DEATH, PART TWO
April 17, 2022
“Mrityorma Amritam Gamaya.—Lead us from death to immortality” is part of a traditional Sanskrit prayer chanted across Indian traditions. (The full prayer is written on the front wall in the Yoga Shala.)
This blog follows Death, Part One.
In the Mahabharata—one of the two great Indian epics written to teach the ways of right living and spirituality to the masses—one of the main characters is the son of the God of Dharma (the God of Righteousness). In one poignant and thrilling scene, in order to save his brothers who are already dead (and himself), this son is questioned in a rapid-fire manner by a spirit (who we later find out is his father, the God of Dharma) to test the young man. It’s an amazing and unforgettable part of the whole epic with so many profound and surprising answers to difficult questions.
One question is, “What is the most wonderful thing in this world?” The son’s immediate answer is, “Day after day countless lives enter into the Temple of Death. Looking on this spectacle, the rest of them, those who remain, believe themselves to be permanent, immortal. Can anything be more wonderful than this?” (Kamala Subramaniam’s translation) What do you think? Can anything inspire more wonder than the simple and profound avoidance of such an obvious truth which we see in some way every day?
One of the earlier spiritual teachings that I was given when I was in my early 20’s was, “The mortality rate of humans is very high.” I don’t remember who that teaching came through, but it stuck. This being the case, why would we get so bent out of shape with the fact? “Bent out of shape” here does not refer to grieving, which as I mentioned in Part One, is fine—even wonderful and necessary. Grief is a great cleansing process as we go through the pain of loss that our attachment has naturally and inevitably caused. Grief is good and necessary for mental and emotional health. It’s a release and relief—a manifestation of healing.
Fear of death, though, is not good. Avoidance of the fact of death is worse.
From the Katha Upanishad, another Indian text, the teenage male protagonist bravely—and of his own will—asks Yama, the God or personification of Death to be his Guru. There is a lot of symbolism and possible meaning in this act. An obvious meaning is to take Death as our Guru, as our spiritual teacher…to willingly take the fact of Death as a Teacher of the highest order. Amma, my teacher, said a similar thing, that Yama, the God or personification of Death, is the first Guru—is the first Guru. Death already exists, and without it being there, without knowledge of it being there, our life would be a lot different.
With no death, there would be no mystery, no “What happens after death?” questions, or fears—if that is what one practices. With no death, there would be only more and more people, animals, trees, life. There would be no room! There would also be no growth or change since anything changing is a form of something else dying. Without death, we would have essentially an infinite amount of time. It would make sense that we waste as much time as we do, putting off those things that our hearts call us to do or that we know would be good for us. Without death, endless sensual indulgences might make sense, at least more than they do now.
If nothing else will, death can push us out of our comfort zone and force us into new knowledge and understanding. One of my best friends, Faye, who was a Carrboro icon at that time and who once “bragged”—correctly and deservedly—that she had over one hundred close friends, died in 2000. She was a mother of three teenagers at that time, and she was just over 40. I was 35. My wife and I were in the closest circle of all those friends and got to be around her a lot as she was getting close to transitioning. At her funeral, the act of shoveling dirt into the hole as tears gushed down my face was a great meditation and purging process. Her death taught me what I hadn’t been able to learn when I was a 20-year-old engineering student and my 45-year-old mom died from cancer. Faye taught me that some people die young to remind the rest of us who “stay” not to wait, not to postpone what we know we should be doing. Don’t fart around! There are no guarantees. Quit the shit! Do the good that you can now! I couldn’t learn that lesson when my mom died because I (being a young, intellectual, white man) was far too young and too skilled at burying emotional pain,.
Death, ironically, can be a tremendous wake-up call! That’s the role of the Guru, to wake us up to our True Nature. This awakening also involves seeing what I’m doing that is taking me away from that True Nature and cultivating more of the actions that bring me closer to That. In the viewpoint of those who investigate this matter deeply, who we are, at our core—our True Self—doesn’t die.
As Amma, my Teacher, says, just as an actor takes off their costume at the end of the play, at death we take off our “costume”—in this case our body—and continue living in our “new” one. She also says, “Death is not a complete annihilation; it’s just like putting a period at the end of a sentence. The writing continues.” (So all these periods that I’ve typed are all just little “deaths.” No one had any issue with any of those, right? I think that’s worth a short contemplation.)
The prayer at the beginning of this blog now means something. “Lead us from death to immortality,” or as literally translated, “from death to deathlessness.” Others have expounded on it a little. At Yogaville—my favorite Yoga ashram and retreat center in central Virginia—they say it in English as, “Lead us from the fear of death to knowledge of Immortality.” Amrit Desai, one of my earlier Yoga influences, translated it as “Lead me from the time-bound state of consciousness to the timeless state of being that I am.” The “time-bound state of consciousness” is te living in my mind, my thoughts. I might expand it as, “Lead us from the knowledge and experience of only that which dies to knowledge and direct experience of That which doesn’t die.”
The implication—and reminder—of the phrase is that we are living in a world with death all around us… and that’s not the whole picture. Again, nothing would change or move if there weren’t “death,” so maybe “death” really only means “change.” As much as we may resist (some) change, it is inevitable; it’s happening now and it will continue… from our worldly perspective.
The prayer reminds us that our view of dying is only one perspective—one that we have grown very accustomed to, even attached to. But it is one that is actually mistaken, a “momentary” confusion, a perspective that reveals simply a limit to our sensory and cognitive apparatus.
According to some, speaking from their different experience, we’ve associated ourselves only with that which dies. This whole changing world and the small pieces of it that are our little selves are missing a Bigger Vision. The Yogic teachings say that our limited vision is the source of our suffering and is why we (all of us) are searching, in many cases unconsciously, for greater freedom, happiness, Love and Truth.
So, the prayer is also a humbling of ourselves. It comes from an understanding that we don’t know everything and that there is actually something fundamental and very important that we could see, know and experience—something even that we want to see, know and experience. We ultimately don’t know how to get there, since we’re told “It” is right here, right now and we’re just missing it. We need some help—hence the prayer.
Once we have the tools to move toward penetrating the bigger Truth, we just need to apply them and keep going, which is where most of us are now. Let’s keep going, living and dying all the time, being more and more comfortable with the obvious facts, and seeing it all—Life and Death—as clearly as we possibly can each moment. The mortality rate of humans is very high, so we do the good we can, while we can.