Learning through Meditation Home Page Next Talk
7: Living and Dying
(compiled from various talks during the retreat)
I think that in Western culture one internalises the idea of perfection. I am surprised to meet so many people on meditation retreats who suffer from guilt. We project this model of perfection onto ourselves, onto other people and onto life. Please be open to your imperfection, please let go of your models of perfection and stay open to your humanness. Learn to see your imperfection and your humanness as learning experiences, then you will learn to relate to yourselves and to others in a much easier way. You will have fewer difficulties in your relationships because you know in what type of world we live.
Another aspect of this model of perfection is that we take life so seriously. I always stress the importance of feeling light, of being playful and having the ability to laugh at life and ourselves. That is a really important spiritual quality!
One day I was talking to a very wise monk in Sri Lanka who lives in a forest hermitage. Suddenly he told me: "Sometimes I see life as a big joke. Sometimes it can be a very bad joke! But still it's a joke." Our problem is that we take this joke too seriously. We take this life as something that should be perfect. With that we loose this lightness and playfulness in our attitude to life and in our attitude to practice.
This idea about playfulness came to me one day when in Sri Lanka I was asked to teach meditation to a group of young Buddhist monks. They were around fifteen years old, wearing robes and living in a temple. Before we talked about meditation I had a friendly chat with them and I asked them: "What is it that you don't like in this temple, and in the schedule?" They said: "Getting up in the morning for meditation." I said: "I'm very happy, it is a very honest answer! Now tell me, what is it that you enjoy in this temple?" Everyone gave big smiles and they said: "Playing with the dogs!" Then I said immediately: "Well, you see, meditation is playing with your mind!" They liked this very much. I met some of them later on and they said that the meditation had become very light, especially focusing on breathing. They said that it was like playing with the breath: sometimes it is there, sometimes it is not there. So then there was a lightness to the practice.
This ability to laugh at ourselves, to develop this humour towards life, to have this lightness, is something really beautiful. In life we are bound to have difficulties, we are bound to have problems, however much we meditate, however much we follow a spiritual path. We cannot avoid problems, we cannot avoid difficult situations. When you read the life of the Buddha it is surprising the problems and difficulties he had. He had problems with his relatives, his disciples gave him difficulties, followers of other religions gave him difficulties. Even though they were great people religious teachers like the Buddha and Jesus had difficulties, so who are we to expect to have no difficulties? Jesus Christ was crucified. Look what they did to a great man like Socrates. Problems will be there and we should be grateful for such situations, it is an opportunity to learn how to deal with our difficulties.
A good question in such a difficult situation is: "What can I learn from this?" In my own life, life has been my best teacher. I have met gurus, I have met enlightened people, I have met masters, but my present position is: "My best teacher is life." And what is interesting about life is you can never come to a conclusion about it. You can't say: "Now I'm sure that in the rest of my life I will not have any problems."
We have to be really open to uncertainty, so in a sense spiritual life is learning to be open to insecurity. This is also mentioned in the Buddha's teaching. The danger of Western culture is that to a great extent everything seems to be under control and predictable. This gives a really false sense of security. In that way Sri Lanka and India are very good for practice! You never know what is going to happen: suddenly there's a bomb blast! In the West transport is very convenient, but in Sri Lanka you don't know whether there will be a bus or a train.
There are some interesting stories about people who have been able to laugh at life, and they were able to laugh at death in the same way. At present I am reading a book about how people met their death. It is fascinating how many of them have been able to really laugh at death and dying. There is a Zen story that comes to my mind, about a meditation master who was dying. When he realised he was dying he called all his students and asked them: "In what posture have you seen people dying?" His students replied: "In so many different postures." The Zen master continued: "I am going to die in a most unusual posture." After that he stood on his head and then he died! It shows that one can be playful about life and even about death.
In traditional Buddhist countries one is encouraged to reflect on death. I think it is a very important reflection. Otherwise we forget about the most certain thing in life and we assume that we are going to live forever. So when you encounter death it can really give you a shock, you will be taken by surprise.
Talking of cultural differences, I think, generally speaking, in the West death is something that is not looked at, it is something hidden away. In Asian countries you can see death more easily. In India, for instance, you even see people dying on the roadside. You can see death in Sri Lanka also, it is a common sight. One grows up with the idea that death is part of life, that there is no difference between living and dying.
When I was in South Africa I was asked to officiate at a funeral there. That was the first Western funeral I saw: what a contrast to a Sri Lankan funeral! For example, the dead body was in the undertaker's place; this would never happen in Sri Lanka! In Sri Lanka when there is a funeral, the whole village is watching the funeral. In South Africa only a few people came to the funeral. And people, even the close relatives, were wiping the tears away from their eyes, like they didn't want to express their sadness, they didn't want to show their tears to others! But in Sri Lanka and in India people really express their sadness, they even shout and scream without hiding their tears. What shocked me most was that the grandson of the person who had died, he was about forty years old, told me that this was the first time he had seen a dead body. In Sri Lanka you can't find a four- or five-year old child who has not seen a dead body.
The point here is that it is good, as part of your practice, at least occasionally, to reflect on the impermanence of life: how things are changing from moment to moment. Sometimes reflecting on death, the inevitability of death, helps us to forgive ourselves and to forgive others. It emphasises the need to heal the wounds we are carrying. This idea of death can be something very useful to cultivate and it can be very useful for our practice.
We can reflect on what are the things that we might miss when we die. This will help us to recognise our identifications, it will help us to recognise the things that we think we own. Things we consider "our" things; things we don't like to leave. These identifications can be divided into three categories: the first is identification with ourselves, with our mind and body; the second is identification with other people; the third is identification with our possessions. While reflecting on them we realise that in an absolute sense we really don't own them, and we can die to our identifications.
Another aspect of dying to reflect on is that when we die we have to face it all by ourselves. We may have spiritual friends, we may have other people, but at that moment we are alone. This is why I encourage you as meditators to spend some time alone, to spend some time with yourself and to make a connection with yourself. In a way this can be seen as learning to live with yourself, to be happy on your own and enjoy your own company. Then when the moment comes for you to leave you can face that situation in a different way. Because you have made a connection with yourself, your dependencies may be less.
Another question to reflect on is: "Do we know what death and dying is?" We are really reacting just to the word. In ancient Greece Socrates was executed by being given poison to drink. Before he was given the poison some of his friends and relatives came, but at this stage he was very keen, very impatient to take the poison. His friends and relatives were puzzled and they asked him why he behaved in such a way. He gave a very good reply, showing his humility: "I really don't know what dying is, I'm very keen to find out!" So this is the kind of humility we should have: we don't know!