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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 1: Getting Started > Listening to, Thinking about, and Meditating on the Dharma > Session Three: Using the Four Axioms to Think about Death and Impermanence

Listening to, Thinking about, and Meditating on the Dharma

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, May 2009

Session Three: Using the Four Axioms to Think about Death and Impermanence

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:52 hours)

Yesterday, we began our discussion of meditation, and we saw that meditation is part of a threefold process which entails, listening to teachings and instructions, thinking about them, and meditating on them. And we saw that meditation as the third step actually is talking about how we integrate the teachings into our lives, and we do that by repetition, by building this positive state of mind that we want to achieve through repetition so that it becomes a habit. And yesterday we spoke in detail about the first step, which is listening to the teachings, which is to gain the information. And we need to have as a result of this the discriminating awareness that arises from listening, it’s called. And this means that we need to be able to distinguish, “Yes, this is the teaching of the Buddha and this is correct, that this is the teaching of the Buddha.” And we’re certain about that. So, we need to be certain that we have received the correct information before we proceed with processing those instructions and that information.

And we also saw that the way with which we relate to those teachings in terms of our mind is with presumption. In other words at this stage, we don’t understand the teachings necessarily, but because of our interest and our motivation, we at least presume that it is true until we have proven otherwise. We will assume that it’s true and then we will examine it to determine, “Is it true or not?” If it’s not true, then we forget about it. In order to examine it, we have to have the open mind to at least presume, “OK, this is true, so let me examine it to see if it really is.” You know, this open mind is very important in order to be able to examine something critically. And we also presume that it is of benefit. This is the purpose for Buddhist teachings and so we will assume that it must be of benefit. But we will need to try it out to see is this really correct. It’s like if you have some vitamin, or something like that, you will presume that it is going to be of help and then you will take it and see if it is of help. But you wouldn’t do that with poison. To think, “Well, this is poison. Let me test it out to see if it really is poison.” So similarly, the Buddhist teachings are like a vitamin. We will assume that it will be of help because it’s… you know, everybody says it is, and so we will try it and see for ourselves.

So now we go onto the second step, which is thinking about the teachings. And here, what we’re doing is examining them in order to reach at the end of this process what’s known as the “discriminating awareness that comes from thinking.” And it’s at this step that we have certainty that we have understood the teaching and that it is correct, that what Buddha taught here is true, and we’re convinced that it is of benefit, and we are convinced that it’s possible to achieve what it is telling us that we can achieve, and we are convinced that we, individually, are capable of achieving it. Now this is very important and these steps, all these points that I mentioned here, very often people leave it out. And then later on, they have what’s known as “indecisive wavering.” They don’t know; they have doubts, “Well, is this really possible, is it not possible? Can I really do it, or not do it?” And then they give up.

So, when we read about the teachings concerning liberation or enlightenment and the methods for achieving them, first we have to really understand correctly what actually does it mean to be liberated? What actually does it mean to be enlightened? And once I become liberated, or once I become enlightened, then what? Then what do I do? You know, what would it be like? So we have to have a very realistic understanding, correct understanding of what the goal actually means and we need to be convinced that it’s possible to achieve it and that I’m capable of achieving it. And this is especially true when we come to the discussion of enlightenment. A Buddha is omniscient. That means that a Buddha knows everything correctly, simultaneously. Everything. And a Buddha has equal concern for absolutely everybody. And a Buddha’s able to communicate perfectly with everybody.

So, is that possible or is this just a fairy tale? And if we think that it’s a fairy tale, “This is ridiculous,” then what are we doing trying to achieve that? And if we think that it’s a fairy tale, then obviously we don’t think that we can achieve that. And so, often we really don’t look very critically at what are these goals that are being discussed in Buddhism. And so we need to examine ourselves very carefully. What is it that I’m trying to achieve with my Buddhist practice? What is my motivation?

Now this word “motivation” has a very specific meaning in Buddhism. When we say, “Reaffirm or generate your motivation,” this means something very specific in the Buddhist teachings. It has two parts. One is the aim – what is the goal that we have – and then what is the emotion or feeling behind it that drives us to achieve that goal. Often, I don’t know about in Russian language, but at least in English when we say “motivation,” it usually is only meaning the second part, the emotion that drives us to do something. Like compassion for example.

[Discussion with translator.]

