Deep contemplation of your own death is essential for genuine happiness. According to the Buddhist tradition, if you pass the morning without remembering you are going to die, the morning will have been wasted, and if you pass the evening without remembering you are going to die, the evening will have been wasted. In Tibetan Buddhist liturgy, a reminder of death is chanted before each session of religious practice: “The whole world and its inhabitants are impermanent; in particular, the life of beings is like a bubble; death comes without warning; this body will be a corpse.”
The great saints of Buddhism enjoyed meditating in charnel grounds, where the bodies, by local custom, were not buried — the bones, skulls, and hair of the dead lay open to the sky. The ritual objects of some higher Buddhist practices, such as the trumpets and small hand drums whose music proclaims the awakening of egoless mind, are made out of human skulls and thighbones. Tibetan iconography depicts deities that are intended to represent various powers of awakened mental energy. One may access these powers through visualizing and meditating on the images. Many of them wear garlands of skulls, and drink the blood of ego from a skull cup.
To most of us, contemplating our own death might seem to be a recipe for depression, morbid fascination, and fear rather than happiness. We prefer to forget about it. Numerous industries in the West market products intended to ward off death: pills, vitamins, exercise machines, protective clothing, medical equipment, safety devices, cosmetic surgery, entertainment that projects death onto a screen victim (and therefore away from the viewer), pain killers, and fancy grave monuments. We pay professionals to handle the dead and dying for us so that we don’t have to observe the death process or come into contact with a corpse until it is properly groomed.
Side by side with our efforts to protect ourselves from the experience of death is a pervasive, callous disregard for life: we poison the air, water, and soil, use transportation systems that guarantee fatal accidents, unnecessarily abuse and slaughter animals in vast numbers, and accept murder as a legitimate state policy. This is no accident.
Happiness is something that we imagine can be attained, if at all, only by careful self-preservation. Death is regarded as a punishment for neglecting ourselves. In Christianity, mankind was sentenced to death for disobeying God, but redemption is offered through faith in the resurrection of Christ.
The Buddha taught that seeking to deny death is the root of all suffering. Avoidance of untimely death is desirable, because other beings need us, and because birth in a human body makes it possible to work out our liberation from ego. Therefore, health should be respected and prolonged, so this precious opportunity may be used. Ignoring death, however, is the same as clinging to the notion of personal survival, with its attendant tormenting hopes and fears. To embrace and investigate death leads to a full and joyful discovery of life. Death and life are essentially the same thing. We begin to die the moment our umbilical cord is cut. Every birth is certain to end in death, just as every meeting will be followed by parting, and every push goes both ways.
The Buddha’s method for investigating death was the sitting practice of meditation. Having done this practice for several years, I recommend it as a means for making friends with death, remembering past lives, and freeing our minds from alienation and anxiety. Now, especially, when up to seventy-five percent of the emergency admissions in some urban hospitals in this country are AIDS patients, and the whole planet may be dying from ecological disaster, we need to learn everything we can about death. In particular, we need to know whatever can release us from denial, paralysis, and despair.
Buddhist meditation should be taught by a qualified instructor on a person-to-person basis. It cannot be learned properly from a book, although several masters have written excellent works on the subject: Meditation in Action, by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche; Buddha in the Palm of Your Hand, by Osel Tendzin; and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki.
The method is to sit, upright, on a cushion shaped so that the legs can be comfortably crossed, with the hands placed palms downward on the thighs. (Zen posture places the hands near the navel, forming the cosmic mudra — right hand resting on the left, with thumbs lightly touching.) The back should be straight but not tight. As the breath goes out, you go out with it, and dissolve. The inbreath happens by itself. Thoughts are mentally labeled “thinking” and let go. There should not be any struggle to get rid of them. It does not matter how many thoughts you have, how confused they are, or how often your attention wanders away from your breath. Essentially, this is a process of making friends with yourself. Trying to be a “good” meditator is missing the point. You are not leaving your body, visiting new and exciting planes, levitating, or becoming enlightened. You are simply turning on the light. That is all. Any judgement, evaluation, analysis, ambition, ecstasy, or guilt should be labeled “thinking” and allowed to pass away.
