This was a funeral conducted last year, however it is always good to reflect on impermanence and death, as death can come at any time...
Death and its Message
Speech of Venerable Bhikkhunī Visuddhi at the funeral of Mrs. Jitka Gunaratna on 11th August 2014
Death means really nothing. You are just going to look into another room. Everything is as it was, as it should be. Life which lived happily, full of love, is still the same. Nothing has changed on what we have meant for each other now and in the past. Pain we are going through now will become nothing when we happily meet again. We can see the natural basis of existence now only in a limited way, we see impermanence, suffering, but only vaguely. If we lead a spiritual life, our understanding of the world develops the same way as wisdom does.
Without wisdom, we understand wrongly what the Buddha meant by the concept of impermanence (anicca). We see corroding cars, buildings falling apart, drying plants, our friends dying, and we think that this is what the Buddha meant. Although this happens due to impermanence, due to transiency of material things, which we normally see with our eyes, this means only the gross change, which all things are subject to. This gross change is generally well-known. We all know, that cars are corroding, houses are falling apart and people are dying.
When The Buddha spoke about impermanence, he meant something much deeper and much gentler then what this visible change is. Impermanence is a very little change, which all conditioned phenomena are subject to; it is only a microscopic change. All things, both material and mental, are characterised by being subject to a change in every moment. Constant arising and decline. Anything that comes into existence, is subject to decay in every moment. Usually we can’t see the impermanence. But if we observe very carefully, it can be seen.
I am now speaking to you. Usually, you see a person and not the impermanence. When I have started speaking a change was going on simultaneously. From the moment I started till the moment I will finish it is possible to recognise the change. Before I started my speech a deadly silence had been here. As I continued, the focus of your attention was directed on me and on what I was saying. This is impermanence (anicca). Time is passing, I am speaking and you are thinking. All these things are also impermanent (anicca). Nothing else can be seen but only impermanence (anicca). Everything is impermanent, changing constantly.
But we have been permanently trying to keep our world stable, without changing any little thing. We can’t see the impermanence. For example, your thoughts are now somewhere else, you are remembering or imagining, what will be, when everything has finished here. You remember what was, what pleasant and painful you experienced with the dead one; this all is happening because we don’t accept impermanence of things (anicca). We aren’t able to fully accept the reality of what is happening and what has happened, we are imprisoned by our imagination of what was and could have been. This is also impermanence (anicca). We take these impermanent things as permanent and we suffer. “Why did that have to happen just now?” we are surprised. “Why is the world so cruel and unjust? Why did my beloved person have to leave me just now?” We ask these and other similar questions and suffer because we fail to see the impermanence. We notice only gross changes.
What we are missing now, is the knowledge of understanding, how to live in the present moment. We use this ability to adapt to conditions and that way to reach a progress. We need it to be able to live in this world. During our life, we learn many things. All this isn’t useful, if we don’t succeed to live in the present moment.
To progress in our lives, we all need to know how to cope with the present moment. We have to include this knowledge of understanding the present moment into our practice. From time to time, we come to a place where a hindrance is and a staircase would be useful, but there isn’t any. If we want to continue on our path, we have to overcome this hindrance. We look around and if we find a staircase, we will climb it and we continue walking.
Once when prince Siddhattha had met an old man he asked himself: “Why did this man get old? Why did he change? And why all people once get old and die?” After seeing these changes, he set off to find the causes. After some time, he found three characteristics of existence: impermanence, suffering and the truth that things don’t have any identity, any self, any ego which we could find. Siddhattha didn’t see the impermanence, death and suffering while he was living in the luxury and comfort of the palace, he was only able to see this ignorance much later.
We live in the world of people, in the worldly existence lokiya. It isn’t possible to keep things of our world stable, unchanged. All objects of our world are subjects to impermanence (anicca). Impermanence, suffering and truth of non-self, we have to keep these three characteristics of existence in our subconsciousness. If we really understand the impermanence, there is no “self” (anattā). When we speak about these three characteristics, we speak about wisdom (paññā).
