In-depth series of teachings on The Jewel Ornament of Liberation and how practitioners in today’s world might approach traditional texts written hundreds of years ago.
Impermanence (pt. 3)Download
Appreciating and living the three facts of impermanence: death is certain, time of death uncertain, and we take nothing with us into death; regret and death; moving beyond child-like morality of right and wrong; impermanence and the intensification of life experience; value of being able to experience life fully; how to do reflective meditations such as death and impermanence; how to use physical and emotional reactions in these meditations. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, commentary on Chapter 4.
This is the eleventh class in the Then and Now series on December the 11th, Tuesday, 2007.
And there are two things that I want to do tonight. One is to go through the rest of the material on death and impermanence, which won’t take too long. Again, it’s fairly straight-forward. And the second is to talk about how, the mechanics, the method of actually meditating on topics such as death and impermanence.
One of the things that I’ve found is that people have all kinds of associations with the word meditation or the verb meditate. And usually what, the ideas that people have is not what actually happens. How many of you, when you first started meditating thought that the primary thing that you did when you meditate is rest peacefully? How many think that is what actually happens? No. Well it does in a certain way, but not quite in the way that we think.
So where did we get to the last time? Section B? Yeah, okay. So, Gampopa breaks down the discussion of death into three general topics. This is back on page 45.
The first is that we are going to die. The second is that we don’t know when we are going to die. And the third is that when we die, nothing comes with us.
Now, like everything to do with death and impermanence, this is all stuff we already know. I mean, we know we are going to die. We know we don’t know when; it could come at any time. And we know that we don’t take anything with us, because when other people die, they leave everything behind. So that’s not a big leap of logic or a difficult deduction. What we don’t do, however, is appreciate the significance of these three seemingly very ordinary facts. And in particular, we don’t live by them.
There’s an old story from medieval Europe of the king, of a king who’s being entertained by his court jester. And after a particularly entertaining session, he throws his court jester a bag of gold and says, “You are the greatest fool in the world.”
And the court jester says, “Ah your majesty, there is one who is a greater fool than me.” (Or “than I,” if you want to be fussy about the English.)
The King looks at him and says, “There is? Well! You’ll have to show him to me sometime.”
The jester says, “Now is not the time, sire, but I will do so.”
Many years pass and the king is taken ill and eventually it’s clear that he is going to die. And the Jester appears by his bedside and says, “Remember, sire, you asked me to show you a greater fool than me?”
And the king goes, “Oh, yeah.”
“Well, sire, you’ve always known you were going to die, now you’re dying, and you have done absolutely nothing to prepare for this. What greater fool is there than that?”
This is the kind of thing that you can get away with if you are the king’s jester. Not to be recommended otherwise.
Now, that’s the first big fact: that we’re going to die. And the second big fact is that we don’t know when. And this is where we have on page 47 in Guenther—and the various reasons are: My span of life is not fixed; The body is without solidity, and There are many causes of death. [Guenther, page 47]
That is to say, according to Indian and Tibetan cosmology, in other realms, how long you lived was fixed. Everybody lived five hundred years or a thousand years. But if you go into the god realms or the hell realms, you’ll find they had wonderful calculations on precisely how many years you lived in each of those realms. But in the animal and human realm, it’s not certain at all.
And the second reason is that the body isn’t solid; it’s just made of these things, and things can happen to it. It can be hit by something, you can have food poisoning; there are many things that can happen to the body. And because it isn’t a solid, fixed entity, it has all of these moving parts and components to it; it can break down at any point. And the last is there are many, many things can happen to cause our death. None of this is particularly difficult to understand or particularly new. However, when you take each of these two things—and we’ll get to the third one in a minute—and you actually think about it a bit, you find it does begin to have an effect on how you understand life.
For instance: I asked you last time I think to consider what you would do if you knew you were going to die exactly a year from now. Right? Well let’s hear from some of you about that. I did give this out, didn’t I? Pardon? Yeah, okay. So Cara, what would you do if you knew that you’d die exactly one year from now and there wouldn’t be any pain.
Cara: I was just saying that I think you gave that assignment in the Money class. I don’t know.
Ken: Oh, did I? I can’t remember. Too many things going on.
Cara: I think I would keep being a baker, probably.
Ken: You’d just continue on what you are doing?
Cara: I might try to finish something, like a language or write something. I think when you gave that assignment in the Money class it sparked something for me, and I did actually go and write something that I intended to write for a long time, but hadn’t.
Ken: Okay so, when you really take in that you are you going to die, in one year’s time then it shifts your focus a little bit.
Cara: It does, but I have never had an overwhelming fear of death. I’ve had an overwhelming fear of being incapacitated or being a burden to someone.
Ken: Yes. Those are slightly different, I agree. But you turned around and you wrote something you intended to for quite a while.
Cara: Yes, it does shift your perspective. You’re right.
Okay. Anybody else? You’re going to die exactly one year from now. What would you do? How would you spend the next year? Chuck. [pause] Would you continue to trade stocks?
Chuck: Yeah, I’d continue to go to work.
Chuck: I’d take a vacation, maybe. My last vacation. [laughing]
Ken: I am a little curious. Why would you continue to work?
Chuck: Because I’m used to it. Something—a comfort level, I guess.
Ken: Okay. Anybody else?
Chuck: One more question I have about this.
