The words above sum up the major point of this article—living with the inevitability of death. And doing it successfully! In other words—happily and fearlessly with purpose, despite the certainty of your eventual demise. You can find this quotation–and other encouraging bits of wisdom here.
Death: As Victor Hugo said, “We are all under sentence of death, but with a sort of indefinite reprieve.” Do you give it much thought? Most people don’t–until a serious illness strikes, or they lose a loved one.
Many of the world’s religions and philosophies focus on what happens after you die. They promise a hereafter—an eternal life in heaven—OR rebirth. They don’t let you off the hook entirely. That eternal life comes with a price—living your life according to some precepts or guidelines.
A Buddhist perspective on eternal life: You won’t remember a thing, but you will have do-overs. A new body and mind with the same core entity—karma included. In other words, you start over where you left off, in karmic terms.
Whatever worldview you may have, living with the inevitability of death is a reality. Whether you practice an organized religion or not, there is a point to considering how you live YOUR life. We will explain.
And a remembrance: Recently, a friend of 35 years died, surrounded by friends and loved ones. He lived a full and happy life. He created value. He shared the joy of Buddhism with countless others. He left unafraid of the death that will supply a rest before another rebirth.
Death Comes When It’s Your Time—Or . . .
As the old saying goes, only two things in life are certain—death and taxes. Most people give lots of time and attention to the latter. Not nearly so much thought is given to the former. We don’t know when, but it will happen.
Death can come unexpectedly—in the form of an accident or a heart attack. Few think or worry much about those possibilities. Many viewed seat belts as a nuisance–but they have saved thousands of lives, especially in conjunction with airbags.
We can hasten death with poor choices—smoking, obesity, a bad diet and no exercise, for just a few examples. Those who do may be conscious of the risk but ignore it or feel powerless to change. Others succumb to drug addiction—like the 47,000 Americans who died of opioid overdoses in 2017.
In developed countries with advanced medical care, the leading causes of death—heart disease and cancer, come later in life than they once did. Still, one must die of something. Prevention can lengthen life—not defeat death.
So when DO people begin worrying–or at least thinking about death? Well, sometimes when:
- A serious illness strikes or the late stages of a life-shortening diseases appear
- The decline and/or the loss of a loved one
- Years of unhealthy living begins weighing more heavily
- They’re at risk in the military, law enforcement or emergency services
What comes of these worries or thoughts of death?
Hope–for successful treatment. Especially for another–in case of illness, disease or trauma. If the prognosis is terminal, the well-known “stages of grief” begin working even before death.
An understanding of death isn’t enough to avoid the pain. Hope often isn’t sufficient. Prayers based on some religious faith or at least a life philosophy is what carries most people through.
Sometimes death doesn’t come when it could–or should. A brief digression that does two things–it adds to the discussion of one’s fear or consciousness of it, and it sets up the reason why I found the faith that’s part of the main topic.
At age 19 in 1966, I got drafted–just six weeks before entering college. Vietnam was in my future. I enlisted–taking an extra year and training for a job that would keep me out of the infantry.
I arrived in Vietnam a year later. My first few days WERE scary. After a few months, I would do anything to get away from the bane of my existence, my boss–the Commo Chief for my unit. I could have been safe in base camp. Instead, I volunteered for risky stuff that took me out in the field.
Things like riding shotgun on a 5-ton ammo truck, hauling artillery rounds to a site near Xuan Loc. Driving slowly on a bumpy dirt road made us all an easy target. Nothing happened. But I did score some good dope in the village. Just one part of the corruption that the time there brought to my life. I’d never smoked weed before Vietnam.
Rather than in combat, I might have died of injuries from a jeep accident instead of hostile fire. That came on another volunteer excursion. The details are in Waiting for Westmoreland. Read an excerpt from it at the end of this article.
I had other, more serious chances to meet death later. Like executing a four-wheel drift to avoid rear-ending a guy at 60 mph. That came only 18 months after my Vietnam adventure, during my last year in the army.
