We cannot truly live until we face death. We already tacitly acknowledge that death will require us to let go of everything – everything and everyone that we love, everything and everyone that we hate, and all the nameless people and things that we don’t even care enough about to notice. The Lojong wisdom traditions of Tibet, contained in the Seven Points of Mind Training texts, tell us that we don’t have to wait till death to let all these go. They also remind us that letting these attachments go now, every day and every moment, is not only the best way to die but also the best way to live. We can live in complete freedom right now. We just have to let go of everything. We just have to let our selves die. Ego finds that a scary prospect, but we know better. We know that this is the path toward the only true life of freedom and joy.
The fourth point of the Lojong Seven Points of Mind Training contains two slogans:
Practice the five strengths, the condensed heart instructions;
The Mahayana instruction for ejection of consciousness at death is the five strengths; how you conduct yourself is important.
The Mahayana, or “great vehicle,” tradition arose as a reform movement within Buddhism with the aim of broadening spiritual practice from individual liberation to include a more inter-related approach that sees loving kindness, compassion, and altruistic engagement among persons as essential.
The “five strengths” (or “five powers”) are a set of energizing factors – five ways to generate the energy in our hearts that enables us to continue our practice with vigor and dedication. The five powers are: 1. resolve (or strong determination), 2. familiarization (or habituation), 3. seed of virtue (or positive seed), 4. reproach (or exposure or eradication), and 5. prayer (or aspiration). They are meant to provide a condensed set of instructions for living the spiritual life. The heart of lojong mind training is to apply oneself to the five strengths. That we can practice these strengths or powers at any time and in any circumstance is a reminder that we always have everything we need for wellbeing, happiness, and joy.
The first of these two slogans is about how we should live. And the second is about how we should die. And these two are the same.
In the cultural and religious context in which the seven points of mind training were developed, people had a lot of concern about how they died. The moment of death was something that they often thought about, anticipated, and worried about. From their perspective, one’s state of mind at the moment of death could dramatically affect one’s prospects in the next life. Die with the wrong mental state and you could end up reborn as an animal, or a hungry ghost, or trapped in hell. So people looked for guidance about how to act on one’s deathbed so as to ensure an optimal transition from this incarnation to the next.
Even in our contemporary western culture people still generally care a great deal about dying well. We may not be thinking about creating the conditions for starting a new life – we’re more likely to focus on coming to the end of this life, seeking a sense of closure and completion. We imagine being surrounded by family and friends, all the people we have loved and who have loved us. We long to heal any rifts that might remain, to see reconciliation, redemption, harmony, and peace in relationships among those we care about. We would like to tie up loose ends, settling up various details concerning our property and other material concerns. And we would like to believe that our lives have mattered in some way, that we have made a difference in the world, or at least our little corner of it.
What this pair of slogans is saying is that how we die should not be a new sort of situation calling for a new approach. Rather, how we die should simply be a continuation of how we have lived. As Pema Chödrön says, “The five strengths are instructions on how to live and how to die. Actually, there’s no difference. … [I]f you know how to live then you’ll know how to die.”
How Should We Live? — The Five Strenghts
1. Resolve or strong determination involves being dedicated, devoted, committed to maintain twofold bodhichitta (wonder and love) unwaveringly, to keeping our hearts completely open all the time. We appreciate the urgency of the situation and the need to practice wholeheartedly. We remember our good fortune in having a rare and precious human life that has enabled us an opportunity to hear and apply the dharma. We must not squander this opportunity. But we also can maintain a light-hearted, even naïve, attitude toward the whole thing, as Pema Chödrön reminds us. We can light-heartedly ask: “I wonder what’s going to happen today? Maybe today is the day I die. Or maybe something amazing will happen.” We can treat the whole situation as an unprecedented adventure. Every moment will be fresh and new, wondrous and even whimsical.
We can take an attitude of gratitude, acceptance, and joyful anticipation of the day ahead or the new day to come. We can be grateful for the prospect of a new day and the opportunity it presents to develop twofold bodhichitta. In this way, the practice does not become a drudgery. It is a means of cheering ourselves up constantly. In this way we begin to wake up our basic goodness, and we appreciate that we are where we should be, doing what we should be doing. We have found our practice. It is sufficient. It is far more than just sufficient. It is the path of joy, peace, and cheerfulness.
