B. Alan Wallace, 10 Apr 2020
10 Apr 2020
Death and Impermanence
I’d like to begin this session by reciting in Tibetan just once first the verse of refuge and bodhichitta, then the Seven-line prayer to Padmasambhava. Invite the Guru to the crown of the head, imagine the Guru’s body, speech, and mind merging with our own. And then we’ll begin the main practice. This time in Tibetan.
SANG GYE CHÖ DANG TSOK KI CHOK NAM LA JANG CHUB BAR DU DAK NI KYAB SU CHI DAK KI JIN SOK GYI PAY SÖ NAM KYI DRO LA PEN CHIR SANG GYE DRUP PAR SHOK
HŪNG OR GYEN YÜL GYI NUP JANG TSAM PE MA GÉ SAR DONG PO LA YAN TSEN CHOK GI NGÖ DRUP NYÉ PE MA JUNG NÉ ZHÉ SU DRAK KHOR DU KHA DRO MANG PÖ KOR KHYÉ KYI JÉ SU DAK DRUP KYI JIN GYI LAP CHIR SHEK SU SÖL GURU PEMA SIDDHI HŪNG
And settle your body in its natural state, relaxed, still, and vigilant. Utterly relax into your respiration, letting it flow unimpededly and effortlessly.
And then, with a fundamental sense of release, releasing your identification with all that is actually not you or yours, but we mistakenly view as such, releasing all grasping, releasing all reification, releasing all thoughts. Let your awareness come to rest in its own naked purity. Rest in that stillness. That is what remains, when grasping ceases. And as you can see for yourself: you’re awake, you’re wide-awake, your awareness is illuminating all manner of experiences and appearances. It is luminous. So by resting in the sense of ease, of stillness and clarity of your own awareness let your mind, the busyness, the activities, the motions of the mind settle in their natural state. Rest in that stillness in the midst of movements of the mind.
And rest in that flow of awareness, that simple, unadorned, unelaborated awareness. The continuum of which flowed prior to the formation, the birth of your body in this lifetime, is conditioned by your body and many other things during the course of this lifetime, and, when this life comes to an end, that pure stream of consciousness will continue, no longer conditioned by this body, left behind as a mindless corpse. Rest in that flow of awareness, without beginning or end.
Then, to your best approximation, view this existence, this embodiment, this life and the world as you know it in this life, view this from the perspective of this pure stream of consciousness, your substrate consciousness, that has seen it all before, how samsara rhymes. From this discerning awareness of this subtle continuum of mental consciousness view this life in this world as you know it, as if from outside. And see from this wise and discerning perspective, how you yourself throughout the whole course of this life have been constantly in a state of flux, your body, your mind. And all the world around you. All in a flux. And even in the course of your life thus far, how many people that you know and you do not know, how many people have passed away? And they are nowhere to be seen. Humans, animals. How many new ones have come into existence? How many relationships formed and dissolved? How many things, relationships, intangibles have been acquired and lost?
With the power of your imagination view the entirety of this life, its beginning, its interim and its end, as if from outside. And observing, how steadily, how irreversibly, inexorably from day-to-day, moment-to-moment you are moving towards, this person that you’re observing, is moving towards his or her own death. Not knowing when. Just knowing that we’re always moving closer.
Can you see how the reality of change, of flux, of impermanence, of death in and of itself is neither suffering, nor unsatisfying? It is simply what it is. But there’s nothing intrinsically unpleasant or fearful, or unsatisfying about it - it is what it is. But wherever there’s clinging, there’s grasping, there’s attachment, it always ends in tragedy. The timeless truth: samsara doesn’t turn out well. And it keeps repeating, and repeating, and repeating. If not the same - it certainly rhymes.
The Buddha himself said, of all the observations we can make of the nature of reality, what’s going on, the one observation, that has the greatest impact on our lives, our priorities, our way of viewing reality is the insight into the reality of impermanence. There for all to see, but which we so often ignore. From this bird’s eye view, so to speak, looking at the whole of our lives, doesn’t it become so obvious, that any type of attachment itself is literally delusional? The only thing that makes sense is Dharma. And everything that contributes to, helps to support Dharma. It is our only refuge in this world of change.
