Our Attitude toward Death (Part 1) — To be continued

By Matthieu Ricard on April 28, 2010

(Radio Canada interview) 

Question: The Western world seems to be suffering from a sense of great reluctance regarding both the contemplation of death and its attitude toward it; death has become a taboo subject, one that is increasingly the object of an absurd denial. As a Buddhist, does this situation not trouble you?

Matthieu: Indeed. People prefer to dismiss the idea of death, to block it out of their minds, and to ignore it until the very last moment, telling themselves that when their time comes they will then see for themselves. In fact, this attitude comes down to not knowing how to take full advantage of life because, in so doing, we forget that we are alive; in other words, we forget the value of each passing moment. When some people learn that they have a terminal illness and only one year to live, some do collapse mentally. However, the vast majority of them report that that very year was the most intense, the richest, the most precious of their whole life—a year during which each moment spent with those dear to them, or appreciating nature, was filled with awe because suddenly each moment took on its full significance.

For those who have dismissed death from their minds, time seems as insipid as sand running through their fingers. It's no coincidence that, in Buddhism, meditation on death is of pivotal importance. You might say, ‟But it's morbid! What's the point of thinking about it? It's far better to think of something else, to take one's mind off things!” Yet, this is clearly not the case. It is precisely when we become keenly aware that, on the one hand, death is unavoidable and that, on the other hand, the circumstances which bring it about are unpredictable—whether death comes tomorrow, in ten days, or in twenty years, who knows?—that this is when time takes on a whole new meaning.

In Buddhism, there are practices associated with this thought of death: for instance, that of the hermit who, in his retreat, turns his bowl upside down on the table each night. In Tibet, this gesture is typically done when someone dies. It symbolizes also an attitude, one that consists in acknowledging that we do not know which will come first—the dawn of tomorrow or our death… In fact, a very beautiful verse by Nagarjuna says, ‟How marvelous to breathe in and out again.” It is true that such an outlook bestows a priceless value on life.

(To be continued)