The Problem of Death

The greatest problem that the ancient Chan masters had was getting their disciples to have an earnest attitude towards death. Without a deep sensitivity to the problem of death, it is very hard to practice Chan well. It is very difficult for young people or those who live in a very sheltered environment to get a feeling for death. I don’t know if any of you ever think about death, and if you do, whether you feel it isn’t all that serious, that it does not concern you right now. I wonder how sensitive you are to the fact that life is impermanent, and that you are eventually going to die. Probably most young people can’t really bring themselves to be moved by the fact of death.

Among practitioners who are moved by the fact of death, there are two kinds of attitudes. Most common is fear, that is, they don’t know when they are going to die and they don’t want to die.

Among practitioners who are moved by the fact of death, there are two kinds of attitudes. Most common is fear, that is, they don’t know when they are going to die and they don’t want to die. They may want to cling to the good things in life, or maybe leave a legacy they will be admired for in the future. There is a great deal of self-attachment in this attitude. Another type of attitude is held by people who are practicing well and have no fear of death. They are consciously aware that they are going to die, that death may come at any time, and they don’t want to die leaving anything undone. They want to take advantage of all their time to practice hard. Since they still have not attained liberation, they don’t know where they’re going after death, but they know they are in contact with the Buddhadharma, so they want to use the present life to practice as much as they can. Of course, there is self-attachment here too, but this is necessary for practice. If there were no self-attachment you would not even be here, since it was to solve your problems that you began practicing.

The great masters of the past emphasized that, when practicing, one should put aside all fear of loss and death. In the past, when people left the home life, they told themselves that they were handing their body over to the monastery, and their life over to the spirits that protect the Dharma. Whatever the abbey or Dharma protectors instruct them to do, they will do. They are just going to practice, disregarding their body and life. This is a good attitude for those who are not afraid of death, or who have an accepting attitude about it. One can practice well with it. People who are constantly worrying about their body during meditation – I feel a little pain here, a little discomfort there, if I keep on going, maybe something will happen to me – will never be able to practice well. Not only should you not worry about your body dying, but you should not worry about your spirit dying. If there’s any kind of “spirit” left that could become a buddha, then it would definitely be just a demon or a ghost. If there is anything left there, whether a false or wandering mind, or a so-called true or correct mind, it has to die, or else it’s just a ghost. So what do you want to do – become a buddha or a ghost?

Once in China there was a monk who was so adept, he was able to leave his body. One time he left his body sitting there for a week and everyone assumed he had died, so they cremated his body. When this monk came back, he couldn’t find his body. So he hovered in the air, calling out, “Where am I? Where am I?” Everybody in the monastery was frightened because for several days straight he was shouting “Where am I?” And now, some of you are also using this method, right? Did you find your body?

Another type of attitude is held by people who are practicing well and have no fear of death.

Anyway, as it happened, after he was shouting for a few days, the abbot decided to put an end to this. He placed a big tub of water right under where the sound was coming from, and the next time they heard the voice crying, “Where am I?” the abbot yelled, “You’re down here!” Upon hearing that, the spirit descended with a splash. Then the abbot called out to him, “You’re already dead! All you did was turn yourself into a pitiful ghost. Did you really get liberated? Don’t you know that neither the five skandhas nor the four elements that compose the body are you? Where are you now?”

Then this monk realized that his physical body was not the same as himself, and the death of the physical body was not an important issue. If he still thought that he was the water, he would have transformed to a water spirit. So if I put this glass of water there right now, and if someone were to ask, “Where am I?” and I were to say, “You are here” [pointing to the water], would any of you get enlightened?

Back to other teachings