So although it seems as though motivation could have different meanings in Russian as well, but the main meaning is the emotional state that drives us to do something. Yes, I mean you’re right. What is your motivation? Your motivation is to make a lot of money and that’s driven by greed, then perhaps it has both meanings.

So, in any case we have to be clear about these two things. What are we trying to achieve and then, if that is a realistic goal, what is our motivation to achieve it. And I think for many people practicing the Dharma, if we are sincere, we find that our goal really is to just make this life a little bit easier and more happy.

And that’s okay. That’s what I call “Dharma Lite”; that’s not the “Real Thing Dharma.” That’s a first step. The real thing is working for better rebirths, so basically to continue to have precious human rebirth lifetime after lifetime. Well, if you don’t believe in rebirth, how can you sincerely aim for getting a good one? And gaining an understanding, a confidence in rebirth, means that we have to understand what is it that’s reborn? You have to understand the nature of the mind, continuities, the nature of the self, and so on. It’s not a simple thing to understand. And just to aim for that goal, well that’s not necessarily Buddhist. Even the Christians and other religions are aiming for wonderful rebirth; in the case of Christianity, in heaven. That’s not specifically Buddhist.

And so then the next goal is liberation from rebirth, from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Well, Hindu religions aim for liberation as well. So we have to understand what does Buddhism actually mean by liberation and what actually are the methods? It’s not the same as what is asserted in Hinduism. And then aiming for the enlightened state of a Buddha – well this is quite unique to Buddhism. So, as I said, the result of this thinking process is to be convinced, to understand what is the goal, what are the methods for achieving it and that it’s possible, and that I am capable of achieving it.

And when we look at the Buddhist teachings, they are in stages. One insight, one realization follows from the next and so it’s important to not only know that, but respect that, because if we say, “I’m aiming to become a Buddha because I want to help all sentient beings” without any basis for that, it’s just meaningless words. It doesn’t really mean very much. Am I really aiming to liberate and bring to enlightenment every insect in the universe? Probably not. This is a very great and almost unimaginable scope of mind to actually aim for that and really mean it, and so we have to build up gradually to that.

So I think it’s extremely important not to trivialize these goals that we’re talking about in Buddhism like liberation and enlightenment. But, as I said in the beginning, we will assume, “Okay, there is such a thing as liberation and enlightenment and I will examine it further and further until I actually really understand it. But maybe I don’t have enough experience now to be able to understand it.” But we’re honest. Okay.

Now this whole process of thinking is often what people will confuse as being what they call “analytical meditation” and that’s why what is actually being translated as analytical meditation, I translate differently. I call it “discerning meditation.” Because the process of analysis is actually what we do on the second step. And whether we call that meditation or not, it doesn’t really matter. In our ordinary nontechnical language, if you’re going to sit down quietly and do anything, we tend to call that meditation. So, okay, “Resistance is futile,” in terms of trying to overcome that usage of the word meditation.

So, often people will ask then… I mean, I was given a list of questions that people wanted to hear about in this lecture and one was, “How do you do analytical meditation?” So basically this question is “How do you think about the teachings and examine them?” And as I said, the purpose of it is to understand it, to be convinced that it’s true, that it can be attained, and that I can attain it. And is it of benefit.

Okay, so we examine any teaching with what I translate as the “four axioms,” those four points of view for examining something. And obviously if we’re going to sit down and spend some time examining the teaching, then there are all the procedures and steps for entering into this. I don’t know if I need to go through all of that detail. But, basically we need a quiet situation, right? With as little distractions as possible, so no music and great noise around us if possible. If when we become more advanced, then we are able to concentrate even when there is noise… but in the beginning, when we have poor concentration, noise is going to be a terrible distraction.

And where we meditate or think about the teachings should be clean and everything is orderly around us, and so usually it’s recommended that you sweep the floor and set up nice offerings and have everything clean around you. This is for a purpose. If the field of vision around us is messy, then it tends to influence the mind to also be messy. With this chaos around us, the mind tends to become chaotic. And also by cleaning our place of meditation beforehand, it’s a way of showing respect. If we’re going to invite very high guests, I mean in this case even the Buddhas, then obviously you want to clean your room before they come. And there are many other ways of showing respect. We usually make some offerings. It could just be a cup of water. It doesn’t have to be elaborate; something. That is a way of showing respect, being generous.

