Wholesome Fear - Selections

Transforming Your Anxiety About Impermanence and Death

Section 1: Impermanence and Death

Meditation is a force to stop problems, not something that you can only practice very quietly somewhere on a mountain. Meditations on death are meant to solve problems—but if you don’t use them for their intended purpose, what’s the point?

The Truth of Impermanence

Life is so fragile. Its nature is transitory. Life changes so much in a year, a month, a week, a day, an hour, a minute, and second by second. It’s said that in the time it takes to snap your fingers, there are sixty-five distinct moments—and even in those split seconds, life changes.

You might dismissively think:“Why should I be surprised that life changes so much? Who cares that I age with each instant? That is natural; let it happen!” To think in this way is foolish—it neglects that every passing moment brings us closer to old age and death. Or, you may think, “That’s true I become older—so what!” Many people try to deny the impermanent nature of their lives; they do not want to see the true nature of it at all. They try to disguise their appearance in the eyes of others, who also play the same game. No artificial effort can change eighty years into sixteen. This is an absolutely vain attempt, a waste of this precious human rebirth, a waste of the opportunity to become truly awakened, enlightened in the service of all. What’s more, the enlightened mind fully realizes that the nature of the samsaric body is impermanent—subject to aging and death—and therefore is in the nature of suffering.

People who turn away from this truth labor under a double illusion: a mistaken belief that there exists some intervention that can free them from ruin and decay, and a wrong conception that a permanent self exists. Both of these are a denial of impermanence. These errors cause countless problems to arise continually and lead people to become ever more ignorant, lazy, and careless.

When we do look at the reality of impermanence, we see there are two levels of impermanence: the gross and the subtle. The gross level refers to changes of matter that happen over long periods of time; the subtle refers to inner changes of mind and invisible changes of matter that happen in the shortest part of a second.

Our minds and our senses can’t perceive subtle moment-tomoment changes of matter; we can see only the gross changes from day to day and hour to hour, such as physical decay and dissolution. The great meditator Gampopa said: “This vessel-like world that existed at an earlier moment does not do so at a later one. That it seems to continue in the same way is because something else similar arises, like the stream of a waterfall.”

Why should we worry about the changes of becoming old? Because as years, months, days, and split seconds are passing and we grow older, the perfect chance of attaining enlightenment given by this human rebirth is ending and I am becoming closer to death. I have the right equipment to make the trip to the Other Shore of enlightenment, and I have a pilot, a vehicle, and enough fuel—but here I sit, engine running, burning up fuel while my mind is distracted by other things. The longer my mind remains distracted, the more I miss the chance of reaching enlightenment. As the fuel burns, time grows shorter. This is the tragedy of wasting this precious human rebirth.

It is certain that you are not going to live much over one hundred years; you probably won’t live past ninety. Yet even if you are going to live a million years, your life starts to finish at the time of your conception. As soon as it begins, your life starts becoming shorter. Nothing lasts; nothing remains the same.

As the seconds pass, so do the minutes made up by them. As the minutes pass, so do the hours—and months, days, years, and decades. No matter whether your lifespan is a hundred years or a hundred thousand, you are growing older and decaying, even now—from the time your mind enters your mother’s womb. Even now, you draw closer to death. And eventually you will reach the very time of your own death.

As many years as you have lived so far, that much of your life has gone; you are that much closer to death and your time to live is that much less. No matter whether you think you are young or old, whatever your age, that much of your life has finished. It is gone forever, irretrievable. And as likely as not what life you have left is shorter than that which has passed—and if it’s not, it will be soon.

The Advantages of Remembering Death

We should always remember death. If we do, our minds will remain aware of the changes constantly happening within us, of how short the human life is, of how life is becoming shorter every moment. This has great benefit.

Many great yogis started by meditating on the shortness of the human life, on impermanence, and on death. Their enlightenment, their realizations, and their Dharma practice itself all came from this meditation. Their strength and ability to live an ascetic life in extremely isolated places, to practice the vast and profound subjects and attain the higher paths, to generate the incredible energy required to persevere in their practice—all these things came from reflecting deeply on the shortness of the human life, on impermanence, on death. The fact that they attained enlightenment in that lifetime was due to this very remembrance.

It takes a great deal of energy to reach enlightenment; yet the more urgently you want enlightenment, the more energy you will have to attain it. You need great energy to overcome the difficulties of practicing Dharma and following the path. Where does such energy come from? It comes from remembering the impermanence of life and death. Even the continual benefit that enlightened beings bring to all beings can be traced back to this meditation on death.