Chuck: Okay, impermanence is to relieve the attachment to life. But it seems like it, there is also a paranoid influence, a grasping, that “If I am going to die in a year, I have got to make every moment count, and I can’t waste any time,” and this in itself could drive you crazy and is suffering-producing, I would think.
Ken: Well, you used a fairly strong word there: it makes you paranoid. I think that may not be quite correct. But it does alert that you have a limited amount of time, a definitely limited amount of time. And so one would reasonably think that one might try to—just as Cara was saying—focus on what was really important. So what I am inferring from this is that basically, you’re at peace with your life as it is.
Susan: This actually makes me remember a question I was going to ask you last week about the subject matter. Which is: well, I do try to question my life, like, okay, if I were on my death bed, and evaluating my life, would these be—would I have lived in a way that would not cause me more suffering while I was dying or not?
Ken: Well, as it says in the prayers we do at the beginning, would you have any regrets?
Susan: Well, okay. So here’s where my questions is: It’s like, yes and no. I would and I wouldn’t. Because, this material almost seems like it’s kind of—like you can’t just be a little bit pregnant, you know? Either you are or you aren’t. So like, if the awareness of your own mortality really cuts into you, and you just know it, everything would change. But…
Ken: What would change, for you?
Susan: I think a lot of things that maybe I knew that I was fooling myself with, for example. I would no longer keep up the pretension to myself. Like, certain ideas of myself and of my life, and the way things are supposed to be.
Ken: You’re still living in some of those now? We don’t have to go into details.
Susan: Well, yes and no. Even the idea that I am working on them, in some way, is like a game, a way to soothe myself. If I just had a year left to live, I know that have certain fears that are very deep that I would like to cut through and overcome, so I could do what I want to do with certain things.
Ken: What do you want to do?
Susan: I don’t really want to talk about personal stuff.
Ken: Okay, so you can feel there are some things that are inhibiting you.
Susan: Yeah, but, I also know that on some level, I do have this death and impermanence awareness. And it is one of the motivating factors, working in a small, day-to-day way, on these fears. But there’s also—then in a deeper way it’s like—I think part of me still thinks I’m immortal. You know what I mean?
Ken: Yes, yes. I think you’re quite right. For a lot of us, that’s the case. Yeah, we know this, but yeah, it’s not going to happen. I’ve got forever to work on this stuff.
Susan: Yeah! It’s like a paradox. It’s like two things are true at once.
Ken: Well, we know it at one level; we don’t know it at another.
Susan: Yeah, that’s what it is.
Ken: Yeah. So, what might be different about your life if you took it in at this other level?
Susan: I think I have this sense of what in my life is bull and what isn’t. And I tolerate some of the false stuff. And I think that if I let this really and truly let this penetrate in a deep way, I’d just let go of that. And, yeah…
Ken: You’d grow up.
Susan: Okay. [both laugh] That’s good.
Ken: That’s one way of putting it, right?
Susan: Gee. I never put it in that language.
Ken: Well, how does that sound to you?
Susan: It doesn’t sound quite the way I would describe it.
Ken: Okay. [laughing]
Anybody else? Randye?
Randye: When you first asked that question, I said originally that I would quit three-fourths of my job to do the other quarter of it full time. And I would still do that. But what pulls me back are the necessities of life, like having to pay rent, buy food, and things like that. I’ve got enough to support me for a year, without outside money, but I don’t for an indefinite period, whatever that may be.
Ken: Yeah, we’re going to get to that point in a minute.
Randye: Then I kept thinking about it, and I realized what would change regardless of what behavior would change, would be my appreciation for what I’m doing, whatever it is. I would be more attentive, more appreciative, more grateful for what’s right here in front of me. I think that attitude shift would be the biggest change for me.
Ken: Yes, we do tend to take life for granted, don’t we?
Okay. So let’s shorten it. Chuck. One month.
Chuck: I think if I was healthy, and knew I had one month to live, I’d take a vacation and take chances on river rafting and hang gliding, and things like that. The last thrill! And if I didn’t make it, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal.
Ken: So your approach is a calculated risk, a calculated risk management?
Ken: So the shorter the time frame, the greater the risks you’d take.
Chuck: Yeah, I could do that.
Ken: What does this tell you about what you really want to do?
Chuck: What I really want to do? Take risks?
Ken: Why would you go hang gliding or river rafting?
Chuck: Well, I’ve gone river rafting and enjoyed it.
Ken: Yeah. So, why would you do that if you had a month to live, rather than if you had a year to live?
Chuck: There is a certain vitality in it.
Ken: Yes, there is a lot of vitality in it.
Ken: So are you seeking a certain vitality?
Ken: Why you are prepared to live your life just ordinarily without seeking that vitality?
Chuck: I guess because it’s comfortable that way.
Ken: So which do you want: comfort or vitality? Or put it this way: when you die, which will you regret more?
Chuck: I would regret not doing everything I could.
Chuck: But I think you can’t live from one exciting moment and another. It’s sorta like eating too much chocolate ice cream, pretty soon you’re gonna get sick.
Ken: Granted. But, you notice there is a very big difference between one year and one month for you.
Ken: Okay, that’s just what I’m pointing out. You might think about that.
Agnes: I was debating whether I was going share this with the group. You know I had that health crisis back then, that issue?
Agnes: And it was pretty dire, and I really thought I had very limited time. I didn’t know how limited. It involved surgery and all of this stuff. While I was meditating, what was interesting was, it was kind of like a relief. Now I got my sentence. So I might as well live it up.