A few years later, I unsuccessfully tried suicide. I’ll skip the reasons and why it failed. Instead, here’s what I said to the resident psychologist the next day.
I realized that no matter how bleak things may seem, they could possibly improve if I was still alive. But not if I was dead. I won’t be doing this again.
How and why did I escape these near-death encounters? It wasn’t my time. I’m conscious of having escaped death multiple times. It’s not luck or coincidence. It gave me the opportunity to live a much better life, transforming myself and creating value.
I’ll explain a little more later, in another excerpt from Waiting for Westmoreland. It’s from the final paragraph of the prologue.
Living Your Life—and Death
You die, then what? Perhaps nothing. That’s the end for you. you simply cease to exist. Many of the world’s religions or philosophies promise something more—an eternal life in one form or another.
Some offer an afterlife—in heaven (reward) or hell (punishment. Others say you should expect rebirth or reincarnation—another life, maybe as you formerly were, or with some changes. The Buddhism that I practice is among those faiths with rebirth as a core element. More on that later.
As you know and we’ve said already, death can come unexpectedly. Best to be prepared for it, rather than unmindful of its eventuality. Whether you have a belief in eternal life or not, consider these observations about living with the certainty of death.
“It is not length of life, but depth of life.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Living a rich, fulfilling life won’t make you immortal. But you might be more accepting of death with memories of a happy and successful life. After which, you could be well remembered by others for the value you brought to your community or even the world. Your creative works. Your charity.
You don’t have to be a hero. You don’t have to be rich or famous. It’s enough to show up every day–at work, at home and in life. Accept adversity and overcome it. All the better if people recognize your humanity. Your grace and compassion. Then, when it’s time to go, you will be satisfied with your life and ready for the trip.
There are many people who do more. I’ll mention only one, Jimmy Carter–whose Carter Center was founded just one year after his presidency ended. But many other good deeds are recognized the last Friday of each month as part of a “blogfest.” Just search on the tag #WATWB to find them. Ordinary people doing extraordinary, memorable things to benefit others.
You can also find such people among the interviews featured in past issues of by the Quarterly. Just go here to find them.
As a doctor and professor of neurology, Oliver Sacks knew much of death. He was also an accomplished author. Awakenings, a book about treating of patients awakening from sleep after decades, was made into a movie. When he faced a diagnosis of terminal cancer, Sacks penned an op ed piece in the New York Times February 2015. It says, in part:
I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.
Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.
On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
Sacks died at home, aged 82, August 2015—six months after the writing above. This is not the time or place to examine how well he accomplished those objectives. Maybe I’ll offer some commentary on that in a future item, on Views from Eagle Peak or perhaps LinkedIn.
Apropos of Sacks’ expressions, Daisaku Ikeda has said,
Ideally, we should live every minute of our lives valuably, as if it were the last moment of our lives. Those who live aimlessly are left with a sense of emptiness at the end of their lives, but those who live all-out, striving right to the end, will die peacefully.
Leonardo da Vinci says, ‘As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, a life well used brings happy death.’
One aware that death could come at any time will live each day to the fullest.
Today, I find much to agree with in the words of Sacks and Ikeda. That didn’t come for several years after my years in Vietnam. My fears of death were short-lived and only episodic in Vietnam. I saw no death while there. What I did see and experience corrupted my youth. Along with Watergate, the war shattered my illusions about America.
To reclaim my virtue and ideals, I began a quest to reform the people or institutions that failed me. I learned much along the way, during my college years—despite the interruption of classes for protests against the war.
Some years later, I realized that reforming myself and not changing others is the means for attaining happiness and for making the world a better place. Yes, Sacks and Ikeda have it right.
Waiting for Westmoreland chronicles my path from Vietnam to Enlightenment. It takes a book to do that. A few excerpts can’t do that. You can see some at the end of this article, and more on the link above.
I have practiced three religions in this life—with a brief period of agnosticism after the first two. I began life as a Methodist. I became a Lutheran aged 19. Two Protestant faiths, one rather simple and mundane, the other more formal. So, I know all about the fundamental Christian tenets of faith—accepting Christ as savior guaranteeing entry to heaven. Well, you are supposed to attend church and observe the Ten Commandments.
