I am going to die
That man is still alive but in the intervening years a number of friends and acquaintances have died. My mother is alive and well, but my father died 19 years ago, and all of my grandparents are dead. As I write I'm absorbing the news that a colleague has died. I didn't know him very well, but I did live in his community when I first arrived in the UK seven years ago. He died of a stroke and it seems he had no time to set his affairs in order or to compose himself.
Once my preceptor gave a talk in which he said: "death is absolutely inconvenient." This has echoed down the years for me as I grieved for loved ones and friends. Death just comes and we are never ready for it. When death comes we will have plans for the future, we will leave unfinished projects, unresolved conflicts, and unrequited loves. All of those things that we have been putting off will never be done. It is a harsh and stark fact of life.
I often walk through the Mill Rd cemetery. This is a large old burial ground in which the grounds' keepers are gradually losing the battle against nature. Many of the stones are unreadable and all but a very few of the graves are untended and rely on public employees and occasional volunteers to keep the brambles and other weeds from overwhelming them. I noticed that some of the graves are not that old. Some of the people buried there probably have living grand children. It struck me that within two or three generations most people are forgotten. Even well loved people who raised a family and worked hard are just a name engraved on a crumbling piece of stone in a cemetery somewhere. If that.
None of this can be news to anyone. We all know that we are going to die. And yet we continue to live our lives, to choose our values and priorities as though death is far off. I was struck that Jade Goody - a UK star of so-called reality TV - was only 27 when she died of cancer. And yet she had achieved notoriety and celebrity if not universal public acclaim. She leaves two kids and a husband, but in all likelihood all of this will be forgotten in a generation or two. Most of us won't rate an obituary in the media, and won't have gotten around to starting that memoir that we sometimes toyed with writing. It's not that we have uninteresting lives, simply that we fall under the radar. We are unexceptional.
Have your ever played that game where someone asks you what you would do if you had only 24 hours left to live? It can be revealing, but, even if we do get notice of immanent death, we are often too sick to do anything but lie in a hospital bed in those last 24 hours. The world keeps turning, the seasons wax and wane, days and nights alternate, the tides slosh in and out, and the wind blows the fallen blossoms in autumn. All that just goes on without you. Nature doesn't shed a tear when you die - you are compost at best.
We have limited time and energy and yet we spend so much of it on things that simply don't matter in the long run. Accumulating possessions that will end up in charity shops when we're gone. Working long hours making money for share holders who don't even know our names, and who are themselves are unexceptional on the whole and achieve nothing of significance with the money we make for them. So much of our economic activity we now know unequivocally to be actively harmful to the environment. We follow the news religiously because we want to be informed - but we never learn anything of value.
It's like there is a conspiracy to keep us docile and productive, to stop us thinking about our lives. Sometimes when you do something weird like becoming a Buddhist, people almost seemed threatened that you would do anything which upsets the status quo - like not eating meat. We are conditioned with values some of which have no real value.
But given the fact of our own death, and subsequent anonymity, isn't it important to consider what we are doing with our lives? So what would it be like to just stop for a minute and consider what's really important? In some stories about the early life of the Buddha he was stopped in his tracks by the realisation that everyone he loved was just going to die no matter what he did. His response was not to go into denial or self-pity, he did not bury himself in work or in booze. His response was to face the problem directly and undertake a thorough exploration of what is truly valuable. He found a way to live in accordance with these values. Buddhists are sometimes criticised because the Buddha left his wife and child behind to do something selfish. But this could not be further from the truth. The Buddha made a very great sacrifice for his family. In those stories (which may well be apocryphal) he gave up everything for his family, and having solved the problem of suffering came back to teach them the way beyond death as well. There can be no higher fulfilment of family duty or filial piety. And yet after self-doubt and low self-esteem, family and career responsibilities are perhaps the biggest barrier to spiritual commitment that there are. Even though we accept the Buddha's teaching we cannot shake off the values absorbed from our society.
You will sometimes get blithe spirits who say something like: "never mind, I do it in my next life." I find this unlikely. If karma works at all, then it is our choices which drive it. By leaving something undone in this life you most likely create the conditions for not having the opportunity to do it in a next life. We are working against a current which will drag us down unless we make a positive effort. To put something worthy off thinking that the opportunity will present itself again is to abdicate responsibility, and this sets up conditions for the future.
We would do well to consider death, especially our own deaths. No-one ever said on their deathbed - "I wish I'd spent more time at the office!". I think death provides some perspective on how we organise our lives, and on what we seek to achieve in this life. This life is a precious opportunity. I'll finish with some words from Evans-Wenz's translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead:
O procrastinating one, who thinketh not of the coming of death,
Devoting thyself to the useless doings of this life,
Improvident art thou in dissipating thy great opportunity;
Mistaken, indeed, will thy purpose be now if thou returnest empty-handed from this life:
Since the Holy Dharma is known to be thy true need,
Wilt thou not devote thyself to the Holy Dharma even now?
Note: since writing this a few weeks ago the H5N1 flu strain has been in the news, but I don't think it changes our existential situation.
image: cemetery by Jayarava