LOVING AND DYING
Published for free distribution by
Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Centre
355 Jalan Mesjid Negeri
11600 Penang, Malaysia
I have written this book to share some thoughts on death with anybody
who may care to read it. Thoughts about how we can go about facing death -
with courage and equanimity. With dignity. And if you like with a smile.
Thoughts about how to cope with suffering, to live with wisdom and
compassion, or with as much of it as we can muster, until we die.
But people generally do not like to talk about death. Whenever the
subject is broached, they might start to feel uncomfortable. It is
especially considered taboo on auspicious occasions such as a birthday or
a New Year to talk about death. It is as if mentioning the word, death,
on an auspicious occasion would mar that occasion and bring about bad luck
or an earlier death! Of course, I do not agree with such notions. To me,
it is just a superstition. I can understand, though, if people were to
consider it bad taste to talk about death on auspicious occasions. But I
think it is good and wise to reflect often on death and even on occasions
such as a birthday or New Year, perhaps even more so on such occasions.
Why? Because we can consider that we are not growing any younger but
older, that each year brings us but one year closer to the grave. During
such reflections we can take stock of our life, reassess our position and
see whether we are going in the right direction - the direction of wisdom
As a monk, I constantly meditate on death. It reminds me to lead a more
meaningful life, not to waste my days away, though I must confess I still
fritter away precious time from time to time; for the mind, as you know,
can be very stubborn and lazy at times. Nevertheless by frequent
contemplation on death, I am reminded that I must find more time to
practise insight meditation so I can clean my mind of the defilements of
greed, hatred and delusion.
The Buddha advised us to contemplate often on death, as often as daily
or every now and then. It will arouse in us samvega - the sense of
urgency to strive harder to eradicate the suffering that comes from a
defiled mind and deluded mind. I like to talk about death. It's my
favourite subject. (Am I morbid? It's all right. Go ahead. You can say I'm
morbid and whatever you like. It's fine with me. I don't mind. People i.e.
not only me but also you, must be allowed their basic human right to
express their views and feelings as long as they do so in a legitimate,
sensitive, non-imposing and non-violent way. No one should get angry with
a person on account of his expressing his views in such manner, though
unfortunately, sometimes we forget and get all heated up.) But coming back
to the subject, I have always pondered, I have always wondered and am
still wondering: "Why do we live? Why do we die? What is it all about?
What is it all for? To what purpose? For what end?"
Many answers have been proffered, no doubt. And I'm sure there are many
people who would be happy to offer me answers to these questions that have
been asked ever since man began to think and ponder. But I cannot say I
have been satisfied with all the answers that have been given. I am still
seeking. These days I have become a Buddhist monk and taken up meditation.
I subscribe to the Buddha's five precepts of not killing or harming, not
stealing or cheating, not committing sexual misconduct such as adultery,
not lying, and not taking alcohol and drugs. As a monk though I observe,
in addition, celibacy and other rules for monks.
I cannot say I have as yet found all the answers to my questions, but I
have found some solace, some comfort in the Buddha's dispensation. I can
relate to the Buddha's teaching of mindfulness and loving-kindness. And
I'm still meditating. Perhaps I might find all the answers one day. It
will be nice if I can. But if I could not, it also doesn't matter. What
matters is that I have tried. I will be glad even if I were to die trying.
For at least I have tried. That way my life would still be meaningful, at
least to a certain extent. And along the way, of course, I will try to
spread as much good cheer and happiness according to my disposition and
I have tried in this book to share my limited understanding of life and
death. I feel that we need to discuss the question of death frankly. We
should not be afraid to bring up the subject. Otherwise, how can we
discuss and learn? When we can openly discuss and learn and understand,
then it is good; for we can come to terms with death. We can know better
how to deal with it. This is important; for the simple reason that all of
us must die. There is no escape. And if we cannot relate to death now, how
can we relate to it when we are lying on our deathbed, about to breathe
our last? Might we not be overcome with fear and confusion then? So it's
better to learn all about death now. It will surely stand us in good
stead. Then we need not fear anymore. We'll have confidence, and when
death comes we can go with a smile. We can say: "Death, do your worst. I
know you and I can smile."
I have written this book in a forthright and engaging a manner as
possible. I have tried not to be too academic or stilted. I wanted you to
enjoy reading this book, to chuckle over those parts that might elicit a
chuckle, and to pick up a thing or two which you might find helpful in
living, loving and dying. Also I have written not so much as from a monk
to a layperson but as from one human being to another human being. So I
have written quite freely with the purpose of communicating, of reaching
out to the heart. Though I cannot say how far I have succeeded or flopped!
Only you will be the best judge of that.
As I'm a Buddhist monk, readers will find that the contents contain a
lot of Buddhist values and concepts. Of course, some values, such as that
of love and compassion, are universal. They belong to no one religion but
to all. All religions teach love and compassion. They are all good
religions. But it's we, the followers, who do not follow. So we kill and
maim and hurt in the name of religion. Who's to be blamed but ourselves!
Not the religions or their founders who always preached love, wisdom,
mercy, forgiveness and compassion. If we can awaken to our ignorance, then
we can love truly. We can live as brothers and sisters with tolerance,
patience and understanding, with love and compassion.
I wrote this book mainly for Buddhists. But non-Buddhists too might
read and find some benefit, some common areas of agreement, appreciation
and understanding. At the very least, they would know the Buddhist point
of view, the Buddhist approach and understanding. It's good to know each
other's viewpoints; it leads to more tolerance, understanding and
appreciation of each other's approaches and beliefs. There is no desire on
my part at all to convert anybody. That should be very clear. Let
everybody practise their own religion and let them do so well; for as has
been well put by Nobel peace laureate, the Dalai Lama, compassion is,
after all, the essence of all religions.
I have tried to share my understanding to the best of my ability. But I
have no doubt that there will be some shortcomings here and there. Or some
areas where there may be differences of interpretation or understanding.
You may not like or agree with certain things I say. Or you may not like
the way I put it. You might think it is improper, flippant, insensitive,
sentimental, abrasive, distorted, absurd, or whatever. It is all right.
This is natural. As long as there are even two persons, there will be some
disagreements. You can just reject those things you do not agree with,
throw them out, so to speak. You need not have to accept everything I say.
Why should you? Of course you have a good mind of your own, and you can
(and must) think and decide for yourself. We can agree to disagree,
without getting upset or angry. We can agree to disagree and still remain
good friends. Can we not? That is the most wonderful thing, the
quintessence of mental maturity. It is for each of us to decide sincerely
and honestly for ourselves what we can relate to and what we cannot. We
need not believe everything or anything.
The Buddha himself said it's better that we carefully consider,
investigate and verify for ourselves before accepting anything. Even the
Buddha's own words too should come under the same intensity of scrutiny.
After all, the Buddha made no exception whatsoever. He never believed in
blind faith. He never told us to simply believe what he said and to simply
reject what others said. But he told us to investigate, practise and
verify for ourselves. If we find that a certain teaching is good, that it
is wholesome and leads to the eradication of greed, hatred and delusion,
then we can accept it. If not, we should reject it. It's excellent advice.
And, therefore, taking a cue from the Buddha, I always like to say:
Believe nothing. But I think, practise and verify for yourself. That's to
me the best and safest approach. But as for any mistakes on my part in the
writing of this book, I do apologise and ask for forgiveness.
May all beings be happy. May we all find the wisdom and happiness that
we seek, each in our own way. And happy reading!
HELLO DEATH GOODBYE LIFE
One day when I die, as I must, I'd like to die with a smile on my lips.
I'd like to go peacefully, to greet death like a friend, to be able to say
quite cheerfully: "Hello Death, Goodbye Life."
I can imagine myself having a conversation with death. Perhaps it might
go this way: "Hello Death! How are you? I have been waiting for you a long
time. All my life I have been anticipating you. Are you coming for me at
long last? Is it time for me to go already?
"Yes, yes, Death I am coming. Be patient. I'm ready. Can't you see I am
smiling? Since a long time ago I have been planning to welcome you with a
smile. Yes, Death, I understand. You don't have to apologise. I know
you've got a job to do. I hold nothing against you. No hard feelings. It's
nothing personal, I understand.
"As I have said, Death, all my life I have been waiting for this
moment. To see whether I can meet you with a smile. To see whether I
could, at least, inspire in death, if not in life. You are now giving me
this opportunity and I thank you for it.
"Yes, I have heard a lot about you. That you wait for no man. That you
come like a thief in the night. That you'll bargain with nobody. That
you'll not take no for an answer.
"Death, it's all right. I'll come with you gladly. I'm tired. This body
is like a broken shell. It had seen better days. It has outlived its use
and time. As you can see I'm already almost dead. And I have been enduring
all this pain, trying to smile at all these many visitors calling on me.
Death, to tell you the truth, you should have come earlier. After all the
pain, you are a welcome respite, like a godsend. But enough of this talk.
Death, let's not dally. Let's go. Come, hold my hand."
And I'd go, as I have always dreamt, with a smile on my lips. What a
beautiful way to die! All the people who have gathered around me need not
cry. They can be happy because they can see I'm smiling. They'll know that
I'm all right. Death is nothing to be afraid of. Treat death like a
friend. Be ever ready to say hello to death and goodbye to life.
Of course no one is spared from death. All of us have to die. As the
Buddha said: "Life is uncertain but death is certain". While we live we
suffer the separation that comes with the death of a loved one. Both my
grandparents have died. I do not remember my grandfather. He died when I
was very young. But I do remember my grandmother. She was very kind to me.
She was also very poor. She preferred to live in the countryside while my
parents resided in town. I remember once when she visited us, I asked her
for five cents. She immediately took out her purse, dug out five cents and
gave it to me. In those days, there was purchasing power even in five
cents: you could get an ice-ball or a glass of iced drink with five cents.
If you drink the coconut water served by the Indian man you could even
have two glasses for five cents! And for five cents too you could get five
My father died when I was 10. I remember visiting him for the last time
one night at the General Hospital as he lay there dying from tuberculosis
and other complications. I remember my mother telling him: "Ah Beh, this
is your son Johnny come to see you." My father couldn't speak. He had an
oxygen tube inserted in his nose. He seemed to look at me weakly. I was
young. I didn't know what death was about then, though I know better now.
My poor mother suffered the most. She had seen so many deaths and had a
most difficult life from young. Definitely, life was no bed of roses for
One of my brothers died while still a baby. Another died at 23 together
with his fiancee. It was tragic. They drowned. I can still remember seeing
their bodies in the mortuary. My mother was wailing her heart out. It was
very painful for her to lose a beloved son in such a tragic way. I was
quite stunned and just didn't know what to make out of it all. I was 16
then. I tried to appear nonchalant, casual. I kept away the tears. I spoke
and behaved as if nothing had happened, as if death was to me an everyday
affair, and there was no need to grieve. I made light of it, trying to put
on a cool exterior.
But in private I cried. I cried bitterly. And after the funeral I went
back to the cemetery. I cycled there with a cangkul. I dug the ground and
planted flowers around the grave of my brother and his beloved's. I carved
on his wooden cross the words: "Greater love than this no man hath that he
should lay down his life for his friend", as he had died while trying to
save his fiancee. And I spoke to God. I asked Him: "Lord, why do you do
this to me? Why do you take away my brother? Is it your will, your desire?
Then if it is, let your will be done. I accept it." For you see, I was a
good Christian then. And God's will must precede all others. It must not
be questioned. Though as a Buddhist now, I believe I understand a little
better. Yes, no God took away my brother. If we accept life we must accept
death. Death is part and parcel of life. As the Buddha said, it is
ignorance that makes the world of suffering go round, and we fare on from
life to life according to our deeds. Good begets good and bad begets bad.
I must confess I can relate better to the Buddha's way of looking at
Later in life I saw more deaths. As a journalist, I had seen bodies -
people who died from accidents, gang-fights, suicides, samsu poisoning,
etc. I wrote dramatic, touching or tragic stories about how people died.
There was the man who kissed his little daughter goodbye and then shot
himself in the head. Then there was a young couple who was found in a
suicide pact on a hotel bed. The girl died from the poison they took; her
boyfriend survived. And there was the notorious robber gunned down by
police on a New Year's day. He was a marked man, who could not live to see
the end of the first day of a new year. But for me it was just another
story. I never thought very deeply about death then. I was quite numbed by
it all. All I wanted was to get the best story for the front page of the
newspaper. There was little feeling or compassion in me for the poor
victims. I was quite a hard-hearted and selfish person then, just
interested in my own well-being.
Still much later on, as a monk, I encountered deaths - this time with
more feeling and compassion. When I visited the sick, I could feel
sympathy for them. I tried as best as I could to console. To the
Buddhists, I recited the suttas, the Buddhist scriptures. I told them what
the Buddha said: "The body may be sick but let not the mind be sick." We
may not be able to do much for the body but we can do something about the
mind. We can keep it steady even when we are sick. We can be mindful. We
can watch the rise and fall of the pain, how it comes and goes in waves.
We can understand the nature of suffering. We can meet it and learn from
it. It is there as a test - of how well we have understood the nature of
life, how well we have understood that there is no permanent self here but
only constant change of arising and passing away, like the ceaseless
flowing of a river; how well we have understood that it is our ignorance,
craving, attachment, anger, fear, etc, that are the cause of our
In that understanding, we can rise up to meet the pain. We can take it
in our stride. We can remain calm and cool. Without even the slightest bit
of depression. Yes, we can smile, even at our pain. We can say: "Hey pain,
you are really trying to do me in. Are you not? Another person might
succumb to you but not me. I have been training and steeling myself for
you. The Buddha teaches that I should respond without anger or aversion.
So I'm trying to respond to you now without anger or aversion. I
understand that with mindfulness and peace in my heart, I can rise above
you. I can smile at you. You teach me that life is suffering. But you also
teach me that I can rise above you." And you can smile at the pain. You
will feel immediately better.
Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
Kindness in another's trouble,
Courage in your own.
As I'm writing now, I recall that just yesterday a fellow monk died. He
had been suffering from terminal cancer for eight months. When I was by
his side at the hospital a few days before his death, he was in pain. I
tried to feed him some broth but he could not eat. He looked quite gaunt
and grim. He could hardly speak. The cancer had ravaged his body and it
was no easy task for his mind to bear up. I urged him to note or observe
the pain as he would do in normal meditation, to remain as calm and
equanimous as possible. He was a staunch meditator and I am sure he
meditated to the very end.
I remember another occasion when I visited a kind old man who had
leukemia. He too was in pain. It showed on his face. There were beads of
sweat on his forehead and face. I took a towel and gently wiped away his
sweat. I whispered into his ear and tried to soothe him. This man too was
a meditator and again I reminded him to maintain mindfulness, to observe
the pain as calmly as possible. I was happy when the look of pain
disappeared from his face. Shortly after, his relatives came and I left
him. A few hours later he died. I was glad I was able to help him a little
before he expired.
Although there is happiness in life, there is also suffering. The
happiness seems so fleeting - gone in no time only to be replaced by
sorrow and discontent. Life itself, because it ends in death, is a
tragedy. Someone once said life is like an onion: you peel it crying. The
Buddha says birth is suffering because it leads inevitably to decay and
death. We should understand this well. If we accept life we must accept
death. If we want to cry when somebody dies, then we should also cry at
his birth. For the moment a baby is born the seed of death is in him. But
we are happy when a child is born. We laugh and we congratulate the
parents. If we understand birth - that it must lead to death - then when
death comes we should be able to face it with a smile.
Seeing how people die in pain, their body wracked by disease, and
seeing how all life must end in death (a fact that is driven home to me
every time I went for funeral chanting), two resolutions arose in my mind:
First, when the time comes for me to die, I want to die with a smile on my
lips. I want to be able to be very mindful and serene. In other words I
want to keep my wits about me. I want to be able to smile at my pain no
matter how excruciating it may be. I want to be able to smile at all the
visitors that may call on me. I want to be able to smile at all the kind
doctors and nurses who attend upon me. I want to be able to smile at my
fellow patients and to help in whatever way I can in the hospital, whether
to inspire or to console.
Instead of the doctors and nurses asking me how I am, I want to ask
them: "How are you doc? How are you Sister? How is your day today? You
know, you are doing a great job. We are very lucky to have you. Please
keep up the good work. Thank you very much!" And to my Buddhist visitors,
I will speak Dhamma [*1]. I'll say: Look at me. I'm half-dead. Finished!
You know, it's not easy to meditate when you are half-dead. So while you
are still healthy, make the most of it. Meditate! Practise the Dhamma!
Have no regrets later. Don't wait until you become fatally ill. It will be
too late then. But if you have been doing your meditation practice now,
then when you fall sick it won't be so difficult to face the pain. You can
observe and even transcend it.
You know, the Buddha tells us that everything is impermanent. If we
meditate hard enough, we can understand the fact of impermanence more
deeply, such that we will not be so attached to this mind and body. We
will know for certain that this body is not ours; this mind too is not
ours. Understanding, we will be able to let go. We will not be so attached
to the gross sensual pleasures of life. We can live more wisely. We can
grow old gracefully. And we need not fear death.
The Buddha says suffering is inherent in life. And we must learn how to
live with it and to transcend it. Only by applying mindfulness in our
daily life and by meditating can we penetrate the truth of suffering. When
we have understood suffering deeply, we will strive to remove the cause of
it, which is our craving, our attachment to life, to the sensual lure of
pleasant sights, pleasant sounds, pleasant smell, pleasant tastes and
pleasant touch. We will try to purify our mind and heart of all
According to the Buddha, when our mind is purified of greed, hatred and
delusion, we will overcome all suffering. We will never again respond with
attachment or aversion to anything. Instead there will be only wisdom and
compassion in us. Just this is the end of suffering. Clinging no more we
can never suffer. Even physical pain brings no mental suffering as the
mind does not respond with aversion or anger. The mind can be calm and
peaceful. There is acceptance and understanding. And when we die with this
kind of wisdom and peace, the Buddha says that will be the end of
suffering. No more rebirth, no more coming back to this cycle of birth and
death. If we do not take on any new birth, there will be no decay and
death together with its attendant suffering. Finished! The curtain falls!