And when we do prostration, as I have indicated in the beginning, I find it very useful to prostrate in terms of three aspects and this is in keeping with the teachings. We’re talking here about the result, the path, and the basis. But the order doesn’t matter. So the result, the Buddhas – this is the resultant state, you know, we show respect to those who have achieved the goal. And then to our own future enlightenment that we’re aiming with bodhichitta to achieve – so that’s the path, we’re aiming for this, and then the basis for that, which is the Buddha-nature, which will allow me to achieve that. So prostration: we’re showing respect to all three levels here. And refuge means we’re going in that direction and it’s going to protect us from suffering, samsara, the suffering of being unable to help others.

And we need to sit in a posture. There are various postures. If you look in the different Asian cultures, different Asian cultures even sit in meditation in different postures. Tibetans sit cross-legged, so do Indians. Japanese sit with their legs behind them. The Thai people sit with their legs to one side. So if there are those three variations, if we cannot sit comfortably the way that Tibetans sit, sit in a chair. It doesn’t really matter at the very, very beginning stages. Later when we’re working with the subtle energies, yes it makes a difference. The beginning stages, not so much. Right? At those more advanced stages when we’re working with the energy, it’s then we really have to bring in what is known in general Indian methods as “yoga,” the various postures and so on, but that’s another stage. And it’s very important that the meditation session not be a torture session in which we are sitting in some really uncomfortable position and the whole time our knees and legs are hurting or they fall asleep and we’re constantly distracted about thinking about this pain and discomfort. That’s torture. And so therefore the meditation needs to be short.

The Tibetans are very, very relaxed about how they approach the Dharma. So it’s not like some Japanese Zen practice in which the posture itself is part of the object of concentration. And if you move one muscle, the teacher’s going to hit you with a stick. Please, that’s not the Tibetan tradition. And if your legs really hurt, so you move them. No big deal; don’t make a big deal out of these things. That’s very important. And if we make the session short then it’s easier and as we become more accustomed to it, then you can lengthen the time of meditation but not at the very beginning. Okay, as I said there’s many instructions of how we prepare to meditate, the place and so on, but maybe that’s enough detail; otherwise, we’ll spend the whole time on that. All of that information is on my website.

[See: Mahamudra Eliminating the Darkness of Unawareness, Part 2. See also: A Commentary on A Root Text for Gelug-Kagyu Mahamudra, as well as Achieving Shamatha.]

So it’s four axioms. And what I’d like to use as the example for thinking and meditating here on this weekend is meditation on death and impermanence. I’m choosing that perhaps for a little bit of a selfish reason because my closest friend died last week, and so it’s very meaningful to me at the moment. Well let me just give the names of these four. It’s the axiom of dependency, in other words this state of mind that we’re trying to generate, which is awareness of death, what does it depend on? What are the causes for building it up? Alright? What does it depend on or rest on as its basis for being able to gain this understanding, this insight? Alright, I mean this we have to know in order to understand this teaching, I mean aside from the teaching itself. And so, what does it depend on?

The second one is functionality. In other words, if we achieve this awareness of death, what does it do? What are the benefits? If we don’t have it what are the disadvantages? In other words, once you achieve it, then what? What does it do? How does it help us? And then the third one is the axiom of reason, establishment by reason. So then we examine the teaching in order to determine is it true, does it fit with all the rest of Buddha’s teachings? Is it logical? And when we try it out, does it actually produce its effect? So does it fit with our experience?

And then the fourth one is the axiom of the nature of things. And is death for example the nature of things? And everybody dies; yes, it is the nature of things. Okay. Some of the teachings might not actually fit into this last category. So it doesn’t have to necessarily talk about the nature of things, but very often it does fit with the nature of things. I mean the example that is given is that the fire is hot. That’s just is the nature of fire. Why is it hot? Well, that’s just the way it is.

[See: Four Axioms for Examining a Dharma Teaching.]

Now, we would then, with the teachings, have a certain instruction, a certain teaching. We would in this thinking process, this analytical process, or examining process, we would take a certain teaching and we would examine it from the point of view of these four axioms. And we would spend as much time as you need. There’s no necessary formula that says you spend ten minutes on this and twenty minutes on that and then this and then that. But, we need to be careful, especially in the beginning, not to go too quickly because when you go very quickly, then often what you are focusing on has no meaning to it. You are just saying the words. You really need to let something sink in, really work with it.

