Yesterday, a friend said to me, “I was thinking about all life being suffering and wondering whether if that’s so, then does death end the suffering? No one knows what happens after death, but is there anything you’ve read about that?”
The traditional Buddhist view is that we go through a cycle of birth and death. Death, then, in one life is just opening a door to another life, and since we carry karma with us, we carry sufferings along, too. Our karma being a means through which we experience suffering. Theoretically, if one were to practice Buddhism lifetime after lifetime, eventually one would reach a stage where nirvana is attained and then there are no more rebirths and that’s the end of suffering.
But, rebirth is just a theory. Many people find it hard to accept. Personally, I suspect that when you die, that’s it. It’s over. Finis. Then, your sufferings do come to an end. The bad news is you’re dead. And that’s not much fun. Not only that, you leave behind people who suffer over your loss. As another friend of mine once remarked, “Sufferings, man, are a bitch.”
Mahayana Buddhism, having a different view on sufferings and nirvana, is rather pessimistic about the possibility of stopping the cycle of rebirth. In Mahayana, nirvana is not a place or some exalted realm of being, rather it’s a state of mind. And nirvana is available to us right here, right now. That’s why the Lotus Sutra says, “Suffering are nirvana, only when one realizes that the entity of human life is neither created nor destroyed throughout its cycle of birth and death.”
The important part of that statement is not about transmigration in the cycle of birth and death, although it does point out the understanding that I mentioned above about one life flowing into another. Nothing is really born in the sense that we arise from a beginningless beginning, and nothing dies, because what we call death is merely a passive stage of existence. But that is speculation. For us, the crucial part is “sufferings are nirvana.”
We can’t put an end to suffering but we can put a stop to the power that suffering has to control our lives. This is what I mean by transcending them. We have to be stronger than suffering. Say you are diagnosed with cancer. That can be devastating. Cancer is serious suffering. So the question is whether or not you let the suffering of cancer destroy your spirit. It may destroy you in the end, but if your spirit stays strong, then as long as you are breathing, there is still life to be lived and enjoyed.
In Buddhism, how we die is important. It is considered advantageous for one’s rebirth to die peacefully. That aspect aside, it just makes compassionate sense. No one should have their last moments tainted by anxiety, stress or fear.
A great book on this subject is Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (not to be confused with the famous “TibetanBook of the Dead”). In one section, Sogyal Rinpoche offers some inspiring words about facing death. First, he quotes the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”:
O son/daughter . . . what is called ‘death’ has now arrived, so adopt this attitude: ‘I have arrived at the time of death, so now, by means of this death, I will adopt only the attitude of the enlightened state of mind, loving-kindness and compassion, and attain perfect enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings who are as limitless as space . . .”
Sogyal Rinpoche then relates how one of his students came to him and said that one of her friends was in pain, dying from leukemia and he kept asking her “What can I do with all this useless, horrible suffering?”
I told her to tell him: ‘I know how much pain you’re in. Imagine now all the others in the world who are in pain like yours, or even greater. Fill your heart with compassion for them. And pray to whomever you believe in and ask that your suffering should help alleviate theirs. Again and again dedicate your pain to the alleviation of their pain. And you will quickly discover in yourself a new source of strength, a compassion you’ll hardly be able to imagine, and a certainty, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that your suffering is not only not being wasted, but has now a marvelous meaning.”
I think this is the sort of attitude to have in any situation in which suffering arises. No one wants suffering but it’s unavoidable. We know that positive thoughts cause positive changes in the brain, so having positive thoughts toward others can only benefit us in both mind and body.
If we can summon up this sort of attitude in life then no suffering is meaningless and, in fact, suffering is our helper, for without it we could not have empathy with the suffering of others.
And, of course, when you are thinking of others, your own sufferings don’t seem as large or even that important. Sufferings are defeated when you no longer have enough room in your mind or time on your hands to dwell on them.
I wrote in the last post of how the Buddha thought compassion has a redemptive, liberating quality. There is no end to suffering, but there is liberation.