Death in Buddhism

- through Francois Leclercq

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If we carried out a poll in France, and even in the whole of the western world, asking "What do you think is the opposite of death?" “, it would be a safe bet that the very large majority answer would be: “Life”. On the other hand, if the same survey were carried out in India or in other countries won over to Buddhism, the result would undoubtedly be: “Birth”.

In the first case, death is understood as the end of life, in the second as one of its moments. In other words, death is either thought of as an absolute end or as a relative end. This takes nothing away from its inevitability, but this difference is nonetheless essential since it displaces the framework in which we die. However, the need to move this framework within which our understanding of death is circumscribed has become, for us Westerners, more pressing. The technical medicalization of our lifestyles, the end of the Christian world, consumerist individualism... all these developments which today take on the appearance of a slope, if they have enabled certain notable advances in living conditions, have also makes disappear whole sections of intelligibility which endowed death with meaning. And when death is nothing, life cannot be much. This evidence, however, invites us to be curious about detours and it is often by looking elsewhere that a path leading us back to our "own" can be found. However, it turns out that Buddhism was able to devote its cardinal role to death, through deep reflections, accompanying practices and rites that make it no longer an idiotic fatality or an illness that has gone wrong, but the occasion of an awakening, that is to say of a life carried to its summit.

Live death face to face: be mortal!

At the origins of Western culture, that is to say since the Greeks, man was thought of, unlike the immortal gods, as a mortal. Only men were so qualified. Isn't it surprising? Indeed, plants and animals also die. However, the main thing here is not in the fact of dying, but in the relationship maintained with death. One could thus say that if all the living are in death, only men face it. To be towards death, that is to say to live with death in the face, is what it is to be mortal.

Death is a sort of interlude during which the cards would be shuffled again before being redistributed. Life is the sequence of parts that Buddhists call samsara.

Such a position, which, once again, has defined Western man, does not lead to despair as one might think, but disposes to support a very radical vision of freedom, entirely understood in the very risk of existing. . The essential separation which prevailed in Greece between the free man and the slave comes from this being towards death; the slave being the one who had fled in combat and having refused this face-to-face with death, was no longer considered fully human. Free man and mortal man are synonymous here. The living is he who faces death head-on, and it is in this risk that the measure of true life appears: glory. The mortality of man does not imply lasting, but shining, this light igniting the soul far beyond death. This understanding, Christianity was the more or less conscious heir by tending the whole earthly life, towards the beyond, which it was necessary to deserve. In any case, one can notice that death is apprehended as a term before which there is nothing, if not the shadow of a promise.

Born and reborn

The situation of Buddhism in this respect is quite different. Within the framework of Indian thought, he considers man not to be essentially mortal, but nascent. The man in Sanskrit is called jana which literally means “the one who is born”. The world calls itself jagat: “what comes to be”. Life, on the other hand, is called jiva and this word is also used to signify the fact of being reborn. Existence thus takes its measure not in relation to a final term, but an initial one. To be born or to be nascent implies, in this Indian framework, not to be thrown in the face of death, but to receive a determination which is the fruit of previous existences. This very significant determination concerns our condition as human beings, gods, demons, animals, our sex, our abilities, the place of our birth, the social environment… All of this is called karma. It is wrongly associated with fate. This always implies a finality, a plan that existence must follow. In the case of karma, there is no assigned end. It's a bit like being thrown into a game of poker. We have not chosen our cards, nor the players who are opposite, nor the place where the game takes place and we must still learn to do the best with them. The moment when the game ends would correspond to death. But instead of just getting it over with, we're starting things up again – it's rebirth. The game we have this time, as well as all the other starting data, is determined by how we played the previous game – the game we have forgotten in the meantime. Death is therefore here a sort of interlude during which the cards would be shuffled again before being redistributed. Life is the part, and even the sequence of parts, that the Buddhists call samsara. However, the illusion that the teaching of the Buddha aims to dispel consists in believing that one can win this game. This desire to have the best cards and to collect the most chips pushes us again and again to do it again. But the law of samsara has this in common with that of casinos that the bank always wins. Certainly, it happens that we are doing well during a round of play, then we have lived the fortunate life of the gods. But, sooner or later, a bad hand comes along that drags us into misery. Victories and defeats being always relative, they are insignificant and therefore form the basis of a dull pain which constantly accompanies this duped existence. But this cannot be understood as long as one clings to the gambling table.