I became disaffected with religion during my final year in the Army. The year that came after Vietnam. What both chaplains and prominent religious leaders had to say about the war and the people on the other side. Suffice it to say, I had some doubts about beliefs that supported an Us and Them dichotomy. Rationalizing racism and worse in the name of religion and Western democracy.
College didn’t offer the answers I sought. That came from meeting someone else whose life condition called out to me. That’s when I found a more satisfactory explanation for war, human suffering and more. Buddhism. Cause and effect–karma. You make causes. You receive effects. Like death, the effects come when it’s time—good or bad. So bad bosses succeed, and crime pays—for some. Eventually, they get what’s coming to them—failure or prison.
That karma could survive death and reappear in a subsequent life offered a better explanation, to my mind, of why otherwise seemingly virtuous people suffered. Also, why some people got away with evil—their bad karma just hadn’t caught up with them yet. Who could say what good karma the criminal might have? Good karma that was keeping the justice system at bay, for a time.
“Virtue is its own reward,” goes the saying, (attributed to countless individuals). For Buddhists, it’s more, better actually—a good cause ends with a good effect.
More on the Buddhist Perspective of Eternal Life
First a short history to offer the background context for understanding the perspective we are discussing here. It’s a condensed and edited version of Part 1 of Buddhism and Pragmatism, from the May 2014 Quarterly.
Buddhism is a religion as old as Christianity, begun 2,500 years ago. It began with Siddhartha Gautama. He is better known as Shakyamuni—prince of the Shakya clan. He ventured out and saw people suffering–birth into poverty, sickness, old age and ultimately death.
To understand life amidst these four sufferings he went on a journey. He became an ascetic. He became a beggar. He tried a variety of meditations and practices before realizing the impermanence of life, attaining his own enlightenment. For forty years he shared his enlightenment—and how to attain it, with countless followers.
After his death, his “84,000 teachings,” as they became known, spread from west to east along the Silk Road. As they did, adherents grabbed onto varying elements of his teachings. In time, many schools of Buddhism developed, which diverged in practice and belief.
Shakyamuni himself predicted his teachings would eventually be distorted and no longer effective. At that time, a votary would appear and reveal the essential practice for the “latter day of the law.” Nichiren, born in 1222, said he was that votary, proclaiming a practice accessible to everyone. That teaching stemmed from Nichiren’s analysis of the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni’s highest teaching.
Incidentally, Nichiren also analyzed the many other sects of Buddhism. Some of which claimed adherence to the Lotus Sutra and some sects which found other sutras more correct. He pointed out the shortcomings he found in all the sects—like a founder of any religion does.
A Buddha is a common mortal, enlightened to his or her potential as a Buddha. Anyone can activate that innate Buddha nature by chanting the words Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Why those words? Nam is a Sanskrit word meaning devotion. It’s added to the Japanese words for the title of the Lotus Sutra
Myoho refers to the mystic law of life and death (mystic because it is not commonly known and comprehended) which entails the eternity of life—we live, we die and we do it all over again. Renge literally refers to the lotus blossom. The lotus is unusual in bearing both a flower and seed at the same time and as renge is used here, it is a metaphorical reference to the simultaneity of cause and effect.
In other words, having made a cause through our actions, words or thoughts, we are immediately inscribing an effect in our lives—whether that effect becomes manifest presently or only much later. Kyo refers to sound or teaching.
Thus, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo means devotion to the mystic law of cause and effect. Clearly, only by a rather large leap of faith can one accept the notion that by chanting these words, one can somehow manifest wisdom, activate an innate Buddha nature and become absolutely (not relatively) happy through this practice.
While the leap of faith might be large at the outset, noticeable results that accrue through repeated efforts confirm that faith. If I hadn’t seen those results, I wouldn’t still be doing the practice 42 years later.
