The Buddhist view of death

- through Francois Leclercq

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Vajrayana, Jing Du, Chan… What do the main branches of Buddhism say about death? Beginning of answers on the notion of end.

La mort is an important question that accompanies us throughout life, and that never ceases to challenge us until the last breath. It is central to the practice and teachings in Buddhism. According to legend, it was indeed at the sight of a sick person, an old man and a funeral procession at the exit of his palace, that Prince Siddhartha Gautama took the firm resolution to leave in search of the Truth, and later became the Buddha, the Enlightened Perfect.

A Zen poem, a cat, composed by the Vietnamese Zen master Mãn Giác (XNUMXth century) before he died, testifies to this passage:

“Spring is leaving, a hundred flowers are fading.
Spring returns, a hundred flowers bloom.
Before our eyes, the wheel of time turns endlessly,
And already the hair on our temples is turning white.
But don't think that with the onset of spring, all the flowers have fallen.
Yesterday evening, in front of my garden, I found a peach branch in bloom. »

The first image is of faded, unblooming flowers. But after all, why not ? Doesn't the fruit, which gives birth to a tree, appear when the petals fall from a flower? What distinguishes the bud from the flower, which makes the dead flower succeed the blooming flower, if not our spirit? It is also he who artificially separates life from death, who opposes life to death, when everything is only a process of transformation, a continuum of life which continues beyond the appearance and the disappearance of things. The poem also emphasizes that death is only a manifestation of'impermanence of phenomena. Impermanence is the mark of time, time which is an inherent dimension of things. There can be no life without death. So, meditating on death is nothing more than meditating on life.

“Just as the ocean has only one flavor, the salty, my teaching has only one object, suffering. »
The Buddha

The extraordinary serenity that emanates from this cat pronounced by the Zen master just before his death results from his attitude of tranquility and equanimity in his last moments. It was acquired only after patient spiritual work, long hours of meditation allowing the development of a deep understanding of things (panna in pali, prajna in Sanskrit). This shows that the Buddhist approach to death involves preparation, a lifetime of training.

Death in early Buddhism

Buddhist views on death have some nuances according to Buddhist traditions, although they share a common basis, the original teaching of Gautama Buddha. Contrary to a widespread notion, the Buddha spoke very little about becoming after death, because the latter, concerned above all by the suffering in which human beings were plunged during their lifetime, wished above all to show them the way to get rid of it. This was the meaning of his first sermon in the Gazelle Park at Sarnath, on the Four Noble Truths which form the basic teaching of Buddhism: suffering (dukkha), the origin of suffering (samudaya) and its extinction (nirodha) by the way (magga), which is the Eightfold Path of Wisdom. "Just as the ocean has only one flavor, the salty, my teaching has only one object, suffering", said the Buddha. Death being a part of this universal suffering.

Meditation on death is also meditation on life.

Let us also remember the parable of the man wounded by a poisoned arrow, who stubbornly refused medical attention until he had complete information about the arrow, the bow, the author of the shot, the direction of the wind, etc. , ends up dying before gathering all this data. During his lifetime, the Buddha used this parable to answer the question posed by his disciple malunkyaputta on the finitude or not of the universe, on the immortality or not of the soul, on the future of man after death. For the Buddha, there is no point in straying unnecessarily into metaphysical speculations or wasting time in unanswered questions. It is important, on the other hand, to worry about freeing oneself from one's sufferings, here and now. This is called the "Buddha's silence on metaphysical questions"., hence its name Shakyamuni, the silencer of the clan of shakya. The Buddha's silence has a double meaning: first of all, to consider the urgency of the situation, like “a house on fire”, imposing a concrete and saving action. Then, to understand that it is not possible to apprehend the ultimate Truth, which goes far beyond our intellect and our conceptual means.

For the Buddha, illness, old age and death are natural phenomena, from which no living being, including himself, can escape. The end of his life was told in detail by the sutra of the Great Extinction (Mahaparinibbana-Sutta). To his closest disciple, Ananda, who worried about her health and the future of the Sangha, he answered : “O Ananda, I am worn out, aged, old and burdened with years. I have come to the end of my days. I am eighty years old. Just like an old chariot that can only be used with a lot of straps, I realize that my body can only walk with the help of care...” He nevertheless continued to teach until his last moments, inviting many times his disciples to ask questions about the Doctrine. His last words were: “All conditioned phenomena are subject to impermanence. Be persevering, do not relax your efforts. 

