The pandemic has brought home the urgent truth of mortality to all humanity. When we hear that the fatality rate of the Covid-19 virus has dropped a few decimals from 10.21 to 10.18, we feel rather reassured. We think we are marginally safer. The probability of our death has been postponed by an infinitesimally small margin.
While one might escape the virus, there are thousands of other causes of death out there waiting for us which we do not wish to even consider. Why brood over morbid thoughts such as death when there is so much to live for? There are so many unfulfilled desires yet. We still need to find an ideal partner. We still need to get that dream job, buy that dream car or gadget, be well-known, build that dream holiday cottage, or go on that dream exotic holiday. We still need to ‘settle’ our children or cuddle our grandchildren. Many of us have unfinished ideological agendas — educating the people, fighting for social justice, saving the environment, etc. The list is endless.
We are still waiting to live our ‘real’ lives as though it has all been a rehearsal of some kind so far. We thus go about our daily business with our heads buried deep in the sand. When we do face a natural or an accidental death , doctors ascribe it to various complicated medical reasons. People no longer die of old age but ‘multiple organ failure’. Like the tip of our nose that is too close to us, we cannot see that the biggest and the most fundamental cause of our death — is our birth! This simple but profound Truth was discovered by Siddhartha Gautama, as he contemplated on human suffering, and its cause, 2500 years ago.
That everything that is born has to die is something everyone agrees upon –even if a bit reluctantly. Birth can be called the deadliest disease with a one hundred percent fatality rate. All life has a zero rate of survival. Yet is it not ironic that we celebrate birth, knowing fully well that anything that is born will suffer ageing, sickness, and death?
As soon as we are born, our suffering begins. To start with, the process of birth is extremely painful. No baby comes into the world smiling. Then life seems to be an endless series of big and small discomforts and sufferings, with a few fleeting moments of joy or relief. Can we avoid not getting what we want, encountering what we don’t want, parting from those we love, disappointments, conflicts, fear, anxiety, tensions, depression, sorrow, sickness, ageing, and death — all of which constitute the human condition ?
After his awakening, The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths at Sarnath, the first of which is The Truth of Suffering. We need to first stop living in a fool’s paradise of eternal hope and acknowledge that we ARE indeed suffering before we can seek the path to its ending. We tend to philosophize and brush aside suffering as “yes, life has its ups and downs, but tomorrow may be better”. Are we so sure?
When prince Siddhartha ventured out of his palace where he had been sequestered since his birth, in a life of pleasure by his father, and saw his first ever visions of ageing, sickness, and death, he was horrified and shaken to the core. We have perhaps become too calloused and de-sensitized to our own suffering, and that of others.
Once we ‘know’ our suffering, we might be motivated enough to seek the cause of suffering and to find a cure. We might ask how does one avoid all the suffering of impermanence, instability, and uncertainty that life brings? The Buddhist answer seems ridiculously simple. By not being born in the first place. Can one choose not to be born? What is the mechanism that results in our birth beyond the purely biological?
We owe our bodies to our parents and their genes but are we just a result of a chance coming together of genetic material? On the night of his awakening, Gautama Buddha contemplated deeply on this and realized he had been born countless times before as various life forms. He remembered every one of his previous lives in a state of deep meditative insight.
He discovered that our psyche plays a crucial role in both our process of re-birth, as it not only determines the life form we will be born as, but also the circumstances (pleasant or unpleasant) of our future re-birth. Our present state of mind, body, and life circumstance in this life is a result of our thoughts, speech, and actions of our previous lives. Our future mind, body, and life-circumstances of our next life shall depend on the thoughts, speech, and actions of our present lives — as surely as a shadow follows a cart.
Virtuous thoughts, speech, and actions lead to pleasant, comfortable births in ‘higher’ realms (human, demi-gods, and gods). Non-virtuous thoughts, speech, and actions lead to unpleasant births in ‘lower’ realms (animal, hungry ghosts, and hell). However, being born in higher realms does not guarantee one stays there forever.
Even the glorious god realm is subject to time and decay, and eventually gods too have to descend slowly and surely into hell realm like in a giant ferris wheel Buddhists call the Wheel of life. Every action, be it physical, verbal, or mental, creates a Karmic seed for a next life that will germinate when the causes and conditions are conducive. Each of us has a storehouse of millions of such Karmic ‘seed-banks’ in our basement storehouse of consciousness.
Just as a water wheel collects water on its way up and discharges it on the way down, when we collect positive Karma we rise ‘up’ the realms and discharge our deposit as we move ‘down’. If we are suffering in this life, there is hope. We could collect positive Karma and achieve better circumstances in our future birth. But if we are enjoying a comfortable life at present, we are exhausting our positive Karma and we are on our way down to the lower realms.
We have all been stuck in this never-ending circular matrix (Buddhists call this Samsara) for countless lifetimes. But are we all doomed to frantically work this hamster wheel forever? Suicide is not going to help as it will only end in re-birth, may be in a worse condition. According to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, we may be reborn and end up in this very world within a few weeks of death.
When Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha or ‘ The awakened one’ under the Bodhi tree, he had an epiphany of how to de-code and un-entangle the intricate web of forces that keep the wheel of samsara turning. What makes the Buddha truly worthy of veneration is that he was the first ever human being to see how the wheel works, and how to stop it, dismantle it, and gain peace and freedom. He had found a Path to Liberation.
Firstly, he discovered that it is we who are moving the wheel, and therefore we ourselves can stop it. There is no mighty external creator who is rewarding or punishing us. We are our own masters. We could be our own best friends or we could be our own worst enemies. He also discovered that the wheel of life has a force and momentum.
What turns the wheel is the force of our habitual patterns of attachment, aversion, and ignorance — our chronic mental fogginess that deludes us into mistaking the nature of Reality of our ‘selves’, and all phenomena. The Buddha saw that the wheel of life has twelve links that move through a cycle of inter-dependent steps of cause and effect, and that even before it completes a full cycle, it has ‘re-charged’ its momentum to start the next one.
The closer we get to understanding how the Twelve links of dependent origination work, the closer we get to how we perpetuate our being rather involuntarily, and how to liberate ourselves from the vicious wheel of Samsara. As we focus our minds on the hub of the wheel, clear our mental fog, and see the Truth of the illusory nature of Reality, the engine of our attachments and aversions gradually stops.
As the engine stops, our habitual patterns of negative and positive Karma weaken and eventually the wheel loses momentum, and it grinds to a halt. (For those interested, Here is a comprehensive Buddhist text on Karma, the Twelve links of dependent Origination, and the ultimate nature of Reality.)
Buddhists call this Cessation of Samsara or Nirvana. We have finally transcended the process that leads to rebirth. Because there is no birth, there is no death either. There is no more a ‘self’ to take birth, live, age, fall sick, and die.
For the humanity going through immense suffering right now, if there is one single project worth devoting one’s entire life to, it is to attain complete freedom from all suffering once and for all. The Buddha taught that one can achieve this by studying The wheel of Life as it operates in one’s daily life, moment by moment — through cultivating the bright, steady, and penetrating mind of awareness to see the Truth of the illusory nature of reality, and by cultivating the compassion to lead others towards the Truth.
It is only when we are freed from the chains of dependent origination can truly exercise our freewill to be reborn in Samsara to help other beings. Such noble beings are known as Bodhisattvas. It is only when we are completely free of Hope and fear, can we engage with this world fearlessly, creatively, and effectively.