratana

by Samaneri Sudhamma and Margot Born

 M.B. What is the general Buddhist view of death?

Bhante Gunaratana:  First, the definition. When the life force -- heat and consciousness -- ceases to exist, then that is called death. Death can occur: 1) when one's own kamma is exhausted, 2) when one's own life span is exhausted, that is, the span allotted for that particular life (one can only live so long and after that one has to die). 3) when both kamma and life span are exhausted together, or 4) when life ends due to accidental, unnatural causes. These are the ways that death can come.

So death in Buddhism is not the end of total existence. Death is just closing one chapter and the next chapter is opened immediately after that. These two always go immediately together-death and rebirth.

Sudhamma: People are always worried about how to prepare for death. Perhaps there are two levels to be addressed. One being how to prepare the ordinary mind for this, or what to do properly at the time of death.

The other, how to go beyond the whole cycle of birth and death. In other words, how to prepare for death by no longer being subject to death.

Bhante Gunaratana:  I see. We want to talk about two types of death. One is conventional death and the other is final death. Conventional death also has two sides, one is moment-to-moment death, the other is the "actual" death that cannot be revived.

In moment-to-moment death, you seem to have survived. You still exist. But in fact everything in the body and mind is dying every given moment. And it is renewing -- being reborn. Repetitive death and renewal doesn't appear to be occurring. We seem to be alive. But you have to understand that death happens every moment. Understanding this truth is the most important step in preparing for death. That is understanding the meaning of death. If we understand this, we understand that "actual" death is just another moment. Up to that moment, I've died trillions of times. Each of those times was a momentary death.

M.B. And that, I think, is what we realize in mediation?

Bhante G.  Yes, that's what we realize in meditation. Actually, if you practice insight meditation and concentration meditation, one helps to understand the other. So if you gain insight, you understand what concentration is. If you gain concentration, you understand what insight is. In a concentrated, mindful state, you really feel, experience, and know this momentary death. You feel your palpitations, your heartbeat, your nervous vibrations, your sensations changing, your perception changing, and every thought changing.

Change, simply, means momentary death. When things change, they never can be revived. When a thought-moment is dead, that thought-moment will never, ever, appear again. The death of a cell means that when it dies, it's finished. That cell can never be revived. It should not remain in the body. It should be discarded, expelled from the body, in order for other cells to grow and develop. If they aren't discarded from the body, they can grow in the body, and we can develop cancer.

Once the cell is dead, it must be discarded, just as when the human body dies, it must be discarded. It has to be gotten out of the house. It has to go somewhere to be buried or burned so that others can live a healthy, hygienic life.

This kind of thing is happening all the time. Through vipassana meditation we see moment-to-moment death, we experience it, we know it, we become fully aware, and that is the way to prepare for death. So we prepare for "actual" death on the experiential level.

We further prepare for "actual" death by looking at it logically. You just open your eyes and look around. Everything is dying all the time. You can see that trees, plants and insects die all the time. When you have lived forty years, for example, and count the number of friends, relatives, and so forth who have died, you have to one day sit down and think, "In this way I must know that with the number of my friends, my relatives, my acquaintances -- with all these people dying, now it is my turn. So in this way I know that I must die. My friends, my classmates, one by one, one by one, one by one have died. Next is my turn." So that's another way to look at death.

Another logical way to think of death is to think that all of us are made up of impermanent objects. For instance, we are made up of earth, water, fire, air. Yet tomorrow, they're not there. Therefore the elements can never remain permanent. The elements of which the body is made are subject to death, impermanence. Therefore the product is going to be impermanent, too. There's no way to stop it. Thus examining the elements of the body is another logical way of looking at death.

Once we understand the truth of death, we should think, "Now that I'm going to die, why should I be so proud of something? I'm intimidated by the thought of death; I don't have any reason to be proud of anything. I don't have any reason to hold a grudge against anybody. Sooner or later I will die, and I don't have any reason to try to hold on to anything. No matter how hard I try to hold on, it will slip away from my hand at the time of separation. So I don't need greed either. I think, that if I don't hold onto my greed, my death will be very peaceful."