Fast forward to the 21st century. The Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is a lay organization of 12 million-plus practitioners in 192 countries and territories. Daisaku Ikeda has led that group and its predecessors since 1960. The SGI adheres to the teachings of Nichiren and offers support and encouragement to its members in developing their own faith.
Throughout this article we have posted a variety of quotes from Nichiren and from Ikeda. Here’s a little more direct explanation of death and rebirth. It’s from Ikeda’s book, Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth & Death, page 88.
All our actions in this lifetime are condensed at the moment of death into something like a karmic seed with the potential to sprout and blossom in our future existences. In a rapid recollection at the moment of our death—what some who have had near-death experiences have referred to as a life flashing in front of their eyes—we are compelled to reflect upon our past. We will review our behavior stemming from greed and anger, which are rooted in the fundamental darkness inherent in humanity; indignation, grudges, distress, jealousy and personal antipathy, for example, etch negative karma into our lives.
. . . .
From a Buddhist perspective, our ability to pass successfully through the dying process depends upon our steady efforts during life to accumulate good causes and effects to strengthen the foundation of goodness in the depths of our lives. We can enter the intermediate existence [between our former life and the new one] peacefully and joyfully if, at the time of death, we are awakened to our fundamental Buddha nature. Nichiren encouraged this attitude: ‘Be resolved to summon forth the great power of faith, and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with the prayer that your faith will be steadfast and correct at the moment of death’.
As we noted in the nutshell at the beginning, the gist of the Buddhist perspective on eternal life is this: You will be reborn, with that “karmic seed” Ikeda mentioned. You won’t remember anything of your prior life. But events (effects) will present you with choices based not only your past karma but on causes you make in your new life.
In other words, you start where you left off, in karmic terms. Your core entity survives death, refreshed. You begin again but with a new body and mind.
Hard to fathom. Difficult to believe, you may say. On the other hand, consider unexplained good or bad fortune in this life. Is it good or bad luck? No such thing—it’s karma. Karma not from this life but a prior one. It makes sense to me.
That’s my perspective. You may not find it persuasive. Nonetheless, you might accept the notion that living a better life, creating value—is a good idea, mindful of your eventual demise.
In a letter written in 1280, Nichiren Daishonin encouraged a follower to be diligent in his faith and practice, saying in part:
How swiftly the days pass! It makes us realize how few are the years we have left. Friends enjoy the cherry blossoms together on spring mornings, and then they are gone, carried away like the blossoms by the winds of impermanence, leaving nothing but their names. Although the blossoms have scattered, the cherry trees will bloom again with the coming of spring, but when will those people be reborn? The companions with whom we enjoyed composing poems praising the moon on autumn evenings have vanished with the moon behind the shifting clouds. Only their mute images remain in our hearts. Though the moon has set behind the western mountains, we will compose poetry under it again next autumn. But where are our companions who have passed away?
Poetic as it may sound, Nichiren was quite serious in this letter. He warned the recipient, shortly before the passage above, “No one can escape death once born as a human being, so why do you not practice in preparation for the next life?”
He went to on say, a little later, in this same letter,
Be diligent in developing your faith until the last moment of your life. Otherwise you will have regrets. For example, the journey from Kamakura to Kyoto takes twelve days. If you travel for eleven but stop with only one day remaining, how can you admire the moon over the capital?
Many moons have passed since I began my journey on the Buddhist path. Initially, there were some lazy days, but events have motivated me to be diligent for the last 40 years. On a street in Northern Virginia in 1983, I knocked on Adam’s door. He invited me and others into his apartment to hear about Buddhism.
That was in November. By Christmas day, he had begun the practice. He was that much in search of answers to living life. For the next 35 years, he earnestly followed Nichiren’s admonition. He had a joy and humor that he shared with everyone. I am certain that he will be sorely missed but remembered fondly by the hundreds of people he encouraged.
In 2014 and 2015 he battled and overcame lung cancer. He wasn’t much of a smoker at all. Two years later, he learned that the cancer had metastasized to his brain. Neither he nor the doctors could eliminate that disease. He never stopped fighting. He never stopped encouraging others with his spirited humor and his faith.
