Steps on the Path 02 — My Unknown Death

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STEPS ON THE PATH is a twenty-one part series based on the twenty-one meditations of The Stages of the Path to Enlightenment by Je Tsongkhapa, a 14th century Tibetan Buddhist master. Je Tsongkhapa’s meditations were commentaries based on Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, a work the 11th century Indian Buddhist master Atisha wrote and presented when he was invited to reintroduce the Dharma to Tibet after a period of government suffocation. Both of these works are called Lamrim practice, and are said to compile all the teachings of the Buddha into one meditation practice. This STEPS ON THE PATH meditation series is an interpretation by Still Yourself to reflect an updated and modern understanding. They may be read and contemplated in any order you like.

—Meditation Two —
My Unknown Death

AS I ATTEMPT to make the most of this present moment, with the desire to eliminate as much difficulty as I can for myself and for others, I begin to look into the reasons and excuses I make to avoid taking things seriously. At the heart of this, I find I have a belief that I have plenty of time to do things, plenty of time to take care of things later—but the more I feel into this, the more I begin to realize that I do not really know for sure whether I have plenty of time or not.

I know intellectually that I and everyone else will eventually die, yet each day I live and act as if I do not believe it will be today. I do not choose my thoughts, words, or actions as if they may be my last. I do not speak to or treat others as if it may be the last time I ever see them, whether from my own death or theirs. How am I so sure I will not die today?

In the Tibetan Book of the Dead’s common preliminary practices, I read:

Are you oblivious to the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death? There is no guarantee you will survive even past this very day! The time has come to develop perseverance in your practice, for at this very moment you could attain the everlasting bliss of nirvana. So now is certainly not the time to sit idly, but beginning with the reflection on death, it is time to bring your practice to completion. The moments of our lives are not expendable, and the possible circumstances of death are beyond imagination…

And I suddenly understand what “beginning with the reflection on death” means; I must shift my thoughts from “Oh, I won’t die today” to “Oh, I might be dying today—these may be the last moments I have!”

Death is a topic I am taught to fight, to keep “out of sight, out of mind,” to never even acknowledge, and to instead fill my focus with material objects and distractions that will also fade away and definitely cannot be taken with me when I have to leave. Though I may or may not die today, I see that as I reflect (meditate) on death, I do not grow depressed and fearful as the world tells me I will, but instead I become more encouraged to make the most of this present moment—I feel sincerely grateful that I have this priceless human life, for however long I may have it.

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