2. Familiarization, or habituation, involves overcoming habit energies, or the automatic subroutines of our minds’ default operating systems. Anything we do repeatedly, anything we say repeatedly, and any thoughts or desires that we nurture repeatedly, will form habit energies that create imprints in our consciousness that shape our attitudes and future thoughts, deeds, and speech. Lojong mind training largely involves overriding these automatic default processes and replacing them with mindfulness and awareness. But it also involves using the same mechanisms of habit formation to create positive habits of thought, speech, and action. We are reprogramming our minds, rewriting the operating system. This takes time. We start small and allow the practice to grow. An analogy is to a potter at the wheel. At first he must work hard to get the wheel spinning, but then later the wheel begins to spin on its own, from the momentum that has been built up.
We begin to no longer regard dharma as a foreign, external entity. We begin to see dharma as part of our home, a domestic situation, something intertwined with everything in our lives, even the most mundane activities – especially those, in fact. Everything we do is a reminder of dharma. We can’t escape it or get rid of it. It is within us. To really embrace life requires letting go of oneself, of ego. This is egolessness, which is outright death from ego’s point of view. But once we begin to see that egolessness is part of our true being, that it is the ground of our being – once we begin to rest in the natural state, not only on our cushion but also at the kitchen table and in our cars – then this problem begins to resolve itself. We have continuous practice, but we also have aimlessness. There is constant activity, but it is not our small self that is willing the action. In fact, we find that we are only truly at rest when resting in this constant activity, and that we are only truly free when free from self.
3. Recognizing the power of the seed of virtue lies in appreciating its nature as a seed. Seeds are miracles. We prepare the soil for them, we plant them, and we water them, so there is some work that we contribute. But they grow on their own. We are powerless to make a seed grow. That part is 100% gift. Practicing this power means recognizing that there is an aspect of spiritual growth – arguably the most important part – that happens naturally on its own and is not the product of our effort. There is mystery in this. It is a blessing, and we do not know exactly why or how it works. But it is exceedingly wonderful that it does. So the essence of practicing this power is in a combination of humility and gratitude, which arise from wonder. We are merely farmers of the seeds of virtue. We are not deities, we are not creators. We are dealing with forces that we have not created, that we cannot control, and that we do not really understand. We are like children playing with Daddy’s tools. We are children. But we can accept this. We can rejoice and be grateful that our efforts are not in vain. Somehow these seeds do grow. We don’t know how or why, but they do. And they grow in marvelous ways. They nourish us, they permit us to survive, and they help us grow to become a refuge and blessing to many others.
The seed of virtue is our basic goodness, our divine Buddha nature, what we already are. As Chögyam Trungpa used to say, “It isn’t as if you’re trying to teach a tree to talk.” Wakefulness and awareness are our basic nature. We only need to let our selves dissolve. We are the only obstacles to liberation. We are the only thing that is in the way. So we simply let ourselves fall apart into wakefulness. We simply rest in the natural state of mind. Although like farmers we are constantly working, we are constantly tilling the soil of our hearts and caring for the seedlings of virtue that have sprouted within us, we also know that we don’t make them grow. We don’t have to do anything. At the heart of work is rest, which is faith.
There are other seeds, too, the seeds of anger, jealousy, hatred, possessiveness, and domination. Part of wise farming is knowing the good seeds from the bad ones. We don’t water these other seeds. And if they somehow get into the garden of our hearts and take root, we become skilled in making sure that they don’t grow. But how we do this marks a difference between the farming of the heart and farming of the land. For when these bad seeds start to manifest themselves in us, we do not attack them, we do not fight them, we do not get frustrated or angry. We see them, we accept them fully, we absorb them into our heart. And when we do this, magic happens. They become good seeds. They become seeds of virtue, and they flower into love, compassion, service, sincerity, sensitivity, awareness, thoughtfulness, conscientiousness, caring, fortitude, courage, vigor, and energy.
4. The fourth power is variously interpreted as reproach, exposure, renunciation, or eradication. All these interpretations connote opposition and aggression. We are instructed to reproach ego, to call it onto the carpet and rebuke it for the trouble it has caused. We are encouraged to expose ego, to remove from it all its cloaks and coverings and present it in its nakedness for all to see. We are advised to renounce ego, to abandon it and send it away. And we are invited to eradicate ego, to eliminate and kill it, without mercy. If ego were a person or any other being, then this would be very bad advice. This sort of aggression and violence would be evil, the precise opposite of our path of love, compassion, and peace. But ego is not a person. It does not exist. So perhaps these recommendations may be of some use.