From the standpoint of eternity, there is hardly any difference between a ‘long’ and a ‘short’ life. Therefore, it’s not whether one’s life is long or short, but how one lives that is important. It is what we accomplish, the degree to which we develop our state of life, the number of people we help become happy—that is what matters. Daisaku Ikeda
Still, his coming death was jarring for a time. That’s when the writings of Nichiren were helpful. As these combined excerpts from a letter to a wife on the 10th anniversary of her husband’s passing. All are from a letter in the writings titled Hell is the Land of Tranquil Light.
When he was alive, he was a Buddha in life, and now he is a Buddha in death. He is a Buddha in both life and death. This is what is meant by that most important doctrine called attaining Buddhahood in one’s present form. . .
Since it is the way of the world that birth and death are eternally unchanging characteristics of life in the three existences of past, present, and future, there is no need to grieve or to be surprised. . .
On the other hand, to grieve is only natural for ordinary people.
One more excerpt. This from a review I wrote of Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Why here, in this remembrance of a fellow Buddhist? For those who practice another faith, perhaps this will resonate.
Adam was confined to bed, in his home, for his final month. The circumstances were more dissimilar than alike than in Frankl’s situation. But Adam’s attitude—responding to the death he faced without fear, is why it’s included here.
While his body was confined, his mind remained free. Thoughts of his beloved wife sustained him in part. Beyond that, he concluded that finding meaning, even in suffering, is essential. Quoting Dostoevsky, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”
Frankl goes on to explain that even in a concentration camp, a man has a choice on how to respond to his predicament. Frankl says, “It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.” He had not the “will to power” of Nietzsche or Adler nor the “will to pleasure” of Freud. His was the will to meaning.
I found the book immensely moving and motivating in both how to live and how to face death.
In Unlocking the Mysteries of Life and Death, page 100-101, Daisaku Ikeda references Nichiren’s interpretation of a passage from the Lotus Sutra, saying this:
“If we correctly perceive birth and death as intrinsic workings of eternal life, as Nichiren teaches, we proceed from delusion to awakening. . . to the profound understanding that Buddhahood is inherent in us always within the cycle of birth and death, not apart from it. . . [W]e can accumulate treasures of boundless value within our lives, based upon our eternal and indestructible Buddhahood, so that eternally and joyously we will repeat the cycle of birth and death.”
There have been other Buddhist friends who have gone to that intermediate stage after death, preparing for a rebirth. Some of them you will find in the acknowledgement section of Waiting for Westmoreland. Like Gene Hurdle and Masami Hussey. Both contributed greatly to while alive–supporting, encouraging and sharing joy with others.
Another fellow Buddhist passed away recently, in the spring of 2019. Stephanie Tansey gave much to the world during her decades of practicing Buddhism. Her contributions came both within the community of members and without–in society. She was the Quarterly’s first interview in May 2014. We updated the interview with a few details of her continued efforts since 2014. Read it here.
Excerpts from Waiting for Westmoreland
Christmas day, 1967, a little after nine in the morning. We were enroute from our field location to Ham Tan, a village on the coast of Vietnam. Another guy drove. I was in the back of the M-151 jeep (a vehicle prone to oversteer) and a First Lieutenant in the front seat.
A Vietnamese bus, going the other direction, threw up a cloud of dust as it passed by, hiding a large pothole from Cooper’s [the driver’s] view. He hit it at about 35 mph, causing the rear-end to swing to the right. Trying to correct the skid, he oversteered. The jeep first swung the other way, then back again. The fishtailing grew worse as Cooper was unable to control the unstable vehicle. Finally, the rear end of the jeep lifted up in the beginning of a roll. I blacked out at this point. Awakening, I found myself on my back beside the road, with blood running down my face from a shallow cut at the hairline. In the daze of shock, I looked around, spotting Cooper to my right. Blood oozed from a large gash in his forehead, exposing white bone beneath his black skin. More bone protruded from his forearm. A goose-egg was throbbing on my arm, but the skin was unbroken. I tried to sit up, but dizziness forced me back down. Off to my left I saw the lieutenant. He too was in worse shape than I was, with an arm bent at an unnatural angle.