This sentence alone could sum up the original teaching of the Buddha on the attitude to take in the face of death: to deeply understand the impermanence (anica) and the not me (anatta), which form with suffering (dukkha) the three Seals of existence (tilakkhana) ; and persevere in the practice of Dharma (Pali) or Dharma (Sanskrit), that is, the path that leads to deliverance. Thus, as was reported in a stanza of Dhammapada :

“He who considers his body
like a mirage,
Like a flake of foam,
Will manage to no longer see death. »

Of course, this is also the attitude of Theravada Buddhism, practiced mainly in South and Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos), and which is the continuation of primitive or original Buddhism.

Death in Mahayana Buddhism

Let us recall that the Mahayana, a reforming movement of Buddhism which appeared at the beginning of the Christian era, spread to the north and east of Asia, giving rise to three main branches, which are at present:

  1. Le Vajrayana (Vehicle of the Diamond), more or less confused with Tantrism, or Tibetan Buddhism
  2. Le Jing Du (Chinese), Jo Do (Japanese) or Tinh Do (Vietnamese), or Pure Land School
  3. Le Chan (Chinese), Zen (Japanese) or Thien tong (Vietnamese), or School of Meditation

The latter two practiced mainly in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

The Vajrayana

In its fundamentals, the Vajrayana shares the same original teaching of the Buddha, but is also based on the teaching of the Middle School. (Madhyamaka) or emptiness (Shunyatavada) de Nagarjuna, and the Nothing but Consciousness School (Vijnanavada ou Yogacara) byasanga et Vasubandhu. Nevertheless, he attaches more importance to rebirth, such as the recognition of tulkus in children born after the disappearance of llamas many years before. For Vajrayana, a crucial step in this renaissance is the bard (in-between), intermediate state of consciousness between physiological death and true departure into the other world. Thus at the bedside of a dying person, we begin the reading of the Bardo-Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) and continued for seven weeks (which is the maximum duration of the bard) whether the dying person is conscious or not. Whenever possible, it is important that the dying person remembers his good deeds and that he goes to meet death with a feeling of complete confidence in his past life. Tears and lamentations from family and loved ones are avoided, so as not to disturb his spirit and to assure him of a peaceful death, and thereby a good rebirth.

Here are a few passages from this particularly instructive and useful book:

“When the symptoms of death are about to be united, the dying person is exhorted to take the disposition of the bodhi spirit. Whispering softly in his ear, they say to him: Noble son, do not let your mind be distracted! You have now arrived at what is called death, take the disposition of the awakening spirit in the following way: alas, now that for me the hour of death has come, I do not want, thanks to the advantage of this death, that to awaken in me the love, the compassion and the provision of the spirit of awakening. May I for the sake of all beings who extend to the ends of space, thus achieve the perfect enlightenment and fulfillment called Buddhahood…”

“O noble son, recognize that all the phenomena you see, all the fearful impressions, are your own projections. Do not be afraid, when it appears to you. Since you are a body-mind product of your unconscious tendencies, you cannot actually die, even if you are killed or chopped into pieces. In reality your form is nothing but emptiness, so you have nothing to fear. And since the emissaries of death are also your own projections, there is no material reality in them. And emptiness cannot hurt emptiness! Be certain that the peaceful and wrathful deities, the many-headed blood-drinkers, the rainbow lights and the terrifying forms of the Lord of Death, and others, have no reality, no own substance, that they emanate only from the play of your mind. If you understand this, all fear is naturally banished... Recognize that the clear light is your own knowledge, your own irradiation. If in this way you obtain insight, without a doubt, immediately, you will have become a Buddha. »

It is important to note that there is nothing supernatural or fantastic here, and that everything the dying person feels and perceives simply emanates from his own mind, which is naturally empty. As Lama noted Anagarika Govinda in a preface to the book, "the Bardo-Thodöl is not a guide for the dead, but a guide for all those who want to overcome death, by transforming its process into an act of liberation".

