Death? OK.

You... are going to die.

OK, I'm just kidding.

No, seriously... you're going to die.

Buddhism emphasizes being aware that you will die. In the zen-parable film Fight Club, Tyler Durden famously says:

"First you have to know... not fear, but KNOW... that someday, you are going to die. It's only once you have given up everything that you are free to do anything."

And in the film Ghost Dog, a young American mafia assassin strives to live by the ancient code of the samurai. He reads the following passage from his guidebook:

"The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one's body and mind are at peace, one should meditate on being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords... being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease, or commiting sepuku at the death of one's master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai."

"Whoa, whoa.. hold up..." you might be thinking. "What's with all the gloominess? I thought Buddhism was about happiness... lotus flowers and chubby smiling Buddha statues and stuff."

Well, yes... and no. The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism state that "suffering" is caused by desire, but that suffering can be ended by ending desire. Ending suffering leads to happiness. What is the most basic desire of all people, in fact all living things? To live, of course. To not die.

The point isn't to welcome death, or to want to die. You would still step out of the way of a moving bus (hopefully). But the focus here is to reduce (or eliminate) your *fear* of death. Fears and anxieties are actually the types of "suffering" that the Four Noble Truths are talking about ending.

The Samurai took this elimination of the fear of death to an extreme (for the not-so-nice purpose of making themselves better warriors). But the general idea is straight from basic Buddhism.

"It is your fear of change that holds you back." ~ the film Ghost in the Shell

"This is the only way, the only way to the opening of the eye. Follow it. Outwit desire." ~ The Buddha


History® said...

Simply beautiful & inspires me to write on the stage we all tend to take so much for granted-----Dying/Death

Anonymous said...


Vaulker said...

I read this article and the first thing that popped into my mind was a slayer lyric: Death is fucking you insane.

Anonymous said...

Part of my inspiration for writing this was that recently I listened to an interview with the son of the now-deceased writer/philosopher Susan Sontag. She died of cancer, and her son talked about how terrified she was of death, and how towards the end he gave in to her desire to not really know the truth of her condition, instead telling her that she was improving.

To her credit, Sontag's son made a good argument that he rejected the idea that there was just one type of "good death", because there are many types of people.

However their story, and the lyric you mention, both show how dealing with our own mortality can drive us want to detach from reality, for better or for worse.

Anonymous said...

I just had the realization that trying to "not fear death" is kind misleading, and might be too much to ask of the average person (like myself). What Buddhism really offers is the ability to not fear our fear.

Fear is natural. Buddhist meditation trains one to become an observer of our emotions, to recognize them, watch them, and to explore how they physically feel. Fear, anger, lust, etc... you learn to see that they are like temporary wisps of smoke within you. They're not as "real" as you thought they were. Then you have the ability, the freedom, to decide how to respond to them.

By learning to not fear your fear, through Buddhist meditation, not fearing death becomes a kind of a side effect.

max said...

"Fear, anger, lust, etc... you learn to see that they are like temporary wisps of smoke within you."

very well said gene. i completely agree.

Raymo.E-J said...


While reading this post--for the third time--I had a great epiphany... an epiphany that relates to an earlier post in which you listed the "first two rules" of practice. Do not talk about meditation practice.

I have been wanting to comment on this post because it was very synchronicitous: it was written the evening I received the Dharma on Death, the day a friend wrote about death and dying, and the week a distant friend was mourning.

I mean beside not wanting to leave a weak comment about 'whoa that's so cool that all this stuff happened at the same time I wonder if it means anything,' I'm glad I waited for a proper comment to arise about this enlightening post.

I just realized this is my greatest practice, Death is. (This realization may have come about because I just finished watching "Sylvia," which is about Plath the infamously melancholic, feminist writer-poet. Shes my hero in a way; i think she must have been a Zen Master Samurai in 'another life'). I keep death very close, almost like the prajnaparamita, heart sutta.

So this begs the question of what what is real practice. I should probably make a post about this. Is it something a novice, or intermediate Buddhist practitioner should have some trouble discussing?
What is your REAL practice?
What is your pragmatic, everyday, no-self, no no-effort effort practice--even if it's just one, two or three things?

Anonymous said...

I saw in the news today that Sylivia Plath's son committed suicide.

I would have to say that my real practice "just" sitting. I see everything else arising from that: compassion, understanding, concentration, awareness. Sometimes I try to focus on those things, but usually I think that focusing on them is just obscuring actually doing them, and that I should just "shut up and sit" (as I told myself this morning while brushing my teeth and wondering if I really felt like meditating).

Raymo.E-J said...

"whoa [that's crazy] all this stuff happened at the same time I wonder if it means anything"

i wonder what it means

on a serious note... this news is a bit of a mindfu?k

Raymo.E-J said...

Gene - That's sounds perfect. Because of your awareness of the essences obscured by your mental effort, you have shed some light upon much stealthy ignorance.
I trust your shikantaza (just sitting) in cultivating compassion and understanding will bear a many great fruit.

So, did you 'just' sit? How was it?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I did. It was great, hard work though... trying to focus and be patient with my very active "monkey mind". Necessary hard work.