The next thing to think is, "I know that I will die, I think it is good for me to die peacefully, so let me prepare for that. Let me have peace all the time." That doesn't mean that you lie on the road waiting for a truck to run over you, or that you take poison, or commit suicide. That is not the way to obtain peace. We have to live this life as long as it lasts. We have to do as we are doing. We must therefore think, "Since I'm going to die anyway, I must die peacefully."

To die peacefully, we must prepare our minds to remain peaceful. A peaceful death is a painless death.

M.B.  Can you talk a little about physical pain due to illness?

Bhante G.  Yes, when we meditate, we have physical pain, for example, pain in the knee. We can use this pain to prepare for the pain of a final illness. The knee pain is like cancer pain. I think that if the cancer affects our nervous system, then we're always in pain. No matter what we do, the nerves are exposed and we have pain.

Therefore, we must prepare our minds by learning to practice meditation on feelings. We determine to always look at our feelings, no matter what the feeling is, even a tiny little toothache, neck ache, any little, little ache. If we are experiencing pain, we meditate on that. When pain arises, we focus on it. We watch it as it arises, how long it remains, and then we watch it fall. Every time, a little pain has these three stages, its rising moment, its peak moment, and its passing away moment.

If we condition our mind to be with that pain, or with that feeling, then our mind can get absorbed into the feeling and become one with the feeling. If we turn against the pain, then we try to dichotomize ourselves. But if we try to accept whatever comes, we absorb into it. Even when we have intense pain, we will come to a point where the mind cannot tolerate it any further and then the mind merges with the pain. After that it doesn't matter what happens.

So before death happens, we learn to willingly accept and stay with pain, watch the pain, and not get upset with the pain. The more upset we are with the pain, the more painful it is. The more we relax with the sensation, the less painful it will be. I know some friends who have died a physically very agonizing and painful death. They refused to take medication. Yet they even explained to visitors where the cancer was, how it developed, and what stage it was in now. Instead of the visitors trying to console the patient, it was rather the patient consoling the visitors.

The patient thinks the visitors come out of sympathy, out of compassion, to give him some encouragement, but when he can relax with the pain, it is he who gives sympathy, compassion and encouragement to the visitors. So physical pain in a last illness doesn't necessarily need to prevent a peaceful death.

M.B.  What about when someone has gone over the pain threshold where it's impossible to relax and soften into the pain?

Bhante G.  You know, there is some pain that a person cannot handle, and then medication is necessary. But we can first try to increase the tolerance of pain by conditioning the mind and preparing it to accept the physical pain. We can condition the mind by very kindly and gently trying to advise the person to meditate. We can chant some soothing, comforting chants, play some soothing, comforting music to prepare the mind, to try to help the mind remain peaceful. Give them instructions in meditation.

You remember that women who are having labor pains are taught these days to concentrate on their breath. They keep the rhythm of breathing. When they push the baby out, they're focusing on their breath and on their body and on the pushing.

That's a very beautiful thing for us to remember. We can use this information to teach people. And these mothers have babies with less pain because they are trained to do that. So we train the mind to accept the pain. We can use the information from mothers in labor to teach dying people how to manage pain.

So therefore we have to train the mind. Instead of dealing with the physical pain first, we learn how to treat the mind first. Because these two are always cooperating. When the body becomes calm, the mind becomes calm. They're always complementary to each other.

M.B.  How do you feel about painkillers?

Bhante G.  I think that they have side effects. They can drop your blood pressure. Some people can't take them and they can be very dangerous. A person has to keep only a certain amount of them in his blood stream.

But meditation was invented long before medication was discovered. Now people don't pay attention to that spiritual training and they go straight away to narcotics or painkillers. Now we want to reverse the order again because the spiritual treatment is more healthy than chemical treatment.

People take all kinds of pills, you know, and they all have side effects, especially after long usage. But spiritual training will never have side effects. It always builds up. It always prolongs your life. And any side effects it may have improve your life, give a better taste to life. When you come out of a painful state, when you do these things when you're sick, they have a peaceful effect that last long after you have recovered from the painful state.

