[C]ontemplation of the horror of our death is, paradoxically, the tincture of the sweetness of our mortality. . . . Since the terror of death is so overwhelming, we conspire to keep it unconscious.”
—Sam Keen in Foreword of 1997 edition of Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, 1973.
“The prospect of death . . . wonderfully concentrates the mind”—from Preface of Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, 1973
After 10 1/2 years of immersing my life in Tibetan Buddhism here in Cincinnati, Ohio, I have decided to start all over, wipe the slate clean, go back to Buddhism 101. One of the first ideas we are encouraged to contemplate is the preciousness of human existence, the realm where one suffers and one experiences pleasure. Because we have a little taste of each experience, we have the maximum possibility of attaining the purity of our already-existent Buddha nature . . . the Enlightened One, the Awakened One.
Animals and insects and hungry ghosts (starving people) and all the other realms of existence do not have this opportunity. How can one study and seek truth when you could be eaten by a bigger animal or squashed because your nibbling at dinner could make a person itch? The desperation of seeking food and shelter is a constant among these beings—who are increasing with the massive foreclosures on people’s homes as the jobless wander the streets begging for money and being harassed by policeman.
This human realm contains, for some of us, Leisure and Fortune. For some, it is much greater than for others. For myself, having received Social Security Disability since 2001, I have been living just below the poverty level for these years. Yet, I feel that I live better than 99.999% of the world’s population. Of course, anything can change in a second, and Leisure and Fortune would no longer be mine.
Years ago, I read Ernest Becker’s book, Denial of Death. It was one of those writings that deeply imprinted on my mindstream: that in these United States, we deny the natural process of death, pretend it is not there, try in many cosmetic ways to look younger, to stay immortally young. We are drenched in the cultural media of youth as godly. I, myself, have participated in this.
Becker’s gist, if I remember correctly, is that we all want to be “heroes.” From my more aged perspective, I would not deny his theory, but would add that it is a function of ego, ego, ego. And that all relational disputes to the many wars and depravities being committed in the world . . . and all that is between the microcosm and macrocosm are a result of billions of egos ignoring the certainty of death.
So this is one tiny reason that I am nourished by Buddhism. To begin by contemplating one’s death, its certainty, the possibility that my next breath could be my last certainly makes life exquisite, because it could be cut short so easily. As Sam Keen (above) writes, “[C]ontemplation of the horror of our death is, paradoxically, the tincture of the sweetness of our mortality.” I have the Leisure to contemplate this, and to experience the slow quiet beauty of a mourning dove pacing through green grass for breakfast.
Buddha Shakyamuni’s first teaching after his Great Awakening, was the Four Noble Truths. The first is the Truth of Suffering. If we wish to attain the bliss of Great Compassion for all other conscious beings, and the mysterious Wisdom of a direct experience of Emptiness . . . to Awaken as Buddha Shakyamuni did, we must first look into the face of the great suffering around us, the death, the horror, the wars, the broken families. No more sweeping it under the rug. Wow . . . what an irony! (If you want to know more about the Four Noble Truths, you will find a methodical path to true happiness.)
Becker pointed this out more than 37 years ago. Judith Lief proposes something similar in her Making Friends With Death. What an opportunity we have for bliss in the increasing chaos of a dying planet!