So what I did was, I thought of certain places around the world I’d really like to see it again. So I planned a round the world trip to see those places I wanted to see again. I did hang gliding already so [laughter] I’m not going to do it again.
It was almost like, “Oh, I’m gonna go home early,” so that’s not so bad. So I wanted to disperse some of my attachments. And another thing was, I want to volunteer my time to a certain population that I really wanted to give back. Because before it was like accumulation for me, and now since I can’t take it with me I may as well—my time and everything.
And another thing that was interesting was—I didn’t think I was going to do—I actually wrote letters to my exes, apologizing for some of my attitude and behavior. So I wanted to make peace with everybody that I thought I might have offended.
And then, there was a mistake. The dire urgency is gone, and I am almost back to the procrastinating kind of, like you know, my old self again.
Ken: Why was it a—oh, you mean the emergency was a mistake?
Agnes: Yeah, the emergency was a mistake, and everything else. That was really vibrant. Because it was like “every minute counts,” you know, call up my friends, spend time with them, and everything else.
Now, kinda like, I know this may happen in a different form. But didn’t have that urgency, so when the vitality, and vibrantness.
Anybody else? Steve?
Steve: I’m reading this book. Steve Martin wrote this book about his time as a stand-up comedian, and being in the carnivals when he was young, and so on. And he wrote something I thought about a lot, in reference to this.
He said there was a moment when he was working at one of these carnivals, doing magic. And he said he was able to have nostalgia for the moment he was in, as opposed to for the past. This struck me, as I have done some of this meditation There’s much more a sense for me—and maybe this is what he was saying—but that I don’t have to look back on something and go like, “I remember.” It is like a nostalgia at all times. And that may not be quite the right word. That’s what the meditation seems to do.
Ken: Okay. Peri?
Peri: I would want to practice dying.
Peri: Practice dying.
Ken: Could you say a bit more about that?
Peri: I’ve read enough to be scared to death of the bardo. [Laughter] I would like to have more than a modicum of awareness when it comes, in negotiating the bardo.
Ken: So when you contemplate the possibility of dying you feel very unprepared.
Peri: Thank you.
Ken: Anybody else? Joe?
Joe: I just had one thought. Somebody said, maybe you said, about the prayer, we get to the part where we say the line “May I live a life of no regret.” Apropos of this subject and whenever I get there, it always occurs to me that for me, it’s not a matter of doing stuff so that I won’t regret not having done it, or not doing stuff that I would regret, but to learn not to regret what actually is: what I have done, what I am doing. So it’s a matter of accepting totally where I am at that moment, rather than making this plan to not do something, or to do something that I haven’t done. That’s what came to mind.
Ken: Yes, a more internal approach.
Joe: Yes, more accepting what actually is now instead of all doing this stuff or not doing all this stuff until I die.
Ken: Yeah. [pause]
What kinds of things do we regret?
Here I always think of a line from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
Things ill-done and done to others. Harm which once we took for exercise of virtue.
Strike any chords? Yeah. And I think it’s that kind of thing that’s very much behind the thinking behind that particular line. It’s not necessarily things we don’t do that we probably would liked to have: like seeing places or having certain experiences. But it is just as much if not more what we’ve done in our lives that we now see are looking a little different. And things do look different in the light of death. And I think that’s what’s very important, because—
I think in an earlier talk on this subject, I said that death is not the opposite of life; it is the end of life. And as long as we’re relating to life as if it had no end, we are not relating to life as it actually is. It does have an end. This experience of physical existence is an experience and one day it will end.
Now knowing that and taking that in with some degree of acceptance leads us to make the most of our lives in however we understand that phrase. But because it places a definite limit on how long we’re going to be here. And as Susan was saying, we don’t—it encourages us not to live in self-deception. Because we know that when we die, “I just fooled myself all the time,” and that’s not going to feel real good.
Now from there, one could quite reasonably suppose that, well, just live life to the fullest. And some people would take that to the extreme, like “eat, drink and be merry”. Right? But then this other facet of our existence comes in: We don’t know when we’re going to die. It could be tomorrow and it could be twenty years from now. And someone said this evening, “I might have enough money to support myself for tomorrow, for the next month or maybe even the next year, but I don’t have enough money to support myself for twenty years. Some people may, but I don’t.”
So, I have to consider, okay, how am I actually going to live those twenty years? What am I going to do to provide myself with the necessities of life—food, clothing and shelter—to do that?
This completely screws things up, you know! Because now if we just knew we were just going to die, that’d be straightforward: we’d just live life to the fullest. But now we don’t know when we’re going to die. Now I need to figure out how I’m going to live indefinitely. And the thing that’s really annoying here is that we can put all that stuff in place and we may die tomorrow anyway.
So, what does this paradox of absolute certainty of death and absolute uncertainty about when we’re going to die. How do you live this way? Do you follow Joe?
Ken: So what’s your answer?
Joe: My mind immediately went to Zen Kitchen.
Joe: You cook tonight, you prepare tonight for breakfast tomorrow. But that’s tonight’s work, that’s not tomorrow’s work.
Ken: Now there’s something very subtle in this. We take our life and we see what it is logical and meaningful for us to do, so that the action that we do now has meaning in and of itself, not just in terms of the result that it’s going to produce. Because we have no idea if we are going to be around for that result.
Cara. I see you wore your Vespa vest tonight.