The reason this technique cannot be learned properly from a book is that we inevitably distort the practice; we need regular contact with a qualified instructor to help us identify our distortions and drop them. It takes a long time to work through the resistance that comes up: to let go of self-consciousness, cut our obsession with physical aches and pains, give up expectations, and allow ourselves to be irritated, bored, disappointed, and depressed.
To see clearly, I have to stop moving my head. If I am addicted to rubber-necking up and down and sideways, my eyes will never be able to present a coherent view of anything. The problem is not in my eyes.
The same thing is true of the mind. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with it. The mind contains everything we perceive and do. It is equipped to see. But we are addicted to the passing parades of mental drama, which present us with endless feasts of passion, anger, paranoia, jealousy, schemes of triumph, charades of self-flagellation, and plots of revenge. Unless we give up running around in that deluge, we never get a clear view of what is there. The problem is not in the nature of our minds, or even our thoughts.
What can we learn about death through meditation?
Persistence in meditation leads first to discoveries about thought. Tracking thoughts is like watching light patterns on the surface of a pond, but even more paradoxical than that: when you want to see them, they stop. When you forget your purpose of watching, they begin again. Eventually it occurs to you that the watcher is thought. The watching happens in the gap between thoughts, when the watcher momentarily disappears and there is nothing to watch anymore.
The great Buddhist masters have said that thoughts do not arise anywhere, dwell anywhere, or go anywhere. In sitting practice, they flash on, progress through related patterns like fireworks transforming into a series of bright stars, and then trail away — sometimes ceasing abruptly as we remember to come back to the meditation technique. That trailing away, or abrupt cessation, is death.
The intangibility and the impermanence of the thought process are what is meant, on one level, by the Buddhist term “emptiness.” Like photons, thoughts are empty of any specific nature. A photon — a measurable unit of light — may appear as a particle in one measurement and a wave in another, but has no definite existence apart from the consciousness of the observer. Although thoughts and photons are not necessarily identical, they manifest in similar ways. Sudden ideas or fixed purposes seem like points, but the diffusions of associative tones seem like waves. Thoughts are no more real than mathematical probabilities. They are there and not there at the same time — vivid and colorful, highlighted by emotional sparks, and structured by long-term preoccupations. They seem to change and flow; yet nothing about them changes. They just come on and go off. Their movement is illusory, like a message on an outdoor sign that travels from right to left by means of a succession of flashing lights. Nothing travels on the sign, not even the message, but because of the appearance of change and flow, the thought can exist. This experience leads to the realization that life and death are the same thing.
The alternating continuity and discontinuity of thought is not merely a metaphor for death: it is death. . . . To let go of the self and enter fully into one’s own mental experience exactly as it is — that is the death process.
The space between thoughts — their discontinuity — is sometimes felt as being “spaced out.” Unless we are trained in meditation, that space usually provokes anxiety. We resist it; we are eager to go on to the next fantasy, the next scheme. We don’t want to become “spaced out,” for fear we might end up entirely nonfunctional, as if meditation might be an early stage of Alzheimer’s disease. In short, we feel about that space the same kind of anxiety that we feel about death. We don’t want to let go of our projects, hopes, and fears and allow ourselves to be nothing. The fear of discontinuity and boredom shows that, on some level, we realize the identity, the self, is confined within the realm of thought. Beyond thought, it does not exist. Therefore, we have to keep churning out more and more thought to keep it alive.
Ironically, thought itself, the matrix of ego, does not exist as a tangible reality either. The effort to maintain the self is doomed to failure and frustration. It is like trying to keep a sunbeam in a box.
The alternating continuity and discontinuity of thought is not merely a metaphor for death: it is death. Meditation is therefore a real exploration of the subject. To let go of the self and enter fully into one’s own mental experience exactly as it is — that is the death process. Not wanting to give in, resisting the space, creating further thought in order to cling to the self — that is how we cause ourselves to be reborn in body, speech, and mind, again and again, not only moment to moment, but through ages of beginningless time.
In sitting practice, one quickly gets used to the fact that discursive thought shifts and flickers constantly and is full of gaps. But the illusion persists of a person beneath that shifting veil, watching it all happen. Although we may realize that the watcher is thought, the weight and presence of the physical body and brain continue to provide a referent for the personal pronoun. Each of us still tends to think that “I” inhabit “my” body and have not yet died. Thoughts die and are born; the person appears to remain.
Logically, there is no reason to assume that because perception occurs through a body, someone must be inside it. But genuine liberation from anxiety is not a matter of logic. The method of meditation is radically experiential, and the insight gained thereby is immediate and direct.
The deep-rooted illusion of self turns out to have detailed, composite structures of memory and emotion ignored for so long they have become unconscious. Our whole world has been put together in terms of those structures. To investigate them is as irreversible as jumping off a cliff. The belief in the reality of that world dies as a result.
In a further series of Buddhist practices, called ngondro, the structures of ego are assaulted and unraveled root and branch. Sitting meditation is then deepened by a feeling that I have been ransacked; my secret bureau drawers are emptied, and the mental dildoes lie scattered everywhere. Sometimes the gap, the space between thoughts, goes on and on — there are no thoughts. On the other hand, everything is thought: the trees, the houses, the furniture, the stars.
There is a kind of shift, a roll over, as if my entire existence were a mass of mud revolving in a cosmic sand mixer, with entrances and exits to physical form. The discontinuity is felt in the ragged uncertainty of the attention span, the shifts of the visual field, the involuntary spreading and dissolving of focus, the variations of breath.
Absolutely nothing is there that is not rolling over like this, even the discovery of change and the fascination with the liquid, uncontained qualities of mind. My surrender to it, my letting go, is part of the roll over. This, I thought, truly must be what it is like to die. It is like embers falling away minute by minute from a log, until the log ceases to have any quality of logness. It is like the burning fragments of an exploded star. It is like the body of my teacher, burning to ash and bone, the flames now surrounding me as well.
In my younger days, when I took psychedelic drugs, the onset of the drug was marked by an exaggeration of this roll-over effect: the wallpaper designs would ooze down the walls, the yard would burn and glow, faces would wrinkle and wither until they seemed a million years old. The disadvantage of the drug was that it obscured and heightened perception at the same time, without unraveling the structures of ego. Any insight gained thereby was compromised by having to depend on a substance, which, by its very nature, reinforced the belief in a self, since the self needed to be modified by the introduction of an other.
Buddhist practices illuminate and unravel the ego structures first, before altering perception. The motivation to do that comes from inside; there is never any sense of an outside agency adding to the mind a magic substance that is not already there. The roll-over experience is simply egoless mind in its natural state. When it is cleansed of belief in ego, perception begins to function without obscurity; it is therefore heightened and sharpened, becoming a source of real knowledge rather than a constant media show of seductions and threats.
Realization is liberated in the roll over or death process, just as heat is released from the embers of the log. My physical being is a momentary form for that realization; the rolling over in the body, and in my existence generally, happens according to definite sequential patterns, influenced by factors of chaos — like flame, burning according to the conditions of fuel, space, and oxygen, yet influenced by random currents of air.
This body has died and been reborn many times in a succession of stages: the alternating continuity and discontinuity that describes the thought process also occurs over my entire life, and from one life to the next. The child that I was, the adolescent, the young man — they are all dead; not only have those cells been broken down and replaced, but the hopes and fears that inhabited those bodies have all changed, and the life situations around them have dissolved.
Meditative awareness may range freely all the way back to the womb, when the creative rush within me expressed itself in the form of five finger buds turning into a hand. Lately, the awareness has ranged through a number of “past lives,” which are not, strictly speaking, past, for they are still contained within the stream of my being. In these past lives, I did what I’ve done in this one: played roles, believed in illusions, and kept my personal history going to hide from death. All the time I kept on living and dying, dying and living, alternating continuity and discontinuity, clinging to the faces in the stream.
Now, like the petals of a rose, my functions, having matured, will fall away once more: the lungs wheeze, the skin wrinkles; eventually the bowels, heart, liver, kidneys, brain — all of it will break down. Yet awareness and realization still go on. Experience has taught me that they happen because of death, and that death releases them. By entering fully into my death, I am simply waking up to life.
Recognizing that the “person” beneath the shifting veil of thought is burning and rolling over, moment by moment, I can relax about dying; I do it all the time. But a deeper discovery emerges through this experience that leads me to question whether anything happens at all — whether the very idea of dying may be just another illusion, which, beginning as insight, became incorrect the moment it turned into an idea.