We can, however, envision a slightly different approach, one that replaces aggression with love and compassion. We don’t need to hate ego, or fight it, or humiliate it, or banish or destroy it. We can see it for what it is: a well-meaning but misguided servant that has gotten in way over its head. Ego has no business running things. It should never have been put in charge of running our lives, our thoughts, and actions. But that is our fault, not its. We have abdicated our responsibility, and ego has simply tried as best as it could to take care of things in our absence. We are like a king who has woken up from a long slumber to find the kingdom in disarray. We should not be surprised. And we don’t need to blame those who lacked the ability and wisdom to run things properly.
Still, we can see ego as it is. Ego is weak, fearful, childish, selfish, stingy, and deadly serious. Ego tries to turn every action into a tactic, and every tactic into a strategy. Every situation is an opportunity to increase power or a trap that will lead to a loss of power, to embarrassment, to humiliation. And underlying everything it does is the gnawing worry that the king may return someday and demand an accounting. There is always the ever-present worry that it might be blamed, condemned, renounced, and banished from the kingdom. So ego tries to make everything into a great and epic battle, but instead always ends up just getting entangled in all sorts of petty games that it can never win. And even when it does win, the game turns out to be so silly and insignificant that there is nothing gained from having won. All the while, ego is increasingly conscious that it is using up precious time. The clock is ticking. It has used up so much time already but has nothing to show for it. Every tick of the clock brings the king’s return closer. It must get out there and do something, make something glorious and impressive happen to make up for all the lost time. But now there is no time for careful strategies or a well-drawn-up plan. No time to think things through. Ego becomes too impatient to study anything in depth. It simply wants to know enough to be able to identify what is useful and what is not so that it can quickly throw together a last-minute gambit to achieve something impressive. So ego oversimplifies everything, misses everything, savors and appreciates nothing. And everything it encounters starts to mock its failure and ineptitude. Nothing is helping. Nothing is useful. Everything is conspiring against it. Eventually ego declares war on everyone and everything in the entire world. Yet it also never gives up. That is one of its most endearing qualities, actually. It will keep at this forever.
So there is quite a lot to dislike about ego, obviously. And clearly it shouldn’t be in charge of anything. But we don’t have to hate it. We don’t have to take an aggressive attitude toward it. What ego needs more than anything is retirement, a nice quiet cottage in the country where it can be at peace, with no responsibilities at all.
Meanwhile, we must take our rightful place on the throne. We must take up our inalienable responsibility. We must accept that we are in charge. We must start cleaning up the mess that ego has made. And we must never leave the throne to let ego run things ever again. This means that we must begin by seeing clearly. Don’t put ego in charge of the cleanup. Ego distorts the truth as a defense, and loves having lots of dark and secret hiding places – even though these don’t actually provide any protection. We must shine a bright light into every corner of our minds unflinchingly. Look deeply. See it all, including everything that ego has hidden in the dark places, in the hidden places. We must carry a torch powerful enough to illuminate the depths of our hearts. We must break down our experiences and habit energies and see them for what they are, unplugging them and taking them apart completely. We seek to expose all of our impulses and desires, to see them as they really are and accept them fully, with honesty, candor, curiosity, and humility. It is important that we take an honest look at the harmfulness of these strategies and habits. The best teacher is one who identifies our hidden mechanisms, and the best instruction is one aimed squarely at showing us how these mechanisms are causing harm rather than happiness. We come to see that there are more of these hidden mechanisms at work than we can find ourselves. A skilled teacher can always find more of these, like a skilled dishwasher who can always wring more water out of the towel.
Unfortunately, removing ego from the throne is not a once-and-for-all proposition. We sometimes nod off for a moment, and instantly ego springs up again, delighted with the chance to take over for us. Sometimes we get distracted and are no longer paying attention. And ego is right there to take control. So we do make an effort to remain awake and alert at all times, perpetually sitting on the throne of our kingdom. It is also helpful for us to acquaint ourselves with the warning signs that ego has taken over, since we may not be aware of it. We need an ego alarm, an ego detection system. Whenever we feel anger, resentment, fear, anxiety, despair, longing, lust, covetousness, lingering regret, envy – whatever negative feeling may arise – we can be sure that we have left the throne and ego has taken our place. The second we become aware of one of these feelings, our ego detector alarm goes off. “Aha, there’s ego again. Time to get back to the throne and tell ego to go back to his country retreat.” And then whatever was the object of ego’s fixation, immediately disconnect from it. You can just bail out on it completely, just disconnect it. Ego was angry about this, not you. Ego thought this was a big problem, not you. We can remind ourselves that this ego – which desires so much, insists on so much, is so active and demanding and unreasonable, so confused and deluded – does not even exist. Therefore, we can say “What am I afraid of anyway? What benefit can there be to perpetuate and serve this crazy phantom? Go away, ego. Go back to your cottage.”
