Contemplating Death

There are these four thoroughbred horses, the Buddha starts one sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya. One need see only the shadow of a whip and he becomes energetic, ready to work, ready to train. Another ignores the shadow, but it roused when he hears its crack or feels it rush by. Another, refusing to be intimidated, is stirred only when it makes contact and bites the skin. The final thoroughbred will eventually be roused to work and train, but not until the whip hits so hard that its sting sinks all the way to its bones, to its very core.

These are all thoroughbreds, the ones who can be trained. Far more numerous still are the ones who never respond, only slinking off in resentment or giving way to anxiety, rushing about fruitlessly to avoid the whip. It is, of course, a simile for trainable human beings. The thoroughbreds are those with mindfulness enough to see truth, whether at a distance or when it has visited them personally. The whip is death. And not being roused is remaining in ignorance, cultivating bad habits, pursuing sensuality, and putting off doing what should be done.

Two Wednesdays ago, the conversation at tea time turned towards the subject of death, and I led a meditation after. Imagine a body before you – your body, in fact – on the floor or table. It no longer moves, no longer stirs, no longer has a voice or any control. It is at rest. Sense the stillness, the finality.

This is not just a random exercise. Those who’ve come back from the jaws of death, including tibetan deloks said to have been deceased for days or weeks before returning, all report this same experience. Their mind seeing their body, detached. This is the point of inevitability, when all worldly pursuits have ended, and those who reach this point without preparation are, as the Buddha says in a pair of Dhammapada verses, like travelers embarking on a journey who have gathered no provisions. If there is any clinging, fascinations or regrets still in the mind, that is the point they will have to be faced.

The day after that meditation, I sat down and made a list of all the things I was procrastinating about because I hadn’t been reflecting thoroughly on my own death. As the mental corpse of Tahn stayed unmoving in front of the shrine where I had envisioned it (sometimes drawing a few flies, but thankfully he dried out quickly by the heater) I set to work doing the things on my list. I set aside all the activities I could see were just distractions. It was a very good day.

As time with this meditation has gone on, the gravity of the situation will on occasion be intense. How very often I could see myself make a decision or pursue a course of action thinking I will have a tomorrow with which to do it better or more conscientiously. How many of us let our lives slip away, ever vowing to, “Get to it later”?

Anyone who was watching the American news these last few weeks likely caught sight of shocking images surrounding events at the capitol building. Perhaps, watching as events unfolded, some even saw faces of death itself. When the trading of harsh words leads to blows and violence, both sides suffer, be it a California protester slumped against a stairway bleeding out from a fatal chest wound or a police officer prone and lifeless, pummeled by an angry mob. Seeing these images we can’t help but be stirred. This is the tragedy of even one death: these people woke and dressed that morning, they ate breakfast, they tweeted with friends or kissed their family goodbye. Even then, as now, harsh words were being flung and battle lines drawn. But who really thinks this will be the day death comes?

Another morning, my mind turned to Math. This temple Parivara Dhamma Acala, like many temples and community centers in the country, has little furniture and a lot of open space. I remember seeing stark images at the beginning of the pandemic of coffins being stacked into earthen trenches – the first images that really made an impact that something serious was going on. Forklift after forklift of coffins. Each one two feet by six feet, each one a life ended.

I started counting the floor tiles. The basement is open but the ceiling is low down there – coffins could fit 11 stacks wide by 3 high. But the other two floors have higher ceilings and coffins could fit four high. One hundred and fifty bodies could be stacked in this house.

It’s not idle speculation, as any doctor or nurse will tell you. My own mother works in a hospital ten minutes from her home, and has reported the various comings and going of freezer trucks which signal the rate of COVID deaths there. This is the scene playing out in hospitals all over this country, and all over this world. We are very affluent here in America, but even still at the beginning of the pandemic bodies were being taken to the curb for pickup on this very street. Were circumstances a little different, Parivara dhamma could have been a temporary storage, and the visualization a grim reality.

If you lived on this street, knowing that the house next door contained 150 plague victims, would it change your conduct? Would it soften your tone when you feel like squabbling with housemates? Would it siphon some of the obsession out of getting the newest Iphone or car?

Sadly, it’s not just one house in this country. 4,000 americans died of just this one virus yesterday, to say nothing of all the other causes of death. The whip is cracking all around us. It would take 26 houses to store all those bodies in one place, and there are only 24 on this street. If you found yourself in such a neighborhood, utterly surrounded by death, how would you fare? What resources do we have to face such a scene with wisdom, to be matured by it rather than defeated?

There are still people who think the pandemic is blown out of proportion, who refuse to take precautions or wear masks – people on both sides who scoff at the vaccines and refuse to go even when their number is called. The whip is cracking nearby, but they only snort, “It didn’t hit me.” Meanwhile, there are those gripped with the anxiety peddled by the media, fearing for their lives and unwilling to leave their bubbles, or seduced into the unemployed, socially-distanced torpor of not going out, not working, not meeting friends and family.