The deeper discovery is this: just as life and death are the same thing, mind, experience, and phenomena are one. The distinction between them is made by thought. The split between mind and phenomena — the first step in the creation of self — is performed routinely and unconsciously with each new perception. It is possible to see this happening, and to penetrate the habits resulting from it.
“Seeing,” for example, is a mental act. Although we may think we are looking at a tree across the yard, we cannot see anything but the result of our own perceptive apparatus at work. Gazing at colors, we are surveying the ability to perceive and appreciate color. If we didn’t have that ability, “color” would not be there. We calculate the distances between stars only to the extent that we can analyze information and project astronomical distance; that is, the universe we are measuring is ourselves. Without mind, distance would not be measured, the spectroscopic analysis of star material would not be performed, and the life cycles of the stars would not be imagined. No matter what we see, we are always looking in the mirror.
There is no reason to be frustrated by this reality, concluding that we can never see “the true world,” for we are also the work of what is perceived. Whatever this true world may be, it includes the act of seeing. From one point of view, gazing at a red blanket may be described as somebody’s mind looking at its own ability to distinguish color, but it may also be described as the color appreciating itself.
The idea that “I” am looking at an object called a “tree” is observer-generated reality. Our culture is deeply attached to this reality. It is embedded right into the structure of our language. We believe that the tree exists independently of the observer, and vice versa, forgetting that both have emerged together from the split between phenomena and mind. We have had to take the tree apart down to the atoms and smash them back to mathematical probabilities in order to realize that it has no ultimate reality.
Remembering that I am actually looking not at the tree, but only at my image of the tree, helps lead toward the insight that mind and phenomena are one. Still, this does not transcend observer-generated reality. The observer has replaced the tree.
The child that I was, the adolescent, the young man — they are all dead; not only have those cells been broken down and replaced, but the hopes and fears that inhabited those bodies have all changed, and the life situations around them have dissolved.
In what might be called a field-generated reality, the object and the perception are inseparable from the field. The tree which “I” observe to be “distant” is no longer perceived from the reference point of an observer. It is part of a living field in which sounds, colors, patterns, and their relation to space rearrange themselves moment by moment with intelligence and mathematical precision. The reduction of some shapes is paid for by a corresponding enlargement of others. The mass of the tree may be enlarged and extended into the sense fields of touch and smell by reducing some of the surrounding sky. A panorama of patterns may be included by expanding the landscape and reducing the tree. By interpreting this change merely as an observer approaching and departing, we freeze the entire field into a conceptual scheme and become exiles in a world of dead “things.”
Realizing the oneness of mind and phenomena opens a universe of magic that cannot be understood within the limits of observer-generated reality. A shaman locates deer for a hunter by examining the cracks on the shoulder bone of a deer. A rain dance is performed and it rains. Your father dies and his picture drops and smashes on the floor. You think of an old friend you haven’t seen for years and she calls within two minutes. Before the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the statues of protective deities in the Tibetan Buddhist temples wept blood. I constructed a circular rock garden in my yard and discovered years later while doing Buddhist mandala practice that my garden was a mandala reproduced according to the Tibetan pattern in almost exact detail.
Such events constantly break through our normal observer-generated world, but we ignore most of them, or file them under the category of “amazing coincidences.” In field-generated reality what appears to us as magic is a natural consequence of the all-pervasive nature of mind. A thought which appears in one part of the field will appear somehow in every part, for there is no “distance” to separate them; all parts of the field are equally present to itself at all times. No field is a closed system; all feed into one another without definite boundary, as a birch forest gradually merges at higher altitudes into stunted firs.
Field-generated reality is completely different from the naively idealist viewpoint that things are whatever we imagine them to be. The idealist viewpoint still depends on the notion of an observer, but now this observer wants to expand to the limits of space and time — the ego enthroning itself as ruler of the universe. The perceptive field already operates by rules that have produced this observer, rules that must be understood and worked with in an intelligent way. For example, we cannot take a rocket to the moon — enlarge the moon to the size of a world and walk upon it — unless we know the balance between space and mass within that field, and how much energy is required to change the balance around. Clearly, the moon and a tree must be visited by different rules. If the rules are not understood properly, the field may yawn and cancel the would-be visitor.
