Gyalwang Karmapa’s teaching on The Torch of Certainty : Session Three

January 1, 2013

Impermanence and remembering death

[What follows is an abridged version of his talk.]

This is the first day of the first month of 2013 and I would like to offer my tashi delek and wishes for an auspicious year to everyone here. I offer my prayers that all of you will have good health and that all your activities for the Dharma and in the world go well. I also wish to express through you my good wishes to everyone close to you—all your family members and close friends.

In the past months here in Bodhgaya, I have been praying to the Buddha. When I was quite young, I was thought to be a lama or a tulku. I cannot say myself what kind of a reincarnation I am, but since I have received this title of being an incarnation of the Buddha Karmapa, I take it as an opportunity to be able to serve and help. I pray that in this life as well as all lives to come, making all the effort I can through body, speech, and mind, I will be able to benefit every form of life.

And this is not only for myself. I would also like to pray for all of you that you will also be able to engage in many good works and become useful to many living beings. This prayer is my gift to you as I have nothing else to offer. I wish that all of you could be like the Karmapa. So I pray that just as I have this opportunity to help everyone, may all of you have a similar chance, and also the ability, to actually benefit others.

[The Karmapa then read aloud the section from The Torch of Certainty on impermanence and remembering death.]

Past Kadampa masters have taught about impermanence in five aspects. The first is that nothing lasts. Everything changes minute to minute as the clock ticks on and on. We, however, impose a continuum onto these changing moments, thinking, for example, that we are the same person we were as a baby, which is, of course, not true. Melding everything together, we confuse ourselves, and this is what prevents us from seeing impermanence—the reality that is happening all the time.

Secondly, we can see how changes take place outside of us. How many people have died? What famous person is now unknown? What poor person is now rich? Life is constantly shifting. What we perceive outside, however, is actually the basis for the arising of what is inside, and we should understand the experience of impermanence from within our own minds.

Thirdly, we do not know when death will come. Being young is no guarantee. Anyone can die suddenly. The fact that we are born means we must die. But we do not want this, so we surround death with fear and anxiety. What we can do instead is to prepare ourselves. If we understand death as something completely natural, we can face it with a greater peace of mind.

We could consider one day to be a whole lifetime. When we wake up, we are born; when we wash ourselves, we’re cleansing a newborn; when we eat breakfast, we’re drinking our mother’s milk. As the day passes, we go through every stage of life: growing into an adult, becoming old, and when we go to sleep, dying. The next morning we are born again. This way of thinking has three benefits. We learn to value one day in our life, which we usually waste. 

Secondly, when we die, we could think that’s the end; there’s darkness and we’re done. But actually, every moment is an opportunity, so there’s hope. If we have done something wrong or have not been a good person, we have the chance to change.

Fourthly, thinking about impermanence becomes a preparation for death itself. If we can do it repeatedly, then death doesn’t come suddenly as a great surprise. We’ve thought about it, have some experience of how changes happen, and developed a certain fearlessness.

Finally, we need to think about what will happen after death. Not being able to see something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Life after death can’t be proven with our present-day scientific instruments and knowledge. But looking at the history of science, we can see that what couldn’t be proven or understood in the past could be known at a later time.

If it is the case that death is followed by nothing, it’s not a problem. But if there is a life after this one, we should prepare for it.  When we die, we can’t carry our body with us nor our wealth. 

What we do take are the results of our actions and our habitual patterns which determine what our future life will be. So we need to prepare for the very long term and plan what we will do to benefit others.

We should contemplate karma, the pattern of cause and effect, not once or twice but again and again, reflecting on where positive or negative deeds will lead us. We should do positive deeds like poor people. If we give them a small thing, they care for it and keep it well. In the same way, we should appreciate every positive thing we do. Rich people feel that unless it’s something monumental, it’s not enough; they do not value the small, good things. But we can’t do everything on a vast scale; we have to do small things and appreciate them.

We also need to get rid of what is negative, mainly the many afflictions we have—aversion, pride, and so forth. These do not disappear all at once, so we start by identifying our strongest fault, working with it, and all the rest, step by step. This is a good way to prepare for death.

If we reflect well on the precious human life and impermanence, it will free us from being locked into this life and seeking success on its terms. The great masters of the past taught that a preoccupation with getting the good life is the greatest obstacle to our Dharma practice. We cannot mix mundane success with success in the Dharma: the two have to be separate.

There are practitioners like Milarepa who went into the high mountains and wore only a simple shawl and ate very little. This was fine for him, but that doesn’t mean it would work for us. If we tried to emulate him, we could not survive even one day. To give up worldly concerns does not mean that we should not eat, have clothes to wear or good things. We simply have to operate within the domain of who we are, within the boundaries of our particular traits or qualities.

We are too attached to the concerns of this life, and business people understand this, so they manipulate us through their advertising, which has an especially strong affect on young people. They suffer thinking that if they don’t have the latest thing, life is meaningless. If they have it, they will be beautiful and something great will happen. They do not question: Is all this true? Will it really make me happy? Actually, it is they themselves who have to make things good and create their own happiness.

In the Dharma we use our intelligence to think about our situation and see clearly whether something is necessary or not.  What benefit or problems will it create? Is this good for me in the short term? In the long run? We question to find out the truth and then live by that. If we blindly follow what others do, we cannot live our own life or discover its real purpose. If we do what benefits ourselves and others, we are actually practicing Dharma. Since we seek to become a genuine, noble person, we are not entirely concerned with this worldly life and more concerned with the Dharma.

This completes a talk on the first two preliminaries—the precious human life and impermanence and remembering death—which are the most important. We often think that once we have finished the preparation, we can just leave it behind and move on to the main practice. But that’s not the case.  “Preliminary” means we need to do this at the start, because it is the most important. So whatever practice we are doing, we need these two thoughts from the very beginning through to the very end. If they are not present, then the practice will not go well, so keep them in mind during the beginning, middle, and end. The great yogi Milarepa said that if we do not remember impermanence and death, our practice will not be profound. The main point is that practice has to work on our minds and transform us.


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