Cara: Oh, if I had a month to live, I would buy the greatest Vespa that you ever saw, and I would ride it everywhere! That’s interesting you say that. The night after class last week, I went out to dinner with some of my friends on Wednesday night, and I posed this question to them. I said, you know, “In all seriousness, if you had a year to live, like what would you do?” And they all said, “Oh, I’d max out my credit cards. Immediately! [laughter] Because you know—we’re in our twenties and we live in Silver Lake, so there you go!”
Ken: You live what?
Cara: We’re in our twenties and we live in Silver Lake. Which means we’re, like, bohemians.
Ken: It’s one of the more bohemian sections of L.A. [laughter]
Cara: Bohemians with taste. I don’t know! I just moved here. Always digressing! But I think that speaks to the paradox you’re talking about because, you know…
Ken: There’s no consequence if you know you are going to die. You max out the credit cards, live life to the fullest, eat, drink and be merry, fine. But the catch is what if you live two years now?
Cara: Exactly! No, but I was saying we lose—I personally think it would be irresponsible to structure your life like that. Because you have no responsibility. No real prospect of responsibility if you conduct yourself without any sort of regard for the result of your actions. Because, if you are just gonna die, then—
Ken: Why do we need to be responsible? And what do we need to be responsible for?
Cara: I think we need to—doesn’t this get into karma? Don’t we need to be responsible for what sort of energy we create and put out there and ingest?
Cara: Because [laughing] it’s the right thing to do?
Ken: Ahhh! Because “it’s the right thing to do.”
Cara: It’s not the right— I’d—because that’s the mmm… [Pause] BECAUSE!
Ken: It’s very good that this comes up. And you’re quite right: this gets into karma. But I want to talk a little bit about this notion of “the right thing to do.”
When we are considering deciding our actions, basing our actions on notions of right and wrong, it’s actually a very childish way to approach the world.
Cara: Well, I think it would be—wouldn’t it be remiss to say, “Well, I only have a month to live, so I think I’ll go on a homicidal rampage?” Like, it’s, I mean—
Ken: I am not quite sure why having only a month to live induces you to go on a homicidal rampage.
Cara: Well, it’s something I’ve never done before.
Ken: Well, do you want to do that?
Ken: Okay, so why would…
Ken: In fact I think it’s relatively unlikely to induce people to go on a homicidal rampage. Because, most of those people, like the Omaha person and Columbine and things like that, what they are screaming for—the one in Omaha recently left as his note: “Now I’ll be famous.” So they’re looking for some kind of attention. It’s a tragic cry for attention. Personally, and for the people who were killed or injured. It’s a feeling of not belonging, very, very profoundly. So I don’t see the prospect of dying shortly as inducing that kind of behavior.
Cara: I don’t mean to make light of recent tragedies, even today. But, I mean, if we’re not attached to rightness or wrongness, I find that quizzical. It was really strictly for the sake of argument. I am not a maniac, but—
Ken: That remains to be seen.
Cara: [whispering] Thank you very much! [spoken] I’m really not a maniac!
Ken: Okay, we have this officially on record: she is not a maniac. [laughing] The reason I say that deciding things on the basis of right and wrong is somewhat, is a childish approach to morality is that: it’s how we were taught. This is right; this is wrong. And we get punished for doing what is wrong and we are rewarded for doing what is right.
When you see someone struggling in their life, and you do something to help them, do you do it because it is “the right thing to do”? Why do you do it?
Cara: Because I’ve suffered.
Cara: Well, I’ve been a teacher for several years before I was in Los Angeles, and I had very mercurial relationships with teachers that I had had in the past, and I felt that a lot of the people who were charged with my education were very impatient, and impersonal and judgmental, and I worked very hard when I was teaching elementary school to be patient. When you said what’s—
Ken: Yes. Why did you struggle very hard to be patient? You have a definite reason and that’s what I want to bring out here.
Cara: Because I didn’t want to leave those people with the same impression of adults that I was left with when I was their age.
Ken: Exactly. Okay. Now that’s where I thought you were going to go, and I agree with you completely. This is very different from doing things on the basis of right and wrong. It’s that you understand the destructiveness of suffering. There’s a bit of a jump there, but I think you understand. Okay. So, our motivation for our actions comes out of compassion and an understanding, and an understanding of how things work and through understanding our own experience.
Now. What does proximity of death do to your understanding of your own experience? Art?
Art: It intensifies it.
Ken: Yeah. Significantly, right?
Ken: Yeah, in a word. So, this is one of the factors that accounts for the shift. It shines a different light. Rather than focusing on actions or things, the proximity of death shifts the attention to the quality of experience, you might say. And when attention shifts to the quality of experience—it also—we become aware that the quality of what we experience depends to a good deal on the quality of what those around us experience. So there is an opening and less of a preoccupation with one’s self through this.
Now—and this takes us back to what Joe was saying earlier about How To Cook Your Life(Uchiyama’s book)—in that we have this paradox of knowing that we’re going to die and not knowing when. And the effect of living, truly living in that paradox is that we focus on the quality of experience, moment to moment. I think that is what you were saying in your own way. Does that make sense, Joe?
Ken: Now the third factor that Gampopa brings in here is that when we die, we don’t take anything with us. Nothing follows us. Now in the Money and Value workshop that we did about 10 days ago, one of the things that I introduced but didn’t explore that deeply is one way to look at stoicism, which is a philosophy that came out of Greek and Roman times.
The Stoics didn’t value anything that could be taken away from you. And we find there’s something very similar: death takes everything away from you, and you can’t take anything with you. The Stoics would say, yes, that’s right. So we don’t value any of that stuff.
What do you value, then? And it gets quite interesting. Money? Okay. Money is easily taken away. You just have to have enough inflation and the value of your money is taken away, if you don’t have thieves to help along with the process and so forth. Or the government, or whatever.
Then, possessions? We’ve had fires here in Southern California, and people have learned, quite viscerally, that those can be taken away quite quickly. Family? Can they be taken away? Hm? Health? Can it be taken away? Life? Your own life? Can it be taken away? Yeah. So what do you value? Art?
Ken: You are going to have to say a little bit more than that. Because it isn’t just any experience.
Art: I’m…I’m not—
Ken: Would you value your dreams? The dreams you have at night?
Ken: That’s an experience.
Art: Yes, but to a lesser extent than my experience of interactions with others.
Ken: Okay, so what do you value about those?
Art: That can’t be taken away from you.
Ken: So, you’re having a fight with your wife, do you value that?
Art: If I’m skillful enough, that will teach me something.
Ken: So now you are changing the valuation. It’s not the experience, it’s what you learn. Is that what you mean?
Art: No, not quite.
Ken: No. I am playing Socrates here, you notice. Socrates was just such an annoying guy to have a talk with. I read the dialogues; I think he must have been a horrible person to be around!
Student: That’s why he had to drink hemlock. [laughter]
Art: Even in arguments, even in difficult times, even in moments like that, as well as the ones that are maybe at the other end of the spectrum, that are joyous and pleasurable and just perfect. For me there is a common experience. It touches on what Steve mentioned, briefly, there’s a bittersweet quality to it all. There’s a very—
Ken: I am going to suggest something to you. Is it the experience you value or the capacity to experience?
Art: Thank you. Yes.
Ken: Okay. So now we are moving very close to awareness.
Student: Would you say more about that?
Ken: Would I say more about that? Well, Art said he values experience. And then I used a typical logical tool—saying okay, experience and I posited a really bad experience. I mean, nobody enjoys having a fight with one’s spouse or partner. I mean, it’s painful, it’s really unpleasant and it leaves you feeling bad afterwards, etc. So I was putting forth a very powerful counterexample. And that caused Art to struggle a little bit. And he’s struggling but there is something there, even in that, that’s important. And he talked about learning from it. That’s when I suggested to him it wasn’t so much the experience itself, but this ability to experience anything that was really central. And that’s what we actually value. And that can’t be taken away. And that moves one to awareness.
So, the effect of these reflections on death put us in touch with what it means, what for most of us it means, to be human: i.e. that we are aware. And this is the very precious quality. Now, how much of our lives, what percentage of our lives are we aware?
Student: 0.002 percent.
Ken: 0.002 percent. Okay. Something along these lines. Yeah. This is the great paradox. This the one thing we arguably value most, when everything else is stripped away, and it’s the thing that we take most for granted, and actually spend most of our lives distracted by all kinds of stuff.
This is the purpose for meditating on death and impermanence. It puts us in touch with what is truly valuable—truly of value—in our lives. And by juxtaposing these three very simple facts about our experience—one, we are going to die; two, we don’t know when; three, death takes everything away—and that can happen at any time.
So how do we live in a way in which we aren’t giving away our life to stuff that can be taken away from us? Because that’s what most people do. They buy things, but they’re transitory. Or they want certain approval or recognition or appreciation by somebody or some group of people outside. In all of these ways we actually give our life away to others and then we wonder why we’re miserable.
As I think I mentioned during the Money workshop: there’s that bumper sticker, “The one with the most toys when he dies, wins.” And it is a very childish approach, but I mean, in what sense do you win in that? It’s absurd. But many people live their lives as if that were the truth. And they find when they die that it’s not [truth].
I remember I had a student down in Orange County for many years. And his father, from what I gather, was a pretty good person, but he was quite conservative in how he lived. Granted, he had come through the Depression so that he liked cashews, but always bought peanuts. I think his last words before he died were: “I should have bought more cashews.” That is, actually engage life more fully than he allowed himself to be.
And appreciation of the capacity for awareness is what allows us to engage life in whatever form it takes more fully, because that’s what it means to be aware: is that we are fully engaged in our experience. And I think that’s what you were driving at. So, the way that these meditations are described, there’s a tendency to take them very literally: this is about past lives or future lives and so forth. Or—
In this section C, he’s talking about our wealth, our friends, and body do not accompany us. But the underlying message is: these are the things for which we live and focus our attention and our energies, but they aren’t necessarily what we actually value. Or if they are what we value, then we’ll inevitably going to be disappointed because they’re ephemeral.
I probably can’t say this enough: the real aim here is to use death and impermanence as a way to appreciate what is really important for each of us individually. And it may not be exactly the same thing.
One of the first questions I always ask people when they come to study is, “Why are you here? What do you want to get from your practice?” And it’s very similar to this. “What’s really important for you? What’s bringing you here?” And for different people, it’s different things. But that’s very, very important to know. And the meditations on death and impermanence are one way to get at that question yourselves.
Now, I want to talk a bit about—I think that pretty well takes care of the content. No, we have one—
The last section on page 49. This was one of Rinpoche’s—my teacher’s—favorite meditations. He liked doing this. We learn about death from observing other people. Now, this is less true in our culture, because we hide death away a lot. But if you’re around old people or dying people, what is really good to do is to look at them and say, “I am going to be like this one day. This is going to happen to me.” This is exactly what Buddha Shakyamuni did when he was a young man. He saw someone was dying and went, “That happens to all of us? Ooh!” It is a way of taking this stuff in more deeply.