Doctors cure ill and dying people and healthy people don’t like illnesses the way as if they themselves were never ill. Everyone of us once will become old. It is very difficult for young people to understand something about the decay and the old age, because their eyes and gates of senses function quite well. Mostly being young you don’t need reading glasses, walking sticks and your body regenerates quickly from different diseases and injuries. From the age of fifty you begin to understand the decay and ageing. Your sight gets worse and you need glasses. During these days you fully understand, what it means to have weak eyesight, because without glasses everything is blurred. And you understand that your body is subject of the decay and ageing. You hair turns grey, you are losing them, you are losing your teeth, you become physically weak, your skin is wrinkled and some black spots appear on it.
Nobody likes the old age, illness or death. Young people are proud of being young. Healthy people are proud of being healthy. People are proud only because they live with expectations they are going to live a long life and they behave according to that. But what is definitely sure is the fact, that once we all die. We just don’t know when and how it happens, under what circumstances. Because of that, it is important to live meaningfully and in the present moment as if this day is our last one. Life is uncertain but death is certain. It is not anything to be afraid of, or to have a bad feeling about. Death belongs inseparably to life as well as being born, old age, illnesses, love, happiness, joy and content life.
The fact that we are now suffering is caused by the fact, that our heart is not able to accept the reality of our beloved person leaving us. Our heart is not able to cope with the reality that the person who we love isn’t here anymore, he or she left, and only deep, painful injury remained in our heart. And it would be strange and unnatural if we didn’t feel sorrow and we didn’t suffer from pain from separation. A person always suffers when he or she is separated from the beloved person or when he or she lost this person. So this is the first noble truth which the Buddha stated, the Truth of suffering. Being born is suffering, pain is suffering, illness is suffering, sorrow, weeping, despair are suffering, as well as old age, dying and death are suffering. This is the reality of this world and we can’t do anything about it. It is not possible to disprove the fact, that we remain untouched when our beloved person leaves us. But what we can reduce is another pain which we cause ourselves by the wrong view of reality. The more we accept the reality and the truth of suffering, the more we accept the fact, that everybody has the lifetime here on the earth, the fact that things don’t happen accidentally and have their own meaning and cause; the more our heart is able to quiet down during time and we will be able to heal this deep injury which left emptiness in our heart. If we are hit by an arrow, it is necessary to carefully take it out and give time to the wound to heal. By the wrong attitude to the fact and not accepting the reality as it is, we only stick more and more arrows into our bleeding heart.
Conventional ageing is connected with the body, not with our mind. We can’t say how old our mind is. Really, my mind seems to be continually younger. In our dreams we still feel young. Not many people are sixty or seventy in their dreams. Energy becomes lower due to ageing. Similarly, the energy of our mind, which is creating our activities, becomes lower due to ageing too. But mind stays the same, only there are fewer activities. Some healthy trees give fruits till they die. When you clear your mind, it will be active till you die.
Very rarely we can see the decay and ageing, because we were sleeping. Imagine that you go to bed tonight and your sleep is deep, without dreams. A storm comes during the night, breaks trees and branches and causes much damage. When you wake up in the morning you find water everywhere, branches on ground, broken trees, roof taken away, broken windows. You are very surprised. You look at the disaster and you come to conclusion, that there must have been storm at night but you haven’t seen, how it smashed your home.
Decay and ageing is a raging storm, which we have been sleeping through most of our life. After about fifty we can wake up and find out, that our eyes weaken, the body is weak too and our hearing is getting worse. We are surprised by ageing. From seventy or eighty we suddenly see death is coming. We have been sleeping in the process of dying. Are we awake now? Whatever wakes us, we understand ageing and dying to the same extent. Can you hear the rain beating your roof? Can you hear a blowing wind? Lightning may come any moment.
