The Buddha said:
“It is better to spend one day contemplating the birth and death of all things than a hundred years never contemplating beginnings and endings.” (1)
I’d like to tell you about a day that I’ll probably never forget. I was in Queenstown, New Zealand when I got a phone call. A roommate of mine had suddenly died. The world which I knew changed in that instant. Everything I held dear felt empty. It took me years to grasp the true meaning of what had happened. And yesterday, while reading ‘The Tibetan Book Of Living and Dying’ by Sogyal Rinpoche, I realized something I had always ignored. The reason why my world had changed in that moment, was because for the first time I got confronted with the impermanence of things.
One moment my roommate was here, the next moment he was dead. It seemed to me that my world had ended back then. Looking back, it was just me fighting against something natural to life: death. It’s not easy growing up in a culture where death is seen as something final, as something to be afraid of. Reading the introduction of the book by Sogyal Rinpoche made me realize this even more. I’ve had my encounters with death in multiple ways, but there were two encounters which have made a lasting impression on me.
The first one was when I had a friend sleeping over. I guess I was about 10 years of age. We talked about life and the universe and how big it is and suddenly we were talking about death and what it meant. As a 10 year old, I didn’t have a clue what death was, but I sure felt sad. Death as the end… it sounded terrible in my ears back then.
The second encounter was in my first year of high school. All the first graders stayed together in a separate building back then. One time during a lunch break I was looking around and suddenly the thought struck me that each and every one of us was going to die, including me. It was a strange realization and I didn’t really know what to do with it back then.
What I have learned in recent months is to accept impermanence as a fact of life. Now that I’m starting to accept it, I’m beginning to notice it everywhere around me. It is not something good or bad, it just is. Nothing will remain the same. In my own life there is a tremendous amount of change and also the world is changing continuously. And in a strange way, it all came to the surface the moment I had heard that my friend had died. At first I didn’t want to see it, I hid away and closed myself off. But now I’m finally willing to look at my pain and reluctance to change.
Learning to live with impermanence has brought me back to contemplating death. I can’t hide away forever. I can either accept death as a fact of life, or try denying it until it’s too late. This video by Tsem Tulku Rinpoche (see below) helps me see the importance of contemplating my own death. It is not something to be afraid off, but I shouldn’t take it lightly either. I now realize that I will die along with everybody else; this makes the everyday struggles in life seem less relevant. Why argue over something or hold onto anger if we will all die in the end? Why waste so much energy?
Reading ‘The Tibetan Book Of Living and Dying’ has raised another question: do I believe in life after this life? Yesterday I realized that I have evaded the question for a long time, by saying to myself that life is a dream. Now I see the fault in that. ‘Life is a dream’ does not answer the questions of what life and death are. I still have to face death. Perhaps it is time to find out what my beliefs are concerning life after death. Perhaps there is truth in the movie ‘What Dreams May Come.’