Often taking a light-hearted approach is helpful. Being able to laugh at the pettiness, silliness, childishness and predictability of ego can help to diffuse the whole situation internally. Take a moment to laugh out loud. Literally. Laugh. “Ha! Ego!” Maybe even shake your head a little. Get into it. Imagine ego as a sort of crazy uncle, a tottering old fool whom you find endearing but ridiculous. Give him a big smile and kindly, gently lead him back to his cottage.
5. The fifth power is prayer, or aspiration. Cultivating this power is about forming the strong wish for all beings to be free from suffering and attain the liberation of wellbeing. This includes the wish that we may become enlightened for the benefit of all beings. Because of the joy we feel in our practice, we aspire to keep going, running, leaping on ahead on the path, all the way to enlightenment. And we now know that where we are going is our home. We long to liberate and serve all life, to become for others a rock, or a bridge, or a highway, to serve any effort that will help others. This is the continuation and application of the bodhisattva vow and the essence of the Heart Sutra.
Some practitioners bristle at the idea of prayer, which suggests an attempt to communicate with some unseen power outside ourselves. Many would prefer to conceive of this power as aspiration, as simply forming the wish or intention for some positive result or situation to occur. For them, saying “may it be that” feels better than “grant your blessing that.” But regardless, whether you think of this wish as going to someone or something out there or as just dissipating into the ether, the essential aspect is a recognition that you cannot currently fulfill this wish. So there is a dimension of extending out beyond yourself, a recognition of your current limitations. I form the wish that all beings may be liberated. I may even express the wish that I may liberate all beings. But I know that I cannot do anything to actually make that happen. I can plant and water seeds, but I cannot make them grow. So in this sense, there is no meaningful difference between believing that God may grant this wish if it is in his will to do so and believing that the wish may or may not be fulfilled as a result of causes and conditions that are beyond my control.
A practical application of nurturing the power of aspiration or prayer is to incorporate it into your daily meditation practice. Begin each meditation session by forming the wish for any benefit from this activity to go others, aspiring through it to generate twofold bodhichitta and to develop skillful means to be able to relieve the suffering of others: “May this practice yield positive results for others. May it give me the power to be of real benefit to others. May it help me overcome my defilements and delusions. May it clear away obstacles on the path. May it be an expression of nirvana, of liberation, love, joy, and peace.” End each meditation session with this wish: “May I liberate all beings. May I never forget or stray from twofold bodhichitta, even in my dreams. May I follow and apply bodhichitta no matter what obstacles and difficulties may arise.”
How Should We Die?
Death should not be something that we suddenly have to sit up and pay attention to. We should already be sitting up and paying attention every day, every moment. Dying mindfully is part of living mindfully. So the second slogan in this pair is not only about what to do when we are dying, but also about how to live with the knowledge that death is always with us. None of us is promised another breath, let alone another day. Each moment we spend with someone could be our last. This could seem morbid or grim, but only if we view death as a catastrophe, as something to fight or avoid. And that is precisely the view that we are encouraged to share in our youth-obsessed culture. Our goal is to hold off aging and death as long as possible. And the holy grail is to actually find some way to evade aging and death altogether. Whether through religion or technology, we are enticed by the prospect of retaining our youthful appearance and vitality, and by the hope of eternal life, either in an afterlife, a cryogenic chamber, or a virtual reality perpetuating the electronic translation of our minds and personalities. The underlying assumption is that death is bad and should be conquered; there is only a question as to the particular means one seeks to conquer it.
Whether or not we face our unspoken fear of death, it casts a shadow over everything we do. We see this, for example, in our excessive response to a variety of physical pains and discomforts. A single cough in our minds can become the specter of tuberculosis, lung cancer, or any of a number of life-threatening illnesses. A cut can become in our minds a life-threatening infection. Various aches and pains could be the symptoms of a heart attack, cancer, or any of a multitude of possible life-threatening diseases. We try to quiet these fears by rationalizing with them. We consider the relative probabilities, and comfort ourselves with the reassurance that it is probably just a cold, or the flu, or sore muscles, or a simple and minor injury from which we will soon recover. But these reassurances do not get at the root of the problem. For the truth is that we are extremely fragile creatures, that we are always susceptible to illness and death. We may in fact have undiagnosed cancer. However improbable or statistically rare it might be, we may indeed have a grave illness. Or we may be struck down by some other means that we have not anticipated. No matter what we do, we cannot avoid the realization that we are fundamentally vulnerable.