This mass of suffering is extinguished. And we can then say, just as the
saints of old had said, "Done is what is to be done. Lived is the holy
Of course, right now we may still be far from the goal. But as they
say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So I'm an
optimist. Yes, I'm a Buddhist and an optimist. (Who says a Buddhist is a
pessimist?) And I believe that every step we take on the path of
mindfulness shall bring us one step closer to the goal - the goal of
Nibbana, the end of all suffering. And being an optimist, I like to think
that we will reach it sooner rather than later.
Saying it with flowers too
And so as I'm lying on my hospital bed, I'd like to speak Dhamma to all
those who call on me, or to anybody who cares to listen. And furthermore,
I can send flowers to all my friends out there. I might include a card
with a message that can go something like this: "Hello there! How are you?
Do you like these flowers? Are they not beautiful? Do you have time to
pause and appreciate the beauty of a flower and breathe in its fragrance?
And when you look at a flower, do you also see the shining eyes of your
loved one or your child? And do you feel and understand their hopes and
their fears? Or are you too busy, too preoccupied with your own worldly
plans and ambitions, your pursuit of fame and wealth?
"Have you considered well the nature of impermanence, my friend - how
all must fade and die? And how, while we are alive, we ought to live
meaningfully so as to have no regrets later. By the way, like the flower
that is fading, I too am dying. But I'm sending you good wishes. May you
be well and happy! I hope you do find time for your loved ones and for the
practice of meditation. You know, making money, acquiring luxuries,
enjoying sensual pleasures is not everything. They may feel good for a
while, but actually being kind and loving is more important: it will give
you more satisfaction and happiness. Forgive me for preaching such
platitudes but do give some heed to the words of a dying person. Allow him
to say his piece. Yes, while you are alive, you should try to spread as
much good cheer and happiness as possible. Forgive everybody. Do not
harbour any grudges or consider anybody your enemies. Always remember,
life is short and soon we will all be dead. And love is giving, not
taking. Love gives without attaching any conditions. Love expects no
return. Try to cultivate this beautiful kind of love. Be happy!" And I'll
end with a PS - "Take good care. You need not visit me. But you can be
happy for me. For I'm smiling and I'm happy that I can die with a smile on
my lips. Cheerio and good luck!"
And if I could not speak because I was too ill, then still I could
smile to show that everything was fine, that the disease was only getting
my body and not my mind. In that way one can inspire even when one is ill.
People might then appreciate the Dhamma more and practise even harder. Of
course, if I am addressing my non-Buddhist friends, I must not impose my
religious views upon them. I can express my views but in no way must I
impose it upon them. Just as I would not want them to impose their views
on me, so too must I not impose my views on them. We must give due respect
to each other's religious views and have loving-kindness for each other.
In this way, there will be peaceful co-existence.
COPING WITH DISEASE -
THE RIGHT ATTITUDE
We should not look on disease and suffering as something which will
destroy us completely, and thereby giving in to despair and despondency.
On the contrary, we (i.e. in the case of Buddhists) can look upon it as a
test of how well we have understood the Buddha's teachings, how well we
can apply the understanding we have supposedly learnt. If we cannot cope
mentally, if we break down, it shows our understanding of the Dhamma, our
practice, is still weak. So, in this way, it is a test and an opportunity
for us to see how well we have mastered our practice.
Then also, disease is an opportunity for us to further enhance our
practice of patience and tolerance. How can we practise and develop
paramis [*2] (perfections) such as patience if we are not tested, if we
are not put under difficult and severe conditions? So, in this way, we can
look at the disease as an opportunity for us to cultivate more patience.
We can also look at health as not just the mere absence of disease but
the capacity to experience a disease, and to learn and grow from it. Yes,
such a novel definition of health comes from certain medical experts, such
as Dr Paul Pearsall, of the Sinai Hospital, Detroit, USA. Seeing how
disease can never be completely eradicated and how we have eventually to
succumb in one way or another, these doctors have come up with a
definition of health that can help us to adjust to disease when it comes.
It is true, isn't it? - that no matter how many sophisticated machines,
procedures and drugs we may come up with, people still succumb to cancer,
AIDS, heart disease and a host of other ailments. Ultimately there is no
escape. We have to understand and accept the fact, so that when it comes
and we have to go down, we can go down gracefully. No doubt, we will treat
the disease as best we can, but when despite our best efforts, we fail and
the disease continues to progress, we have to accept and reconcile with
In the final analysis, it is not how long we live but how well we live
that counts, and that includes how well we can accept our disease, and
finally how well we can die. In this regard, Dr Bernie S. Siegel, in his
book, Peace, Love & Healing, wrote:
"Exceptional patients don't try not to die. They try to live until they
die. Then they are successes, no matter what the outcome of their disease,
because they have healed their lives, even if they have not cured their
And he also said:
"A successful life is not about dying. It is about living well. I have
known two-year-olds and nine-year-olds who have changed people and even
entire communities by their ability to love, and their lives were
successful though short. On the other hand, I have known many who lived
much longer and left behind nothing but emptiness."
So it can be quite wonderful after all that our life can be healed even
though our diseases may not be cured. How? Because suffering is a teacher
and if we learn our lesson well, we can become surprisingly better
persons. Have we not heard accounts of how people after having gone
through great suffering, emerged changed and better persons? If they had
been impatient, selfish, arrogant and thoughtless before, they might
become more patient, kind, gentle and humble. Sometimes they remarked that
the disease was a good thing for them - it gave them an opportunity to
reconsider their lifestyle and the more important values in life. They
come to appreciate their family and friends more, and they now value the
time they spend with their loved ones. And if they were to recover, they
would find more time for their loved ones, and to do the things that are
really more important and meaningful.
But even if we were to succumb to the disease we can still learn and
grow from it. We could understand the precariousness of life and how true
the Buddha's teaching was - that there is an essential flaw in life. We
could become kinder and more appreciative of the kindness we have received
from people. We could forgive those who had hurt us. We could love more
richly, more deeply. And when death comes, we can die with acceptance and
peace. In this way, we can say that our life is healed because we are
reconciled with the world and we are at peace.
We can meditate
When we are sick and bedridden, we need not despair. We can meditate
even when we are in bed. We can observe our mind and body. We can obtain
calmness and strength by doing breathing meditation. We can observe our
in-breath and out-breath, knowing as we breathe in and out. This can give
us a calming effect. Or we can observe the rising and falling of the
abdomen as we breath in and out. Our mind can follow the rising and
falling, and become, as it were, one with it. This too can give us
calmness. And from such calmness, understanding can arise. We might see
the transient and dissolutary nature of all phenomena, and be able to
reconcile with the fact of impermanence, unsatisfactori-ness and no-self.
If we have learnt mindfulness or Vipassana [*3] meditation, we can pass
our time quite easily. There are many objects we can observe in any
posture, whether lying down, sitting, walking or standing. We can know our
posture as it is, and feel the sensations that arise in our body. We can
observe them with a steady and calm mind. And, of course, the mind is also
a subject for observation. So we can also observe the states of our mind.
All can be observed - sadness, depression, restlessness, worry, thoughts -
and they would all pass, giving way to equanimity, peace and wisdom.
Wholesome and unwholesome states will come and go. We will be able to
watch them all with understanding and equanimity.
Sometimes we can radiate metta (loving-kindness). Again and
again we can wish for all beings:
May all beings be well and happy.
May they be free from harm and danger.
May they be free from mental suffering.
May they be free from physical suffering.
May they take care of themselves happily. [*4]
In this way too, we can pass our time quite happily even if we are
bedridden. We can radiate metta to the doctors, nurses and
fellow-patients. We can also send our metta to our loved ones, relatives
and friends. Moreover, we can reflect on the Dhamma from time to time,
recollect what we have read, heard or understood. Reflecting thus, we can
respond to our suffering with wisdom and equanimity.
The instruction of the Buddha was to cultivate the mind, to meditate,
and to do so even when we are sick. In fact, it is at such times that we
need to make even more effort to summon up our mindfulness. Who knows,
Nibbana or the highest wisdom, may be attained even as we breathe our
last! In the scriptures, the Buddha cited the case of a person who was
sick - afflicted with painful bodily feelings, grievous, sharp, racking,
distracting, discomforting that drained the life away. But that person was
not disheartened. He felt samvega - a sense of urgency to strive
even in his last hours. "He makes effort accordingly," the Buddha said.
"His mind being intent on Nibbana, he realizes with his own person the
supreme truth, he sees it by penetrating it with wisdom."
True it is, true it is, householder, that
you are sick; your body
is weak and cumbered. For one carrying this body about,
householder, to claim but a moment's health would be sheer
foolishness. Wherefore, householder, thus you should train
yourself: "Though my body is sick, my mind shall not be sick."
Thus householder, must you train yourself.
TRIBUTE TO KUAI CHAN
I'd like to tell you about a brave yogi who died peacefully from lung
cancer with the word, Nibbana, on her lips. Her name is Kuai Chan and she
passed away on December 18, 1992 at her home in Kuala Lumpur. She was 43.
Her husband, Billy, told me how she coped with the disease. Finding the
account most inspiring, especially for yogis (meditators), I asked him for
permission to relate it in this book, and I thank him for agreeing to it.
Kuai Chan was first diagnosed with breast cancer in April 1989. At that
time she had already practised Vipassana meditation for about a year. She
took the diagnosis calmly. "My wife accepted that it was her kamma [*5],"
said Billy. "She did not blame anybody or anything. She was not bitter nor
did she fall into any depression. She was remarkably steady and remained
quite so till her death." Kuai Chan underwent an operation to remove the
affected breast. Then after three months she had to be operated upon again
when the cancer cells were found to be still growing in the area. After
that she underwent radio- and chemo-therapy with minimal side-effects.
Throughout her treatment for her breast cancer, and in the last six months
of her life after she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, she
declined to take any pain medication. "She didn't want any painkillers,"
said Billy. "Even when the pain was excruciating, she refused to take any
paindrugs, not even a panadol. She was a very determined person, very
strong and admirable."
Her decision to go without the pain medication was because she wanted
to keep her mind as clear and alert as possible. She was a yogi, and all
yogis value their mindfulness. They wouldn't want any drugs that can dull
their mind and impair their meditation. So if they can take on the pain
they would do so. Kuai Chan was prepared to face the pain, so she declined
the painkillers. She only agreed to the radio- and chemo-therapy for her
breast cancer because they might have led to a cure. But later when she
had lung cancer and was told that it was terminal, she declined the radio-
and chemo-therapy recommended by a hospital for alleviating her
suffocation. And when a doctor offered to administer pain medication, such
as morphine, she rejected it too.
Billy said that in her first bout with the breast cancer, Kuai Chan had
little problem with the pain she felt after the operation. As a yogi, she
was able to note the pain quite well and it would disappear. But the lung
cancer was a real ordeal for her. The pain was terribly acute at times but
still she refused drugs. There were times she just collapsed and lay
prostrate on the floor when the pain struck. But still she held on. She
also had a wracking cough which persisted for many days and nights. Billy
was by her side and when she could not sleep night after night, he tried
to soothe her pain and cough by rubbing ointment, massaging and other
traditional remedies. He took her to see Chinese physicians and obtained
many kinds of herbs and brewed them for her to drink.
Billy said it was Kuai Chan's faith and meditation that enabled her to
face her suffering with a remarkable degree of serenity and composure.
Both of them had meditated with Venerable Sujiva at a Retreat in Taiping
in 1988. Subsequently Kuai Chan continued to attend regular Retreats at
the Venerable's Santisukharama hermitage at Kota Tinggi, Johor.
When she was diagnosed with lung cancer after a coughing spell in July
1992, the doctor gave her one month to live. Showing Kuai Chan and Billy
the x-ray, he pointed out how the cancer had spread all over the lungs. He
even expressed surprise that Kuai Chan could still be walking around and
looking quite healthy, given the condition of her cancer-ravaged lungs.
But the doctor didn't know that Kuai Chan had a mind of steel. She
survived for six months. For her then it was not so much a battle to stay
alive as to die with dignity. When she and Billy saw me at the Wisdom
Centre in Petaling Jaya where I was visiting in July, they asked what
could they do. I told them: What could a yogi do but meditate! If I were
her I would meditate to the very end, I said. They were encouraged and
Kuai Chai was determined then to spend the rest of her days meditating in
her home. Billy said he would support her all the way.
But she didn't reckon the pain could be so terrible. She told Billy she
never knew there could be such pain. It was especially severe in her lower
back, burning and cutting into her. She summoned all her mental strength
to note the pain but still she would lose out. It was too much. There were
times when she could only lay there helpless without being able to note
the pain anymore. She was sheerly enduring. But she would not take any
paindrugs. She consulted her meditation teacher Ven Sujiva who advised her
to do metta (loving-kindness) and in-breath out-breath meditation to
soothe the pain when she could not tolerate it anymore. This gave her some
relief. Coming out from such relief, she could continue her vipassana
meditation. One day after three weeks of battling with persistent pain,
she had a unique experience. She told Billy that while noting the sharp
pain, she observed it becoming finer and finer until it vividly
disappeared. She said she felt as if all her senses were cut off, as if
there was no nama-rupa (mind and body) at that moment, that her mind and
body had disappeared together with the pain. She told Billy she felt that
this was like a Nibbanic experience, and she felt a great joy came over
her. After that experience, she never encountered that kind of
excruciating pain anymore.
Ten days before her end, Billy admitted her to a private hospital as
she was having difficulty breathing. The doctors put her on oxygen. X-rays
showed that the cancer cells had spread further, aggravating the
suffocation. That was when radio- and chemo-therapy was suggested, not as
a possible cure but merely to alleviate the condition. But Kuai Chan
didn't want her mind to lose its clarity, and so rejected the suggestion.
After five days she asked Billy to take her home as she felt there was no
longer any reason for her to stay in the hospital. Billy installed an
oxygen tank in their home, took her back and put her on the oxygen to
alleviate her breathing difficulty. For the next five days from December
13 to her death on Dec. 18, she seemed to be in some kind of sleep, waking
up only now and then. Two days before her death, she could still remember
her daughter's 17th birthday which fell on Dec. 17. She reminded Billy to
boil two eggs for their daughter and to give her a red packet, which he
On Dec. 18 she woke up at about 9am with a smile. She asked: "Have I
been sleeping?" Billy replied: "Yes, it's been five days already. Don't
you know?" She was surprised. She appeared happy and was smiling. She said
she didn't need to take herbal medicines anymore. She again remembered her
daughter's birthday, and although Billy told her he had already given
their daughter a red packet as instructed, she told him again: "Give her
another ang-pow on my behalf."
At about 2pm, Billy said, Kuai Chan tried to say something to him but
was too weak to speak. Billy reminded her to maintain a detached frame of
mind, not to worry about him and the children, and to feel free to go
peacefully. He said they had discussed this many times before, that if she
should be cured it is good; but if that is not possible, it is all right
also: she should be able to go gracefully, understanding the law of kamma,
that all of us must separate one day.
At 3pm when her son, aged 15, returned from school and announced to
her: "Mother, I am back," she understood although she could not speak. She
nodded her head to indicate that she knew.
At about 3.30pm, Billy said, Kuai Chan managed with some effort to say
very distinctly in Cantonese, "Woh yap niphoon", which literally means "I
have entered Nibbana," which means to say she believed she had realized or
experienced Nibbana. And she pointed to her abdomen. That was her last
words, and she passed away peacefully about 45 minutes later. Billy said
Kuai Chan, in her meditation, usually observed the rising and falling
motion of the abdomen that occurred with every in- and out-breath. She
found the abdominal rising and falling a good object to place her mind
upon, and she used to encourage other yogis to stick to that object too.
Whatever phenomena in the body or mind one applies one's mindfulness and
concentration upon, one would eventually see the arising and dissolution
of the phenomena and come to understand their impermanence, unsatisfactory
and no-self nature. Such understanding can climax in the attainment of
Nibbana, a state of cessation of sufferng. Defilements of greed, hatred
and delusion are totally eradicated when Nibbana is experienced at the
arahant level. [*6]
Billy said that as her end approached, Kuai Chan's face took on a kind
of radiance, and when she spoke, her eyes were bright and clear. At about
4.15pm, Billy noticed that she had stopped breathing. "She looked very
peaceful, very serene. She passed away very peacefully," said Billy.
At about 4pm that day, a Dhamma friend, Lily, who was staying about 25
km away in Petaling Jaya, had a sudden desire to radiate metta
(loving-kindness) to Kuai Chan. Lily sat down to meditate, sending out
thoughts of metta to Kuai Chan. And she said she had a "crystal-clear"
vision of Kuai Chan, who looked serene. When she stopped her meditation,
she looked at the clock. It was 4.15pm, at about the same time Kuai Chan
had passed away.
Dying the way she did, it is clear that Kuai Chan had a good death.
What better way to go than this - with her mind intent on Nibbana. Who can
say what unique experience she might have undergone? Only she can know.
But one thing is certain, her mind was even, to the last, inclined to
Nibbana. I would like to think that she had attained her Nibbana. If she
had not done so in this life, I would think that with her mind, being so
firm and resolute, she would have undergone a good rebirth as a human
being or deva (a celestial being) and would attain her cherished goal in
As a Buddhist, she had instructed Billy to give her a very simple
funeral, devoid of superfluous rites and rituals. According to her desire,
Billy arranged for her cremation the following day. Several Buddhist
monks, yogis and friends recited Buddhist suttas. It was all very simple,
as she had requested. Billy collected her ashes and had them strewn at the
bodhi tree at their teacher's meditation hermitage in Johor.
