Death is not a topic that people like to talk about. It’s usually associated with sadness and grief, and it’s frightening to think about. However, avoiding conversation about the end of life may be the source of our anxiety when facing death unprepared. Since death is inescapable for everyone and can happen at any time, we should not ignore this subject. Instead of keeping away from knowing, we should learn more about death and let it be associated with wisdom. Such wisdom, from sources as yoga philosophy and Buddha’s teachings, gives us insights about death and what we can do to fearlessly face the inevitable end of life. They also give guidance on practice to attain joy and peace.
A classical text of Indian spirituality that helps understand death is the Katha Upanishad, which records the teachings of Yama, the Indian god of death. The Katha Upanishad is a dialogue between Yama and Nachiketa, a teenager who was offered to the god Death. Yama played the role of the teacher and answered questions raised by Nachiketa. During the conversation, Yama told Nachiketa the existence of a deathless Self and that “Those who realize the Self are forever free from the jaws of death” (Katha Upanishad I.3.15). According to Yama, people feel sorrow concerning death because they don’t understand the Self, and which is “formless in the midst of forms, changeless in the midst of change” (I.2.22). Just as the beauty of nature won’t be affected by the changing forms of the seasons, the blissful Self won’t perish when one dies.
Nachiketa, after being aware of the results of Self-realization, next inquired how one could know that blissful Self. In response to his query, Yama mentioned yoga: “When the five senses are stilled, when the mind is stilled, when the intellect is stilled, that is called the highest state by the wise. They say yoga is this complete stillness in which one enters the unitive state, never to become separate again” (II.3. 10-11). The god of death commented that one could realize Self through sense-restraint and disciplined meditation practice (yoga). Even though the path is difficult and “sharp like a razor’s blade” (I.3.14), the reward is incredible: “Eternal joy is theirs who see the Self in their own hearts. Eternal peace is theirs who see the Self in their own hearts” (II.2.12-13). It can be seen that, traditionally, yoga plays an essential role in recognizing spirituality within oneself and exploring the mystery of death.
Ultimately, knowing about death is finding stillness in a critical time and happiness in life. To reach this goal, one needs to cultivate spiritual awareness through dedicated practice. With one’s own direct experience, when facing death like the man in the Buddhist story, one might be able to enjoy and embrace life regardless of the situation.
Once, a man was walking in the forest. Suddenly, a hungry tiger jumped out. He ran as far as he could to escape from the tiger. But then, in front of him was the cliff! Thinking that by jumping off the cliff he might have a chance to survive rather than being gripped by the tiger, the man swiftly jumped down. Luckily, he was caught by a tree that had ripe fruit. Just as he settled down, he heard some noise. Two mice were chewing at the root of the tree!
Hanging in the middle of the air while a tiger was staring at him on top of the cliff and the mice were chewing the tree, the man knew there was no way to escape. Seeing that it was a dead end anyway, the man released himself from the desperation and noticed he was hungry. He picked a fruit and put it in his mouth. It was the best fruit ever! Just then, eager to fill its stomach, the hungry tiger jumped toward the man with a roar and fell off the cliff. And the two mice ran away in panic, hearing the roar of the tiger. Now that the tiger and mice were gone, the man carefully found his way up and continued his journey.
The moral of this story is also expressed in the Katha Upanishad: acceptance of death helps to nourish life. When Nachiketa was given to Death by his angry father, he took it as an opportunity to seek the secret of death. Because of his determination and pure heart, Nachiketa not only overcame death but also brought about teachings from Death that have inspired thousands of seekers who look for the purpose of life.
Both the dying and the person who sees the death are involved in the death process, the process that causes physical and emotional suffering. Dealing with death is never easy. Perceiving ancient wisdom provides a chance to let go of the fear of death, and the actual spiritual practice gives us the strength to go through the pain of loss. May our understanding of death lead us to complete stillness and bring joy to life.
- Quotations of the Katha Upanishad from The Upanishads, introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran (Berkeley, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2008)
- The Buddhist story is based on a well-known Chan (Zen) parable in China. Translated and rephrased from Wuming Learning Buddhism Network, 黑白老鼠 [Black and White Rats]. http://wuming.xuefo.net/nr/15/154463.html
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