By Yang Miang
In a short span of about a month, three weddings and three funerals took place among my relatives and friends. Weddings are happy occasions. The couples are embarking on their life journeys together, and in Singapore, most married couples want to have children, so it is the prelude to a new life.
In contrast, funerals are sad occasions. Friends and relatives are there to bid their final farewell to their loved ones and to offer their condolences to the families of those who passed away. Of the three funerals that happened recently, two were for elderlies and one was for a friend who was in his forties. To me, it was particularly devastating to see a younger person passing away, especially when he has three young children.
These recent events got me thinking. Although funerals and weddings among my relatives and friends seem frequent recently, it is nothing compared to the global number of births and deaths per day. Based on a 2011 estimates, there are 250 births and 105 deaths per minute. As highlighted by the humourist Emily Levine (who passed away on February 3, 2019) in her Tedtalk, life is “a cycle of generation, degeneration, regeneration.” This is a natural cycle. It is impossible to resist death, because life and death are different sides of the same coin.
The wisdom that Emily showed is refreshing, but not new. The Buddha had expounded this truth more than 2,000 years ago. The Buddha taught that everything goes through four stages of “成，住，坏，空”, which are roughly translated as “formation, continuance, degeneration, and cessation”. This natural cycle happens to everything, including the stars in the universe, our earth, the mountains, the buildings we live in, and… all of us. The more we get attached to things and people, and the more we resist this natural cycle, the more suffering we will experience at some point in life. In short, all of us have to deal with impermanence (无常), i.e.nothing stays on forever and the only question is “when will death occur?”
I don’t think Buddha wants us to escape suffering by avoiding all relationships and possessions. If that is the case, we cannot get married, cannot make friends,and we should isolate ourselves from the world and become hermits. I believe the crux of the teaching is that we should cultivate the ability to be aware of our mind constantly and not be controlled by its tendency to cling onto things and people. When it is time to let go, we should let go. In this way, we would have achieved liberation and will no longer suffer because of the natural cycle of life and death.
True liberation comes from the ability to be serene with events in life, yet caring for the needs of others and fulfilling our duties. To achieve liberation, we have to first accept the Truths expounded by Buddha, who is essentially an enlightened individual who fully comprehends the workings of nature and is truly liberated. However, like what a good friend says when I tried to share Buddha’s teachings with him, all these are “just theory”. Thus, after accepting the teachings, we have to do our best to put the teachings into practice every single moment in life.
The practice requires us to maintain pure awareness of our mind. Each arising of thought is like a new life, and each cessation of thought is like death. Many-a-times we cling onto a thought, creating a series of new thoughts after that, and the thinking machine seems to take on a life of its own and we are taken on rides with it unknowingly. At times, this thinking machine is positive because it helps us solve problems, get things done, and if the thoughts are happy thoughts, we feel happy. Other times (such as at the point of the death of a loved one), it can be horrible to have the thinking machine churning on inaction, because it can generate extremely negative emotions, for instance tremendous sadness, anger, hatred and resentment.
Similarly, the thinking machine will cause us to suffer immensely when we face our own death, because we will cling onto life even when our body can no longer function. Thus, Buddhistcultivation not only helps us to face the death of others, but also our own death.
If we continue to practise being with our pure awareness, at some stage, we will attain the ability to just be aware of our thoughts, and have the choice to only entertain positive thoughts, or thoughts that are useful for the situation that we are in. This is the key to living well in a world governed by the inevitable cycle of life and death. When there’s life, treasure it and make full use of it positively. When there’s death, acknowledge it, but do our best to let go and accept it as soon as we can. For most people, it is not possible to achieve liberation instantly, but it is worthwhile to work towards it, because it affects our bliss and the happiness of people around us.
I have had my wedding, two baby showers for my kids, and I have no idea when my funeral will come. Meanwhile, I am making full use of my life to help spread the positive messages expounded by the Buddha. Concurrently, I am preparing for my eventual death, by constantly learning to let go of negative and needless thoughts.