Recollecting their life together, Billy said Kuai Chan was the best
wife he could ask for: "We were married for 22 years and she stood by me
through thick and thin, through my many trials and tribulations. She had a
cheerful and bright disposition. She was always loving and caring. Even
when she was ill she was marvellous. She never complained. She was not
depressed. There was no anger or bitterness in her. She remained calm and
steady. She could still smile and laugh. She accepted all her suffering
with grace. She would say that it was only her body that was sick but not
her mind. Her mind was still fine and healthy. Her concern too was not for
herself but for others. She said that if she could live ten years longer,
she would do more Dhamma work. She was concerned too about me and the
"In fact, she took her suffering better than I did. I could not bear to
see her in so much pain. I tried to get her all the best herbs in the hope
of a cure or some respite. Sometimes I asked why all this should happen to
her. And I thought: Let her live 10 years more and I 10 years less. Let me
give her 10 years of my life. But of course that's not for us to say. It's
kamma that has the last say.
"She used to tell me: "It's my kamma, Billy. It's all right. I do not
know what I might have done in my past lives. I must accept my kamma."
Sometimes she would say: "I'm so sorry I give you all this trouble, Billy,
all this suffering. You know, Billy, I owe you a lot in this life." I
would tell her not to say like that. She doesn't owe me anything, I said.
We are husband and wife, are we not? - and she has been a great wife to
me. We have gone through thick and thin together, and now in her hour of
need, I shall be by her side. We shall sink or swim together, I told her,
I assured her.
"At other times she would tell me: 'Billy, this is the true teaching,
the true path, I am very convinced of that,' and she reminded me not to
neglect my practice of meditation, not to be complacent but to practise
hard. We had been searching for some time for a teaching that we could
relate to. And when we came across Buddhism and Vipassana meditation in
1988, we took to it. You know, we used to discuss the Dhamma together
every night over a cup of tea. We had a great relationship."
Kuai Chan's cousin, Sati, once asked her whether she had any fear of
the cancer, and she said no, she was not afraid of the disease. She was
prepared to take on the pain without drugs. She was truly a heroic yogi,
one who in the face of great odds, still persevered in her practice of the
Dhamma. She made me wonder if I, as a monk, were to be in her condition,
to have cancer, would I be able to bear up that much, to have that much
courage and endurance? She is truly an inspiring example, a teacher by
example to us all. I must thank Billy for foregoing his privacy to share
with us this inspiring account so that we too can be encouraged in our
practice and be more determined to strive harder.
Billy asked me to put on record his gratitude to Ven Sujiva and other
monks and yogis for all the kind assistance they have given him and Kuai
Chan. Fellow yogis from the Buddhist Wisdom Centre, PJ, had especially
given much moral support and encouragement to Kuai Chan throughout her
sickness. "I do not know how to express my gratitude to all the people who
had helped us. Please tell them I wish to thank them all, to say: "Thank
you. Thank you very much for everything you all have done for Kuai Chan."
[*1] Dhamma is what is. It is seeing things as they are. It is the
teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha, in effect, taught: "Life is
suffering but I have found the way out of this suffering, and I will show
it to you." And the Buddha exhorted the people to practise generosity,
morality and meditation.
[*2] The ten paramis are giving, morality, renunciation, wisdom,
energy, patience, truthfulness, resolution, loving-kindness and
equanimity. All bodhisattas (ie. those aspiring to be Buddhas) have to
cultivate these paramis. All Buddhists have to cultivate these paramis to
a certain degree too before they can gain enligtenment under the
dispensation of a Buddha.
[*3] Vipassana is Insight or Mindfulness meditation. In Vipassana,
meditators employ mindfulness to observe the nature of mental and physical
phenomena, perceiving eventually their characteristics of impermanence,
unsatisfactoriness and no-self. For a simple introduction to Vipassana,
and the practice of another kind of meditation, called metta or
loving-kindness meditation, see "Invitation to Vipassana" and "Curbing
Anger Spreading Love" both written by the same writer.
[*4] Details on the practice of metta meditation can be found in the
book, "Curbing Anger Spreading Love".
[*5] Kamma is the natural law of cause and effect, or action and
result. It works on the principle that good begets good and bad begets
bad. So if we have done something bad in a previous life, the result of
the evil deed may take place in this life. For example, one who kills a
lot, will, if reborn as a human, have a short life. For a good explanation
of kamma see "The Buddha and his Teachings by Narada", Buddhist Missionary
Society (BMS), Malaysia; page 333ff.
[*6] As an experience of the cessation of conditioned phenomena during
meditation, Nibbana can be experienced at four stages of sainthood.
Although the experience of Nibbana as cessation of conditioned phenomena
is the same at all four stages, Nibbana having only one "taste," that is
the "taste" of peace, the results in terms of eradication of mental
defilements are, however, different at each of the four stages.
At the first stage of a sotapanna (stream-winner), greed and hatred are
dramatically weakened but not totally eliminated. These two defilements
have been weakened to the extent that the sotapanna could no more break
the five precepts of not killing (even an insect), not stealing or
cheating, not committing sexual misconduct such as adultery, not lying,
and not taking alcohol and drugs. At the second stage of a sakadagami
(once-returner), the defilements are further weakened. At the third stage
of an anagami (non-returner), sensual desire and hatred/anger are
completely eliminated. But there is still a subtle trace of ignorance and
desire of a non-sensual nature, ie. desire for rebirth in the non-sensual
brahma heavenly realm. At the fourth stage of an arahant (a full saint),
all desire/greed and ignorance are eliminated. The arahant lives his last
life, there being no more rebirth for him.
That best portion of a good man's life,
His little nameless, unremembered acts
of kindness and of love.
WE MUST DO OUR BIT
Earlier I said that when I saw the sick, the dying and the dead, two
resolutions arose in my mind. One is to be able to take pain and death
with a smile, to be able to remain mindful and composed to the very end.
Now I wish to touch on my second resolution. Yes, seeing how we human
beings and in fact all living things, are subject to so much suffering, I
feel that the least we can do while we are alive is to contribute to the
alleviation of the suffering around us.
Many people are serving humanity in wondrous ways. Mother Theresa, for
example, has devoted her whole life to the caring of the needy and
destitute. Many people and organisations are involved in providing social
services to the sick, the handicapped, the starving, the old folks, the
dying and others. All great religious teachers exhort their disciples to
be charitable. Jesus Christ said: "Love your neighbour as yourself." And
he praised those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed
the naked, gave shelter to the destitute, visited the sick and the
imprisoned, saying that "Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the
least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me." There is a similar
saying in the Koran where Prophet Muhammad said God might say to a person
on Judgment Day: "I was hungry but you did not feed me. I was sick and you
did not visit me." And when asked by the bewildered person how could that
be, God would reply: "Such a one asked for bread and you did not give it
to him. Such a one was sick and you did not visit him."
In Buddhism although we do not believe in a Creator God, we believe in
goodness and we are exhorted not to harm or kill even an animal or an
insect. We believe in the law of kamma - that good begets good and bad
begets bad. And so we are enjoined to always adhere to the good: to
abstain from killing, stealing, cheating, sexual misconduct, lying and
taking alcohol and drugs. We are to train ourselves to reach a stage where
we will do good just for the sake of doing good, and not because of the
fear of hell or the anticipation of rewards. We will then do good because
we delight in doing good and are naturally inclined to good. In other
words, we can't help but be good. Goodness and us are one.
The Buddha enjoined on his followers to be charitable and caring. In
giving, he said every little effort counts. Even throwing some crumbs into
the water to feed fishes is praised by the Buddha. Once, when some monks
failed to attend on a sick monk, the Buddha personally bathed the sick
monk and admonished the others, saying: "Whoever attends on the sick
attends on me." The Buddha urged kings to rule with compassion. He advised
them to weed out poverty which is one of the contributory factors to theft
and other crimes. A man of peace, the Buddha once intervened when two
countries wanted to go to war over a stretch of river water. The Buddha
asked them: Which is more important - the water or the blood of human
beings that will flow as a result of a war. The warring parties saw the
folly of their quarrel and withdrew without a fight.
One of the most benevolent of kings who came under the influence of the
Buddha's teachings was Asoka, who reigned in India during the 3rd century
B.C., about 200 years after the death of the Buddha. Renowned for his
humanitarianism, Asoka's generosity and kindness extended even to animals.
He was reputed to have provided doctors for the treatment of both man and
beast. He built public parks, resthouses for travellers and hospices for
the poor and sick. Although a staunch Buddhist, Asoka gave his people full
freedom of worship and even supported other religious sects. In one of his
famous edicts engraved on rocks, he said he "wishes members of all faiths
to live everywhere in his kingdom...(He) honours men of all faiths,
members of religious orders and laymen alike, with gifts and various marks
of esteem." He desired all faiths to be honoured because "by honouring
them, one exalts one's own faith and at the same time performs a service
to the faith of others...Therefore concord alone is desirable...(and he,
Asoka) desires men of all faiths to know each other's doctrines and to
acquire sound doctrines..."
Asoka saw his role as a benevolent father and he regarded his people
like his children, saying that he desired for them "every kind of
prosperity and happiness." The Buddha, could he have witnessed Asoka's
reign, would have been filled with joy at seeing his teachings being
adhered to so diligently by the great king. H.G. Wells, in his Outline of
History, said that among all the kings that had come and gone in the
world, "the name of Asoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star."
Surely, all governments will do well to study and apply Asoka's humane
approach in governing.
And if we too are to follow the Buddha's teachings, then we would, like
Asoka, work in our own way to alleviate suffering and spread peace and
happiness. The Buddha himself had set us the finest example, having
dedicated his whole life to showing people the way out of suffering. Yes,
the Buddha was concerned not only with alleviating suffering but also with
eradicating it completely. And so after attaining enlightenment he spent
the whole of his 45 remaining years teaching people the way to the
complete eradication of suffering. He taught the path of mindfulness.
The Buddha saw that only through a radical approach can one eliminate
suffering. Although taking care of the sick, healing diseases, providing
food and material aid to the needy are part and parcel of the treatment of
suffering, the Buddha wanted to attend to more than just the symptoms: he
sought for a total cure from the disease of suffering. So he meditated on
the whole question of life and death. And he saw that to solve the problem
at the very root level, we need to do a complete overhaul of the mind.
Suffering is essentially mental. When there is physical pain, a person
normally reacts to it with grief, fear and depression. But a meditator,
the Buddha said, can tolerate the physical pain in such a way that there
is no mental suffering. In other words he does not react to the pain with
grief, worry, depression, aversion, anger and so on. Instead, he can
respond with calmness and equanimity. He can be cheerful, and even comfort
and encourage others!
So the Buddha saw the problem as essentially mental. If we can rid our
mind of greed, anger and ignorance (of the nature of life), the Buddha
said we can totally overcome and eradicate mental suffering, such as worry
and anxiety, sorrow and lamentation. As for physical suffering, we have to
concede that it is unavoidable as long as we have this body. All of us
know as a fact that nobody can escape from old age, disease and death. But
the Buddha said once the mind is purified of all defilements of greed,
anger and so on, then physical suffering does not frighten us anymore. One
becomes unshakable. Nothing can upset one anymore, not even the most
excruciating pain that diseases such as cancer can bring. One's mind can
remain cool throughout. Thus, when the Buddha's disciple Anuruddha, was
once asked how he could remain cool when he was grievously ill, he replied
that it was because he had well mastered his mind through his practice of
mindfulness as taught by the Buddha.
Finally too, the Buddha taught that for such an accomplished person who
had eliminated greed, anger and ignorance, there is no more rebirth. When
he dies that is his last life. He has attained the state of Nibbana -
perfect peace. Not undergoing rebirth he can never undergo old age,
disease and death. Just that, the Buddha said, is the end of suffering.
While we are striving to make a complete end of suffering, we should,
along the way, help to alleviate suffering in whatever way we can. Yes, it
is obvious that there is no shortage of suffering in the world. Many
people are suffering in various ways. If we read the newspapers we can
find suffering all over the place. People quarrel, fight, kill, rob, lie,
cheat, and inflict pain in various ways on each other. Out of ignorance we
hurt each other. Furthermore, calamities, accidents, mishaps, starvation,
disease abound. And always disease, old age, and death are dogging our
Yes, the world is laden with suffering. Why should we add to it?
Shouldn't we instead try to alleviate the suffering? Even if we cannot do
much we can do a little. Every little effort counts. As somebody puts it:
Nobody made a greater mistake than to do nothing because he could do only
a little. Each one of us can do something, according to our inclination
and ability. For a start we could start being nicer. For instance, we can
check our anger. Everytime we are angry we cause pain to ourselves and
others. But if we can just check our anger and cultivate tolerance and
patience, love and compassion we can be nicer people, and that can go
quite a long way to help spread good cheer and happiness.
In other words, we must start by cleaning up our own minds of
unwholesome and negative contents of greed, hatred and delusion.
Corresponding to our ability to check these unwholesome states, love and
compassion will develop in us. We can be kinder in our relationship with
the people close to us and around us. We can try to speak more lovingly
and gently, and avoid all harsh and rough speech. We can become more
considerate and caring. If we are only concerned with our own well-being,
then we will not be able to love very well. To love well we have to
consider not so much our own well-being but that of others. So we have to
ask ourselves. Do we love enough? Do we care enough? If we do not, then we
cannot act to alleviate suffering. For it is out of real love and
compassion that we can act.
A Meditation Master once said if you want to know whether you have
loved well, you should approach your loved one one day and gently take her
hand in yours. Look deeply into her eyes and ask her: "My dear, have I
been loving you properly? Do I love you enough? Am I making you happy? If
I am not, can you please tell me what is lacking so that I can change and
love you better?" If you ask her gently with true love and care, then she
might cry. And that, the Master said, is a good sign. For it meant you
have touched a chord in her heart. And there can be communication between
And so she might tell you between sobs how thoughtless you had been at
times. For example, she might say: "You don't open the car door for me
anymore. You used to do that when you first courted me and even during the
first year of our marriage. You would see to it that I was properly seated
and then you would very gently close the door for me. Nowadays you don't
do that anymore. You just get into the car first and start the engine. I
have to open the door myself and get in quickly. Otherwise you would start
moving off even before I had closed the door! I felt like crying when you
behaved this way. What had happened to the gentle and thoughtful person
that I married?"
And she might continue: "You don't hold my hand anymore when we cross
the road. You just walk ahead and expect me to follow you. So too when you
walk into the restaurant. You don't open the door and invite me to go in
first. You don't pull out the chair for me to sit on. You don't ask me
what I'd like to eat but you just order what you like to eat. You don't
buy me any more pretty dresses. You don't buy any presents for my parents,
not even on festive occasions. And although you may remember to give me
presents on my birthday, you don't include one of those lovely birthday
cards with beautiful and heartfelt messages. In short, you don't do all
the nice little things you used to do when you first courted and married
me. If I knew you were going to change like this, I would have second
thoughts about marrying you. I have been wondering whether you really love
or care for me anymore!" And she may go on in this vein, citing a list of
her unhappiness. She might even sob louder and you may be taken aback, for
you hadn't known she was taking all these things to heart, that she was
missing all the nice little things you used to do for her, that she missed
your little but important demonstrations of care and affection.
Of course, it is also possible that you too might have some legitimate
grievances. So this might be a good time to have it out, but in a very
gentle way. You might say: "Oh, I am so sorry for the heartless and
thoughtless way that I have behaved, my dearest. Believe me, I truly am.
Please forgive me. I will make it up to you from now on. I promise I will
not be so careless in future. I will take good care of you. I will resume
to do all the little things which I have neglected to do for you. I didn't
realise you miss them so much.
"But dear, please do not get angry at what I'm about to say. As much as
I am at fault, you should also know that there were some things you used
to do for me that you never do now. For example, you know that I love the
kangkung fried in sambal belacan that you used to cook for me. But
nowadays you never cook that anymore, not to mention the spicy tomyam soup
and several other dishes. You know, the old saying about the way to a
man's heart is through his stomach is still quite pertinent.
"In the old days you used to wake me up with a smile and a gentle peck
on the cheek but you never do that anymore. Sometimes you wake up rather
late and I have to prepare my own breakfast or eat at the office. You used
to be waiting at the door for me when I returned from work and asked me
how my day was. You were really interested to know then and you were very
sympathetic and comforting whenever I had a bad day. But nowadays, you
don't seem to care about how I am faring anymore, whether I have been
having a good day or a hard time. You would be watching the TV, yelling at
the kids, or be at the beauty parlour or doing something or other. When I
called out: "Hello dear, I'm back," you sometimes snapped at me and said
things which are not very endearing." And so on and so forth.
And so both of you can have a heart-to-heart exchange. Communication is
very important in a relationship. Is it not? Relationships break down when
there is no communication, and both parties keep their grievances to
themselves, privately nursing them in their heart. But when there is
communication there can be understanding. A pouring out of the heart
between two parties can lead to understanding and love. If two persons
care enough and value their relationship, then they can communicate and
take corrective measures whenever necessary. In that way, the relationship
can become more strong and beautiful with each passing day.
Each one of us needs to contribute in our own way, in whatever way we
know how. In my case, for example, I, as a monk, can contribute by sharing
what little Dhamma knowledge I know, what little understanding I may have.
I can encourage people to practise meditation and guide them a little
along the way. I can urge people to be loving and caring, considerate and
patient, and so on. Of course we are not perfect and there are times when
we ourselves fail to deliver. The saying that it is easy to preach but
most difficult to practise what one preaches is very true. So I should be
the first to acknowledge my own shortcomings and to accept corrections. I
ask though that people, in judging me or others, would consider mitigating
factors such as good intention. We mean well and we do not mean to hurt.