The Jing Du

For the branch Jing Du (Pure Land) based essentially on the faith-devotion in it Amitabha Buddha (E Mi Tuo (Chinese), Amide, (Japanese), or A Di Da (Vietnamese) and the bodhisattvas, among which the most revered are Avalokiteshvara, or Guan Yin (Chinese), Kannon (Japanese), Quan Am (Vietnamese), "listening to the pleas of the world", and Ksitigarba Di-Zang (Chinese), jizo (Japanese), or Dia Tang (Vietnamese), who has made a vow to remain in hell as long as there are still tortured people there, death is also the passage to the afterlife, in the best of cases to the country west of the Supreme Bliss (Sukhavati, Tay Phuong Cuc Lake, Vietnamese).

By devotion, good deeds and merits, prayers, repetition of the name of Buddha (niàn fo, nembutsu, niêm phât), the recitation of mantra et darani, everyone hopes to improve their karma and be greeted at his death by the Buddha Amitabha in his country of happiness. Thus death can be awaited serenely, thanks to the hope of a passage to eternal life, a bit like in monotheistic religions, but in a spirit, it must be recognized, quite far from the original Buddhist doctrine.

Another way to conceive of the Pure Land is that of a "Pure Land within", as opposed to the "Pure Land from elsewhere", meaning a world of purity and serenity of one's own spirit. This conception, rather rare among followers of Jing Du, is closer to original Buddhism and Chan.

The Chan

The Chan (Zen ou Thien Tong) has a different vision, inspired by Prajna-paramita Sutra (Perfection of Wisdom), from the notion of Emptiness (Shunyata, Khong) and born from the practice of meditation, aimed directly at the mind, beyond discursive thought.

Zen masters used to leave before they died cats, short poems each constituting a real posthumous teaching, and whose spirit can be summed up in a few words: simplicity, naturalness, letting go. Let's hear this haiku de Basho :

This same landscape
hear the song
And see the death of the cicada. »

And this cat by the Vietnamese master Thiên Van Hanh (XNUMXth century), composed near his death:

“The body appears and disappears, like lightning,
Green trees in spring dry up in autumn.
Of prosperity and decline, let us have no fear,
Prosperity and decline are like dew on the tip of the grass”.

Since everything is change, life and death find themselves intertwined, empty of meaning, of attribute, of their own character. Only the present moment exists. It only exists in our mind, but it is the cosmos-moment that encompasses the entire universe. Everything else is illusion, including death.

“When the spirit appears, says Tuê Trung Thuong Si, the master of the first patriarch of the Vietnamese Thiên school Trúc Lâm Yên Tu (XNUMXth century), birth and death appear,
When the spirit disappears, birth and death disappear. »

So why still ask the question of birth and death? Isn't it out of pure attachment to his ego? For if the self does not exist in reality, who ultimately dies? As Muso Soseki, Zen master Rinzai and also master of the Japanese garden (XNUMXth-XNUMXth century) said:

“By throwing away this tiny little thing called 'me', I have become the immense world”.

This self-effacement does not happen spontaneously or easily, but at the cost of daily inner work and sustained effort.

"Here and now, advised the master Taisen Deshimaru, we must stop the wheel of karma, driven by thought, word and action. Movement must be replaced by immobility, noise by silence. This is entering the coffin of zazen. And when we come out of it, death no longer frightens us, it is familiar to us. The universe is no longer viewed through a straw. »

At the end of this analysis, what can we conclude? Meditation on death is also meditation on life. Unless you believe in eternal life, common sense means that you always end up refocusing on current life, on the present moment. For Leonardo da Vinci, “a busy day gives good sleep; a full life gives a peaceful death”. The best way to deal with death is undoubtedly to lead the best life possible.

For the Buddhist, the best life is the righteous life, following the Eightfold Path of Wisdom taught by Gautama Buddha. The important thing is to have a fair view of things (samma-ditthi), to get rid of ignorance (avija), with its two major components: the illusion of permanence and the attachment to the ego. This is not a purely intellectual discourse, but a spiritual practice, a mental training requiring discipline and perseverance throughout a lifetime.

The example of great Buddhist masters shows that the development of deep understanding (panna) and love-compassion (metta-karuna), confer such spiritual energy and detachment that they have always approached death with serene joy, transcending it completely.

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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