So what is the death? I myself ask this question very often. It is very difficult to understand the death. We can speak about death in a general way, we know that this loved one is dead but can we speak about her death in detail? We see just the surface of death in the decay of aggregates. Death can be quick, we can die in an accident. It can be slow, when we are dying after a long disease. Death is common to all. This is a very important thing, which is necessary to understand. Nobody can escape from it. But we must live till we die. We can’t die just now. Because we are fully attached to our bodies, we connect death to our body, which is subject to decay and ageing. The suffering of the decay and ageing of our body, is not the death. Ageing is a process of dying which happens before the death and its suffering. People are afraid of pain connected with dying but are not afraid of the death itself. Nobody should be afraid of the death or of the fact that he or she is dead only because it’s unknown. I also don’t know, what the death is but even though I have experienced dying, when I was very seriously ill near the death. Dying wasn’t painful at all, in contrary, it was very elevating and liberating. You know you are dying, but at the same moment, you feel that a new life is beginning and this one in this world is finishing. You all will understand that in the day of your death.
My experience with dying people is that mostly their own fear from unknown and their inability to leave this world and a big attachment to it, is the reason of their suffering, not the death and the dying itself. The faster you can leave this world the less pain you experience. It is the same with those who are left behind. The earlier you can let go of your beloved person, the sooner your grief ends.
The place where we will reborn and what our new life will be, is not something we can influence in the moment of death. However, we can influence our new rebirth now, the way we live our lives, how we deal and communicate with others. Kamma or the action and the consequences of our actions will lead us to good or bad rebirth. Because of that, already now, it is good to think over our lives, re-evaluate them; later we might be sorry that we haven’t done things better or differently. The key is not to live in past or in future, in our imaginations, but live here and now and be aware of what we do, of what life we lead, weather it is beneficial and wholesome towards other people or just the opposite.
The present time drives us permanently somewhere, the world and communication with others are more and more on a virtual level and we still have lack of time. But time doesn’t exist, we are imprisoned by our illusions and conventions of this world. Most of people realise true values only when something serious happens to them, when they undergo a serious illness or accident, then they stop and try to live differently. Is it really necessary to get cancer or to live through a big trauma to be able to stop? To be able to see others and those beloved ones? Is it necessary that only after the death of a beloved person, we realise values of this person who we lost?
We don’t know where and when we will be reborn, what the life will be like, but we can be sure that it will be the way we deserve it and may be similar to the present one. If we are experiencing suffering and hell already here on the earth during this life, we can expect, that the next one will be similar. But if we live in peace with ourselves and others too, we can expect good rebirth. Every one of us, in different periods of life, experienced small rebirths: When we began attending the kindergarten, school, when we were attaining maturity and were becoming a different person, when we got married or started life in another country. These are small rebirths, when you start a new life different from the one you were used to; this all brings some sort of suffering not only for you but also for your surroundings.
For mothers, it is very difficult to cope with the situation, when their sons find wives, they move away and the mother won’t be able too see her beloved on as they were used to. It is similar with the death. We suffer, because the change is coming and we cannot live the life as we were used to live with the beloved person. Beings, who died, suffer from seeing us mourning, our pain and our attachment to them. This also doesn’t give them the possibility to leave and cross to the other side, so they are somewhere around us and both parties are suffering, because they cannot communicate together. Sometimes there is some guilt, which troubles us, and maybe some words which were not said and we would like to do it. And I think it is important to do it. Either you believe or not in what I am saying, try now to say goodbye in your hearts to our beloved person and tell her what you forgot to say and let her go. Similarly, when someone sets out for a long journey, our beloved Jitka is setting out for her new journey and it is not good to attach her to this world. Her journey here finished and she sets out for the new one. The same way as one is waving to the beloved person when he or she is leaving by train, similarly we should say goodbye. Although we can see some tears; we should be happy from the fact, that we could meet and live with this person, remember the pleasant moments we experienced together and which stay in our hearts. Memories stay and this is that which nobody can take away from us, the way she will continue to live in our lives. One period of our living ends by the death but rebirth hasn’t finished. So let us wish to Jitka a good rebirth and happy life anywhere she is. May she is well and happy. May all of you are well and happy. May all beings be happy.
Sabbe sattā bhavantu sukhitattā