Another exercise that I find very helpful is to—and this is more about that death could come at any time—is to walk around feeling that death is just over your left shoulder, walking around right beside you, and it can strike at any time.
There’s a Sufi story about this.
Death’s come to Baghdad, and there is a student of a teacher who’s developed to the point that he can actually see Death. He [thinks], “Oh, my god, there’s Death. Maybe he’s come for me. I’ve got to get out of here!” And he gets a horse and travels as fast as he can to Samarkand, which is hundreds of miles away. And Death goes to visit his teacher. The teacher says, “Oh, are you here for me?” “No, no, I just thought I’d drop by to chat. By the way, there’s a certain student of yours. I was very surprised to see him here.” And the teacher says, “Why is that?” “I’m meeting with him in a few days in Samarkand.”
So, we don’t know when death’s going to come. And this puts us in the paradox of having to plan our lives, but not know whether we’re going be around to experience the results of whatever we do. And this puts us into a way of life in which what we do moment-to-moment is meaningful in that moment. And that has a very, very different quality to it than trying to store up masses of things which we can enjoy later. And because that way we’re not actually living in the present, we’re living in the, in an idea of the future of which we don’t know whether it is going to happen.
So, I hope from this you get some idea of where these meditations are pointing us and the possibilities that are opening up for us. To my mind, what’s important here is to understand the intention of these meditations, and then formulate a way of working with them, so that that’s realized. Not necessarily just slavishly doing exactly these meditations very literally. Because one can do that, and actually just miss the whole point.
Now, how do you do these meditations?
One of the frameworks for assimilating understanding, or developing understanding is a three step process, which is study, reflection and practice or meditation. And Jamgon Kongtrul commented on these as: When you study, when you are learning, learn everything under the sun. When you are thinking about things, keep an open mind. When you are practicing, do one thing, and go deep. This is very, very good advice.
When we apply these to death and impermanence the learning part is probably the easiest, because it’s all stuff we already know. And it’s just a case of calling it to mind. The reflection part is what’s really important. Many people find this difficult because they say, “Well, I already know this.” We know it, but just as I was discussing with Susan earlier, we know it at one level and we don’t know it at all at another.
So, the question is, how do we come to know it at that deeper level?
One of these days I’ll probably get around to developing this in terms of modern brain functioning: amygdalas, and limbic systems, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus, and all of that stuff. But I don’t have that stuff down well enough to go into it. Maybe you can do that Randye. But basically, I think we can talk about three levels of understanding. There’s an intellectual or conceptual level, an emotional level and an experiential level.
The intellectual level is just understanding it. The emotional level comes about by taking in the intellectual level or the conceptual level and resting in the experience of the emotional reactions to that.
So, when you consider the statement, “I’m going to die; I am not going to live forever,” what physical and emotional reactions arise for you? [pause] Anybody? Cara?
Cara: Not so much for myself but I remember when I was very small and my mother talked to me about what death was. I think someone had died in our family. It wasn’t my own mortality that caused me to panic. It was knowing that one day in the future—whenever that would be—that she would die.
Ken: Yeah. That’s exactly what happens with a young child. You know, “Are you leaving me now?”
Cara: But even now, that’s something that I think about. Not so much about my own death because I don’t really worry about the impact of that. But I think, you know, the ones that you love—
Ken: Quite right. But I’m asking you to think about your own death now.
Cara: It’s terrifying. Well no, it’s not terrifying. I don’t know. It doesn’t—
Ken: But right now. Just say, “I’m going to die.” What happens physically and emotionally, in you? “One day I am going to die. I am not going to experience this body or this world anymore.” What happens?
Cara: How? That’s all I want to know is how? It just brings up—that’s the first thing that comes to mind.
Ken: Yes. Well, what I want to suggest is: engaging the question “How?” is a way of exiting from the physical and emotional impact of that statement. Randye?
Randye: My mind and body reacted in opposite directions. My body tightened up and closed up and my belly hardened.
Randye: And my mind opened and relaxed and it felt nice. And the thought that came with it is that I’ve had a lot of really nice bits in my life and I’ve also had a lot of struggles. And to me the idea of death is just sort of letting go of all that. And that’s the end of the struggles.
Ken: Ah, it’s a relief. Ah.
Randy: Yeah. But my body tightened up in a real harsh way.
Ken: What emotions come up?
Randye: [pause] Is calm an emotion?
Ken: Well, if your body is tightening up, I don’t think calm is an emotion that’s going to be arising.
Randye: Um, that’s why I said it’s paradoxical, because my mind and body went different directions.
Ken: Your mind and body—but what I want to suggest here is, that you’re talking about basically the—
Randye: Well, the physical response is fear.
Ken: The physical response is fear in the body. What you are describing as your mind here is at the level of stories. I am interested in what’s in between. All of those things. [laughter]
Randye: Emotions? Me?
Ken: Yes. Even you.
Randye: I don’t know.
Ken: Well, fear. How do you experience fear, emotionally?
Randye: A backing away?
Ken: Yeah. So there is like a cringing, right?
Randye: Yeah. A closing and tightening.
Ken: So, did anybody else notice these things? Okay. So, what I want you to do right now, because, this is how you do this meditation.