Now, to get back to death. Actually, we haven't digressed, because illness is the cause of death and illness has pain. To die very quickly without any pain is no problem. So I think talking about pain is quite fundamental for any discussion of death.

Sudhamma:  We've talked about two kinds of death -- moment-to-moment and "actual." At one point you were talking about letting go of grudges and greed and having a peaceful mind. Where were you headed with that?

Bhante G:  I'd like to talk about permanent death, that is, dying never to be reborn again. You are tired of this birth and death, moment by moment and life by life. So one moment begins and ends and another begins and ends. One life begins and ends and another begins and ends. We get tired of all that. Then we want death, never to be born again.

Death causes birth because there's a desire to be reborn. As long as you have that desire, you will be reborn. When the desire to be reborn is exhausted, then you won't be reborn.

And that leads us to the last stage of Enlightenment.

Sudhamma: When you were talking about death, you were talking about making the mind peaceful and you said something about "Let me have a peaceful mind. Let me have a peaceful death." Were you done with that?

Bhante G:  Yes, but I do want to mention something else. When death is approaching, a person often has remorse, regret and guilt. That is another reason for fear. Since he knows that he's going to be reborn, since he's done a lot of wrong things, at the time of death, he remembers them. This is called "death-proximate thought." In death-proximate thought, in that split-second time of death, he remembers very vividly, like a flashing light, certain things that have happened. Death is still painful psychologically.

Therefore, very compassionate people, when a person is going to die, help him to have a peaceful death by first telling him the good things he's done. For instance, if he's brought up children, the compassionate person can tell the dying person how much he's done for the children and about all the other good things he's done for others. They need to remind him of the good things he's done. If he has brothers and sisters, they also can say the good things he's done. Anything he's done, planting trees, cleaning the road, they can remind him of, with conviction.

Secondly, they can ask him to think of a peaceful object, like the Buddha, a heavenly light, tranquillity and peace, the joy he's had in his life, to try to block off all the negative thoughts. Thirdly, if you have access to a religious person, a monk or a priest or someone like that, call him immediately to come and ask him to give a sermon. Although the dying person before that may have hated sermons, now he will listen to sermons, even willingly, because there's nothing else to do.

So These are things for the dying person to do and for other people to do to help him die peacefully.

M.B.:  I've been reading Philip Kapleau [1]. He talks in a way that made me wonder about the self and the "no-self" and death. After reading him I thought, "How can death exist, if there's nothing to die?"

Bhante G:  That sounds very abstract -- to say that there's nothing to die. That is the philosophical basis of what we're doing. In the final analysis, nothing exists. And when nothing exists, there's nothing to die.

But you have to have a very powerful state of mind to have that thought at the moment of death. Long before death, when you're healthy, you can have these sorts of thoughts, but at the moment of death, all your senses are weak. Your thinking capacity is weak. When you're on the verge of death, everything is weak.

According to the Abhidhamma [classical compilation of Buddhist psychology], there's a weak stream of thought. The conscious stream of thought is the shortest stream of thought. At other times, the stream of thought has seventeen moments. When death comes, the stream of thought has fifteen or twelve or thirteen moments. Because everything is weak, when you're almost dead, what is left is only a very little bit of your consciousness. You have no interest in anything at that stage. I don't think philosophy would work.

M.B.: I've also been reading Stephen Levine [2], and he says that if you can realize that there's nothing to hold onto anyway, you won't have such trouble letting go at the end. In his book he has many meditations about letting go.

Bhante G.: That is a good idea. The person must be reminded of the fact that he has eaten so many times in his life and all those meals are gone. What of them is left now? All his activities, all of his thoughts, all of his material possessions are gone.

So no matter how hard we try to hold onto something, it slips away from our grip. And it is a very good idea to make a person aware of this. The longer you mentally cling, the more painful it will be. It is just like tightening a fist. The harder you tighten your fist, the more painful it is. When you open your fist and loosen it you feel comfort and relief.