Even tiny irritations and discomforts that really cannot do any real damage to us can become unbearable. Mosquitoes, flies, all sorts of insects, may terrorize us. We are sitting in meditation at the base of a tree in a forest, in imitation of the Buddha and the early disciples. And then we feel an ant or a beetle crawling up between our toes, up our leg. The ant or beetle can’t really hurt us. But we jump up and run inside to our climate-controlled house to get away. What we recoil against is the feeling of raw vulnerability. One ant may become a dozen, then hundreds. If I don’t take action and protect myself, I could soon be covered in ants. The flies landing in my hair may build a nest and start laying eggs. Maggots may hatch in my hair or my skin. We can have all sorts of terrifying images of how our bodies may become invaded and defiled.
We can take a similar approach with people. Walking city streets, we encounter homeless people begging for money, pitching to us a variety of stories in their hope of eliciting sympathy and assistance. We may be willing to help one or two, maybe three or four or even five of these people. But we find dozens confronting us as we are trying to cross the street, or find our way to the subway station, or remember where we parked our cars. We may think to ourselves, “If I am open to this man, if I listen to him and am fully present with him, there’s no telling what will happen. I can’t really do much to help, and this is just one of many. I’ll have to give him money. But maybe his needs are very great, and maybe if I’m really kind to him he will be like a lost puppy and will follow me. He will come to my house and want to live with me. And he’ll bring his friends, too. He will never leave. There will be no end to it. There’s no telling how much of my life and time he may take from me.” So we take the easiest, simplest approach, cutting off all these infinitely messy possibilities. We avoid eye contact and maybe hand him a few bills or not, mumble something to him, and keep moving. Even with our friends and acquaintances, we can become worried that if we are completely present and attentive, we may get embroiled in the minutiae of their lives and stories. “If I really listen to her and am completely present with her, she will talk to me for hours. I have things to do. And then she’ll want to do this again tomorrow. And the next day. I don’t mind extending myself a little, but where will it end?” We don’t want to feel that we have let someone else take over our lives. In short, we don’t want someone to take our selves from us. And we fear that is what will happen if we are completely open with others.
This slogan invites us to confront our fear of death, which is our fear of ultimate vulnerability, head-on. It invites us to see that death is not a problem. It is not an obstacle. It is not a threat to happiness but an ingredient of happiness. For accepting death allows us to accept our essential vulnerability and openness. We know that we cannot protect ourselves. And that is ok. So we include death as part of the path, we include it as part of our practice. How we do this is to apply the same five strengths that we should practice every day. Practice the five strengths, and you are ready for death at any moment.
Death does not need to be a shadowy fear that stalks us and that we dare not name. It doesn’t need to be something that we try to ignore and forget about. It doesn’t need to be something that we fight against and try to avoid. We can cultivate a relationship with death now. We can make friends with death. In the Mahayana tradition, death is a deliberate act. We have chosen to live. Even if you believe that you did not choose initially to be born, you have chosen to live. Every day you have chosen to live. And because we choose to live, we also choose to die. Death is the fruition of birth. The two are inseparable.
Death is an invitation to us to let go. It is an invitation to relinquish all our attachments. As a real and practical matter, death brings an end to all attachment. It is the fruition and ultimate unraveling of every one of our delusions about this life: ownership, permanence, victory, gain, power, control, even our selves. We think of death as taking everything from us, but the truth is that death takes only our delusions from us. Looking more deeply, we can see that birth and death are only concepts; they are illusions. The very notion of death is a projection of ego, and only ego would be worried about it.
We are very fortunate to be human beings who already know that we are going to die. It is a tremendous gift to be able to live with this knowledge. This knowledge can and should affect how we live. So we already have a relationship with death. The invitation is not just to let go of our attachments sometime in the future, but rather to do so right now. Knowing that we must do this eventually anyway makes it easier to do now. Enlightenment is death to ego. From ego’s point of view, enlightened mind is extreme death, the death of self, the death of “me” and “mine,” of the “I” altogether. And it is this fear and aversion to death of self, to death of ego, that keeps us wandering on the path, as we dance back and forth between enlightened mind and unenlightened mind.