Having understood this body to be [vulnerable] like a clay pot,
Having settled into this heart as if it were a citadel,
attack the King of Death with the sword of wisdom,
and protect what has been conquered by clinging to nothing.
– Dhammapada, verse 40.
Wisdom in our sorrowing world is urgently needed. How come we aren’t talking to each other about what it might be, and how it might be nurtured species-wide? Let’s entertain the possibility that wisdom is far more accessible than previous cultures have led us to believe. What if we discovered in this inquiry that every human body is wisdom?
Wisdom regarding death and dying can transform humanity’s unexplored anguish, which discharges itself in destructive emotions. The tensions wrought by unresolved core questions – those that every child encounters, and puts out of sight – make their way into our behaviour.
How come we aren’t asking, while we still have enough ‘nous’ to nurture the inquiry: “What kind of experience does the word ‘death’ point to? Can we have a taste of the view of death from the inside? What’s death going to be like, anyhow?” Mary Oliver asks this, in her poem When Death Comes: “(W)hat is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”
Most adults have seen what it’s like from the ‘outside.’ A verse from the early Buddhist teachings puts it this way:
All too soon will this body will lie in the funeral home:
useless, without mind, like a meaningless stick of wood.
– Dhammapada, verse 41.
We see this fact, with the bodily eye; but the heart’s eye – longing for depth, not surfaces – intuits the possibility of insight into death, and the ending of anguish. Zen teacher Aitken Roshi used to speak of ‘dukkha’ (a name for the most fundamental human suffering) as ‘anguish.’
This Dhammapada ‘stick of wood’ verse, by the way, is even more stark in its literal rendering: “This body will lie on the ground,” it says. In the Buddha’s time, the body might simply be taken to a charnel yard, and be left to rot and disintegrate out in the open. ‘Discarded,’ the original verse says. I changed the context to reflect a common process in Western countries – funeral homes and crematoriums – but, to be matter-of-fact about it: at some stage, our bodies, too, are discarded – understandably.
It’s interesting, also, to reflect that ‘charnel’ means ‘flesh’ (carnal). Charnel grounds and houses are (or were) about the meaty side of death. There certainly is this side of things – the surface layers of human life. It would appear that there are few ‘flesh grounds’ these days; but, even so: this body is still (in some respects, at least) “like a clay pot.” It’s fragile. It’s breakable. It’s vulnerable to all kinds of misadventure. That is not fresh news, of course; but, how little – oh, how little in our entertainment-obsessed world – have we penetrated to the true significance of this, all the way to the heart of birth and death!?
So, how come we aren’t wondering more openly, together, “Who or what in us dies?” (Who Dies? by the way, is a title of another of Stephen Levine’s books.) We can’t lose, by this inquiry.
Who has done her own work –
Being endowed with virtue and insight,
firm in the Dhamma and a speaker of truth –
people hold such a one dear.
– Dhammapada, verse 217.
Well… that is: can’t lose anything but our fictions; which I acknowledge we mightily cling to, as to a damn good novel plot. However, do allow, please, the possibility of not clinging, realizing your true nature, and “settling into this heart as it were a citadel.” Entertain the possibility of being thereby being better equipped for the meaty dénouement on the final page. If you have experienced the citadel aspect of awareness, you’ll know that it is rock-solid – wondrously, beautifully immovable. And, it’s unconditional. It is beyond corruption.
Insight into death can not only penetrate to the heart of birth and death, but can establish the citadel, and secure the heart’s gains, because:
For one whose heart is without affliction and perplexity,
who has abandoned good and bad, who is awake, there is no fear.
– Dhammapada, verse 39.
I’m working in this project at unpacking – in contemporary terms – a remarkable possibility present in all of us: that when we meet the essence of death we find a jewel – one aspect of which is the citadel.
(All translations from the Dhammapada are translated from Pāli by Christopher J. Ash, unless otherwise attributed.)
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Shunryu Suzuki
If I examine my own use of the words ‘death’ and ‘dying,’ I notice that I can imagine ‘the later event,’ and I seem to believe it has some reality, in some way. How can this be? What can I believe about something which I haven’t experienced?
You can’t say that seeing others die tells me anything important about death – except that I will come to that event, at some time. One decade, one year, one month, one minute, one second – it’s certain, but it’s all later, and it’s from the outside of the event. So, seeing others die tells me very little to make me intimate with death, really.
I use the words ‘death,’ and ‘dying’ and apart from seeing the bodies of others – that is, seeing the so-called ‘dying,’ and ‘death,’ of others – I still don’t have the faintest idea of what that is like, inside. If I don’t know what death feels like, if I don’t know what it’s like from the inside, then what meaning has the word in relation to myself? Very little, really. It remains an enigma. Seeing the death of others, mostly only brings this ‘later’ concept, not intimate knowledge.
I’ll stop breathing; my blood will stop flowing; my body will go cold; my senses will cease functioning; I will stop thinking and having emotions. I can think things like that, from the outside. I’ve seen that happen to others, so it’s clear. But, what’s that like as an experience?
I have witnessed a dying person having their ‘inside’ angle on the event – ‘an experience of dying.’ Can I know the essence of that, now, while living? Is there death at all, from the ‘inside’ angle? Is there any way that, while living in all kinds of conditions (sick or ill, happy or sad, and so on; and while not missing out on a fully-lived, vibrant, real life), that I can know something about the dissolving of life?
What do the earliest teachings, the Nikāyas – which are the classical pattern of the Buddhist teachings, the teachings closest to the historical Buddha – what do they say about this real-life challenge? This is not reality TV – a pathetic spectacle that depends on being displayed to the world, on others seeing it. One is, in an important sense, alone in this.
That’s where mindfulness comes in – because I can explore the very heart or essence of dying, in my own experience. It turns out that these early teaching have a lot to say about the challenge, and that they offer a pristine ‘present-moment awareness’ approach to death and dying. Their approach is very simple, and very applicable to life now – not just about the ‘later’ event, which I will certainly encounter.
It’s clear that the Nikāya Buddha sees a kind of three-tiered process happening. (These ‘layers’ needn’t be sequential; they can be seen as three levels that are always present, and with which we can familiarise ourselves.
I begin by examining how I am treating myself and others. I clean up my act. And, going deeper, being assured, I approach experience very differently – contemplatively. I listen and examine the teachings (the core of which are about consciousness, or citta.) I hold them up against my own experience, seeing if they work.
And, then in the last phase: I become the dharma, in a sense. Or, putting it differently, as I go deeper, seeing the nature of what is, I acknowledge that the dharma is not, has never been, separate to my life.
In this last, I’m reminded of a verse from a later Buddhist Gompopa who said:
May my mind become one with the dharma;
May the dharma progress along the path;
May the path clarify confusion;
May confusion dawn as wisdom.
(Looking at this, I wonder if it was meant to reflect the four noble truths teaching).
So, I’m saying, here, how there is a valid perspective, from which our learning can be said to have stages or levels – a development. (The test of its validity is that it works to bring more life). All of this development is a re-organisation of how we experience ‘time,’ ‘space’ and knowing. (I’ll expand these categories more clearly).
The Nikāyas say that as a result of re-aligning one’s pre-teaching, topsy-turvy perceptions with how things actually are (which you discover, as you inquire with an open heart), one knows the deathless – the unborn.
Who will master this earth,
the world of death and devas?
Who shall select a well-taught teaching
like an expert selects a flower?
A learner shall master this earth,
the world of death and devas.
A learner selects the well-taught teaching,
as an expert selects a flower.
– The Nikāya Buddha, Dhammapada, verse 44-45. Translated by Christopher J. Ash