But because of our own defects, unskilfulness, impatience, intolerance,
conceit, etc, we may hurt others even as we mean well. But if a person is
magnanimous, he or she can understand and be forgiving. The ability to
forgive is a very wonderful quality, which is why the saying To err is
human; to forgive divine has been coined.
Avail yourself to giving and you yourself will know best how you can
contribute. All of us have different skills, talents and aptitudes. Our
conditions and circumstances may differ. So each of us can only contribute
in our own way, according to our conditions and inclinations. The
important thing is that we try; we do something according to our ability.
As we have said, every little bit counts and as time goes on, we may find
that actually we have done quite a fair bit. And that is cause for us to
rejoice. Of course it doesn't mean that we should rest on our laurels.
There is still more work to be done. So we keep trying; we keep forging
** ** **
He dwells having suffused the first quarter with a mind of
loving-kindness, likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise
the fourth; just so above, below, around he dwells having suffused
the whole world everywhere, in every way, with a mind of
loving-kindness that is far-reaching, widespread, immeasurable,
without enmity, without illwill.
** ** **
To understand everything is to forgive
And then too there can be love.
** ** **
LOVE IS UNDERSTANDING
To die well we must live well. If we have lived well we can die well.
There will be no regrets. We can go peacefully, content that we have done
what we could, that along the way we have spread understanding and
happiness, that we have lived according to our principles and commitment
to the ideals of love and compassion.
Love is understanding. Love does not judge or condemn. Love listens and
understands. Love cares and sympathises. Love accepts and forgives. Love
knows no barriers. It does not segregate and say: I am a Theravadin and
you are a Mahayanese or Tibetan. It does not say: I am a Buddhist and you
are a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu. Or I am a Chinese; you're a Malay, an
Indian, a Eurasian. Or I'm an Easterner and you are a Westerner; or I'm
Malaysian, you're Japanese, an American, a Burmese, a Thai and so on.
Love transcends all barriers. Love sees and feels that we are all of
one race, the human race. Our tears are all the same; they are salty, and
our blood is all red. When there is this kind of love and compassion, we
can empathise with another human being. We can see that we are all
travelling in the same boat upon the stormy sea of life. We are
fellow-sufferers in samsara, the endless faring-on in the round of birth
and death. We are brothers and sisters.
When we can see and feel this, then all barriers of race, religion,
ideology and so on will fall away. We can reach out with a heart of pure
love. We can understand and feel another's suffering. Compassion will
swell and fill our breast. And in whatever we say or do, this love and
compassion will come across. It will soothe and heal. It will contribute
to peace and understanding.
The man and the scorpion
Love goes hand-in-hand with compassion. When we have a loving heart,
compassion arises easily in us. Whenever we see somebody suffering, we
feel an urge to reach out to ease that person's suffering. Compassion has
this quality of desiring to eliminate suffering. It can be especially felt
when we act spontaneously to remove or ease another's suffering. A story
here will help to clarify the point: A man saw a scorpion drowning in a
puddle of water. A spontaneous desire to save arose in his heart, and
without hesitating he stretched out his hand, lifted out the scorpion from
the puddle, and put it on dry ground. The scorpion stung him. And wanting
to cross the road, the scorpion resumed its walk and headed straight again
into the puddle! Seeing it floundering and drowning again, the man picked
it up a second time and was again stung. Someone who came along and saw
all that had happened, said to the man: "Why are you so stupid? Now you
see you have been stung not once but twice! It's a silly thing to do to
try to save a scorpion." The man replied: "Sir, I can't help it. You see,
it is the nature of the scorpion to sting. But it is my nature to save. I
can't help but try to save that scorpion."
True, the man could have exercised some wisdom and used a stick or
something to lift out the scorpion. But then he might have thought that he
could have lifted the scorpion with his hand in such a way as not to be
stung. Or he might have thought that a scorpion in such a dire strait
would not sting him. Whatever it may be, the moral of the story is in the
spontaneous response of the man in wanting to save another living being,
even though it may be an insect. It also shows that the compassionate man
is such that even though he may receive ingratitude from a person he had
helped, it does not matter. It is just his nature to help, and if he could
help again, he would. He doesn't know how to harbour any bitterness or
Compassion then is the language of the heart. At the time when we are
motivated by love and compassion, we reach out to help without
discrimination as to the race, creed or nationality of another. In the
light of compassion, identification to race, creed, etc becomes secondary;
they become insignificant. Further, such compassion is not confined to
human beings but is also extended to all living things including animals
and insects. In line with the above theme of compassion as the language of
the heart, I will like to offer you a poem:
THE LANGUAGE OF COMPASSION
Mahayana Theravada Vajrayana
Christian Buddhist Muslim Hindu
Malay Chinese Indian Eurasian
Malaysian Japanese American African
White man Black man Yellow man Brown man
and so on and so forth
as you like.
What does it matter?
The language of compassion
is the language of the heart!
When the heart speaks
A thousand flowers bloom
And love flows
like the morning sun
streaming through the window.
No words are needed
a look, a touch,
what a thousand words could not.
And Compassion glows
like the radiant star
in the night sky.
Love & Compassion
vanquishing all fears & misgivings
I feel that if we have tried to cultivate this kind of love and
compassion, then when the time comes for us to die, we will go peacefully.
Even if we have not succeeded 100 per cent in loving perfectly, we can
still be happy and content that we have tried. And surely we would have
succeeded to a certain extent.
The Five Precepts
If we have been trying to cultivate this kind of love, then keeping the
five basic precepts will not be that difficult. The first precept, as we
know, is not to kill, not to take any life, even that of an animal or
insect. This is a beautiful precept. It means that we respect life. Nay,
not only do we respect life, we also cherish it. Life is precious to all.
When we give life, we are giving a most precious gift. When we keep this
precept we become kinder. Not only do we refrain from killing, we also
refrain from harming any living being.
True, in this imperfect world where the strong prey on the weak,
killing is rampant. We can see this in the animal world, how a tiger would
feed on a deer, a snake on a frog, a frog on a fly, a bird on a worm, and
a big fish on a small fish. And we humans too kill the animals and fish
and even each other. But we are not here to judge or condemn. We
understand our human imperfections and the imperfect nature of existence.
The Buddha understood too. He says that when we can purify our mind and
attain Nibbana, then we can opt out of this imperfect existence, this
cycle of birth and death. It is for us to verify whether this can be done.
When we have cleansed our minds of all greed, hatred and ignorance, we
will know with the certainty of direct experience whether the Buddha spoke
true or not. Until then, I have faith that I can do no better than to
follow the path of the Buddha, the path of purifying the mind.
Each of us has to follow our path of development. Let each one of us
try to keep the first precept to the best of our ability: We should not
kill; we should spare life, give life.
The second precept is not to steal or cheat, not to take anything with
dishonest intent. We are honest and we shall earn our living the honest
way. There are some people who say that an honest man cannot succeed or
become rich. I do not agree with this. I'm sure there are many honest men
who stuck to their principles and succeed. And furthermore they enjoy the
happiness of a clear conscience and peaceful mind. On the other hand those
who cheated are often exposed and punished in the end. Even if they do
manage to escape detection, they still suffer from fear of detection and
the pangs of a guilty conscience; and when they die, the suffering of a
woeful rebirth awaits them. As such, honesty has always been and will
always be the best policy. Do not listen to those who say otherwise. The
honest can be more successful. Even if we should face greater obstacles,
we would not cheat to succeed. We would rather be honest and poor, than to
be rich but crooked. There is nothing so blissful as a clear conscience,
especially at the time when we face death.
The third precept is to be responsible in sexual matters. If two
partners take their relationship seriously, are considerate, loving and
faithful to each other, then their love is sealed. No third party can come
in between them. Sexual responsibility is very important. Because of
irresponsibility, victimisation occurs. Pimps destroy the lives of young
girls; and men who succumb to their lust are abettors to the ill-deed. But
we are not here to judge but to plead for true love and compassion. Truly,
if we can purify our mind and check our lust, there will be less suffering
and exploitation in this world. And the dreaded AIDS disease which has
become a world-wide scourge can also be contained.
The fourth precept is not to lie but to speak the truth. Again do not
listen to those who say that one cannot succeed without lying or making
false representations. Truth is one of the ten paramis (perfections) held
fast to by a bodhisatta (a person aspiring for Buddhahood). All Buddhists
have to develop their paramis to a considerable extent too if they want to
attain arahathood - liberation from the round of birth and death. The
Buddha wanted us to be so perfectly truthful that he exhorted us not to
lie even in jest. So we should try our best to uphold this noble precept
of non-lying. Furthermore, though we may not seek it, the reputation of an
honest man will nevertheless spread far and wide. Even his detractors will
have to concede and give him due respect.
The fifth precept is not to take alcohol and drugs because they
befuddle the mind. And they are also bad for the body. Some people think
that this precept may allow a little social drinking but I do not think
so. The Buddha would not want us to compromise our mindfulness which could
in turn cause us to compromise our other precepts. Besides, alcohol is
harmful to our health. As for drugs we are all agreed that hard drugs such
as heroin are out. But cigarette smoking may be thought by some people to
be not included in this precept. (During the Buddha's time, tobacco had
apparently not been discovered.) However, in the light of present day
overwhelming medical evidence on the harmfulness of tobacco and the
efforts of governments all over the world to ban or curtail its usage, we
can confidently say that if the Buddha were here today, he too would
strongly discourage us from smoking; for he would not want us to
compromise our physical health nor would he want us to be addicted to a
mild but proven hazardous drug.
More could be said on the great damage alcohol and tobacco had wreaked
and are still wreaking on society, but it is not within the scope of this
work to go into a long discussion of the subject. Suffice to say that it
is our view that even a little so-called social drinking and smoking too
would infringe somewhat on the spirit of the fifth precept. It is better
to abstain completely, especially in the case of alcohol, having given due
consideration to these very words of the Buddha: "Monks, taking of
intoxicants when practised, developed, and repeatedly performed, causes
one to arise in hell, in the world of animals, and in the world of hungry
ghosts; the very least result is that even should one be reborn as a human
being one will be inflicted with insanity."
When we keep these five precepts, we give happiness and security to
others. How? Why, nobody need to worry about us. They need not fear us.
They can feel very secure and comfortable with us. For they can be assured
that we will not harm them, steal from them or cheat them. We will not
have any affair with their spouses. We will not lie to them. And what
more, if we do not drink or smoke, they do not have to worry about their
children aping our drinking or smoking habit, or the hazard they face by
breathing in our side-stream smoke. They will feel they can trust us, for
we don't even drink. We are religious and keeping to the straight and
narrow path. We are harmless. Those who strongly crave for sensual
pleasures may think that we are living a very dull life and that we are
foolish. But it doesn't matter. We are happy for what we are. We are happy
as we are. And truth to say, we will be praised by the wise.
So it is good when we can keep the basic five precepts. Furthermore we
practise generosity and kindness. We care and we share whatever we can
afford. We also cultivate mindfulness as advised by the Buddha. We try to
live a mindful life. We meditate to gain more understanding of the nature
of our existence, its characteristics of impermanence, suffering and
no-self. Thus when we have done all these, when we have lived a good life,
what do we have to fear when we die? What regrets can we have?
That is why we say that to die well we must live well. And that when we
have lived well, we can die well. We can go peacefully, content that we
have done all that we could. True, we may make some mistakes along the
way. But then who hasn't? Jesus Christ once said: "Let him who has not
sinned cast the first stone." So before we had learnt and mellowed, we may
have done some bad deeds. That is understandable, because we are all not
perfect. But the thing is that once we realise our mistakes, we begin to
cultivate love and compassion, we begin to keep the precepts and purify
our mind. We can be happy because we had time to change to the right
track. As they say it is better late than never. We may arrive a little
late after the others, but at least we still arrive.
WE ARE OUR OWN SAVIOURS
Sometimes as a monk I'm asked to go for funeral chanting. I do feel
sorry for the bereaved ones but sometimes I also feel quite helpless
because there is so much confusion as regards the role of a monk in
The other day a young lady approached me. Her father had died that
morning. He was only 42. She pleaded with me in Hokkien: "Tolong lai liam
keng, khuih lor hor wah-eh-pah." It means: "Please come and chant prayers.
Please open the way for my father." I look at her with as much compassion
as I can muster. I can feel her confusion and suffering. She must be about
20 I thought, and she is a filial daughter. In my heart I told myself: "O
dear, how on earth am I going to open the way for anybody. What imaginary
path am I going to draw in the air for his equally imaginary spirit to
tread upon? How can I tell this poor young lady in her present state of
grief and confusion that there is no such way as she may have conceived it
The Buddha was put in such a position once and how did he respond to
it? Well, one day a young man approached and asked the Buddha: "O lord, my
father has died. Please come and say some prayers for him. Raise up his
soul so that he can go to heaven. The Brahmins perform such rites but you
Buddha are so much more powerful than them. If you were to do it, my
father's soul is sure to fly straight to heaven."
The Buddha replied: "Very well. Please go to the market and fetch me
two earthen pots and some butter." The young man was happy that the Buddha
had condescended to perform some powerful magic to save his father's soul.
He hurried to town and got what was required. Then the Buddha instructed
him: "Put the butter in one pot and stones in the other pot. Then throw
both pots into the pond." The man did so, and both pots sank to the bottom
of the pond. Then the Buddha continued: "Now take a staff and strike the
pots at the bottom of the pond." The man did so. The pots broke and the
butter, being light, floated up while the stones, being heavy, remained
where they were at the bottom.
Then the Buddha said: "Now quick, go and summon all the priests. Tell
them to come and chant so that the butter can go down and the stones can
come up." The young man looked at the Buddha, flabbergasted. "Lord," he
said, "You can't be serious. Surely you can't expect the butter being
light to sink and the stones being heavy to rise up. That would be against
the law of nature."
The Buddha smiled and said: "Even so, my son, don't you see that if
your father had led a good life, then his deeds would be as light as the
butter, so that no matter what he will rise up to heaven. Nobody can
prevent that, not even me. For nobody can go against the natural law of
kamma. But if your father had led a bad life, then just like the stones
that are heavy, he would sink to hell. No amount of prayers by all the
powerful priests in the world can cause it to happen otherwise."
The young man understood. He corrected his wrong concept and stopped
going around asking for the impossible. The Buddha's simile had driven
home the point: Nobody can save us, least of all after we are dead.
According to the law of kamma, we are owners of our deeds, heirs of our
deeds. Our deeds are our true property. They are our true refuge, our true
relatives. They are the womb from which we spring. When we die we cannot
take even one cent with us or any of our personal belongings. Neither can
even one of our loved ones accompany us. Just as we came alone according
to our kamma, we must go alone. If we have understood the law of kamma
well, then we will appreciate how important it is to lead a good life
while we are alive. For to wait until we are dead will be too late. There
is little that can be done then.
Rebirth is instantaneous
Nevertheless, there is a role which a monk can play in funeral
chanting. And that is the Buddhist way of sharing merits. How is the
sharing or transference of merits effected? Before we can explain this we
must first understand what happens at death. According to the Buddha,
rebirth takes place instantaneously after death, consciousness having the
nature of arising and passing away unceasingly. There is no interval
between death and the next birth [*7]. One moment we are dead and the next
moment rebirth takes place, either in the human plane, the animal plane,
the suffering spirit or ghost (peta) plane, the demon (asura) plane, the
hell plane, or the celestial (deva) plane.
One takes rebirth according to one's kamma. If one has led a good life
one will generally get a good rebirth. The mind is likely to be in a
wholesome state at the death moment enabling a good rebirth to come about.
One may be reborn as a human being or as a god in one of the many heavenly
realms. The Buddha was able to see with his psychic powers the various
realms of existence, and also how beings died and were reborn immediately
according to their deeds. The Buddha and many of the monks during his time
too were able to recollect their innumerable past lives.
If one has led a generally evil life, then a bad rebirth is more than
likely to come about - in one of the four woeful states as a hell-being, a
hungry ghost (peta), an animal or a demon (asura). But wherever one may be
reborn, one will not be there forever. On the expiry of one's lifespan,
one dies and undergoes new rebirth. So existence as a hell-being or a
ghost too is not forever. There is hope: one has a chance to come up
again, though it might take an incalculably long time to do so. So it is
better not to drop into the woeful states at all, for once there you'll
never know how long you'll have to stay there. It might seem like an
Similarly, existence in the heavenly realms is not permanent. On expiry
of one's lifespan there, one is liable to drop down to a lower plane. Only
an arahant who has given up all desire for rebirth, having eradicated the
mental defilements of greed, hatred and delusion, will undergo no new
rebirth. On dying he arises no more in any of the 31 planes of existence.
He is subject no more to samsara, the round of birth and death. He attains
parinibbana which is the extinction (nirodha) of mind and body, the
extinguishing of the whole mass of suffering. But until one becomes an
arahant one will still be subject to rebirth.
How sharing of merits is effected
Now, for transference of merits to be effected, it is essential for the
being who is to receive the merits to know what is going on. He must be
present and be able to approve of the good deeds done in his name or on
his behalf. If he approves, then that approving or rejoicing state of mind
is a wholesome state of mind. In other words he made his own merits by
rejoicing over the good deed which had been done on account of him. Thus
it is not that we transfer our merits to him. That is not literally
possible. What happens is that he rejoices and that rejoicing is a
meritorious deed by which his suffering may be alleviated and his
If after death, rebirth takes place in the human or animal plane, the
being will be in no position to know what is going on, - for instance he
may still be a foetus in the womb of his mother. Under such circumstances,
he would not be able to rejoice and partake in the merit-making.