Cooper got evacuated to Hawaii, with a skull fracture to go with his own concussion and more. The lieutenant had a broken arm. Never saw him again. I spent six days in the hospital with a concussion and got two weeks’ time off when I returned to base camp.
After the suicide, (a few years after leaving the military.
My response to the psychologist presaged the Buddhist perspective I would later acquire. While one is alive, one can always make causes that will change karma for the better and that will alleviate suffering. I had dodged death in Vietnam when thrown from a moving vehicle. I had escaped again on a dark interstate highway in Kentucky, performing a racecar maneuver I had never seen or practiced. Now I had survived an aborted suicide. In the hospital, I thought I was simply fortunate or lucky in my escapes. Now I know better. The cause for a current phenomenon may exist an interminable distance in the past, making it difficult to discern. That distance doesn’t make an event any more random than today’s weather is random. Just ask the nearest physicist about chaos theory. Still, I now know I need to be meticulous in the causes I am making today, to better appreciate and preserve this life.
The Prologue to Waiting for Westmoreland—some snippets.
“If the two of them get married or I find the two of them together, I’ll kill the both of them.” It was the week before Thanksgiving, 1979, when a shaky-voiced Juanita called to pass along her father’s plans for us. At least that is what she overheard him telling her brother.“He’s just saying that, right?”
“Maybe, but we need to take this seriously—he has a gun in a safe at home,” she said, a tremble of fear in her voice.
“But he wouldn’t really do that, would he?” No way, I thought.
“You don’t know my father. He has a very angry nature. There are things he’s done that…well, things I can’t tell you about. But believe me, he is perfectly capable of it.”
“So what are we going to do?” I asked, my disbelief finally fading.
“I don’t know. I just want you to be careful. He might be following me.”
“Well, maybe you shouldn’t come here to my place for a while.”
“We could still see each other at activities,” she added, hopefully.
“Unless he followed you. What kind of car does he drive?”
“A ’78 Caprice wagon. It’s black.”
“OK. Let’s lay low for a few days, just to be safe. We need to think about this.”
“We need to chant about it!”
“Uh, yeah, I guess so.”
. . . .
It was my call to him, just two days before Juanita’s report that prompted the threat. I hadn’t spoken to her father since our only meeting in January, earlier that year. The conversation didn’t go as I had hoped.
“Mr. Harrison, this is John Maberry.”
“Who?” His deep voice boomed back.
“John Maberry. The one with the green telephone van.” I instantly regretted my words.
“Oh yeah, I remember you! Why are you calling here? I got nothing to talk about with you.” He spat out, sounding ready to hang up.
“Well, I know we met under awkward circumstances, but I want to put that behind us. I was calling to let you know that your daughter Juanita and I are planning to get married next year.” The silence was deafening for a few moments, before the explosion came.
“Married? You say you gonna marry my daughter! Don’t you think I got something to say about that?”
“Well…sure, that’s why I was calling you. But she is 30 years old. I was calling as a courtesy, out of respect to you as her father.”
. . . .
Why was this happening to me? Of all the women in the world I could get involved with, why did I choose one whose father wanted to kill me? I had no strong feelings one way or the other toward George Harrison, having met him only once. Yet he felt strongly enough about me to contemplate my death.
. . . .
The fundamental reason for Mr. Harrison’s threat wouldn’t become clear for more than 20 years. I had asked for this to happen, although I could have no conscious memory of that. I needed this threat to happen, in order to transform my life. It’s really all in how you view things. It’s a choice of waiting for Westmoreland or going ahead without him. It’s a choice of viewing negative karma as an opportunity or as an ugly destiny. The long chain of cause and effect I had created to reach this point wound far back in time from my experiences with George Harrison, through Vietnam and all the way back to my childhood dream of being a writer.
Emphasis and color added to this last paragraph of the prologue to the memoir.