Our only true refuge throughout the course of life, the only refuge when we are facing the end of the life. Since we have this wonderful intelligence, our memory, our imagination, to look into the reality of possibilities, of what will come in the future, which is not yet actual, or actualized, let us now squarely face the reality of our own death. The day that will come, just hasn’t come quite yet. On the one hand, an inevitable reality; on the other hand, so full of possibilities. The possibility of dying with grief and anguish, and fear, and sense of loss, and tragedy, surrounded by weeping relatives and loved ones, the worst day of our lives. That’s a possibility. Why choose that one?
There’s a possibility of devoting ourselves to virtue, avoiding non-virtue, avoiding violence, living by the principle of benevolence. With whatever worldview, leading a good life, a virtuous life. There’re many who’ve done it. And the observation made in the Buddhist tradition is: those who really devote themselves to such a life, they have very good reason to die fearlessly. Not because they persuaded themselves that death is termination, it’s just a big sleep, and die fearlessly in that way, rooted in delusion. And then utterly shocked when they find out that that belief was untrue. But those who live with reality, consciousness continues, and we are shaping our future with the way we lead our lives. And such people, it has been found, when they do come to the portal of death, this great transition, they know they’ve lived well, the conscience is clear, they prepared well and they can die fearlessly. With a reality-based fearlessness.
There are those who devote themselves even more deeply to the Path. Cultivating their minds, transforming, developing their minds. The single-pointed dedication to the pursuit of liberation, releasing the attachment to “I” and “mine”, attachment, identification with the body, the mind, they make this a life’s pursuit. And it has been found, observed many-many times, that, when such people, who are so profoundly devoted to the Path of liberation, when they die, they die with utter calm. Not only fearlessness, but a serenity. As one old monk in Thailand commented to his young comrade, when he was on the verge of death, he spoke to him in a gentle voice and said “the Lord of death is looking for me, but he can’t find me.” And the young monk was by his side and said, oh Banthe, you are indeed about to die, the Lord of death will find you, thinking the old man was in denial. And the old monk replied with even greater gentleness, serenity: “The Lord of death is looking for me, but he can’t find me.” And he passed away in utter serenity. For he had not identified with anything that died.
And it’s been observed countless times in the Buddhist tradition for those devoted to the Bodhisattva way of life, cherishing others more than themselves. Out of great compassion seeking perfect awakening in order to be of greatest possible benefit to the world. A life utterly oriented around altruism, to service to all the world. And it’s been found, when such people, when facing death, with their bodies worn out by old age, or terminally injured by accident or illness, no longer serviceable, the body is damaged beyond repair, or just worn out. And they face death. It’s been found again and again that such people face death with… with joy. A life well-lived, a life to celebrate in retrospect. And now, not having identified with the body or mind, but recognizing this body has served its purpose, is worn out, then joyfully releasing it. Knowing, there is better to come. By the power of their prayers, their virtue, their compassion and wisdom. This was but one step on the Path to awakening, and the next step will be closer to awakening. And joyfully they depart this life. In joyful anticipation of what is to come.
There are those, who’ve achieved shamatha, who’ve lucidly dwelt in the continuum of the substrate consciousness. And they approach death, they rest in that substrate consciousness, as they watch their experience of the world vanish, as their senses shut down. They lose experience of the body; their mind shuts down as it settles in its natural state for the last time in this lifetime. And they dwell lucidly right through the dying process to its end. When there nothing remains, but the substrate, that space of awareness and the substrate consciousness. Luminous, blissful, and still. They have come to know death and it is blissful. And for those, who have cut through, cut through the substrate consciousness to identify pristine awareness, now the greatest celebration. Death also is a transition, and the dawn breaks, the Mother Clear Light appears to you, you identify, you crawl onto her lap. And you dwell in timeless pristine awareness. This was the greatest day of your life. Why not choose that?
How we die is for us to choose.
Transcribed by Sophia Saurina
Revised by Kriss Sprinkle
Final edition by Rafael Carlos Giusti