You think, “Okay, I am going to die.” And one of the ways, as you know from Wake Up to Your Life is you think of all of those people in the past that have died. Hundreds and thousands of millions of them. And whole civilizations coming and going. And your own, all your ancestors dying. “Oh, gee, yeah, I’m going to die, too. I’m programmed. It’s in my genes. I’ve inherited—death is an inherited trait.”
Okay. So, you take it in. “I’m going to die.”
And you feel the body cringing. You feel yourself cringing at the prospect. There is fear associated with death. So now just experience the fear. Breathe. Experiencing the physical reactions and the emotional reactions. And every now and then, saying to yourself again, “I’m going to die.” And feeling how your whole system reacts to that. Not trying to change the reaction, just experience it. [long pause] Now, when you do this, you may find that the emotional field becomes a bit richer.
How many notice a bit of sadness coming up? How many notice a bit of anger? Okay. So include the sadness, include the anger. Because you’re sad that so much what you know, of what we know and is familiar to us is going to disappear. And we’re angry: “Gee, I can’t hold onto it. There it all is. And I’m going to die.”
Now what are you experiencing as you let, as you sit with this? Anybody? Joe?
Joe: What causes the strongest reaction in me is an actual—as concretely as possible to imagine my own death in whatever form. It can be in any form. It seems to be much more effective than imagining people who have died or their—
Ken: Yeah, okay. But when you sit with that, “I’m going to die,” what happens? When you sit with the emotional reactions and the physical reactions, what happens?
Joe: Overwhelmingly, for me, is a—what I recognize right now, is a panic. I can’t really separate out, at this point, anger or sadness. There is a connection that it will have—it will be hard for other people. In this case it’s the reverse, it’s my children, not my parents.
Ken: So, that’s where the sadness comes in?
Joe: It may be there, I can’t quite separate it out yet. It’s still a confused pain.
Ken: Okay. Now, how you practice here is you sit in that confused pain. You don’t try to do anything about it. But you just experience it. Because that’s a reaction to the prospect of one’s death. By sitting and just experiencing those emotional reactions—maybe some of you experienced even though we only did it for a very short period of time—the reactions come up, you experience them, they dissipate or seem to dissipate and now you find yourself resting deeper with a kind of deeper knowing, “Oh yeah, this is actually going to happen to me.”
And so, with every reaction you sit with and through, then the understanding that one is going to die comes in at another layer, emotionally.
Let’s try the same thing with the other meditation: “I could die at any time.” And you sit with that. “I could die at any time. I may not make it home tonight.” We’re gonna have a lot of people just curling up in the corner over here. “I may not live ’til next week.” Note the physical and emotional reactions that arise to the possibility of your dying at any time.
[very long pause]
What do you find yourselves experiencing? Agnes?
Agnes: It’s kind of contradictory. If I’m thinking about “I’m not going to make it home tonight,” it’s a kind of relief. Kind of like, “Oh, okay, that’s good. Many things I don’t have to cope with now.” It’s done. [laughter]
Ken: Don’t have to write that paper.
Agnes: Right. But “anytime”…there’s dread, anxiety. Breathing.
Ken: You notice all of that.
Agnes: All of the physical symptoms comes.
Ken: Okay. Anybody else? Lynea.
Lynea: I notice that in both of them this real feeling that my heart is just bleeding. And before we did the second one, I thought, “It’s going to be the same. It’s always the same.” But I noticed that the first reaction I had there was a real sense of groundlessness. Because now it was like, less out of control. Just if I am going to die, well that’s just a reality and you can just sit with it. But when you add that aspect of “anything” there was a real sense of—
Ken: Now it is totally out of control.
Lynea: Yeah, it is totally out of control. But then it settles back into the same thing.
Ken: Yeah. Okay. So, Cara?
Cara: In all seriousness, is there something wrong if we’re not panicking?
Ken: Ah. I wouldn’t say wrong. I would just say you probably haven’t opened to the full experience.
Cara: Well, but I…I don’t want to, like, wax on here much longer, but,I have ridden a motorcycle in…on a daily basis in one of the most heinously traffic-ridden cities in the world.
Ken: Taipei. Okay.
Cara: Where the taxi drivers are hopped up on god only knows what and don’t care if they hit you and the majority of my friends were unable to ride because they were too terrified on a daily basis of what might happen. And I felt like I made peace with that situation because I loved to ride so much and that outweighed my terror of being hit by a bus or a car.
Ken: Or a taxi.
Cara: And I felt like when I did that I really, really came to grips with the fact every time I got on my bike that this could be the last time I do anything.
Ken: Interesting. So in your own way you’ve done this contemplation.
Cara: I guess. I mean, I suppose—in a different—
Ken: I don’t think anything you’re saying there contradicts what we’re talking about here. Because when we think of this, “I could die at any time,” there is that dread, there is that lack of control that you are referring to, Lynea. And again, we sit with those emotional reactions. And that’s what allows it to penetrate. And that’s exactly what you’re describing.
Your friends couldn’t do that. But you enjoyed riding so much, that you allowed it to penetrate and you found a peace in you with that prospect. And this is what we’re are going to find when we do this. We will find a peace with this. But in finding that peace, we will also find that peace comes about by appreciating what is actually important to us. Which is exactly what you were describing: this was important to you.
I want to do it once more with the third meditation: “I will have to leave everything that I know and with which I am familiar. I have to leave it all behind.” [long pause]
Now, we are just touching these practices. What does this one bring up for you? What emotional or physical reactions arise here? Peri?