It brings up a very interesting question. What does it mean to be convinced of something? Let’s spend a moment to think about that. How do I know that I am convinced that something is true or correct? Or convinced that I understand something? What does it feel like?


Okay. So tell me. What does it mean to be convinced of something?

Participant: When we have no doubts.

Alex: “When we have no doubts.” Very, very good. What is doubt?

Participant: When we have some alternative variant.

Alex: Right. So doubt is called indecisive wavering. We can’t decide; is it this way or is it that way and we go back and forth. So being convinced, we don’t have that anymore.

Participant: When we have no questions about it.

Alex: “When we have no questions about it.” That’s right, that’s connected with doubt, but it goes a little bit further because it means that we really understand it. With indecisive wavering, “Is this true or not true?” so you go back and forth, or does it mean this or does it mean that? A question can be like that, “Does it mean this or does it mean that?” So when we question then we could have possible two answers so we go back and forth, but often we question something just on the basis of: “I just don’t know what it means.”

This is why the Tibetans have the educational method of debate. The purpose of debate is to question our understanding. And everybody has to debate. You can’t escape, if you’re studying. You can’t just sit quietly in the back of the class. And so you are confronted by another student, sometimes there will be three together. And in the debate, one person will state something, and the other person has to either accept it or reject it. And if they accept it, then the first person is going to try to make that person contradict themselves. In other words, what you’re trying to do as the defendant is to hold your position and defend it; and the other person is going to challenge you and try to make you contradict yourself.

So the point of the debate is not to find out the correct answer. The point of the debate is to gain certainty about your understanding and this is a very, very good method for many reasons, but one very important reason is that other people will challenge our understanding much, much more than we will ever challenge our understanding ourselves. Especially since there’s a tremendous amount of energy in the debate and people find it great fun and laugh tremendously when they cause the other person to contradict themselves. And it’s usually teenagers debating, so they have a lot of energy and they’re not going to give up or get tired of attacking. But it’s all done in good humor and everybody laughs.

And another benefit of this, of course, is that no matter who you are, you’re going to contradict yourself and say something stupid from time to time, so it’s very good for deflating the ego and pride. And it overcomes shyness; you can’t be shy. And it develops incredible concentration. If you’ve ever seen these debates, you realize that they are unbelievably loud. And you can have a hundred debates going on right next to each other simultaneously and everybody is screaming at the top of their voice simultaneously. And if you can’t concentrate to listen to just the person that you’re debating with and not the person thirty centimeters away, fifty centimeters away, you’re lost. And everybody will laugh at you, so this is even more of an emotional incentive to pay attention. And so actually it works very, very well on all these different dimensions as a training – many different angles.

So we certainly shouldn’t dismiss debating as: “Oh this is intellectual; I want to be intuitive and meditate.” The debate prepares you to be able to meditate. That’s the whole purpose, because at the end of the debate, you have no more questions and you have no more doubt or indecisive wavering. You are certain that you have understood and it is consistent. You haven’t gotten something a little bit off. And then you can meditate to integrate that insight with complete confidence: that this is correct, I have understood it correctly and I have no more questions. Otherwise, the meditation is always not firm; there’s always some questions. “Well, what am I really doing? Is this really correct? I don’t quite understand this, and so on.” So even though we might not formally debate here, it is good to discuss the teachings with each other, without pride and arrogance and without being defensive, which means that you feel that the other person is personally attacking you so you have to defend yourself, you know: “No no I’m not like that.” It’s not a battle; it’s helping each other to understand. There’s no winner and no loser, that’s very important.

[See: The Purpose and Benefits of Debate.]

So we have two technical terms in Buddhist terminology. One, I translate as “to believe a fact to be true” and the other is “firm conviction.” So we can believe that something is true, but it might not necessarily be believing that a fact is true. We might believe that something incorrect is true. Alright? So that’s incorrect belief that something is true; and so we have to be very careful in our examining the teachings that we don’t come to the conclusion that this is the correct understanding, when its not. Firm conviction is when we are so convinced, that nothing can shatter our belief. I mean that’s really what we need to develop, firm conviction that I’m going to overcome selfishness. I mean really firmly decide it and firmly believe that it is possible to get rid of it. Nobody’s going to shake you.