If a person has been reborn as a hell-being, he too cannot know what is
going on in this world because he would be suffering in hell, which is
another plane of existence in which he would have no knowledge of what is
transpiring here on earth. If he is reborn as a deva (heavenly being), it
is unlikely that he would keep in touch with this world. It is said that
he would be too happy and busy exploring the wonders of his new existence
to be immediately concerned about what is happening on earth. Time is
relative and a day, say in the Tavatimsa heaven, is said to be the
equivalent of 100 years on earth! So by the time a deva should, so to
speak, take a look down here, we'll all be dead and gone! Moreover, we
cannot say for certain that a deva will automatically have the psychic
powers to recollect his previous life, though the scriptures do record
instances of devas remembering what they had done in their previous life
to earn them a celestial rebirth.
So in the Tirokutta sutta, the Buddha told a brahmin that only a peta
(an unfortunate spirit) would be able to partake in the sharing of merits.
These spirits, though in their own realm, are able to perceive with their
own eyes the human plane. If they are aware of the meritorious deeds done
on account of them, and rejoice thereupon, then they would gain merits as
a result of their rejoicing. Of course no-one would like their loved one
to be reborn as a peta. One would like to think that he (or she) has
undergone rebirth as a human being or a deva.
So the brahmin asked the Buddha what would happen if the deceased had
already obtained a good rebirth. The Buddha replied that it was still good
to share merits, for in our beginningless wandering in samsara, it was
certain that some of our relatives in previous lives have had unfortunate
rebirths as petas. And as the lifespan of a peta can be very very long,
they are liable to be still around. So we share the merits with departed
relatives and also with all sentient beings. Besides, the Buddha pointed
out, the person who did the good deed on account of the departed will
himself get the merits too.
Sharing of merits is a Buddhist tradition. The Buddhist does good deeds
such as offering almsfood and requisites to monks, sponsoring the printing
of Dhamma books and donating to charitable causes, such as homes for the
aged, charity hospitals and institutions for the handicapped. Then he
invites the departed and all sentient beings to rejoice and share in the
merits. This itself is a good deed, the doer of which does not "lose" any
merits but gains even more by sharing, as the act of sharing is another
meritorious deed. So the living make double merits - first by doing a good
deed and second by sharing the merits.
The presence of monks to recite Buddhist suttas and to give Dhamma
talks to the bereaved relatives at the time of their grief is also a great
moral support. The monks can remind the living relatives of the Buddha's
teaching of impermanence, suffering and no-self. They can urge the
relatives to accept the suffering with wisdom, and to strive more
diligently to attain Nibbana, the cessation of all suffering.
If we understand and accept the Buddhist concept of rebirth as being
instantaneous, then we will understand that what is important is that we
must do good deeds while we are alive. By doing good deeds, we gain good
kamma. Kamma is our true inheritance, for only those good deeds or kamma
can follow us. After death, the burning of paper money, houses, cars, etc.
cannot benefit the deceased. It would be against the logic of kamma.
Moreover, we can think for ourselves - how can something that is burnt
here materialise in another world or anywhere for that matter. What is
burnt is just burnt; it stays burnt. In the context of the law of kamma
too, offering of food to the deceased is also pointless. On being reborn,
the new being will survive on the kind of food that is appropriate for its
plane of existence. Thus we find that the Buddha did not at all ask us to
offer food to the deceased or burn paper money, etc.
Apparently, these funeral rites and rituals have been handed down from
generation to generation without any thought as to their basis and
significance. What the Buddha taught is, as explained earlier, to do some
good deeds on account or in memory of the deceased and then share the
merits, by reciting the Pali or stating in the language we can understand:
"May these merits go to the departed. May the departed rejoice and share
in the merits done."
A Buddhist funeral is a simple funeral
The Buddhist way is meaningful and simple. If we can understand and
appreciate the Buddhist way, then a Buddhist funeral can be a very simple
one devoid of superstitious rites and rituals, devoid of fear, anxiety or
confusion. One need not burn this or that, perform all kinds of strange
rites and observe all kinds of taboos, all of which are quite meaningless
and confusing to the living who usually go along with it more out of fear,
social pressure or ignorance than anything else. One need not invite
professionals to chant and perform rituals for a hefty fee amounting to
thousands of dollars! or engage a band to strike up music, even though it
may well be solemn music.
As a Buddhist, one need only to invite Buddhist monks to recite
Buddhist suttas which need not be lengthy. It would be good if the suttas
can be translated into English or Chinese so that all present can
understand, appreciate and reflect on what had been recited, on what the
Buddha had taught us about the nature of life and death. Of special
importance is the upholding of the five precepts by the lay-people - done
by reciting the Pali, preferably with translation, after the monk. The
taking and observance of five precepts is basic practice for lay
Buddhists. After the taking of precepts, the monk can give a dhamma talk
aimed at providing consolation, comfort and strength to the bereaved.
In the Theravadin tradition, monks do not levy any fee at all for their
service. The service is done by them out of compassion, to give moral
support to the lay-devotees in their hour of need. Thus, the monks would
not seek monetary compensation as that would be at odds with the spirit of
the Dhamma. Nevertheless, lay-devotees sometimes offer a red packet as a
donation to the monks for the purchase of allowable requisites, such as
robes or medicines. This sum, if offered, need only be a token. In fact,
the monks are not to expect a red packet, and if it should be offered,
then it is something which is offered solely on the initiative of the
offerer. This packet being a token sum is not a fee but a donation. A fee,
in the case of a funeral, is usually a substantial (or exorbitant) sum
that would be fixed by the undertaker before he would agree to conduct
elaborate services. And that, as we have said, is not the practice for a
The relatives, of course, can offer food (dana) to the monks at the
temple. Those who are more affluent can make donations for the printing of
Dhamma books for free distribution. They can also make donations to
charitable institutions, to the poor and needy, and other worthy causes.
In lieu of wreaths, relatives and friends can be encouraged to donate
towards specified charities. All the merits thus gained can then be shared
with the deceased. All these will make the funeral meaningful - minus the
unskillful practices which involve much confusion and waste of funds.
We can learn from others
The deceased can be cremated or buried promptly - on the same day or
the following day. In this regard I think Chinese families can learn
something from a Muslim funeral, which I'm told, is simple, practical and
inexpensive. A Muslim friend of mine says that the Muslim way is to bury
the deceased on the very day of death or, at the latest, the following
day. So if a Muslim dies at 2pm, he can be buried before sunset on the
same day. If he dies in the late evening or at night, he is buried the
The funeral is an inexpensive, easily affordable one because, as my
friend says, Islam discourages extravagance and encourages simplicity and
frugality. A Muslim funeral, inclusive of the casket, he tells me, can
cost as little as $500 - a far cry from a Chinese funeral which can cost
up to $30,000 or even more! The funeral procedures for the Muslim too are,
in the Muslim context, relatively simple and meaningful. A Christian
funeral too is simple, inexpensive and meaningful for the Christian, and
burial is carried out within 48 hours.
I believe that in life we can never stop learning. There are always
better and more meaningful ways of doing things. If we keep an open and
unbiased mind we can learn from others. The Buddha advised us in the
Kalama sutta that we should always think and investigate for ourselves. If
we find that a practice is good and meaningful then we should follow it;
if we find that it is bad or unskillful, then we should not follow it, or
if we had already been following it, we should be bold and wise enough to
discard it. Nothing, the Buddha said, should be followed blindly without
understanding or question. The Buddha encouraged us to question and
investigate. Even his words are to be investigated and only when found
true to be followed. The Buddha does not want us to have blind faith but
faith that is based on direct experiential knowledge.
Therefore, if we find simple and good practices in other religions and
traditions, we can adapt and follow them as long as they are not in
conflict with our religious beliefs. In this regard, we can learn from
others in the way they hold a prompt and inexpensive funeral. We should
also discard the superstitious and un-Buddhistic practices of ours. As for
superstitions, I understand there are many in a traditional Chinese
funeral, and I have seen some of these practices for myself while chanting
at funerals. I feel quite helpless as I can only witness these practices
in silence. There is little one can do. Traditions are most difficult to
change; and any effort to make changes will usually meet with strong
resistance and even condemnation.
There were times when I hesitated to go for funeral chanting because I
wondered what purpose would my presence there serve. But more often than
not, I responded and tried to do what I could by giving a Dhamma talk and
clarifying as skillfully as possible the Buddhist position. I think it is
high time that Chinese Buddhists re-examine the traditional Chinese
funeral practices and make simplifications in line with Buddhist wisdom. I
may be criticised for my views but I feel that if we do not speak up, we
will be doing a disservice to the Buddhist community.
If I may suggest a simple Buddhist funeral, I will propose that
cremation be done on the same day if possible, and if not, the following
day. However, some people may wish to keep the body for a few days to
enable faraway relatives and friends to come and pay their last respects,
or for various other personal reasons. So the decision would be a personal
one to be made by the family concerned. I have proposed cremation rather
than burial because of various practical considerations, such as the
shortage of land, increase in human population, and savings in funeral
costs which can then be channeled towards more meaningful needs such as
The deceased should be bathed, cleaned and dressed by the family
members, rather than by strangers. This would be meaningful because the
body is that of our loved one, and the very least we can do is to handle
it gently with love and respect. The body can be dressed in clothes which
need not be grand or formal, but which the deceased had liked to wear when
he was alive. A male body can be bathed and dressed by male family
members, and a female body by female members. We should not feel any fear
for a dead body, especially as it is the body of our loved one.
There is also no point in putting any jewellery on the body. Once,
while on funeral chanting, I noticed undertakers adorning the deceased's
body with special made-for-the-dead rings and earrings. This is even more
ironical and meaningless, considering that in whatever rebirth the
deceased may take, he (or she) is not going to take anything at all along
with him except the sum of his good and bad deeds.
When handling the body, such as removing it from the bed and arranging
it in the casket, it can again be done by family members. And as always
the body should be respectfully and gently handled. The practice of
turning one's back towards the deceased as he is lowered into the casket,
or as his casket is taken into the hearse, is to me an odd thing. The
deceased is our loved one and we ourselves should, in the first place, be
placing his body gently into the casket, or to look on with respect as it
is being done so by others. To turn away and show one's back to the
deceased is to me a mark of disrespect! I can't help thinking that if I
were the deceased I would be offended to be treated in such a manner.
This practice of turning away is just another superstition. Why should
we fear any ill-luck befalling us if we do not conform to such taboos? As
Buddhists we should have confidence in kamma which is our true refuge and
support. Good begets good and bad begets bad. We should fear bad deeds,
such as breaking of our precepts, as such bad deeds will bring about
suffering. The last thing we need to fear are superstitions and unfounded
The casket too need not be an expensive one. It should be placed in the
hall of the house with some flowers nicely arranged around it and a
photograph of the deceased. Some meaningful Dhamma words, passage or
saying can be put up for reflection. No wreaths need be sent. Instead, in
lieu of wreaths, donations should be sent to charities which can be
specified by the family members of the deceased. Whatever expense that is
saved by holding a simple and meaningful funeral can also be channeled to
Food need not be offered before the deceased's casket, for as we have
explained, the deceased will not be able to partake of it. Burning of
paper money, joss paper, etc, is also meaningless and should not be done
at all. Lighting of candles and joss-sticks are also unnecessary. In fact,
the very many superstitious practices and taboos that normally accompany a
traditional Chinese ceremony should all be discarded, bearing in mind the
Buddha's words that a true lay-follower of his has five qualities: "He has
faith; he is morally disciplined; he does not believe in superstitious
omens; he relies on kamma, not on omens; he does not seek spiritually
worthy persons outside of here (ie. outside of the Buddha's dispensation)
and he shows honour here first (ie. he has respect for the Buddha's
dispensation and should not subject himself to un-Buddhistic practices)."
Wearing of mourning clothes is unnecessary. The Buddha does not want us
to mourn or grieve but to accept the fact of separation and death with
wisdom and equanimity. Soka or grief is an unwholesome state of mind and
it is to be overcome through mindfulness and wise reflection. Thus, the
anagami and arahant (who have attained the third and fourth stages of
sainthood respectively) are incapable of mourning and grieving. When the
Buddha died, the monks who had attained anagamihood or arahathood, shed
not a tear. Understanding the nature of impermanence, they did not grieve
even though the Buddha was passing away before their eyes.
Neither did the Buddha grieve when his two chief disciples, Sariputta
and Moggallana, died within two weeks of each other, about six months
before him. The Buddha himself remarked: "Marvellous it is, most wonderful
it is, monks, concerning the Perfect Ones that when such a pair of
disciples have passed away there is no grief, no lamentation on the part
of the Perfect One." And the Buddha added: "For of that which is born,
come to being, put together, and so is subject to dissolution, how should
it be said that it should not depart? That, indeed, is not possible.
Therefore, monks, be ye an island unto yourselves, a refuge unto
yourselves seeking no external refuge; with the Teaching as your island,
the Teaching your refuge, seeking no other refuge."
Grief is not suppressed, but acknowledged and dispersed through
mindfulness and understanding.
So if we can bear in mind the Buddha's teaching, we can remain calm in
the face of grief. Here we should emphasize that we are not saying that
you should suppress your grief by force, ignore or deny its existence. No,
that too would be an unskillful approach.
Our approach then is to acknowledge and observe our sorrowful state of
mind. Through mindfulness and wise reflection, we can contain our grief
and become calm. Mindfulness and understanding is the middle and best way
- it involves neither suppression nor giving vent to negative and
destructive emotions. Mindfulness is acknowledgment and observation, out
of which understanding, acceptance, reconciliation and wisdom can arise.
We do not deny or suppress our emotions. We acknowledge and observe them.
In that acknowledgment and observation, we can better cope with the
turmoil and conflict that may be going on in our mind. We can exercise
wise reflection on the nature of impermanence, suffering and no-self. We
can draw from the wisdom of the ancients, and thereby come to terms with
our grief. In other words, wisdom can arise. We can understand and accept
our sorrow. And it will not take control over our mind or overwhelm us.
This is what we mean when we say the gentle application of mindfulness
leads to understanding and self-composure.
In this way, we will not be wailing our heart out. We can observe the
emotion of grief in us, and it can be contained quite naturally, without
us having to give gross outward expression to it. There will be calmness,
acceptance and understanding. Even if we should lose our control and cry,
we can do so in a somewhat restrained manner. We will eventually regain
our control and calm down. Mindfulness will come to our aid, and help us
to reconcile with our grief. We will understand the fact of suffering, the
truth of what the Buddha and other wise teachers had taught, and we can
Coming back to the subject of mourning, we can see that in the context
of wisdom and non-grieving, the wearing of mourning clothes is
unnecessary. It doesn't mean that we are not filial, or that we love our
loved ones less, if we do not wear mourning clothes. No, we still have
great respect for our loved ones but we do not see any merits in making a
public and superfluous show of our grief. Respect and grief are here a
very private matter. They are felt in our hearts and we are not bound to
make a public show of them.
Rather than emphasizing on outward and superfluous forms of mourning,
filial piety should be associated with actions towards elders while they
are alive. Deeds speak for themselves. It would be most unfortunate if
some people think that elaborate funeral rites and rituals and the wearing
of mourning clothes, can serve as a redemption for deeds of love and care
not showered upon the deceased when he or she was living.
Nevertheless, in line with the decorum for a solemn occasion, "solemn"
clothes can be worn. One can select some appropriate dark, white or
plain-coloured clothing from one's wardrobe. That to my mind should
suffice, though the deceased person, if he had been a joyful and
understanding Buddhist, might not even want us to wear "mournful"
clothings but to rejoice that he had led a good life and had gone on to a
better rebirth. So a person could, before his death, stipulate that he
does not want any mourning and superstitious practices but just a simple
funeral. He can delegate a responsible person to see that all his wishes
are carried out. He can have it all written down on paper and signed in
the presence of witnesses so that all concerned would know and abide by
The general atmosphere in the house and throughout the funeral should
be one of serenity and understanding. Unbecoming activities such as
drinking and gambling should definitely not be allowed. All should be
respectful and conduct themselves with due decorum. Meaningful passages
from the Buddhist scriptures can be read from time to time and reflected
upon by the family members and all those present. One person can lead in
the reflection. If all concerned have a good understanding of the Dhamma,
they would be able to contain their grief. The more stoical can comfort
those who are grieving. In this way a peaceful and understanding
atmosphere can come about during the whole proceedings. And those present
can also feel further resolved and motivated to strive harder in their
spiritual quest, and to live with more love and compassion.
A service for the deceased can be conducted in the house. Senior family
members can lead in the service, during which the life and good deeds of
the deceased can be recounted. Children can recount the great kindness and
love of their parents [*8] and resolve to lead an exemplary life in their
A monk too can be invited to give a pertinent Dhamma talk. Meditation
sessions can also be held in the hall. It would be both a meritorious deed
and a mark of respect for the deceased. The deceased, if he had been a
staunch meditator, would surely be very happy if he could know that
everybody was sitting around his casket, meditating. If he has been reborn
in heaven and could see what was going on, I am sure he would be
delighted. I, for one, will be very delighted if I were to look down and
see people all meditating around my casket. I will be pleased to no end.
And if possible I will come down and sit happily in meditation with
everybody but, of course, you must pardon me: I know I'm giving free rein
to my imagination.
On the day of the cremation, all the merits that have been made can
again be shared. A list of the charities that have benefited from the
donations received can also be read out. A meaningful service can be
conducted at the crematorium just before the casket is pushed into the
incinerator. Meaningful passages can be recited from the scriptures. They
can be about the impermanence of life, the inevitability of death and the
need to live a good life, to meditate and to serve our fellowmen. It might
be even more edifying if the service be specially composed and read out
for the occasion. It would be good if a monk can lead the whole service
but if that is not possible, then a senior member of the family, relative
or friend can take the initiative.