Increasingly, throughout the twentieth century, Western science has undermined the assumptions of observer-generated reality and begun to adopt field-generated reality models as a way of resolving the paradoxes created by dualism. Einstein and Heisenberg showed that our reality is in fact observer-generated, not objectively real.
Gregory Bateson, in Mind and Nature, points out that mental process depends upon the perception of difference. We become aware of an “object” in the vision field only because it is different from the background — in color, shape, or movement. We can hear a sound only by contrast with silence or other sounds; we can feel a surface only by its difference from a previous texture, and so forth. Yet difference has no objective location in space or time; it is a completely mental event. It requires for existence the comparison of two or more memories (Bateson prefers the noun “transforms,” or mental images of perceived objects) through an awareness that is not itself one of the compared terms. From this simple but brilliant observation, Bateson goes on to demonstrate how the functions of mind are inherent in whole ecological fields.
An invasion of tree-stripping caterpillars alters the balance of a particular field; this change is translated to the organisms within it as news of difference: fewer leaves, more sun, more caterpillars. The response of the field to these differences might include the starvation of the caterpillars, the increase in birds that feed on them, or the growth of plants that need a lot of sun. In short, the field shows the attributes of mental process: perception of difference, transformation of this difference into information, and corresponding readjustment of the balance of terms within the field.
Rupert Sheldrake in biology and David Bohm in physics have done similarly exciting work toward creating field-generated reality models. The point here is that we can step out of observer-generated reality without fearing that we have defied any basic scientific laws. Great minds in the West have been moving in that direction for the last half-century.
Field-generated reality, or the oneness of mind, perception, and phenomena, need not be merely an esoteric idea, limited to discourse among intellectuals and mystics. Buddhist meditation practices make it possible for anyone to experience field-generated reality as valid and authentic, with the same immediacy as hot coffee spilled in the lap. But we must be willing to die — to let go of the observer. The ego cannot stand in a safe place and evaluate the result.
Although we are dying all the time anyway, the problem is that we are not willing to do it cheerfully. This holding back from death is no casual matter. The Buddha identified this problem as the cause of all suffering. In the terms we have been using here, clinging to the observer creates observer-generated reality, which the Buddha called samsara. In samsara, the emptiness of the field — the absence of boundary or essential nature — is felt as impermanence. The fact that we are dying all the time, and choose to ignore the process, transforms experience into basic anxiety. As the body gets older and breaks down, we feel miserable about it. If our marriage dissolves, or we lose a good job, we feel miserable; if we get cancer, we are staring misery right in the face. But we are unwilling to feel miserable either, and hasten to tranquilize ourselves with some kind of entertainment; for being willing to feel utterly miserable would be giving in to death. Genuine experience always means death — something passing away to make room for something else.
Meditation is often spoken and written about as though it were some unusual, exotic rite, performed in turbans and robes, with the lights turned down and sitar music on the stereo. The turbans, robes, and music are often means to distract us further from death, as are doctrines of resurrection and reincarnation. To the Buddha, meditation was simply entering into experience without holding back — or, in other words, being willing to die with a smile. There is no reward for this. Any reward would bring back the observer: “Congratulations, you died. Now you go to heaven, or get promoted to better circumstances on Earth.” Dying has no such limit.
Dying cheerfully and deliberately, however, does bear fruit. One fruit is the extinction of personal anxiety, alienation, and fear. In field-generated reality, there is no personal wretchedness — although sadness and joy, being inseparable, radiate from the embers of dying along with intelligence.
A second fruit of dying deliberately and cheerfully is the compassionate space that it provides for others. Field-generated reality is filled with beings who suffer. Because there is no observer in that reality to shut them out, their suffering permeates the whole field and is part of it. The intelligent sadness and joy of the field, which does not reject those who suffer, is the experience of compassion, and it is finally their only possibility of being liberated from pain.
The compassion is liberating because rather than coming from an observer, it comes from the field. It is the space that allows the experience of pain, and therefore death, to happen in an intelligent and responsive way. The compassion is the mercy of the field; it presents an alternative to ego-clinging. Because of that compassion, the person who has unwittingly transformed dying into suffering is given a way out.
A third fruition is the discovery that the field, which has no limits whatsoever, may enjoy itself without limit. Experience happens from every direction at once. Since this fruition came from the skulls and bones of the charnel ground, having been made possible by the death of samsara, those bones were used to celebrate and proclaim.