So, this can also be distorted and it can be distorted into what we would call being stubborn. Stubborn and closed-minded. We have a wrong understanding and we’re very stubborn and nobody can correct us and we’re completely closed and even hostile to other people who try to correct us. That is sometimes translated as “wrong view.” That’s a terrible translation. What it means is distorted, antagonistic thinking. We hold something incorrect. We’re very stubborn about it and we are antagonistic which means that we are hostile and we will attack and argue against anybody who tries to say something different.

So, to be convinced of something, we can understand, “Well, I don’t have indecisiveness, and I don’t have doubts, and I don’t have questions,” but that could be directed at either a correct understanding or an incorrect understanding and so we need to really check whether our understanding is correct or not. That means reading the texts, discussing with people, and so on, checking with these four axioms.

Another point is that until we are really a Buddha, we can always understand something more and more deeply. So it’s always said in the teachings, “Never be satisfied with our level of understanding, with our level of achievement, because you can always go deeper, and always achieve higher until you become a Buddha.” So although our understanding might be correct, it might not be the deepest understanding. There are many levels of understanding something. Trijang Rinpoche – he died long ago, but he was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama – used to say: “I have read the Lam-rim chen-mo – that’s the “Grand Presentation of the Stages of the Path” by Tsongkhapa. It’s a very fundamental and very big text – he said that: “I’ve read this a hundred times and every time I read it, I get a different and deeper understanding.” And so this is a very good example of how we need to – despite getting a correct understanding – don’t stop at that, but try to go deeper and deeper and deeper.

So, let’s go through these four points with respect to death meditation so that we have some example of what it’s referring to, how we apply it. Of course this is after we have received the teachings on death and death meditation. And with death meditation, there are basically three facts that we are working with. The first is that death is inevitable. That it is inevitable that we are going to die. That’s me, personally, and everybody that I know. Second is that the time of death is uncertain, and the third is that nothing is going to be of any help at the time of death except the Dharma, which means the positive habits that we have built up. In other words, the positive habits that we have integrated and made part of our mental continuum. That’s the only thing that will be of help at the time of death. These are the teachings and there’s many points concerning that death is going to come for sure, we don’t know when, and the only thing that’s s going to be of help is the Dharma practice that we’ve done. And not just to be able to recite those word but to really be convinced and to be convinced on an emotional level, not just on an intellectual level.

So, this, the first one, what does it depend on? Well, there’re many levels at which we can analyze this. Death depends on being alive, doesn’t it? Without being alive, you can’t die. And what is life like, what’s happening every day? Well, I’m getting older every day and the body is something which is getting older and it starts to get stronger in the beginning, but then it gets weaker. And so, because death depends on this kind of body which gets sick and can be hit by a car and stuff like that, then we see that death depends on that. So that makes sense.

Now on a deeper level, in terms of meditation practice or practice of developing ourselves, what we need to understand first before death meditation is the precious human life that we have. The whole teaching on death awareness is intended to – this gets into our second point, functionality – of being able to take advantage of the precious human life we have now. So if I don’t appreciate that I am alive now and I have so much opportunity to be able to work on myself, then I’m not going think about that I’m going to lose that opportunity and die. And so many of us don’t really appreciate that “I’m alive and I can use my mind, I can use my body,” and in many ways just waste their lives. Whether in terms of being an alcoholic or whatever, they abuse their own bodies and really don’t take advantage of what we’re able to accomplish, or abuse the mind by either filling it with drugs or filling it with watching violence or pornography all the time, just completely pollute the mind. So this is what death awareness depends on. It depends on awareness of life. So this is what we would have to develop before death awareness.

We need to recognize the precious human life that we have and how we are free from the worse situations that would prevent us from being able to take advantage of being alive. For instance, I haven’t been born as a cockroach that anybody who sees me just wants to step on me, for example. That’s a funny example, but we really need to take that seriously, right? I mean this is part of the meditations on the precious human life is to imagine what it would be like without that and how awful that would be… being a little fish and, you know, at any time a bigger fish can come and just eat us alive. It wouldn’t be very nice. Or a fly, and a spider comes and eats us alive. I mean really awful. Think about it. What could we do as a fly? Not very much; we just are attracted to feces and garbage. So, that’s what it depends on.