After the cremation, what should we do with the ashes? In Buddhist
Burma I am told that usually a body is cremated to ashes, which is then
left to be disposed of by the crematorium attendants. The relatives do not
collect the ashes as it is believed that the deceased had immediately on
death taken a new rebirth, and the body left behind is just an empty
shell. The Chinese practice in Malaysia, however, is to keep urns
containing the ashes in temples or columbariums at substantial cost. My
personal feeling is that there is no point to keep the ashes as it doesn't
serve much purpose, there being no need at all to make any offerings or
perform any services before the ashes. For, as we know from the Dhamma,
the ashes is merely elements of inanimate matter while the consciousness
has taken on a new rebirth, a new body in some new existence. So I would
concur with the Burmese Buddhist way of leaving the ashes behind. If we
want to remember and honour the deceased, we should live a good life and
do good deeds in his memory. On anniversary of his death too, we can offer
dana (food and gifts) at the temples, or make donations to charities.
All the proposals with regard to funerals that I have made above are, I
believe, more meaningful and significant than present practices. But of
course it is up to the reader to decide for himself or herself. These are
just my feelings, the way I look at it. I understand that others may feel
differently. They may disagree with me and they have every right to do so.
For it has always been my firm belief that no-one should impose his or her
views on another. We all have a mind of our own and must be allowed to
think and decide for ourselves.
Therefore I must make it very clear here that I am not imposing my
views on anybody. Instead I am just expressing and sharing them. And I
leave it to each person to decide for himself or herself what he or she
would like to believe or follow. Each person must feel free to do as he or
she deems fit. Furthermore, in deciding on a funeral after a person has
died, there should be discussion and concensus among the family members.
It is best therefore that a person, before he dies, makes clear the type
of funeral he desires. And it should preferably be done in writing, signed
and witnessed. Then there would be no quibble after his death. Family
members should respect and follow his wishes.
Of course, the suggestions I have given are not all-comprehensive. They
have not covered all the details and aspects of a funeral. They are just a
rough framework, just some food for thought. There can be other variations
too. It will therefore be good if a team of like-minded and respected
Buddhists can sit down and formulate a simple Buddhist funeral covering
all aspects and details, and answering all the questions that may be
raised. Firstly, what should be looked at are our present practices. What
are they? What are their significance? Do we know and understand what we
are doing? Why do we practise them? Do they make sense? Are they in line
with the Dhamma? Or are they superstitious practices or practices which
cannot be reconciled with our understanding of the Dhamma as preached by
From what I can see, many of the present practices in a Chinese family,
which professes the Buddhist way of life, cannot be reconciled with the
Dhamma. It would appear that many people just follow funeral rites without
any idea of what they are all about. They just follow instructions without
question or understanding. They are, at the time of the funeral, really
quite confused and distraught. They just follow what they are told to do
because it is the tradition and they can't possibly go against it without
being criticised and accused of being unfilial and so on. So there is
really no meaningful participation. To me, it all seems quite pathetic.
Ignorance and resignation to whatever is being conducted seems to be the
order of the day.
So a team of respected Buddhists looking into all these practices can
come up with meaningful alternatives in line with the Buddha Dhamma.
Details of the proposed funeral service with various options can be drawn
up after having conducted a thorough study of the local situation. A
comprehensive book providing all the various funeral options and necessary
information can then be compiled and published. Such a project will be a
great service to the Buddhist community who are often confused as to what
constitutes a proper Buddhist funeral.
As for me
As for my own funeral, I have given due thought as to how I would like
my own body to be disposed after death. The body is actually nothing more
than a corpse after death. It will just return to the earth. So I might as
well do one last good deed with it - ie. donate it to the hospital.
Doctors can remove the cornea from my eyes and give the wonderful gift of
sight to a blind person. Imagine what joy it is for one who is blind to be
able to see again, and how precious such a gift would be to him. And
imagine how happy I would be too, to know that I have given him this gift
of sight. This gift too is no sacrifice on my part at all, as the body is
of no more use to me after death. So I might as well do one last good deed
with it before it decomposed.
If possible, the doctors should also remove my heart, kidneys, lungs,
liver and whatever organs that could after my death be transplanted to
others. And whatever is left may be of benefit to medical students in
their studies. They could do dissection practice on it. Later, they could
dispose what remains of the body as they wish. Perhaps it could become
fertilizer for the soil and some plant can grow into a strong tree that
provides shade and pretty flowers. In this way too, nobody need to worry
about giving me a so-called proper funeral. Everybody can just leave it to
the hospital to dispose of everything as they deem fit. It will make it so
much easier for everybody. It will, so to speak, take a load off their
mind. No-one need to be unnecessarily inconvenienced on my account.
And if anybody speaks about a proper funeral for me and the paying of
last respects, I will say: Please do not bother about all that. A funeral
is not for me. But if you really wish to remember me, then do a good deed.
Do any good deed you like in my memory. Live a good life. Be caring and
sharing. Be forgiving and loving. Be generous and big-hearted. Be kind and
gentle. That is all that I ask. That will make me very happy - to know
that I have been able to spread some good message and be of some good
[*7] The Tibetan belief that there is an intermediate stage or an
interval of up to 49 days between death and rebirth runs contrary to
Theravada Buddhism, which states that rebirth takes place immediately
after death. For more details on rebirth in the Theravadin Buddhist
perspective, see Narada's "The Buddha and His Teachings", chapter 28.
[*8] In this regard, parents may well take to heart the reality that
deeds outlive the physical life. A life well-lived will be the best legacy
they can leave behind for their children. A legacy that will both inspire
and provide dignity to their inheritors. The fragrance of their exemplary
deeds and life will remain long after they are gone.
Monks: a monk should meet his end mindful and clearly comprehending.
That is our instruction to you.
OUR DEATH SHOULD BE SERENE
All of us have to die one day. Our death should be serene and peaceful.
Therefore when someone is about to die we should make it as serene and
beautiful for him or her as possible. Yes, are you surprised that death
can be beautiful? If you are, it is because we normally have dosa or
aversion towards death. There is fear of pain and the uncertainty of what
is to come after death. Then there is attachment to our loved ones which
gives rise to much pain in our heart in having to part with them.
We should however realize that our wrong understanding and attitude is
the cause of our suffering. We have not understood the Dhamma deeply
enough. We have not understood and penetrated the nature of mind and body
as impermanence, suffering and no-self. We have not learned how to let go
gracefully, how to submit to the inevitable.
When the Buddha's stepmother Maha Pajapati Gotami was about to die at
the ripe old age of 120, Ananda and the nuns cried. Maha Pajapati Gotami
gently reproached them: "But why should you cry, my son and daughters.
Don't you see this body of mine has become old and decrepit? It is like a
haunt of snakes, a seat of diseases, a resort of old age and death, a
house of suffering. Weary have I grown with this corpse of a body. It has
been nothing but a great burden to me. Long have I aspired for the
liberation of Nibbana. And today my wish is about to be realized. Truly my
death is a happy thing. It is the time for me to beat the drum of
satisfaction and joy. Why then should you cry?"
The Buddha, as he was dying amidst natural surroundings under two sal
trees in the forest, also told Ananda not to cry at his death. He said one
must with wisdom and equanimity accept the fact that death and separation
from all that we love is inevitable. The Buddha reminded that we must
practise mindfulness meditation to attain the wisdom that can enable us to
face death with serenity. He told the monks: "Thus must you train
yourselves: We must meet our death mindful and composed." And the Buddha's
last words were: "All conditioned things are subject to dissolution. You
should strive on with diligence."
People who have lived beautiful lives can die beautifully. The other
day I came across a very touching In Memoriam in the newspaper: "As she
breathed her last and entered into eternal life, her face lit up and her
lips broke into a lovely smile. Sister F., on seeing this, exclaimed:
"Look, she's seeing God..." It so happened I know this lady, a Christian,
who had died such a beautiful death. She had a very gentle and kind nature
and was always concerned for the welfare of others. I was told that as a
school teacher she used to seek out the especially weak students and gave
them special coaching and encouragement. She was deeply loved and
cherished by her family and by all those whose lives had been touched by
hers. I am told that she had always been such a gentle and loving person
to everybody that verily her life was just like that of a saint.
Having lived such a beautiful life, it is no wonder that she died a
beautiful death. Our religions may vary but as the Dalai Lama, winner of
the Nobel Peace Prize, puts it: "Compassion is the essence of all
religions." It is my firm belief that if we have lived a good life, then
when we die we will die a beautiful death whether we are Buddhists,
Christians, Hindus, Muslims or of whatever views or beliefs. As the Buddha
says, it is deeds that maketh a person. In this context I used to tell
Buddhists that it is better to be a good Christian or good Muslim than to
be a bad Buddhist. Thus, good Christians when they die may see their God
or the light. Buddhists too may see mental images of the Buddha, arahants,
devas or heavenly realms and radiant light.
Jack Kornfield, the American Vipassana meditation teacher, once related
in the Inquiring Mind journal how he visited Howard Nudleman, a very kind
surgeon and meditator a day before the latter died of cancer. He
recollected how walking into Howard's room was like walking into a temple.
And when he looked at Howard, Howard gave him a smile, a smile of such
incredible sweetness, that he (Kornfield) would never be able to forget it
for the rest of his life.
Yes, I am sure touching stories about beautiful deaths of beautiful
people abound. Therefore, death too can be a beautiful experience. When we
have lived a good life and this body has become frail and broken down, we
can face death gracefully, knowing that we have lived a good life and that
it is time for us to move on.
So when a loved one is about to die, we should understand and allow him
(or her) to go peacefully. We should make it as serene and beautiful for
him as possible. Obviously, we shouldn't be crying or wailing. That would
only make it more difficult for the dying person. Of course if he is an
understanding Buddhist and there is still strength in him to speak, he
might, just like the Buddha, gently chide you: "But my dear why should you
cry? Has not the Buddha taught us in many a way that separation is
inevitable in life? How can it be that what is subject to dissolution
should not dissolve? That is not possible. Therefore we should contemplate
deeply on the Dhamma. This body, my dear, is not ours. This mind too is
not ours. They arise and pass away according to conditions. We must
practise mindfulness deeply to see this, so that, clinging no more, we can
be liberated from birth and death. My dear, be strong. Even as I take my
leave of you I will like to remind you of the Buddha's last words to us
all: "All conditioned phenomena are subject to dissolution. Therefore, I
exhort you, strive on with diligence."
Yes, all Buddhists should remember that the Buddha's last reminder to
us was to strive on untiringly to attain the wisdom that can liberate us
from birth and death. A meditator should meditate to the very end. He can
observe his in-breath or out-breath or the rising and falling of the
abdomen as he breathes in and out. If he experiences any difficulties he
can be aware of them, noting them as they are, without any fear or
anxiety, but with calmness and steadiness of mind. He can observe painful
sensations and bear them even if they are intense. He can remind himself
that they are merely sensations, albeit difficult ones. He can see too
that they are impermanent, that they continually arise and pass away. He
can understand and not cling or be attached to the body. He knows that
both the body and mind arise and pass away according to conditions. He can
reflect: "This mind and body are not mine. They have never belonged to me.
They arise because of conditions and, according to conditions, they will
pass away. Accordingly, this eye is not mine, this ear is not mine, this
nose is not mine.....This body is made up of the four elements of earth,
fire, water and air which represent the qualities of matter, the qualities
of hardness, softness, pressure, tension, heat, cold and so on. As long as
there is kammic energy to sustain my lifespan for this life, this body
will survive. When the kammic energy for this life expires, then this body
dies, and a new mind conditioned by the old mind at the moment of death,
arises in a new body. If I had attained arahatship, there is no need for
anymore rebirth. If I have not but have, nevertheless, lived a good life,
I am not afraid of a new rebirth. I can take on a new existence as a
well-endowed and intelligent human or a heavenly being and from there
continue my path of development until I attain the ultimate Nibbana, the
end of birth and death." Reflecting in this way, a meditator can become
very calm and steady. He can become very peaceful. He can even smile at
his pain and at the people that may be gathered around him. With his mind
being so peaceful, painful bodily sensations too can cease. He can die in
serenity and peace, gently breathing his last.
Tears of joy
When Anathapindika, the philanthropist and great benefactor of the
Sangha, was dying, Sariputta, the Buddha's chief disciple, preached a
discourse on non-attachment to him. Sariputta reminded Anathapindika that
life was merely a process dependent on conditions, and that in this
transient mind and body there is nothing which is worth clinging to.
Sariputta went through a whole list of what life constitutes, showing that
they are all ephemeral conditions which cannot be clung to. Therefore
Anathapindika should not grasp after visual forms and the eye, sound and
the ear, scent and the nose, taste and the tongue, touch and the body, and
the consciousness that is dependent on all of these. Anathapindika should
not grasp after seeing consciousness, hearing consciousness, smelling
consciousness, tasting consciousness, touching consciousness and thinking
consciousness. He should understand their impermanent nature and observe
their arising and passing away, without clinging to or being averse to
Similarly Anathapindika should not grasp after the contact dependent on
eye and form, ear and sound and so on. He should not grasp after the
feeling, whether pleasant or unpleasant, that arose dependent on the
contact. He was to treat them all with equanimity, understanding their
true nature of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and no-self. The body is
made up of the four elements of extension, oscillation, cohesion and
temperature. The mind is made of feeling, perception, mental activities
and consciousness. They are all impermanent and changing all the time.
Anathapindika, Sariputta exhorted, should not be attached to any of these.
There is nothing in the world which can be called a permanent self. There
is, in the ultimate sense, no self in this mind and body. And therefore
there is nothing for Anathapindika to cling to.
On hearing this profound Dhamma, a great peace and joy came over
Anathapindika. And he cried. The Buddha's attendant monk, Ananda, who was
present was taken aback and asked Anathapindika why he cried. "Was it
because he was not able to bear up with his pain?" "No," Anathapindika
replied. It was not that. But rather it was because the discourse was so
beautiful that it had touched him very deeply. "I have never felt so
touched in my life. That is why I cried," he told Ananda and Sariputta.
His tears were not tears of sorrow, but tears of joy - joy at hearing and
understanding such profound Dhamma.
Anathapindika asked why such Dhamma was not often preached to the
lay-people. Sariputta replied it was because the lay-people normally found
it difficult to appreciate such deep Dhamma, being attached, as they were,
to the very many sensual pleasures available in life. Anathapindika
protested that there were those who would understand and appreciate the
deep Dhamma and who, for not hearing it, would be lost. He urged Sariputta
to preach often to others the discourse on non-attachment which Sariputta
had just preached to him.
Shortly after Anathapindika died. As his end was peaceful and he had
lived a good life, he was said by the Buddha to have been reborn in the
Tusita heaven. As one who has attained the first stage of sainthood
(sotapatti) it is believed that Anathapindika would, within seven lives,
attain full enlightenment and thereby be liberated from rebirth.
There are stories too of how monks in the old days attained arahatship
(full enlightenment) on their deathbed. So too yogis of today can meditate
to the very end, so that for all they know they might realize insight
knowledges, deepening their understanding of impermanence, suffering and
no-self, and even attaining sainthood at the moment of death.
A yogi too can radiate metta, loving-kindness. Even as he is dying, he
can radiate thoughts of loving-kindness to all beings. "May all beings be
happy. May they be free from harm and danger. May they be free from mental
suffering ..... physical suffering ..... may they take care of themselves
happily." Dying with such noble thoughts of love for all beings is a noble
way of dying. In the Visuddhimagga, a classic Buddhist meditation manual,
it is stated that a person who is in the habit of radiating metta, will
die very peacefully, as if falling into a pleasant sleep. And if he has
not attained arahatship and has thus to be reborn, he may be reborn in a
Yes, a yogi need not fear death. He can gracefully give up the body and
mind knowing that life and death are just two sides of the same coin,
understanding that while we are alive we are already dying from moment to
moment, dying to each passing moment and being reborn into each new
moment. Mental and physical phenomena are constantly arising and passing
away. Nothing stays the same even for a second. This has been proven too
in quantum physics where it was found that subatomic particles vanish at a
rate of 10 to the power of 22 times in just one second. The Buddha too
said that mental and physical phenomena are constantly arising and
dissolving. As long as we have not eliminated the kammic-rebirth energy by
uprooting the mental defilements of greed, anger and delusion, so long
will we continue to take new birth. Dying in this life just means the end
of the lifespan for the body and mind in this life. But immediately on
expiry of the death-moment mind, without any interval, a new mind arises
taking on a new body according to the kamma or deeds of the being in his
previous life. So a yogi understanding that the death-moment mind is
basically no different from that of any other mind-moment would have no
fear. He can meet his end mindful and composed in line with the
instruction of the Buddha.
Making the atmosphere serene
In making the atmosphere serene for a dying person, we should know his
preferences, his likes and dislikes. For example, he may like flowers.
Then we should have flowers in the room by his bedside. He would probably
like to pass away in his own cosy room, in surroundings that are familiar
and peaceful to him. So if it is possible, he should have his end at home
rather than in a hospital. But if that is not possible and hospital care
is required, we should try to make his surroundings in the hospital as
private and peaceful as possible. A private room is best but not all
people may be able to afford it. Whatever the place may be, we should try
to make the atmosphere as peaceful as possible.
He might have a small Buddha image which he likes to gaze at. If so we
can place the image beside the flowers at his bedside. The serene
countenance of a Buddha image can be very reassuring. By looking at the
image, one is reminded of the Buddha's wisdom and teaching. And that can
give much comfort and peace, especially in times of need. The room too
should be clean and cosy. The dying person might like his bed to be placed
facing the window so he can see trees and plants which can be soothing to
the heart. (The Buddha, for example, chose to pass away in natural
surroundings, under two sal trees which were in bloom in Kusinara forest.)
If perchance the dying person should lose his steadiness and show signs
of fear, anxiety or pain, relatives should reassure him. For example, a
loved one can hold his hand or gently stroke his forehead, speaking in
soothing and reassuring terms. She can remind him gently of the Dhamma,
the need to keep the mind calm and to meditate. She can assure him not to
worry about her or the children, that she has the teachings of the Buddha
and that she will live by the teachings. She will know how to take care of
herself and the children. She can remind him that property, loved ones and
mind-and-body are ultimately not ours. Only our deeds are our true
property that will follow us. She can remind him of the good life he had
led, of the good care he had taken of the family, and of the many good
deeds he had done. Recollecting thus, and understanding the Dhamma, he can
become strong. He can smile and be at peace. Death is no more frightening
Of course, what we have stated is just an example of one possible
scenario. When the time comes there can be no prepared script. But if one
understands the Dhamma one can respond intuitively and, according to the
prevailing conditions, say and do just the right thing to help a loved one
During the Buddha's time, Nakulamata, the wife of Nakulapita, did just
that: she reassured her husband when he was at one time close to dying.
She told him: "My dear, do not die with any regret or attachment to
anything. Our Lord, the Buddha, had said that it is unwise to die in such
manner." Understanding her husband's nature, she continued: "My dear, you
might think that when you are gone, I will not be able to support the
children or keep the family together. But think not so; for I am deft at
spinning cotton and carding wool. I can support the children and keep the
family together. Therefore be at peace."
And she reassured her husband that she would remain virtuous and
practise the Dhamma until she attained enlightenment. And if anyone should
doubt this, let them go and ask the Buddha, who she was certain would
express confidence in her. Hearing all these assurances, Nakulapita
instead of dying felt very much better and recovered from his illness!
Later, when the loving couple went to see the Buddha, the Lord told
Nakulapita that he was very lucky to have a wife like Nakulamata. "You are
very fortunate to have Nakulamata who had such love and compassion for
you, who desire your happiness and who can counsel you in times of
Relatives too should give all the support they can to the dying. As has
been said earlier, they should not cry as that would make it difficult for
the dying person. But if they have difficulty in controlling themselves,
then they too should contemplate on the Dhamma. They can contemplate that
death is inseparable from life. When there is life there must be death. It
is something we must accept gracefully. Besides when the body is decrepit
or terminally ill, it is quite a relief to be "freed" from it. Taking on a
new life, the person will be better off. Thinking in a wise way too,
relatives can regain their composure and help give the dying person a
dignified and serene departure.
The last thought-moment
The last thought-moment or the death moment is said to be very vital.
If one dies with fear, anger, craving or any other unwholesome mental
state, then a bad rebirth will come about. But if one dies with peace and
understanding, with mindfulness and equanimity, a good rebirth will come
about. Usually if one has led a good life the last thought-moment will
quite naturally be a wholesome one. The good deeds one has done may appear
to the mind's eye. Or one may have visions of the destiny one is going to,
such as the seeing of breathtaking heavenly scenery and beautiful people.
Conversely, if one has led an evil life, then the evil deeds one has done
may appear before one's eye, or visions of hell-fire and other bad omens
may be seen. In life though, we are not all good or all bad; there is a
mixture of bad and good in us. But if on the whole we have been good, then
we can be confident of getting a good rebirth.
If we have a good understanding of life and death, we can meet death
with steadiness and equanimity. We can, as we have said, meditate to the
very end, maintaining our mindfulness and composure. Having lived a
generally good life and furthermore, being able to maintain mindfulness in
the face of death, we can certainly be assured of a good rebirth - as a
good human being again or as a deva, a heavenly being. Hopefully too we
can quickly, in whatever rebirth we have taken, make an end of samsara,
the round of birth and death, so that subject no more to rebirth, we will
attain the peace of Nibbana.
Sometimes the question may be asked: What if a person is unable to
maintain mindfulness, especially if he has not undergone any meditation
training? What if, let us say, he dies in a coma? Or what if he dies
suddenly in an accident? From my understanding of the scriptures as taught
by the Buddha, I would say that if one has led a good life, then chances
are some good thought-moment will surface at the moment of death and a
good rebirth can come about. Our kamma is our true refuge
(kamma-patisarana), so accordingly the sum-weight of the good deeds we
have done should lead us to a good rebirth. That is why we should lead a
good life while we are alive, and not wait until we are near death, for it
would be much too late then. But as in life we have done both some bad and
good, there is the possibility that we might unskillfully recollect the
bad deeds instead of the good ones at the moment of death. Therefore
maintaining mindfulness is all important; it is very helpful. With
mindfulness, unwholesome thoughts will not be able to enter our mind and
we can pass away calmly, peacefully. Mindfulness being such a wonderful
quality - being able to help us in both life and death - why then should
we not cultivate and thoroughly develop it while we are alive?
A monk devoted to mindfulness of death is constantly diligent. He
acquires perception of disenchantment with all kinds of becoming
(existence). He conquers attachment to life. He condemns evil. He avoids
much storing. He has no stain of avarice about requisites. Perception of
impermanence grows in him, following upon which there appear the
perception of pain and not-self. But while beings who have not developed
mindfulness of death fall victims to fear, horror and confusion at the
time of death as though suddenly seized by wild beasts, spirits, snakes,
robbers, or murderers, he dies undeluded and fearless without falling
into any such state. And if he does not attain the deathless here and
now, he is at least headed for a happy destiny on the break-up of the
The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga)
CONTEMPLATION ON DEATH
While we are alive it is good to contemplate on death now and then. In
fact it is good to do it daily. The Buddha recommends frequent
contemplation on death because there are many benefits to be gained from
such contemplation. Let's look at how we can benefit in contemplating on
First we must make it clear that by contemplating on death, we do not
mean that you must become morose, frightened, morbid or depressed, and
feel like killing yourself. No, far from all these, we mean that you
should, in contemplating wisely on death, be able to live even more wisely
For example, whenever I should get annoyed or frustrated I would (if I
am not too unmindful) contemplate along these lines: Life is short, soon
we will all be dead. So what's the use of quarrelling or arguing with
anyone? What's the use of getting all heated up? No point at all. It is
better that I keep my peace. Arguing or getting heated up would not solve
the problem. It causes only more animosity and vexation. Thinking in this
way I can cool down, check myself from being carried away by strong
feelings, and relate more gently and skillfully with others. Of course, it
is not always easy and sometimes (perhaps many times) I do forget and get
carried away with rhetorics and emotions, but whenever I remind myself
about the brevity of life and the pointlessness of getting all fired up, I
can cool down somewhat and speak with more gentleness and restraint.
Similarly, when I should be agitated or worried about something, I
would think what's the use of all these worrying and anxiety. Life will
take its natural course and death awaits each and everyone of us. No-one
in the world can escape death. Death is the great equalizer, the great
leveller. Therefore, while I am alive, it is better for me to live as best
I could, and that means living in accordance with the Dhamma, living
mindfully, from moment to moment, day to day, just doing the best I can,
one day at a time. Thinking in such wise too, I can check worries and live
more lightly and happily.
Furthermore, we can consider that with or without worries, all of us
still have to grow old and die. So we might as well grow old without the
worries! That will be the smarter thing to do. Nobody will disagree that
we'll surely be better off without the worries. On the other hand, all the
worrying might even shorten our life, cause us to develop a premature
illness and die. Thinking in this way too, we can check our worries and
live happier lives. Thus, thinking about death in a skilful way can cause
us to be more tolerant and patient, kinder and gentler, both with
ourselves and others.
Then we can also become less attached to our material possessions, less
greedy. Yes, when we can perceive deeply the brevity of life, and how no
matter how much we may have acquired we cannot take even one cent along
with us when we die, we can become less tight-fisted. We can loosen a
little and start to enjoy sharing and giving, loving and caring. We will
realize then that there is more to life than just accumulating and
hoarding wealth. We will like to be more generous, to share and to bring
joy and happiness into the lives of others. Bringing joy and happiness to
others is what makes life meaningful and beautiful. That is what counts.
Love and compassion can grow and flower in us like the beautiful blooms of
a tree. We can become truly beautiful people that are steeped in
compassion, responding from the heart without any discrimination of race,
sect, religion, social status, etc. Our life will take on a new shine and
we can then say we are truly happy and human. And when death comes we
shall have no regrets. We can die happily and peacefully, with a smile.
When four mountains come a-rolling
The Buddha once told a simile with regard to death to impress upon us
the need to live a meaningful life. He posed this question to King
Pasenadi: "What would you do, O King, if you are told that four huge
mountains, one each from the north, south, east and west, are heading in
the direction of your kingdom, crushing every living thing in sight, and
there is no escape?"
King Pasenadi replied: "Lord, in such a mighty disaster, the
destruction of human life so great, and rebirth as a human being so hard
to obtain, what else can I do save to live a righteous life and do good
deeds." The Buddha then drove home his point: "I tell you, O King, I make
it known to you - old age and death are rolling in upon you. Since old age
and death are rolling in upon you, what are you going to do?" The King
replied that under such circumstances, it was all the more urgent for him
to live a righteous life and do good deeds. He also acknowledged that all
the power, prestige, wealth and sensual pleasures which he was enjoying as
a king would, in the face of death, come to nought.
So when we reflect wisely on death we will realize that wealth, power,
prestige and sensual pleasures are not everything. They cannot guarantee
us happiness. Many people have had them and still lived tempestuous and
unhappy lives. Some regretted the way they had ill-treated, down-trodden
or ruined others in the frenzied pursuit of their worldly ambitions.
Having reached the top, they found that the achievement was, after all,
not all that satisfying, even hollow and meaningless. Sometimes they
wished they had spent more time with their loved ones and friends, that
they had shown more care and tenderness. They regretted having neglected
their loved ones. Some people having attained a good degree of success,
changed their attitude in mid-course. They devoted more time to their
loved ones, friends and society and are prepared, for the greater good, to
forego their highest ambitions, to settle for less.
If we were to read about how some rich and successful people made a
mess of their lives, we might learn a lesson from their mistakes. The
other day I read a book entitled, "The World's Wealthiest Losers". I found
it quite an educational book. It was quite aptly titled. They were losers
in life despite their wealth. Yes, I learned quite a lot of Dhamma from
it, about how money and success do not guarantee their owners happiness.
Instead they were unhappy despite or because of their wealth and success.
Reading about how the rich and famous, such as Howard Hughes, Mario Lanza,
Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Aristotle Onassis, lived and died I do
not envy them.
Glamorous personalities like Elvis and Monroe, died from an overdose of
drugs, living out the old adage: "From rags to riches, and from riches to
emptiness." All their wealth and success could not bring them the
happiness they sought. Happiness still eluded them. They seemed quite
pathetic, consumed by tantrums, grief, fear and emptiness. Take the case
of one heiress, who inherited an astronomical fortune, married seven times
but could not find happiness. She told her biographer: "I inherited
everything but love. I've always been seeking for it, because I didn't
know what it was." Her first six marriages ended in divorce and her last
in separation. In the end, despite her massive wealth she was said to be
"just a vulnerable sick woman riddled with loneliness." She died at age 66
with some friends by her bedside, but no husband. Such tragic tales, I'm
sure, can be found in the East too.
Of course, in making references to others, we do not mean to be
disparaging in a self-righteous way. But we just wanted to emphasize the
importance of having the proper values in life, to understand the nature
of true love and compassion. We also do not mean to denounce riches and
success, or to say that you should not strive for them. No, we are not
saying that. We do understand that we have to be practical and realistic.
We understand that if you are working in the world it is only natural you
will try your best to acquire as much wealth as possible. After all, if
you want to do good and help others, such as building charitable
institutions, hospitals and meditation centres and offering almsfood to
monks and the needy, you would need money. So we are not saying you should
not try as laypeople to enrich yourselves. But of course in acquiring
wealth, you should do so through honest means, without harming others.
In other words, what we are emphasizing is the moral balance. We need
to have spiritual values, the appreciation that happiness is not in
self-indulgence but in sharing and caring. When we have the right values
we can live meaningfully and bring joy and happiness to all those who come
within the ambience of our lives. When we have understood the Dhamma,
especially the truths of impermanence, suffering and no-self, we will not
cling to fame or gain. We can live with humility and compassion, share our
wealth and success, and find joy in making others happy. But when we do
not have a deep understanding of what constitutes happiness - that true
happiness comes from a mind that is liberated from greed, anger and
delusion - then because we do not understand we can do the wrong things,
be sunk in a sensual mire and come to a miserable end. So it is important
that we contemplate well on life and death, and steer in the right
direction, the proper course.
A sense of urgency
Contemplating on death can also bring about what is called samvega in
Pali - a sense of urgency which can charge us with the energy to do all
the good we can before we die and, in particular, to practise meditation
to experience the deeper truths and understanding. The Buddha said most
people are running up and down the nearer shore; they are not seeking to
cross over to the other shore. The Buddha meant that we are all very much
entangled in sensual pursuits, in the mundane pleasures of life. We are
not seeking to go beyond to the supramundane - to go beyond life and
death, to taste the ambrosial nectar of immortal bliss, immortal Nibbana.
What is this Nibbana? The Buddha said it cannot be described but must
be experienced by each one for himself or herself. But the Buddha did try
to give us some idea of what Nibbana is like. For example, he described it
as the unborn, unoriginated, unformed, unconditioned, the deathless, the
highest happiness, the greatest peace. Nibbana represents a state of no
arising and passing away, no birth or death. It is also described as a
blowing out of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion, the cessation of
mind and matter, the extinction of suffering [*9].
A person who has attained the state of Nibbana, which can be realised
in the course of meditation, is said to be enlightened. An enlightened
person may be an arahant or a Buddha. The difference between an arahant
and a Buddha is that the former gains enlightenment by listening to
another enlightened person while a Buddha gains enlightenment by himself.
An enlightened being is a person who can face the vicissitudes of life
with an even mind. Through the ups and downs, such as loss and gain,
success and failure, praise and blame, pain or pleasure, fame or
disrepute, he remains serene and unshakable. He remains this way not
because he is deluded or unfeeling, but because he is enlightened and
wise; he understands the true nature of existence, the nature of physical
and mental phenomena, the nature of their impermanence, insecurity and
absence of any core or essence that can be called a self in the ultimate
sense. If he does not crave for pleasure or is unaverse to pain, it is not
that he does not feel them. He feels them but understanding their true
nature he cannot be overwhelmed by them. He can take both pain and
pleasure as they come along with wisdom and equanimity.
So too with the other worldly conditions such as praise and blame, and
loss and gain. If he is praised he does not get swollen-headed or
conceited. He is not elated. If he is blamed he is not upset or depressed.
It doesn't matter to him. He is steady and unperturbed because he knows he
has acted truly - without the subtlest taints of greed, anger and
delusion. He is motivated only by loving-kindness and compassion. He has
no desire even to harm an ant or a mosquito. His conscience is clear, his
mind is light and free. An arahant lives out his last life on this earth
and when he dies he undergoes no more rebirth. He goes out like a lamp. He
attains nirodha - cessation. He has parinibbana-ed - ie. he has attained
final Nibbana, the cessation of all existence, the attainment of the
Nibbanic element of supreme peace. Thus arahants during the time of the
Buddha had this saying:
I delight not in life
I delight not in death
But I await my time
mindful and composed.
Another verse goes like this:
Impermanent are all conditioned things
Of a nature to arise and pass away
Having arisen they then pass away
Their (complete) calming and cessation is true bliss.
Comtemplating on death can release us from the grip of the sensual
lure. We will not be deluded by material wealth but will channel our
resources towards a more fulfilling and rewarding life, with due regard
for the development of wisdom and compassion. We can be spurred to take up
meditation or, if we have already done so, to double our efforts to attain
the supreme goal of liberation from all suffering.
Contemplation leads to understanding and acceptance
Frequent contemplation on death - on how it is inevitable and that our
true property are our deeds - can spur us to live a good life such that
when we die we will have no fear of death. Furthermore when somebody dear
to us die, as inevitably all of us must, grief will not assail us as we
have understanding and acceptance. This is not because we are unfeeling or
have no heart. No, we have a heart, and a soft one too. We can feel deeply
but we also understand the nature of existence, and can accept that death
is very much woven into life.
Explaining how the wise can accept death, the Buddha said: "Seeing the
nature of the world, the wise do not grieve. Weeping and wailing will only
lead to more suffering and pain. It cannot bring back the dead. The
mourner becomes pale and thin. He is doing violence to himself and his
mourning is pointless." The Buddha said that the wise man who had truly
comprehended the nature of existence has "pulled out the dart of grief and
despair." "He has no clinging. Having obtained peace of mind, he has
passed beyond all grief. He is freed."
So we should contemplate on the deeper aspects of the Buddha's
teachings so that we can face death without grief but with understanding.
The departed too would not want us to lose our self-control. They would
not want us to suffer a broken heart but to accept their departure
gracefully. Having taken a new rebirth, they are also no more present to
see us weeping. Our weeping and sorrow cannot help them in any way. So it
is futile. If we were to consider more deeply, we may see that our grief
is because of our attachment. We cannot bear the parting. But if we can
contemplate deeply and become wiser, we can accept the inevitable. Instead
of grieving, we can be brave. We can respond meaningfully, say by
resolving to live a noble and exemplary life in honour or in memory of a
loved one. A wise person would surely not want us to mourn for him.
Instead he or she would say: "If you really want to do me honour or to
remember me by, then live a good life, do good deeds, be kind to your
fellowman......That's all I ask."