I would, of course, like to believe that people at either of these extremes could become different if they were living on a street-turned-mortuary. Like uncounted tens of thousands of doctors and nurses and aides, they would go to work every day because that’s what people do, but they wouldn’t play the odds. They would wear the masks and get the vaccines. Because they see the dying every day, and know what they can do for themselves and what cannot be helped. We all have that capability to see the dying around us and be sobered by it, but though I would like to believe it is an intrinsic capability, the reality seems to be still 2,500 years later that the number of thoroughbreds is relatively few.

All of this was just a visualization until Thursday evening, when I received the call that my paternal uncle had passed away. His death was sudden, quiet, and unexpected, a victim not to COVID but to a heart attack. And now there is no visualizing, just a painful reality in the here and now as I sit by the shrine and recollect his kindnesses over the years. This is how it is for us, and the limit of math. The truth is that no stack of bodies, no quantity of death, is enough to change someone’s mind, but when we really feel the whip it doesn’t take thousands but a single death to shake us.

In the moments when death touches us, we know – this is why we practice. My uncle has passed on, and his ability to share friendly words or ask forgiveness for harsh ones is gone. Like the infinite departed before him, he has only one offering left – to teach the living for as long as his memory lasts. To remind us still here that each day, and each life, is precious – but only if we make it so.

Dhammapalooza 1-18-21

Monday’s Dhammapalooza from Student of the Path

Here is the recording of last night’s Dhammapalooza session from MaghaSekha (Student of the Path). Chanting, very good Q&A, a sutta reading and meditation with Bhantes Jayasāra and Pamutto.


Tea with Tahn

Feel free to stop by this evening from 7pm-8pm EST for an informal tea chat session amongst spiritual friends.

Or join the Wednesday evening meditation from 8-8:45.

Information is on the Meditations/Events page!

A Parable on Faith and Prayer in Buddhism

A Parable on Prayer from the Christian Faith:

One day a man, who was deeply faithful and a strong believer in prayer, got word that a flash flood was on its way. He barely had enough time to get onto his roof before the flood waters arrived and submerged the ground floor of his home. Having no means of escape, and surveying his situation, he decided this was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the power of prayer to all the non-believers in his town. “Oh God,” he said, getting down on his knees, “Please, spare me and my home! Save me from this flood!”

While he was praying with all his might, his neighbor called up to him. His neighbor had gotten into his boat and was now floating down the man’s driveway. “Go away!,” the man called back. “I have the power of faith! God will save me!” Shrugging, the neighbor motored away.

The man kept praying, and a bright light in his heart assured him his prayers were being answered. Just then, though, his words were drowned out by the roar of a helicopter descending towards his roof. “Go away!” he waved. “God will never hear me with all this racket!!!” The helicopter circled twice, then departed.

“Finally!”, the man said, and got back down on his knees to pray. But, just then, the flood intensified. The house collapsed, and the man was swept away to his death.

Shortly thereafter he arrived in heaven, at the Pearly Gates. He strode in and found God, incredulous. “Oh great God!” he said. “How could you abandon your faithful servant?! Why didn’t you save me??”

God looked down at him, confused. “DIdn’t you see the boat and the helicopter I sent?”


Sometimes when we pray there’s no question we are being helped – but are we willing to help ourselves?


The Practice and Habit of Letting Go

On Sunday, Bhante Jayasara gave a talk to the Indonesian Buddhist Family of New York on Letting Go, which gave rise to a good Q&A session with dialogue from both monastics.

Last night, the topic of the wednesday tea/zoom session turned to another form of letting go: the contemplation of death. Like the consideration of the unattractive nature of the body, this contemplation is not always dealt with in mixed audiences. Many monastics feel that addressing them to average people would be off-putting. But when you have the opportunity to chat with a monastic one-on-one, I encourage you to take the opportunity and ask away about all the things no one else will talk about!

Truly, these practices are of universal benefit, not just for monastics!

Morning Dhamma Options

Morning Dhamma Options

This morning, as I have most mornings this year, I woke early before the gears of the world started turning. In the morning stillness I dressed, brewed a cup of coffee, and sat down to read a few passages of dhamma.

One of the passages, by chance, included the 16 steps of Anapanasati, or Mindfulness of Breathing. As I read the steps one at a time, “Breathing in, he knows ‘I breathe In’, Breathing out, he knows ‘I breathe out’, I could feel my body’s own breathing rhythm matching the pace of my reading. I slowed down, I listened, and then I put the book down and began meditating.

How we start the day is important. It sets the tone for what follows. While we have the threads and momentum of our ongoing spiritual practice to carry us, morning is the time when we can most easily set new patterns and establish new motivations. Just like a healthy breakfast prepares the body for the day, a helping of stillness and dhamma in the morning prepares the mind for meeting what is to come with wisdom.

If you have the chance this week, try adding a little dhamma to your morning. At 8 am EST at Empty Cloud, Bhante Suddhaso will lead three mornings of Vipassana instruction, while on the MaggaSekha channel, Bhante Jayasāra will continue his six days a week morning puja/chanting. Or, if you’re on the move, just check in here. There will be a new talk linked each morning.