Functionality, second axiom, what is the purpose of being aware of our death and that it can come at any time? Well, the purpose of it is not that we get depressed and: “Oh how horrible, I’m going to die.” That’s not the point. The function of it is to cause us to want to take advantage of the precious time that we have now because we never know when it’s going to end. Like my friend who died last week. He was perfectly healthy. He was not very old, fifty-four. He had absolutely no risk factors for having a heart attack. Never smoked, never drank alcohol, did not have high blood pressure, did lots of exercise, and was an intense meditator, practitioner, the most intense one that I’ve ever known. And one morning last week he was taking a shower, had a massive heart attack in the shower, and just dropped dead. Like that.

There’s no certainty whatsoever of when we are going to lose this precious life. It can come very unexpected. You don’t have to be old; you don’t have to be sick in order to die. So, the purpose, the function of death awareness is to overcome laziness and procrastination, putting things off until tomorrow. Now this is very interesting in the case of my friend. His name is Alan. It’s easier to say the name, Alan Turner. He had his mother, very old and not in very good health and he helped to support her, financially etc. and going and helping her. And he wanted very much, he always said, as soon as his mother dies, then he will retire from his work and go into first a one year Vajrasattva retreat and then, you know, longer retreats. This was his intention.

As I said, he was a very, very intense practitioner. But, he didn’t do that because he needed to continue to be available to help his mother and to work to provide money for her. So, given that situation, what do you think? Should he have continued to work and help his mother or should he have just gone into retreat while he had the opportunity and retired, and let his mother take care of herself or other people take care of her? So please think about it. What would the Dharma instruct us in that situation? To retreat or take care of your mother?


Not just what the Dharma would say, but what would you do in that situation and how does that fit in with these teachings on death?


Translator for a participant: It is not evident if this person was a high level practitioner maybe it would have been better for him to go into retreat. But, if he was not so high level practitioner, maybe it would be better for him not to go.

Translator for another participant: Isn’t it possible to combine these two? For instance, to go to some short retreat and at the same time support mother?

Alex: Right, isn’t it possible, he says, to do a short retreat and at the same time help your mother? Yes, that’s a very good solution. When we talk about retreat, then retreat doesn’t have to be necessarily a full time activity. We can do one session early in the morning, then one session late at night, and then during the day take care of whatever things we need to take care of, like for instance the mother. And if our mother’s living with us, it’s the same thing like if you have a baby and the mother needs us in the middle of our meditation session or the baby starts crying in the middle of our meditation session. What do you do? Do you let the baby cry? No; you break your meditation session obviously and get up and take care of the baby, whatever is wrong with the baby. But in the teachings it always says that one of the most important things is repaying the kindness of all beings, especially our mother who gave us our life, she’s the one who gave birth to us. What is the result of taking care of your mother? Are you the loser because you haven’t done the retreat or are you the winner?

You are the winner. Why?

Participant: Because, this is, you are collecting good karma.

Alex: Right you are building up very positive karma, very positive potential, very positive force, which means taking care of the mother without resentment of: “I wish you would die already because I want to retire and I hate my job.” But, if we’re not in this situation like my friend was in, in terms of taking care of his mother, then obviously we need to try to take as best advantage of our life as we can and the opportunities that we have.

So we find with the teachings, for example, very interesting, Tibetan lamas very often do not take Western Dharma students seriously. And one of the reasons why they don’t take us seriously is because most of us don’t have the dedication and commitment to the Dharma and appreciation of its value the way that a Tibetan would have. If there’s a teaching and it lasts over a long period of time, Tibetans, unless they are dying, they will go to every single session, never miss a session, because if they miss one session they haven’t gotten – we spoke a little bit yesterday about the transmission. For Tibetans that’s very important – so they haven’t gotten the transmission if they miss one day. So they take it very, very seriously and they would go.

What about us Westerners? I teach a class every week in Berlin, but if one of the students their friend is having a birthday party or there’s a movie or something that they want to see, they don’t come to class because they think, “Well, it’s every week. I can go next week.” Or, “I’m tired. I don’t feel like it, going this evening.” So, with that type of attendance and attitude, it’s no wonder that the Tibetans don’t take most Western students seriously. If they were really serious, they would come. So, if one really had death awareness, on the basis of realizing the precious human rebirth and the value of teachings and the positive things we could do with this precious life, we would come to the teachings. And the more teachings we receive, and the more thinking about it and meditating on it, and so on.

