Let’s Talk About Death

More than 2,500 years ago, there was a young prince called Siddhartha who later became Buddha Shakyamuni. When he was a young prince, Siddhartha’s father the king did everything he could to prevent Siddhartha from seeing the suffering and pain of the world.

When Siddhartha was planning to go out on a journey to see the city, the king sent men out beforehand to clean the streets. It’s just like we do today in modern cities where a foreign diplomat is going to visit––we send out troops to clean up the city streets and the garbage is gone for a few days.

This history of denial of death goes all the way back –– all the way back to the beginning of our existence. Our avoidance of the reality of our mortality is nothing new. In fact, these days we seem to be getting better at denial.

We must ask ourselves, “Does denial, or avoiding the fact of death, reduce our fear and suffering? Does it really help us overcome the fear and anxiety we may feel in relation to death and dying?”  This is an important question to contemplate.

When we think about the deaths of people we know, or others, we can consider this question. When we hear about those who were denying the reality of their death, we can ask ourselves, “At the end, did that denial really help them to overcome their fear of death and dying?”

What’s Wrong with Denial of Death?

From the Buddhist point of view, denial creates more suffering and more pain. This is very similar to some of the Christian teachings. If you deny a small amount of suffering, the more you deny it, the more it’s going to increase. It’s human nature, actually. I’ll give you an example.

Let’s say you go to Oktoberfest and you see someone there who is really enjoying the festivities but they don’t drink. But let’s say you go to them and say, “You’re not allowed to drink.” The moment you say that, their desire to drink will increase. The moment you tell any human being, “You cannot do this,” their desire to do that thing naturally increases.

Denial is like that. The more you say, “No, no” to your fear, the more your fear is going to increase. And this teaching also exists in Christianity.

Thomas Merton said, “The truth that many people don’t understand until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer.

Because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt.”

We’re afraid of being hurt by this thing called “death” and “dying.” But when we put so much of our effort and energy into denying this fear of death, our denial becomes a kind of self-torture.

How Can We Work with Our Fear of Death?

The Buddhist point of view is similar to what Thomas Merton is saying –– that it’s important for us to face this fear. And when you really face this fear, you find there is a way to transcend it.

Say two people are having some kind of misunderstanding. It could be happening between two friends, or between partners. The tension grows and you keep avoiding each other, feeling the whole thing is just too painful and you don’t want to deal with it. The longer this avoidance goes on, the more the tension grows.

Instead you could invite them to the corner café. You both get a coffee and sit down. Then you begin to talk about your misunderstanding, your fear. At first it’s difficult, but as you continue talking it becomes so light, so easy.

You start to see, “Oh, it’s all just our minds here.” You realize you’ve been labeling each other with different concepts and thoughts, making the misunderstanding stronger and stronger until it grew into this painful problem.

In the same way, we have so many concepts about death and dying. We have created this entity called the Lord of Death, this monster that is going to get you in the end. You’re going to lose everything to this guy. This Lord of Death we have created is so rude, so inconsiderate. Even when I have so many things to do, he’s going to take me away and stop me from finishing my projects.

We create that monster and then live in fear of it. Because of course there’s no such thing as the Lord of Death outside us.

So how can we face our fear and work with our mind regarding the death and dying process? We can start by looking at the way we think about the concepts of living and dying. Living and dying, from the Buddhist point of view, are like two sides of the same coin. One side we lab “good” and the other side we think of as “bad.”

The side of the coin we call Living –– it’s wonderful, isn’t it? Everybody likes that side of the coin. But the flip side called Death? Nobody likes that side of the coin. We separate the two: this is living over here, and that is dying over there. But when we approach it with such duality –– good and bad, living and dying –– that dualistic thinking becomes the ground for all our suffering and all our fears.

From the Buddhist point of view, there is no clear borderline where you can say, “This is living, and this is dying.” Because change is taking place in every moment.

Aging & Change: An Exercise

Take a few slow, deep breaths and just relax a little bit. It’s nice if you can do this contemplation in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, but you could do it just about anywhere. If you like writing or sketching, you could have a pen and paper ready. Also, it’s helpful to sit with your spine upright, but in a relaxed way –– no need to stress.

1. Take a moment and simply consider the process of getting older. Is it the case that you stay young, young, and young year after year until at some point you reach a benchmark, at maybe 40, 50, 60 years of age, when suddenly you become “old” and wrinkles appear along with grey hair and pain in your knees and back? It’s not quite like that, is it? It doesn’t happen all at once.

2. From the moment we are born, we are aging. We’re growing and changing all the time, in every moment. Just sit with this awareness for a few moments.

3. Now think back to an earlier time in your life, 10 or even 20 years ago. How did you spend most of your time then? What was your main concern in those days? Are your interests and concerns the same as they were 10 or 20 years ago?

4. What has changed? You could write a short list or draw some doodles, just for fun. Draw or write about “10 years ago,” or “20 years ago” and Today. Sit for a few moments and consider how you, your thoughts, feelings and activities have changed over time.

5. Now think about today. What was the first thing you did this morning and what you are doing right now? Try to remember some of the changes that already have taken place in this one day of your life.

What was your mood like when you woke up this morning, and what is your mood like now? What were you doing an hour ago, and what are you doing now? Has your level of interest or energy gone up or down at different times today?

Even in one single day we go through so many changes, don’t we?

By doing this contemplation we can easily see that the very nature of our existence is change. That process of momentary change, that continuity, is what we call life. And it’s what we call death, too –– that momentary change.



Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche originally presented these teachings from his book, Mind Beyond Death in 2008 in Köln, Germany.

Feature image artwork: thanks to David Shrigley.