When the Buddha was about to pass away, it was said that heavenly
flowers and sandalwood powder fell from the sky and sprinkled all over his
body in honour of him. And heavenly music too was heard. But the Buddha
indicated that such kind of honour was not what he wanted. "It is not thus
that the Tathagatha is honoured in the highest degree," he said. "But,
Ananda, whoever abides by the Dhamma, lives uprightly in the Dhamma, walks
in the way of the Dhamma, it is by such a one that the Tathagatha is
honoured in the highest degree. Therefore, Ananda, thus should you train
yourselves: We shall abide by the Dhamma, live uprightly in the Dhamma,
walk in the way of the Dhamma." And though we have said it before, we
would like to say it yet again: The Buddha's last admonition was:
Vayadhamma sankhara. Appamadena sampadetha. All conditioned things are
subject to dissolution. Strive on with diligence (for liberation).
No lamenting can touch the ashes of the dead
In his previous lives, the Buddha as a bodhisatta (a Buddha-to-be),
also displayed no grief at the death of dear ones. The Buddha was able
with his psychic powers to recollect his past lives, and it was said that
in one life when he was a farmer, he did not grieve when he lost his only
son. Instead, he contemplated: "What is subject to dissolution is
dissolved and what is subject to death is dead. All life is transitory and
subject to death." When he was asked by a Brahmin why he did not cry - was
he a hard-hearted man, has he no feeling for his son? - the bodhisatta
replied that his son was very dear to him, but grieving would not bring
him back. "No lamenting can touch the ashes of the dead. Why should I
grieve? He fares the way he had to tread."
In another life when he did not cry over his brother's death and was
accused by people of being hard-hearted, he replied that they had not
understood the eight worldly conditions that all beings faced, to wit,
loss and gain, happiness and unhappiness, praise and blame, fame and
disrepute. "Because you do not understand the eight worldly conditions you
weep and cry. All existent things are transient and must eventually pass
away. If you do not understand this, and because of your ignorance you cry
and lament, why should I also join you and cry?"
In yet another life, the Bodhisatta shed no tear at the death of his
young and beautiful wife. Instead he reflected: "That which has the nature
of dissolution is dissolved. All existences are impermanent," and taking a
seat nearby, he ate his food as usual, showing an exceptional ability to
live mindfully from moment to moment. The people who gathered around him
were amazed and asked how he could at such a time remain so calm. Did he
not love his wife who was so beautiful that even those who did not know
her could not help but brush away a tear? The Bodhisatta replied in verse:
Why should I shed tears for thee
Passed to death's majority
You are henceforth lost to me.
Why should frail man lament
What to him is only lent?
He too draws his mortal breath
Forfeit every hour to death.
Be he standing, sitting,
moving, resting, what he will,
In a twinkling of an eye
In a moment death may come.
Life I count a thing unstable,
Loss of friends inevitable
Cherish all that are alive
Sorrow not should you survive.
Such amazing accounts of the Bodhisatta's self-control is
awe-inspiring. It teaches us too to contemplate well and deeply on the
teachings, to understand the truth of impermanence and to accept the fact
of death. Perhaps then when we suffer the loss of loved ones, we too can
reflect as the Bodhisatta did and maintain our composure.
Death is no stranger to us
Another way to contemplate on death so as to overcome fear of it, is to
consider that it is no stranger to us. In this, our long wandering in
samsara, the never-ending round of birth and death, the Buddha said we
have died and been reborn innumerable times - so many are they that if we
were to collect all our bones together and had the bones not rotted, each
of the piles of our bones would rise up higher than the highest mountain!
So too, the Buddha said, the tears we have shed in samsara over the loss
of our loved ones was more than the waters in the four oceans.
Truly, the Buddha said, we have suffered enough to be utterly wearied
of life, and to seriously seek the way out of this maze of suffering, the
way to the deathless Nibbana. But unfortunately, we have short memories
and cannot remember any of our many past lives. How could we when we
sometimes could not even remember what we did yesterday! And so we
continue to live complacently, without the sense of urgency to cultivate
the wisdom that can liberate us from all suffering. However, during the
Buddha's time, there were many monks, including of course the Buddha, who
could recollect their past lives. In our present age too, there have been
accounts of people who had an uncanny ability to recollect their past
lives. Francis Story and Dr Ian Stevenson had written books, documenting
quite a number of these cases.
When we contemplate on rebirth we can benefit in two ways:
1. We can consider that death is, after all, no stranger to us. We
have met it many times before. So we need not face it with fear. We can
consider it as just another transition, a change from one life to
2. We can be motivated to find a way out of samsara, the round of
birth and death. We may study more deeply the teachings of the Buddha.
And we may strive harder to put them into practice, to develop dana,
sila and bhavana - generosity, morality and meditation.
In another way of looking at it, death is something we are experiencing
from moment to moment. For in the absolute sense, we are dying every
moment and being reborn the next. According to the Buddha, consciousness
is arising and passing away all the time. On the dissolution of one
consciousness, another immediately arises and this goes on and on, ad
infinitum, until and unless we realize ultimate Nibbana. Bodily phenomena
too are continuously arising and passing away. So what we have is just the
continuous arising and dissolution of mental and physical phenomena. This
is, in a way, a kind of death and rebirth which is occurring from moment
to moment. In Pali, it is called khanika-maranam - momentary death.
In the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), it is stated thus:
"In the absolute sense, beings have only a very short moment to live,
life lasting as long as a single moment of consciousness lasts. Just as a
cart-wheel, whether rolling or whether at a standstill, at all times only
rests on a single point of its periphery: even so the life of a living
being lasts only for the duration of a single moment of consciousness. As
soon as that moment ceases, the being also ceases. For it is said: `The
being of the past moment of consciousness has lived, but does not live
now, nor will it live in future. The being of the future moment has not
yet lived, nor does it live now, but it will live in the future. The being
of the present moment has not lived, it does live just now, but it will
not live in the future." (Translated by Nyanatiloka in Buddhist
In this context, a being is but a conventional term. In the ultimate
analysis, it is just a series of consciousness arising and passing away.
One consciousness dies, another arises - that's all. And we call this
continuity or process a being. But in the ultimate sense, there is no
being - no unchanging soul or mind, but just this series of consciousness
arising and passing away, one consciousness conditioning the arising of
Furthermore, the conventional death that we experience at the end of
one life-span is also not ultimate death. Another consciousness
immediately arises but in a new body or realm according to the rebirth one
has taken. Only when one has eliminated the mental taints of greed, hatred
and delusion will no rebirth come about. Contemplating thus, we can also
appreciate the nature of impermanence, suffering and no-self. And we can
take life and death in our stride.
Food for thought
Everytime you look at the newspapers and come across obituaries or
death announcements, do you give a thought to death? Do you pause and
contemplate the fact of your own mortality? Whenever death comes to
others, we don't feel much about it. The deceased may be a stranger to us.
The suffering is not ours and, besides, we have become quite numbed to
stories of death - they are reported everyday in the newspapers. Reading
about how people are killed, especially in a war, life seems so cheap.
There seems to be no respect for life. But when death strikes those close
to us, how do we take it? And when we face our very own death, are we
petrified with fear? Yes, although we know that death and tragedies are
occurring all around us, yet we are thunderstruck and are unable to accept
it when it actually happens to us.
When we read the in memoriams in the newspapers, we can see that though
a person may have passed away for some years already, yet the pain of
separation suffered by the living ones is still very much there, as if it
had been inflicted only yesterday. Sometimes in their messages, spouses or
relatives openly expressed the sorrow they still felt and the tears they
still shed for their loved ones. We understand it is very human to feel
this way. But the Buddha also teaches us that, as human beings, we can
imbibe ourselves with the wisdom and strength to accept our loss and to
bear it stoically. It is not that the Buddha wants us to be unfeeling but
that he wants us to have the wisdom to accept the loss and to understand
the futility of our grief. Definitely he doesn't want us to pine away with
grief, to grow thin and frail, to lose all interest in life. Buddhists in
particular should understand this and thereby accept their loss stoically.
If Buddhists need to put a message to go with an orbituary or in
memoriam in the newspapers, why not Buddhistic ones such as: "Impermanent
are all conditioned things. Strive untiringly for the unconditioned
Nibbana"; or meaningful contemplation on death such as: "Just as the
dew-drop at the point of the grass-blade at sunrise very soon vanishes and
does not remain for long: just so is the dew-drop-like life of men very
short and fleeting. One should wisely understand this, do good deeds and
lead a virtuous life; for no mortal ever escapes death."
Or if one wishes to be more personal, how about a message that goes
something like this: "My dear, if you could know, you will be pleased to
know that the children are growing up beautifully. I have taught them the
Dhamma well, to treasure the precious values of love and kindness, wisdom
and understanding. I have taught them well not to ape the violence and
greed that often come across in mediums such as the TV and movies. As a
consequence, they are very gentle and loving to everybody. As for me, I
have been keeping my precepts and meditating. I am practising mindfulness
in everyday life and I go for retreats once or twice a year. I am quite
peaceful, and growing in the Dhamma. I try not to grieve for you; for you
and I have understood somewhat the Buddha's teachings - that it is futile
to grieve: it serves no purpose. And I know you wouldn't want me to grieve
either, but to live a good and exemplary life.
"Nevertheless there were times, I must admit, when I felt the pain,
when I missed you terribly, especially when I thought about the good times
we had, the happiness we shared together, your sweet smile and bright
eyes, the way you laughed and teased. Yes, when I got lost in such
nostalgia, I must admit I do feel like bursting into tears. But dear, I
can get a hold of myself. I can be mindful. I can watch the pain and
accept it. I can watch my thoughts and mood. I can reflect on the Buddha's
teachings and understand the futility of grieving. I can be happy and
count my blessings - at least we have had happy times together and there
are now the children to live for. I know my pain comes from my attachment
and lack of deep understanding of the nature of all existence. Thank
Buddha for teaching us mindfulness, for teaching us to live in the
present, to be happy from moment to moment, to count our blessings, to
bask in the happiness of a life well-lived.
"Well, I know this message is getting rather long. I realize too that
you will not be around to read it. But it does make me feel good to
express myself this way. I thank you for the happiness you have given me,
and I dedicate all the good deeds that I have done, and the good life I
now try to live, all that I dedicate to your sweet and loving memory. I
wish that you too, in whatever good rebirth you may have taken, may
continue to practise the Dhamma until you attain Nibbana, the cessation of
all suffering," and so on and so forth.
Admittedly this is a rather long message and I have got somewhat
carried away. But what I would like to underscore here is the theme of the
message, one of understanding and acceptance. It is just to give an idea
of a Buddhistic message or expression. It can be shortened and put more
simply. Or, except for its pedagogic (ie. its teaching) purpose, a message
may not be needed at all. Such feelings are quite personal and can be kept
private. When one has understood the Dhamma well, one can just carry on
living a good life and be content.
A WORLD OF ANOMALIES
Reading the newspapers and newsmagazines can give us much food for
reflection. Besides the orbituaries, there are grim reminders of suffering
all over the world, though we may have become quite numbed to it. There
are murders, robberies, rapes and wars, religious, ethnic, social and
political conflicts, pollution, diseases, starvation, poverty, tortures,
oppression, terrorisms, accidents, suicides and natural calamities such as
earthquakes, fires, floods and hurricanes. It is a long and depressing
list which can go on and on.
At the same time, side by side with these news stories there are
pictures and advertisements showing happy people enjoying themselves, as
if without a care in the world. They are laughing and posing behind posh
cars, grand mansions, luxury hotel suites, bottles of alcohol, cigarettes,
perfumes, cosmetics, glamourous designer outfits and exquisite jewellery.
They are gorging themselves at food fests, beauty contests and fashion
shows with beautiful and sophisticated looking models parading on the
catwalk. The contrast is especially ironic when, say, you happen to see a
high fashion parade next to a heart-rending picture story of piteous
African children all skin and bones dying from sheer starvation.
We are said to be a civilised people who abhor violence and the
inflicting of senseless pain on one another. Yet we have boxing
championships at which two brawny men would, for a sum of money, try their
utmost to bash out each other's brains to the roars of approval from the
crowd, not unlike the barbarous days of the Romans when gladiators fought
lions and each other for the entertainment of blood-thirsty spectators. We
have matadors that would infuriate, torture and kill a bull just for the
fun of it. And everybody, or at least the stadium-filled spectators, seems
to think it is fun too.
Smoking and drinking have taken great tolls on the health of the
people, yet cigarettes and alcohol companies still insist on purveying in
every possible way, even through the sports arena, their products of
death. Smoking is ludicrously described as "an encounter with tenderness"!
and drinking is equated with success and prestige among many other things.
So-called developed countries are dumping their cigarettes and other
harmful products on Third World nations while curbing the consumption of
those products among their own people. In their inordinate greed for
wealth, companies would go to great lengths, not seeming to have any
qualms at all about what they say or do in the purveyance of their
products. The mass media such as newspapers and newsmagazines, which
accept and publish these advertisements because of greed for the huge sums
of money they bring in, cannot absolve themselves too from responsibility.
They have a basic human right to exercise a social conscience by declining
harmful advertisements but they choose not to do so.
Looking at a glossy airline magazine, the picture of an elderly brewery
company chairman in Thailand caught my attention. Dressed in suit and tie
and with greying hair, he was proudly displaying, in his posh conference
room, a row of bottles of beer brewed by his factory. Just behind him was
an altar on which sat a gleaming Buddha image. One can see that the altar
was impressively and centrally located in the room. Now, the Buddha, as we
all know, had taught abstinence, and the fifth precept to which all
Buddhists subscribe, states: "I take the precept to abstain from alcohol
and drugs which are a cause for heedlessness." It is hard, therefore, for
an observer to reconcile the mass production and distribution of alcohol,
which is considered a wrong kind of livelihood in Buddhism, with the image
of a Buddha, displayed as it were, so proudly in the room.
Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai social critic and activist, wrote in his book,
Seeds of Peace, "It is a sorry fact that Siam has about 250,000 monks and
more than twice that many prostitutes. This speaks for a system that is
dysfunctional and has to be reexamined from the ground up. If we can
return to the beautiful roots of our Asian traditions, we will help create
a sane and functional model for living." In citing the latter two
examples, it is not our intention to pick on Thailand, but just to point
out anomalies. In point of fact, anomalies exist everywhere. Just as in
Thailand, they can be equally found in Buddhist Burma, Buddhist Sri Lanka,
our own or any other country. Nobody has a monopoly.
Yes, we can go on and on with the list of contradictions that abound in
the world we live, but this much, we believe, would suffice to make our
point. Yes, are we not a kind of society with a split or schizophrenic
mentality? - like a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. We know what is unwholesome,
yet we condone and even encourage its proliferation. Apparently, we are
all willy-nilly caught in it, and we are hurled along with the tide.
Programmed and conditioned by the moguls of the advertising media, we
respond to their commands and messages. Buy this, buy that. Eat this, eat
that. Wear this, wear that. Do this, don't do that. This is rugged and
that is feminine. This is the in-thing and that is out. This is the great
way to live; it is the jet-set high society, the world of great fun and
Forgive me if I may sound like a critical person, a bad sport, or a mad
monk standing on a soapbox declaring at the top of his voice that the end
of the world is nigh and threatening a decadent society with hellfire and
brimstones. But you might agree with me that it might not be a bad idea
if, now and then, we were to step back a little and look at the state of
the world and the state of our mind and the state of our life. Some wisdom
may yet arise from such contemplation. We can re-assess our position and
the direction we will like to go. Do we follow the crowd or do we break
ranks? If I may "borrow" a verse from Robert Frost: "Two roads diverged
in a wood and I - I took the one less travelled by. And that has made all
the difference." Yes, when two roads diverge in your journey of life,
which one will you take? The one less travelled by - the path of
mindfulness and wisdom, of love and compassion? Please do think about it,
for it might well make all the difference.
Where earth and water,
fire and wind no footing find,
There ebbs the flow,
there whirls no more the round,
there mind and matter,
cease without remainder.
THE SWEETEST SMILE YET
As we come to the end of our treatise on Loving and Dying, I should
make it clear that I do not at all claim to be an authority on living,
loving or dying. But I have tried to share some thoughts on the subject
with you, thoughts about how to live and die with love and understanding
all along the way. It is a subject which I have given, and shall continue
to give, much thought to. It is a subject which, I believe, should be of
interest to all of us - this question of life, love and death. Of course I
am not claiming to be wise and I know I have many shortcomings too. Just
like people who may mean well but still bungle along the way, I too am
bungling and falling as I go along the way. But each time I do pick myself
up, brush the dirt away, try not to lament or cry, set my sights once
again on that mountain peak that rises up into the sky, and carry on with
the journey of life.
I do hope though that some of the thoughts I have shared here may have
been of some help to you, that they may have lighted up a little of your
way. If they should have given you a little inspiration and determination
to live and die with more love and understanding, I would be very very
happy. And if perchance parts of my writing should have offended you in
any way, I ask too for your forgiveness. As human beings we can only try -
to serve and to share. We mean well, and what little we, despite our
limitations, managed to contribute to a better society, it is a happy
thing. Whenever I look back, it will give me some joy and solace to know
that at least I have managed to do this much, even though it may only have
been a little.
And when I die, perhaps I could say to Death: "O Death, you may do your
worst now, for I have lived and loved, and I have done what little I could
for my fellow-beings." And before I slip quietly into the night, perhaps
you might yet see that faintest trace of a smile on my lips.
I will smile
the sweetest smile yet
you shall see
And I will go
into the night.
Can you smile
with me too?
And say -
Hello to death
Goodbye to life.
[*9] For further reading on the subject of Nibbana, see "On the nature
of Nibbana" by Mahasi Sayadaw, published by Buddha Sasana Nuggaha
Organisation, Rangoon, Burma.