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"Again and again the slow wits seek rebirth,
Again and again comes birth and dying comes,
Again and again men bear us to the grave"
- Samyutta Nikaya

Humans, animals as well as all born into this world fear death because they love to live and not to die. This is the natural phenomenon from which none can escape. Death, in whatever form, is painful because separation from kith and kin is sorrowful. From a physio-medical point of view, death is the cessation of all cellular activity in the body by the loss of breath.

All religions believe death is certain and life is uncertain, no matter where, how or when it occurs. According to Buddhism, death is the fore-runner of birth, unless and until the goal is reached ceasing rebirth by the realisation of Nibbana, which is a super-mundane state (Lokuttara Dhamma), to be realised only by intuitive wisdom.

Death should be serene and peaceful. If not, there arises fear and pain due to uncertainty of life after death. Then there is also attachment to those loved ones, fanned by fidelity and affection, mostly between close relatives. A person on the verge of death, if he is of sound mind, recollects incidents of the past, and his next life is believed to depend on the merits and demerits of such thought.

Generally, people do not contemplate on death while they are alive, but it is good to do so now and then. Buddha recommends frequent contemplation on death because there are many benefits to be acquired by doing so. When a person visits a funeral house, the sight of the dead body gives him food for thought that it would happen to him also some day, to depart from this world leaving everything and taking nothing, except the results of his good and bad actions.

Contemplating on death can release us from the grip of the sensual lure attached to worldliness. We will not be deluded by material wealth, i.e., movable and immovable properties, but will channel our resources towards a more fulfilling and rewarding life to achieve the aspired goal of liberation from all suffering.

The ‘Paticca Samuppada’ (Dependent origination) taught in Buddhism is the doctrine of conditionality of all physical and psychical phenomena, which everyone has to endure during his lifetime. Through rebirth are conditioned old age and death ‘Jati paccaya jara maranam’). Without rebirth, there is neither old age nor death, no suffering or misery. This is the truth and not a fiction.

The ‘Patticca Samuppada’ describes the process of rebirth in subtle terms and assigns death to one of the following four causes, viz:

1. ‘Kammakkhaya’ (Exhaustion of the ‘Janaka kamma’ or the reproductive ‘Kammic’ energy. The Buddhist belief is that, as a rule, the thought, volition or desire, which is extremely strong during lifetime, becomes predominant at the time of death and conditions the subsequent birth.

2. ‘Ayukkhaya’ (The expiration of the life term which varies in different planes of existence). Natural deaths due to old age may be classified under this category. Irrespective of the ‘Kammic’ force that has yet to run, one must, however, succumb to death when the maximum age limit is reached.

3. ‘Ubhayakkhaya’ (The simultaneous exhaustion of the reproductive ‘Kammic’ engery and the expiration of the life-term.

‘Upacchedaka-kamma’ (The opposing action of a more powerful ‘Kamma’ unexpectedly obstructing the flow of the reproductive ‘Kamma’ prior to the expiration of the life-term.

(These first three are collectively called ‘Kala-marana’ (timely deaths) and the fourth is known as ‘Akala-marana (untimely deaths). So, death maybe due to any of the aforesaid causes.

Although people weep over the dead, which is due to their sorrow becoming poignant, Buddha’s admonition was that it benefits none but only causes others to follow suit. It is only an emotional exercise very often unavoidable. When Buddha’s step-mother Maha Pajapati Gotami was about to die at the ripe old age of 120 years, the Maha Thera Ananda and the nuns close to her cried. Seeing what they were up to, she reproached them saying “Why should you cry? Don’t you realise that this body of mine has become old and decrepit?

“Weary have I grown with this old body. It has been nothing but a great burden to me. Long have I aspired for the liberation of Nibbana. And today, my wish is about to be realised and truly my death is a happy event. It is the time for me to beat the drum of satisfaction and joy. So, please do not cry over my condition”.

The Buddha, as he was dying under natural surroundings, between two ‘sal’ (Shorea robusta) trees, also told Ananda Maha Thera not to cry over his death. He said one must with wisdom and equanimity accept the fact that death and separation from all that we love is inevitable. His last words were “All conditioned things are subject to dissolution and disintegration. Therefore, you should strive on with diligence”.

The passage into the next life, at the moment of death, is nearly an impenetrable mystery for us who have not experienced it. There are published accounts of near-death experienced by people who have been resuscitated from clinical death.

At the crucial moment, the dying person may, by focusing his mind on past experiences, leap to a higher realm, if he had lived a holy life of purity and morality.

According to Buddhism, the death of any living being is inherent in its nature as a compound entity. Death is thus a natural function of the on-going process of life. For just as a birth leads to death and vice versa, the process of rebirth takes place according to the ‘Kamma’ potential of a being. In this way the habits and events of a person’s future destiny lie on his good and bad actions.

Death, as defined in Buddhist scriptures, is the dissolution of ‘Khandas’ or the five aggregates of perception, sensation, mental formation, consciousness and corporeality. In brief, the combination of these five aggregates is called ‘birth’. The existence of these aggregates, as a bundle, is called ‘life’. The dissolution of them is called ‘death’. The re-combination of these aggregates is called ‘re-birth’.

According to Buddhism, death is nothing but the temporary end of a temporary phenomenon.

Saul Alinsky, the American philosopher says: “The single most important thing I have ever learnt was that I am going to die. When one accepts death to come at any time, he will concentrate on it and get prepared to face the event. The fault is that most people do not think over death until circumstances cause him to do so”.

Transferring merits ‘Punyanumodana’) to the departed is based on the popular belief that on a person’s death, his good and bad ‘Kamma’ are weighted against one another and his destiny determined. His actions determine whether he is to be born in a sphere of happiness or a realm of woe. The belief is that the departed one might have gone to the world of the departed spirits. Usually, a dead person is identified as a ‘Preta’ in Buddhism.

When a person dies, there is a customary ritual which is generally practised by inviting Bhikkus to be present at the occasion, for the transfer of merit to the departed. The transferrers pour water from a jug or other similar vessel into a receptacle, while repeating the Pali formula, which reads:

“As rivers, when full, must flow and reach and fill the distant ocean, so indeed, what is given here will reach and bless the ‘Pretas’ (spirits) there. As water poured on mountain top must soon descent to fill the plain, so, indeed, what is given here will reach and bless the spirits there” (Nidhikanda Sutta in Khuddakapatha).

This injunction of the Buddha to transfer merits to those departed ones, is said to be the counterpart of the Hindu custom which has come down through the ages. Various ceremonies are performed so that the spirit of the dead (’Preta’) might live in peace. Alms are offered to Bhikkus on the 7th day after death, at the end of the third month and at the end of the year. Some continue it annually as a kind gesture to the departed in transferring merit.

In the Tirokudda Sutta, Buddha mentions that the greatest gift one can confer on one’s dead relative or any other, is to perform acts of merit and to transfer such merit so acquired to the dead.

by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe