Death and Impermanence
The only possible outcome of birth is death. We are inevitably going to die. There is no living being whose life did not end with death. People try many methods to prevent death's occurrence, but it is impossible. No medicine can cure us of death.
Just to think, "I'm going to die," isn't really the correct way to contemplate death. Of course, everyone is going to die, but merely thinking about this fact is not very powerful. It is not the proper method. In the same way, just thinking of the fact that we are going to disintegrate and degenerate, that our bodies are going to decompose, is not enough. What we have to think about is how to prevent our downfall.
If we think about the fear that comes at the time of death and about how to eliminate that fear, then our meditation on death will be effective. People who have accumulated a great deal of negative karma during their lives become very frightened at the time of death. They cry, tears run down their cheeks, their mouths dribble, they excrete in their clothing, and are completely overwhelmed. These are clear signs of the suffering that occurs at the time of death because of fear caused by negative actions performed during life.
Alternatively, if during our lifetimes we refrain from committing negative actions, the time of death is very easy for us to face. The experience is one of joy, like that of a child going home to its parents. If we have purified ourselves, we can die happily. By refraining from the ten negative ways and cultivating their opposites, the ten constructive actions, our deaths will be easy and as a result we won't have to experience rebirth in a condition of suffering. We can be assured of rebirth in more fortunate states. By planting the seeds of medicinal plants we obtain trees with medicinal powers, by planting the seeds of poisonous trees we produce only harmful fruits. If we plant the seeds of constructive actions on our consciousness, we will experience happiness in future rebirths. We will have fortunate situations both mentally and physically. This basic teaching of the Dharma - avoid destructive deeds and cultivate constructive ones - is given not only in Buddhism, but also in many other religions, including Christianity.
How do we contemplate death and impermanence? As mentioned previously, just thinking, "I'm going to die," is not very beneficial. We need to think, "If I have committed any of the ten destructive actions, at death I will have a great deal of fear and suffering to face, and as a result I will devolve to a rebirth of intense misfortune. On the other hand, if during my life I have created positive force (merit), at death I will not experience fear or suffering and will be reborn in a more fortunate state." That is the correct way to contemplate death.
This meditation need not be merely the gloomy, pessimistic thought, "I'm going to die and there is nothing I can do about it." Rather, we need to think in terms of what will happen when we die. "Where will I go after death? What sort of causes have I created? Can I make my death a happy one? How? Can I make my future rebirths happy? How?"
When contemplating future rebirths, we need to remember that there is no place in samsara that is reliable. No matter what body we take, it must eventually pass away. We read in history of people who have lived for a hundred or even a thousand years. Yet, no matter how fantastic these accounts are, there is no case of a person who did not eventually have to die. Any type of samsaric body that we gain is subject to death.
Nor is there a place to where we can go in order to escape death. No matter where we are, when the time comes, we will have to die. Then no amount of medicine, mantras, or practice will help. Surgical operations may cure certain types of diseases within our bodies, but there are none that can prevent death.
No matter what type of rebirth we gain, it will be subject to death. The process is ongoing. Contemplating the long-range effects of our actions and how the process of birth, life, death, and rebirth is continuous will help us generate much positive karma.
Although we sometimes plan to practice the Dharma, we usually plan to do so tomorrow, or the day after. However, none of us can tell when we will die. If we had a guarantee that we definitely had one hundred years left to live, we would have free space in which to arrange our practice. But there is not the slightest certainty when we will die. To put off our practice is very foolish. Some humans die in the womb even before they are born, others die as small babies before they learn to walk. It doesn't follow that we are going to live a long life.
Our bodies are very fragile. If they were made of stone or iron, perhaps they might give some feeling of stability. But if we investigate, we will see that the human body is very weak. It is very easy for something to go wrong with it. It is like a delicate wristwatch made from countless tiny fragile parts. It is not something to be trusted. There are many circumstances that can cause our death: food poisoning, the bite of a tiny insect, or even the prick of a poisonous thorn. Such small conditions can kill us. The food and liquid that we use to extend our lives can become the circumstances that end it. There is no certainty at all as to when we will die, or what circumstances will cause our death.
Even if we feel certain that we will live for a hundred years, many years of that span have passed already and we haven't accomplished much. We approach death like a man sleeping in a railway carriage, constantly getting closer and closer to the destination, yet unaware of the process. There is little we can do to stop this process. We just constantly come ever-closer to death.
No matter how much money, jewelry, houses or clothes we have accumulated during our lives, it will make no difference whatsoever at the time of our deaths. When we die, we will have to go empty-handed. Not even the tiniest material object can be taken with us. The body itself must be left behind. The body and the mind separate and the mind-stream continues by itself. Not only is it impossible to take a possession with us, we cannot even take our bodies.