What’s the result? Do I just become higher? That’s not the point. The point is that I’m better able to help others. I’m not going to be lazy; I’m not going to get angry with them. I’m not going to cling to them. I’m not going to help them with the expectation that they’re going to love me because of that, or do something nice for me. We just help them because they are a suffering being and nobody wants to be unhappy. Everybody wants to be happy and we’re all equal. We help them simply because they need help. Alright?

You walk in your hall in the apartment and there are some papers on the floor and you pick them up. It doesn’t matter whether you dropped them or somebody else dropped them. You pick them up because they need to be picked up and put in the garbage. No other reason. And it will be more pleasant for everybody if the hall was not filled with garbage on the floor.

Okay? So, precious life. It’s going to end, I don’t know when. I could drop dead in the shower from a heart attack. I could be hit by a bus. And we don’t want to waste it. So, death awareness. That’s its function; overcomes laziness and allows us to take advantage of the opportunities that we have. However, now I have to bring in from my favorite Zen koan. “Death can come at any time. Relax.” Think about that for a moment.


Okay. What does it mean?

Participant: Maybe it is our open mind towards the life, towards all that we experience.

Alex: Anybody else?

Participant: I think it’s the absolute confidence that they will have a next life and their Dharma practice will be continued and that’s what Western people are missing.

Alex: Right, that we have absolute confidence that life will continue and we know, we’ve taken Dharma measures so we can be confident at the time of death so we’re relaxed. Actually that reminds me of what Alan always used to say when we parted, or when he parted from his teachers. He said, “No worry that if I don’t see you for a year, or don’t see you for another lifetime. As long as we are able to die in the proper way, then sometime we’ll meet again.” Is there any other meaning to this koan?

Participant: The meaning also that usually we’re being uptight on different, not very important things.

Alex: Right. So, we’re uptight on not very important things. And actually this is the meaning that I understand it primarily with. That it’s very important not to be uptight about the Dharma. If we are very, very stiff with the Dharma, I mean this is a little bit of what one of the person's point was, that if we are very uptight and we are afraid of death, paranoid of making a mistake, “Death can come at anytime, I’m afraid,” and so we push and push and push ourselves and we’re afraid that we’re not going to have enough time. And what’s the result of that? Our practice suffers, doesn’t it? We’re not really being able to take proper advantage of the opportunity that we have because we’re too, I think “uptight” is the best word for that. We’re too stiff, too paranoid.

So, we need to be very sincere and serious about our practice, but in a relaxed way, which does not mean being lazy. And then, as one of you said , then you can be relaxed and confident that having built up these positive habits, that this is what will be of help at the time of death, and yes, I will continue to meet with my teachers and so on. I mean all of this gets very delicate the deeper that we go, because then we have the danger of being too attached to our teachers and to these things and we think of it just in a samsaric situation. And we need to get a deeper understanding so that our concern for the teachings and so on is without some disturbing state of mind.

Okay. The third axiom, establishment by reason. So first, are these teachings on death consistent with what Buddha taught? And so in order to determine that, we need to receive a lot of teachings, read a lot of Buddhist books, etc. So many different places in Buddhist teachings teach us about impermanence, don’t they? And so this is consistent with what Buddha taught. And then, is it logical? Well, yes, every day we are getting closer and closer to death; that is logic isn’t it? So that means that at some point it’s going to end, the show will be over. And actually in the teachings there are three reasons for each of these points.

That death will come for sure. So the first reason is that it’s definite that death will come and there’s no circumstance that can turn death away when it’s come. Right? They tried to revive Alan for about a half hour; nothing. And the next one, life span can’t be extended when it’s time for us to die and the remainder of the life span left to live is decreasing day by day, minute by minute. The image that’s used is like we are on a conveyor belt, a moving belt, getting closer and closer to death and there is no way to stop it. I mean, for that really to sink in emotionally is really quite profound, and for it to do it in a way in which you are not afraid, you’re not freaked out, and you’re not uptight, but you are relaxed about that, but take it very seriously.

When we talk about this mental factor of belief in a fact to be true, there’s three types of that, and one of them is the type of belief that clears the mind of disturbing emotions. So if we believe this is true in the proper way, then our mind will be free of the disturbing emotion of being afraid, being freaked out and so on. The mind is very clear about this, the emotions, the heart are very clear. Okay? This is the fact, this is reality. Now, how do I deal with it?

