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.