What Is Death to Me?

Lama Surya DasApril 12, 2021Life and DeathPerSpectives

Artwork by Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903), "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"

What is death to me?
A good question is better than an easy answer.

"Even death is nothing to fear
For those who have lived wisely."
~ The Buddha

They say everyone dies, and all things shall pass away. All is impermanent, fleeting, ungraspable. And yet, who shall truly live? What is our true life meant to be? And what does that even mean? This is my question for you, Dear Seekers and pilgrims in life. How to live and be(come) who and what we genuinely are and aspire towards? How to become the mensches we wish to see in this agitated world? Who shall we be?

I have lived my life with such questions. In fact, my teacher from Eastern Tibet, Lama Kalu Rinpoche, many decades ago nicknamed me “The Ocean of Questions.” That’s my way of being and learning. India’s freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi said: “Learn as if you were going to live forever. Live as if you were going to die tomorrow.”

Life is indeed precious and amazing for those who discover how to wonder, to meaningfully connect and share in its bounty, and to live. If you can, find your own eternal questions, as light guiding toward your greater Self; then cleave to them. One of my all-time favorite poets, the Bohemian-Austrian Rilke, reminds us:

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

Life as we know it — all beings, growing things, the mountains, the oceans — is impermanent, transient. Check it out and see what you find! Recognizing the fleeting and evanescent nature of all things helps us to loosen our grip on people, expectations, beliefs and ideas, and thus experience less “rope burn” from the irritation of holding on too tightly to that which is ever passing through our fingers. In India 2,600 years ago, the enlightened Buddha taught, “Life is like a dream, a mirage, passing bubbles on a shining stream, dewdrops evaporating on blades of grass, a rainbow, a candle flickering in strong wind, echoes, and precious beyond compare.” Let’s cherish and protect life, in all its forms. Has this vulnerable blue globe ever needed our care more urgently than now? Life is so precious and fleeting, tenuous; handle with prayer.

This fact of life — impermanence and mortality — reminds me to savor and appreciate all that is gifted right here and now: this very breath, this very place, this very time with family, friends, Nature itself. Such a rich and abundant, miraculous inheritance we receive! So much others have done for us in this world, to nurture and protect us until we can do so ourselves and then pay it forward to others, to the next generations. To move from me to we. My pronoun is We. Please join me. We are all interconnected; that’s how we thrive, that’s how we exist. If we don’t pull together, we will be pulled apart. We includes all beings, our endangered environment and the variety of species that inhabit it. Unselfish service is the rent we pay for inhabiting this buddhafull blue and green, spinning globe.

Am I just one man standing before God, meditating with Buddha, I wonder? Right now I am sitting in my backyard garden, at a patio table with my laptop, inhaling the flowers and bird-song through my senses on this altar called "earth." Am I, as some feel, merely a tiny speck of dust in the cosmic fields, an insignificant grain of sand in the river of experience and the ocean of life? Or the main protagonist of this colorful, theater-like pageant? How far apart are you and I and heaven and earth, in truth? We may sometimes feel far from IT but it is never far from us.”

The artist Gaugin painted his big questions on his celebrated triptych painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (see above). I often wonder about these eternal questions, don’t you? Who can say what is true, certain, authentic? I believe we must seek to find out what is true for each of us: true love, meaningful connection, genuine purpose, knowing that we can progress on our Holy Grail-like quest! It’s not just a Q & A, one and done. Remember: Live into the questions. I have been a truth-seeker my entire adult life. As a teen, I struggled, wondering what was true and authentic, whose ideas and philosophy or way of life made sense. I turned to psychology, creative writing and reading, poetry, journaling, depth psychology, meditating, prayer and yoga as guides along the way. I went to India and the Himalayas in 1971, at 20 years old, to find what I was looking for: God, truth, inner peace, a better way of life. I followed my heart, my wonderings, and my nose also: sniffing around the world for two and a half decades, sniffing out meaning, purpose, wisdom, warm love, and inner light with which to make a better life for myself and others. Gradually I was guided in making the inner journey, from me to we. Eureka!

We are all interconnected, interdependent. We all sail in the same boat, rising and falling, sinking or swimming together. As English poet John Donne wrote in 1624, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” The venerable Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls it interbeing. I love that we have so much more in common than our differences. Don’t take my word for it, please, check it out. We, all around the world — of diverse faiths, races, colors, beliefs, politics, gender, languages, lifestyles — have so many of the same concerns, worries and challenges, in growing up as well as in making our way in the world as well as in passing away and onwards in the greater ecology of being. One humanity, one world, one family, one circle, one beloved community. The Dalai Lama of Tibet, a true sage and saintly spiritual master, says that the purpose of life is to be happy and make others happy. What might be your purpose, your calling, your gift, highest assignment?