And the third reason is that we are going to die even if we haven’t had the time while alive to practice the Dharma. So, Alan didn’t have time to do that one year retreat and died anyway. So, based on that, logically, it’s inevitable that we are going to die. It’s for sure. Everybody who has ever lived has died, so what makes me any different? So, we’re convinced logically that it’s true.

And then the third type of reasoning that we use is, is this true from our own experience? Well, from a simple point of view, well yes, I’ve seen other people die so that’s the way things are. But, more deeply we’re talking here about if I do some of this practice, does it produce its result, and yes, I will get over my laziness and I will actually take advantage of my opportunities, use my time well. So from my experience I see that it’s beneficial. So, we’ve done the axiom of what it depends on, how it functions, and is it reasonable.

And then the fourth one is: does it accord with the nature of things? Is it the nature of things that everything that is alive dies? Yes. I mean, that is just the way things are. There is nothing we can do except to accept that fact. This is reality.

So, when we analyze a teaching, which is actually this, of listening, thinking and meditating, this is the second step, thinking. This is what we do. And we try to relate it to ourselves and our own experience, not just theoretical. Let’s see, “What’s my attitude toward it? Do I ignore it? Why do I ignore it?” Like this, we work with our own belief, with our own understanding, our own attitude. And at the end of this whole process, which can be an ongoing thing … which means that it continues for a long time… I mean we’ve talked about decisive, being decisive, it’s very hard to say I am a hundred percent convinced. That’s very difficult. Is there’s anything that we are a hundred percent convinced of? Is there?

Participant: Maybe all of us for one hundred percent are sure that we’re alive.

Alex: A hundred percent of us are sure that we’re alive. I’ve known people who say that I don’t feel anything. I mean in our Western language, it’s not very Buddhist language, they’re so completely out of touch with their bodies, out of touch with their feelings, that they feel like: “I’m just a robot going through life like a machine,” but maybe you are a hundred percent convinced that you are alive and that’s very good. Well, I’m a hundred percent convinced that if I stick my hand in the fire it will burn and hurt. So there are certain things, I think, that most of us do really believe, don’t we? But we didn’t know that as a baby. We had to learn that, didn’t we? And sometimes you learn it by actual personal experience. So we gain experience in these ways, by thinking about it, experimenting and so on. That’s part of this process. You wanted to add something?

Right, so she’s saying: “How can we be convinced of purposes and benefits if there is nothing that we can really be sure of?”

By thinking about it, by investigating, by experimenting and, as I said, it’s very difficult to come to a hundred percent conviction and so that’s why I said it’s an ongoing process, that we don’t have to wait until we’re a hundred percent convinced before going on to try to integrate it. Because it’s very difficult to say I’m a hundred percent convinced. And I can be convinced a hundred percent intellectually, but emotionally, I’m not convinced at all. And, how you feel in your body is a much deeper level and much more difficult to change then how you feel in your mind. I mean in terms of my friend’s death, for example, mentally, emotionally, I’m quite at peace with that at this point, but my body feels very, very drained of energy. I’m very tired.

So the sadness is there on the body level, so that’s much more difficult to get on that body level a feeling of a hundred percent convinced that: “Yes, everybody dies, and so on, and we will continue in future lives, you know, helping each other to enlightenment.” That’s hard to feel on the body level. And when sadness rises on a mental level, an emotional level, which of course it’s still going to do from time to time, it’s natural. We’re not Buddhas; we’re not liberated beings. We’re not free from all disturbing emotions, not free from all suffering, yet. Of course you’re going to feel sad at times. Emotionally as well, I do. Much easier to then quiet down and deal with that on an emotional and mental level; much more difficult to deal with that on an energy level.

So, I’m bringing all of this up, because this issue of being a hundred percent convinced about the teachings, that’s going to be very, very difficult and so we can’t expect that we’re going to reach that level. It has to be a certain level so that we’re not completely puzzled and really don’t know what’s going on. But that deep, deep emotional level, that takes a very, very long time. And to be really convinced on a physical level, an energy level, is even more difficult. And so that’s why it’s always said your understanding, your conviction, can go deeper and deeper and deeper.

So it just has to be enough to go on. And what is enough? That’s really very difficult to say. At least, we have to have respect and not think that this is completely ridiculous and stupid. So go much, much more in the direction of being convinced

Okay, so that, I think, covers our second point here of thinking and we’ll break now for lunch and then we’ll get into the actual practice of meditation after lunch. And if you have questions about what we spoke of, then we can do that after lunch.