Similarly, at this moment, if you released your anxiety, your tension, your tightening, you would feel the relief of pain, an easing. That's a good thought -- to let go of things. And that's another thing we do in Vipassana meditation. We let go. We enjoy when we enjoy, but we don't hang on. Eat, if it's tasty and enjoy the taste! But if it's not tasty, it's distasteful, don't hold onto that!

Sudhamma:  When you first talked about death, you said that there was conventional death and final death. Tell me about the final death!

Bhante G: The final death is the death of the enlightened person. An enlightened person has these thoughts. First, he thinks, "Well, I have done what was to be done. There's nothing more to do." This is the most exquisite, wonderful thought to have in mind. We can die at any moment. We don't have to wait to have this thought. Any moment we can think, "I have done so many things in my life. Those are the things I was supposed to do, and I have done them. What I'm doing now may be extra, extra duties in addition to my original duties. I can go very easily without these extra duties."

Extra duties are an enlightened person's service to the world. They are not necessary for him, but the body and mind are there, and there are beings who support the body and mind, so why not live usefully and mindfully for their benefit, to support them. So he says, " For me there is nothing more to do. I have done everything."

Secondly, and this is the enlightened person's rational thinking. It is based on the enlightened person's release of mind. He thinks, "I am liberated." This kind of thought appears in his mind without any effort, naturally.

On the other hand, whenever he thinks of his body, he knows the nature of it and has no clinging. He's in a state of letting go of all things. Therefore he has nothing personal to hold onto -- no beings or thoughts or things like that. That also comes to him very naturally.

But in some cases, in spite of all that letting go, a person still has the desire to be reborn. Perhaps he wants to be reborn in a better place or, if he's lived this life serenely, had an ideal life with an ideal wife, he might say, "I'd like to have this wife even in my next life. I want to be reborn to have the same kind of life I've had, to have the same comfort, the same emotional, spiritual satisfaction that made this life very peaceful. Therefore let me have this life again." Then no matter how noble the person is, the person will have the same life again. He will be reborn because, no matter how noble he is, he still has the desire.

But an enlightened person is nobler than that. One who is liberated doesn't even have that desire. He knows that even that is mentally created. That is sankara [a mental formation, conditioned and impermanent].

Any sankara, no matter how wholesome it appears, is impermanent. Moreover, an enlightened person knows that his death is exhausted, that is, he will never die again. To die again, you have to be born again. "So this is my final death. This is my final birth. There is no more birth, no more death for me. There is nothing beyond this." He comes to this realization. So that is what is called the final death.

When the enlightened person approaches his final death, he doesn't need any of those other consoling agents around him to help him, teachers and so forth to console his body and to console his mind.

That person also doesn't have any of the memories of those death-proximate thoughts. An ordinary person remembers the things he's done, his kamma, and he has fears about where he'll be reborn. This is called a "sign." He will have a sign of the place where he is going to be born. This means that if at the moment of death, you're going to be reborn, you may see the human mother. If you're going to be reborn as an animal, you'll see the animal.

Sudhamma:  Like a face?

Bhante G.: Like a vision.

Sudhamma:  A person? A womb?

Bhante G:  If it's a human rebirth, maybe moisture, as in a womb. You might see a uterus and feel what it's like inside a uterus. If you're going to be reborn as a human you'll see that. If you're going to be reborn as a divine being, you'll see a peaceful place.

But when final death is approaching, you don't see any of those signs. That's why it is called "Signless." There's no sign at that moment. And that is the Buddhist view of birth, death, and liberation.


Suggested reading:

[1] "The Wheel of Birth and Death" by Philip Kapleau. (Doubleday, new Your, 1989). Kapleau is a Zen Monk, but this scholarly and practical book, which deals more specifically with the dying process than Levine's book, includes many traditions.

[2] "Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying" by Stephen Levine (Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York, 1982), and "A Year To Live" also by Stephen Levine. 


Source: The Bhavana Society, Virginia, U.S.A., http://www.bhavanasociety.org

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updated: 02-02-2002