Following on from the recent post Meditation: Questions and Answers for 11-14 year olds, here are the ones on death. These will be used in a new textbook on Buddhism being published for schools.
How do you view the idea of death?
The idea of death is very important to me. It’s actually one of the main reasons why I became a monk. I can remember one Sunday night lying in bed at home, when I was nineteen years old, suddenly realising how quickly my life was passing. It was like being struck by a bolt of lightning! And so I made up my mind there and then to do something of value before I die. I didn’t want to reach the end of my life and think: ‘What a waste!’ Some people don’t like to think about death, but that’s a mistake. After all, it’s the only certainty in life. If we ignore death then sooner or later when it does happen to us or those around us we will suffer greatly.
What is important to remember about death?
That it’s going to happen; and that it could happen at any time! It’s easy to forget this and live as if we’re immortal. But we’re not, and that big door marked ‘Death’ is gradually moving closer. One of the first things I like to do in the morning is say to myself: ‘Today could be my last day.’ Doing this makes me realise that time is precious. It helps me to be kind and to make an effort with everything I do. I also remind myself that, according to the Buddha, death is not the end and that there will be rebirth for those of us who aren’t enlightened. Because I accept this teaching it makes me more careful about what I say and do. For instance, if I’m angry, I’ll remind myself that if I were to die right now my rebirth might not be a happy one.
As a Buddhist how do you prepare for dying?
Buddhists sometimes say that living is preparation for dying. This might sound weird, but it actually helps us to live in the best way possible. You see, according to Buddhist teaching, our last moments in this life will affect the first moments in the next life (it’s a bit like when you go to sleep with a good or bad thought in your mind: it’ll often be the first one that appears when you wake up). But what affects the way we think and feel just before we die? How we live our life now! We often hear of people seeing their life flash before their eyes when they’re close to death. Imagine if you’d spent your whole life being selfish and hurting others. How would you feel? Pretty terrible. But if you’ve been kind, patient and thoughtful then your last moments of this life, and the first moments of your next life, will be good.
Are there any key Buddhist texts or stories about death that you find helpful?
One of my favourites is the story of Kisa Gotami. She refused to believe that her young child had died and in desperation asked people for a cure. Eventually she went to the Buddha, who told her to bring him a mustard seed. ‘But’, he said, ‘It has to come from a house where no one has ever died.’ So, she went from door to door, but everywhere received the same response: ‘I have a seed, but Mother died yesterday… Brother last week… Grandma a year ago…’ Finally, she got the message: death is universal and no one can escape it; and she overcame her grief. Another favourite is a sutta that teaches us to strive to reach enlightenment. The Buddha asks us to imagine a person with his head on fire – how much effort would he make to put out the flames? A lot! He’d think of nothing else! Then the Buddha said that we should make the same effort to free our minds of greed, hatred and ignorance because we can’t be sure when death will come.