Many have said that life is what you make of it. I say, we can’t control the wind, but we can learn to sail and navigate better. Just look at those in our very midst who’ve overcome enormous obstacles finding their way to an extraordinary and connected life. I draw inspiration from people who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, like Helen Keller and Abe Lincoln and the Olympic champion Wilma Rudolph. Many people don’t appreciate being told what to feel, think or do, and what they can or can’t possibly do. I know I don’t! Some things we very much need to consider, explore, investigate, work through and find out for ourselves. Learning to open our hearts and love deeply, for example: so undefinable, although everyone talks and sings about it. Let us not overlook our guides on the side — Elders (who may not be older!) and Teachers — mentors and benefactors who show up for us in various forms each and every day, as we live into our questions. How would you like to live your day, your life? Starting here and now. Dare to dream. Dare to love. Love comes not from outside but through loving. Like God, love is a verb.

We make this spiritual-wisdom journey together on planet earth. Seekers become finders, paying it forward; I call it the Great Mutual Reciprocity. I was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Long Island, New York, in a loving, middle class family. As a young person, I had a recurrent dream of being on the other side of the world, and wondering if I would ever get home or not. Every month or so I’d wake up from this dream and wonder where I was, and find myself back in my suburban bedroom not far from the Atlantic Ocean. Just before my Bar Mitzvah in 1964, I asked my dad, an accountant by trade, who had been in the Second World War, and later traveled to Europe and Israel with my mom, about that dream and the other side of the world. Dad said: “Jeffrey, don’t worry about it. It’s just a dream.” I guess that was my question and the form it took back then. How to get home? I lived into it during my 20 years abroad in India, the Himalayas, and Japan. It was there I discovered a real sense of "home" and the aspiration to be a Bodhisattva, a spiritual helpmate, a torch-bearer, an awakener, for the benefit of others and work towards a better, kinder, more just world.

Discover your true and authentic Self and know the world, know God and whatever needs to be known. It is all within, as the masters recount. This is decidedly not simply a selfish call to narcissism; rather, what we seek, we are. It is all within: within me, you, us, everyone, human and otherwise, always accessible, ever ready and open for business (not just busyness). Write and rewrite your big questions for living. Write your own epitaph and keep writing it, ever emergent. Assume responsibility for being part of the creative principle, an artist in the Art of Living. Assume your Buddha seat. Sit beneath the tree of life and be nourished and protected. Awaken as the morning star rises.

Benjamin Franklin, one of my favorite Founding Fathers of the United States, wrote various versions of his epitaph, intended for his tombstone. Here’s one:

"The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost; For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author."

Together, let’s be human beings (and not just human doings), mensches cherishing this impermanent, luminous gift of life — living into our questions, and trusting in all that is yet unresolved in our hearts. Question On, dear Seekers, and savor the exploration!

With Love and Blessings, Lama Surya Das

Lama Surya Das is one of the foremost Western Buddhist meditation teachers and scholars. The Dalai Lama affectionately calls him “the American Lama.” He has spent nearly 40 years studying Zen, Vipassana, Yoga, and Tibetan Buddhism with many of the great old masters of Asia, among them some of the Dalai Lama’s own teachers. He is an authorized lama in the Tibetan Buddhist order, a leading spokesperson for Buddhism and contemporary spirituality, a translator, poet, meditation master, chant master, and spiritual activist. Lama Surya Das is the author of the international bestselling Awakening trilogy: Awakening the Buddha Within, Awakening to the Sacred and Awakening the Buddhist Heart, as well as the just released Buddha Standard Time (HarperCollins), and nine other books. In 1991 he established the Dzogchen Centers and Dzogchen Retreats (www.dzogchen.org) and in 1993, with the Dalai Lama, he founded the Western Buddhist Teachers Network and regularly organizes its International Buddhist Teachers’ Conferences. Today, Lama Surya Das teaches and lectures around the world, conducting dozens of meditation retreats and workshops each year. He is a regular contributor at Beliefnet.com, Tricycle magazine, and The Huffington Post. He resides in Concord, Massachusetts. His blog, Ask The Lama, can be found at http://askthelama.com/ and his lecture and retreat schedules are listed at www.surya.org/ He can also be followed on Facebook (Lama Surya Das) and Twitter @LamaSuryaDas.