Peri: I found that one the most searing. I felt a little bit like swallowing Drano. Like, so hot, right down the core.
Ken: Okay. There are things you can think of that you just don’t want to leave. Right?
Ken: Anybody else? Okay. Now. Again, The process is the same. We have those emotional reactions, and sometimes—and they’ll have their physical expression. And we sit in the experience of them. And that’s how we take in that that’s actually the case.
Initially, it could be searing—you likened it to swallowing Drano, which is quite a vivid image. And as many of you know through your own meditation practice, we keep experiencing those emotional reactions. And we transform that reactive energy into attention. And now we are able to open to that possibility: “Oh, everything is going to disappear. Everything is going be taken away. That’s how it is.” But now it’s no longer simply an intellectual idea; now it makes emotional sense.
We can continue this process with these three meditations or with similar meditations. And it moves from the emotional level to the experiential level or let’s say the perceptual level. That is, we begin to see and experience the world that this is how things actually are. This is very, very important.
When I’ve taught these meditations in the past in small groups—the groups are usually of five to eight people—usually during the group one person would experience the death of someone close to them. Sometimes it was a person: a father, or a parent, or a relatively close relative. Sometimes it was a pet: something they were very, very close to. And what they found in every case was that having practiced these meditations allowed them to be in that experience far more completely and far less disturbed, because they had taken in that this is actually how the world is. We are going to die, we don’t know when, and when we do die, everything that we have is gone.
And it brings about a freedom. In particular, when someone close to us dies, we’re no longer surprised. We no longer feel that something has gone wrong with the world. We don’t ask, “Why is this happening?” Because, through these meditations, we understand, this is how things actually are.
I want to close by reading something that is very popular in a lot circles but is not always fully appreciated—especially some of the subtleties. There’s a sutra called The Sutra to the Kalamas, which is often quoted because Buddha is saying, “don’t just accept what people are saying.”
So he says:
Therefore, did we say, Kalamas, was said thus:
Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon tradition, nor upon rumor, nor upon what is in a scripture, nor upon surmise, nor upon an axiom, nor upon specious reasoning, nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over, nor upon another’s seeming ability, nor upon the consideration, “this monk is our teacher.”
So it’s encouraging us to rely on our own knowing. But he, Buddha, goes on to say: What is the criteria for accepting something as true and valid? The criteria are: These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise.
And these last two are very important: These things are praised by the wise, undertaken and observed. These things lead to benefit and happiness.
So the criteria for appraising whether a teaching or a way, a method of working is good is very much by observing the results that it has in us and in other people. And one of the reasons why death and impermanence is regarded as a very, very reliable practice is that it leads to a deeper appreciation of life; it leads to a deeper appreciation of what is important to us. It leads to letting go of concerns that seem very important but fade in importance in the light of death. It leads to greater equanimity, a greater peace and appreciation, as we were saying earlier, for the capacity of experience, the capacity to be aware. It actually leads also to a greater sense of compassion and understanding and appreciation of the struggles that others have, because they are the same as ours. These are all things that lead to benefit and happiness, both for ourselves and others.
So that’s where I want to close this evening—you have a little question, Molly? Please.
Molly: I think this is just to clarify, but this practice is preparing, I mean, it’s meant to prepare us for the concept of dying and not actually dying.
Ken: Well, I think it does both. There are other meditations which are more specific for, or other practices which are more specific for practicing dying itself. But if you take this in deeply enough, you are going to find that you’re far more prepared for your own death than you would be otherwise.
Ken: Because you will have worked through. You see, if you are with someone who is dying, you see them go absolutely through this process.
One of my students had a recurrence of breast cancer. She died three years ago. And up until the recurrence of the breast cancer, she was, there were certain things she enjoyed about life, but she was a very energetic businesswoman, and very smart and very capable, but caught up in all kinds of emotional stuff which caused her a lot of confusion and pain. And as the cancer advanced and it was clear that the chemotherapy and such were not going to stop it, then she went through a huge shift where things that infuriated and she raged against, she just let all of that stuff go, and began to appreciate, in just the way we were talking earlier, each moment of experience, the ability to experience whatever was there. And so she came to quite a profound sense of peace in her life. And when I visited her on most occasions, she would say, “It’s really quite something, Ken. Without this slow process of this cancer, I don’t think I would have ever come to understand what was important about life and in that sense, I am very grateful for it.”
Now, that’s exactly the kind of shift that these meditations are trying to encourage us to undertake without actually having our lives threatened by cancer. You follow?
Ken: But it is very difficult to do that because we are so caught up in all the stuff. Okay? When we do that, then we find we have a different relationship with life, and we will only do what is actually meaningful. And for some people, that will take one form, and for other people, it will take another form. There isn’t a right way and a wrong way. There is a way that is appropriate for each of us individually. The way that one does this is by taking these themes and these very, very obvious statements, and sitting with them, noting the physical and emotional reactions that arise, and sitting in one’s experience of them. That is how one practices the reflection and the practice stages of assimilating this, so that the understanding moves from the conceptual or intellectual level to the emotional, to the perceptual. So that we see that is how things are. And that makes a difference.
So this is the last class we will have for this year. We’re not meeting next week or on Christmas Day or on New Year’s Day. So, I guess it’s what? January 8th, which is four weeks from today. That’s when we’ll be back here. And I look forward to seeing you then.