Discussion Around Truth

The most fruitful dhamma explorations, I find, are the ones that are delved into communally – the ongoing dialogue among seekers that allows us to push beyond our limited understandings to explore themes too vast to be encompassed by just one viewpoint. This week’s exploration has been around speech, and the unimpeachable value of Truth.

On Sunday, Bhante Jayasāra and Tahn Pamutto explored Truthfulness (Sacca) and its practice and development. How do we know the Truth? How do we commit to it? How do we draw on its power in relating to others and the world? Truthfulness, we find, is not one thing but a continuum. When we begin we are beset by our defilements – Greed, Hatred, and Delusion lurking in the background of our mind – and speech seems like just another tool to get what we want. At some point, though, the pain caused by being deceitful will tip the scale and we’ll be ready to commit to the Fourth Precept and train ourselves not to tell lies. Not to others, not to ourselves, not ever.

How often do we bend or break the truth to avoid an unpleasant reality or shield ourselves from blame? How often do we misdirect another so we can get what we want? Some people of the world see life as a competition, where we are all in a struggle to get to the top. When we take this fourth precept to heart, though, we start to perceive higher truths. There is no competition. The only goal, the only point of completion in human life, is the one that we all reach whether we are fast or slow, bright or dull, rich or poor … the finish line of death. When we pass on, the only thing we take with us are the consequences of our actions and the strength of our commitment to truth.

Wednesday’s Tea and Dhamma session continued the conversation. Even once we’ve given up lying, a conundrum remains: What is Truth? How do we know it? And what do we do if the people around us see things differently?

It can be tricky to mix frames of reference. There is a popular social term, ‘gas-lighting’, which refers to a situation where someone is forcefully told what is right and/or wrong. There’s a lot of this going on these days, so it’s fitting there is a term. There was also a lot of it happening in the Buddha’s day too, 2500 years before Facebook, but in the Buddhist framework there is no one thing that describes gas-lighting. We can be pressured to abandon our views and opinions, or adopt new ones, in many ways: through harsh speech and insults, through divisive speech and threats of being separated from a group, even through having our viewpoints dismissed or minimized. We’ve all experienced these tactics, and we know how it feels when what we’ve seen, heard, or felt is aggressively denied.

So too, the roots of this behavior are manifold. It can happen equally based on Greed, Hatred, or Delusion. What is important to recognize in the face of this is the place of truth. When we give in to an unwholesome motive, truth is often the first victim. One who tries to cultivate truth comes to understand this intuitively – most of the truths with which we operate in daily life are subjective. Finding truth in a conventional sense is as much identifying basic facts as it is leaving room and sensitivity for differences of perspective. Truth in the midst of opinion is a quiet and reflective place, often missed, where we know what we believe without holding to this belief too tightly. It is the strong, aggressive absolutes in our speech and the speech of others that tip off the mindful as to where Perception and Ego are overshadowing what is really there.

In the face of unwholesome pressure to abandon what we know or to take on ‘truths’, even those coming from large groups of people, sometimes our only recourse is to be clear about our own reality. Having seen this, we say, “I saw this,”; having not seen this, we say, “I didn’t see this.” It’s not much, but here we can actually have a stable base to stand on – not unshakable, but sturdy enough. Any attempt to reduce things further won’t yield any worthwhile results. Only doubt, and distrust. We know what we know, and we know where our knowledge ends.

As the years of practice go by, and we weather or witness dispute after dispute, the mind turns away from viewpoints and controversy to seek what is really true and stable. This was the focus of the Buddha’s teaching: to point to ultimate truth, that which is the same from every perspective. It is here that we can actually have a strong conversation and reach agreement. There are truths that can be known: suffering; aging, sickness, and death; the consequences of wholesome and unwholesome actions; the peace of the mind beyond constructions … to devote ourselves to this is a lifelong effort, and to bring our thoughts and speech in line with ultimate truth will be an endeavor unlike any other. But nothing can yield such abundant fruit. What will our lives be like when we can openly speak about the things that matter most?

We don’t pursue this truth alone, nor do we have to figure everything our for ourselves, and that’s the joy of sangha. For as many false truths and purveyors of these as there are in the world, there are just as many good people seeking a way out. I encourage you to walk this path for yourself, and join the conversation.

The Uposatha

In the Buddha’s time, people of many faiths were already keeping a sabbath on the Full and New Moons, called observing the Uposatha. When they requested that the Buddha also lay out an observance for this holy day, the Buddha described the practice of taking the 8 Precepts for a day and a night. Doing so, he said, was to live a day and a night like the arahants – the enlightened beings.

Dhammapalooza –

Dhammapalooza every Monday 8-10pm EST

Join Bhante Jayasara and guests on the ‘Students of the Path’ YouTube channel every Monday for a two-hour session of chanting, dhamma reflection, Q & A, and meditation. Every session is broadcast live on YouTube – sign in to join the chat.

This week’s session included Bhante Pamutto, with a reading of the Kosambiya Sutta and a guided meditation on Metta.

Part 1

Part 2