The prospect of nirvana

This understanding of existence therefore implies a completely different relationship to death. It is indeed a form of end in all cases, but it is much more relative for Buddhists. In these conditions, where the life of a Westerner will always be spurred on by the idea that it is necessary to make the most of it, that of a person brought up in the Dharma will aim more to undo the bonds which chain him to it. A completely different conception of freedom is at stake here. And it is surprising to note in passing that a particular idea of ​​death corresponds to a particular vision of freedom. This freedom, the Buddhists call it nirvana, stopping or cessation. What ceases is this round of rebirths and the procession of torments that accompanies it. The links to this cycle of lives and deaths being numerous and tenacious, the practitioner often does not have enough in one life to undo them all. In this perspective, attention to death plays a very important role. Keeping its inevitability in mind allows both not to overinvest and not to be frivolous. It invites in the first case to renunciation which is the initial step towards Awakening, and in the second to the greatest seriousness, because it is not said that in the next life we ​​still benefit from such good conditions. Life then becomes both hopeless (losing or winning the game is the same thing) and incredibly precious (the opportunity to leave the gambling table once and for all). When the practitioner has finally cut all ties with existence (samsara), he enters nirvana. This can be done during his lifetime, as was the case with the Buddha and his disciples called Arhat. One should therefore not equate nirvana with death which, in the Buddhist perspective, is only a transition, whereas nirvana takes on a much more definitive character. On the other hand, when these liberated beings die, they are said to enter into parinirvana, that is to say into complete cessation – they radically cease to exist in the cyclical sense of the term.

The interlude of death and the practices of transition

This relative and transitory understanding of death gives it, and this may seem paradoxical, considerable importance. It becomes indeed, as an intermediary between two rebirths, a real space of spiritual work making it possible to spare the possibility of a favorable rebirth and even to awaken. In this perspective, the moment of death and that which precedes it must be the subject of very special care. Even if the dying person did not lead the most holy life, the disposition of his mind at the moment of death and during the agony will play a crucial role. Thus, in Buddhist countries, we avoid crying and lamenting around the dying, but we accompany him by helping him to detach himself from this existence he is about to leave. We surround him with a love imbued with calm. We don't tell him nonsense, but we try to face the truth together, taking care not to overheat his heart. This union of love, calm and truth that must be held both at the bedside and in the mortuary bed must be the base that supports the departure, whether or not one is practicing.

When one is engaged in the practice, monks can also come and recite sutras to imbue the spirit of the deceased person, until the end. Once dead, the conscious principle is said to remain and is immersed in an intermediate state called bardo. It lasts a maximum of 49 days before another rebirth occurs. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Bardo Thödol (1) explains the different phases allowing the practitioner to recognize them, not to be impressed and even to transmute them on the way to Awakening. For this reason, this book is often read to the dying who are familiar with it. In other Asian countries, one also reads the Sutras of Amitabha (2) which describe a ground favorable to the Awakening deployed by this Buddha and which the practitioners full of confidence can gain after their death. In all cases, these practices are based on the same fundamental idea directly stemming from meditation: keeping full presence of mind in all circumstances. In this sense, dying in a state of unconsciousness is, for Buddhists, a most sad end. Everything must be done during agony, death and the 49 days of the bardo to promote this presence of mind. You have to think that ideally every man should die meditating, that is to say in a face to face full of space and gentleness with things as they are.

To think in this way that death, however painful or destabilizing it may be, can be a space of practice where one reclaims one's existence in order, in a way, to crown it, has always seemed to me a very human perspective. It brings us back, even at the most critical moment, to a responsibility that goes hand in hand with true dignity. To paraphrase Coluche, it allows us to fully “die in our lifetime”

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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