Remembering impermanence and death is also important if you just want to free yourself from samsara. Remembering impermanence and death helps put an end to all 84,000 delusions. All the different negative mind-states—the great root of ignorance, hatred, all the other wrong conceptions, all the obscurations that prevent liberation from samsara and enlightenment—can be terminated by the energy generated through remembering impermanence and death. This meditation is the original cause of the cessation of all these delusions. It is very powerful.

If you remember impermanence and death, you can also prevent the arising of temporal negative minds such as greed, ignorance, hatred, pride, jealousy, and so forth—the minds that cause you so much discomfort, suffering, and confusion. You prevent them from arising because remembering impermanence and death makes you wholesomely fear death and the shortness of the human life. Wholesome fear is a kind of fear that is very useful in making your mind peaceful, even in the present.

Not only is remembering impermanence and death useful at the beginning of practice—when it persuades you to seek out the Dharma and begin to practice instead of following your negative mind—it is also beneficial during the practice of the Dharma. Once you are on the path, it inspires you to continue your practice. Even though you are following the path, remembering death keeps you from losing track of your realizations and it helps you continue ever onward to the higher reaches of the path. Thus, remembering impermanence and death is also useful at the end of your practice.

Finally, at the time of death, this remembrance is useful because it allows you to die peacefully, with happiness, a relaxed mind, and no worries at all. This remembrance allows you to die with great joy. The person who has spent his or her life wholesomely remembering death every day, continuously purifying, creating merit, and creating as little negative karma as possible has no trouble at the time of death.

Death and Dharma

Ordinary people are usually afraid at the time of death, but for the purest Dharma practitioners, death is like returning home. True Dharma practitioners are happy and worry-free at the time of death. Even if they have not yet attained enlightenment, if they have diligently practiced the Dharma and created much merit during their life, they are also not upset at the time of death; they can die without regret. Because they have done much purification and created much merit, much good in the world, they are not afraid at the time of death.

Therefore, since there are so many benefits in remembering death, instead of being shocked or put off by all this talk about it, instead of forgetting about it or pushing thoughts of it away, you should always remember and meditate on the impermanence of life. But why does this topic shock people? Why are people put off when they are asked their age and the person replies,“Oh, you are so old!”? Because it is opposite to the way they want to feel, opposite to their wrong conceptions, to what they mistakenly believe. But these are all delusions; these things are the sources of so much suffering.

People always want to look young, not to age, not to change, but no matter how strongly they desire such things or how much they fight it, they have no choice: they change. No matter how much you don’t want it to happen, you can’t stop change; you can’t stop the natural evolution of this impermanent life. No wish, no strategy, no product, no procedure, no belief can ever prevent decay; nothing can ever stop death. Even if you spend your whole life trying to look young on the outside, you still age and die. You can’t stop death by forgetting about it, by never thinking about it, by closing your ears and not listening if somebody else is talking about it, by not reading about it. Nothing can stop death.

Carefully painting the outside of a piece of fruit might temporarily cause it to look beautiful and fresh, but inside it decays, loses its taste, shrivels up, and sours.

All external manipulations don’t help. And trying to forget these things is not the solution. After all, if someone is coming to kill you, it doesn’t help to pretend that it is not happening. Ignoring the truth doesn’t avert the danger. You have to do something else.

Therefore, instead of being shocked and trying to escape from the natural way things are, do the opposite—constantly bring impermanence and death to mind. This is much more useful than trying to stop the fear that normally arises from remembering death by ignoring it, and it has so many advantages.

As the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa said,“I fled to the mountains through fear of death, and once there, I realized the absolute true nature of mind. Now, even if death comes to me, I won’t be afraid.”

This is very tasty, very effective.

Milarepa spent a long time naked, doing austere practices, leading an ascetic life in the mountains. It’s said that his body was green, scrawny, and ugly. If he showed up in the West today, he would likely be arrested or at least shunned by society; everybody would hate the way he looked. People would want him to be hidden away out of sight.

Milarepa remembered death and felt afraid, and his fear drove him to the mountains, where he realized the absolute true nature, the reality of the mind, and thus overcame his fear of death. We should learn from his example and practice in the same way—remember death and overcome fear of it before it comes. This is the wise approach; this is wise work, the skillful method.

Another great Tibetan yogi said, “When the impermanence of life manifests to me, I won’t be afraid. I can be a monk in the morning and take the body of a deity the same afternoon.” Not only was he unafraid of death, but he also had the power to take a pure body, leaving his ordinary one.

By remembering death, you stop following your negative mind and therefore create less negative, unwholesome karma. The more you remember death, the better the results you experience.

Remembering death is very helpful.

 

How to cite this document:
© Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Wholesome Fear (Wisdom Publications, 2010)

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