(2.38) Thus, through failing to realize
That I shall suddenly die,
I have committed many evils
Out of ignorance, attachment, and anger.
Bill Clinton once famously said when asked what the most important issue was in the presidential campaign, “it’s the economy, stupid!” His point was it is so easy to get distracted by other issues that we lose sight of what was important and mattered. In exactly the same way, when we ask ourselves what the most important issue is in the campaign of our life, we should remind ourselves, “it’s our karma, stupid!” The only thing we take with us into our future lives is our karma. Everything else we leave behind. So while what happens in this life matters (kind of, at least), what really matters is our karma. We should not let ourselves become distracted about our real bottom line.
The fundamental reason we do not think about our karma is we don’t think about the fact that we are going to die – and we don’t know when we will do so. The karmic consequences of our actions seem far off, affecting some abstract future self that we don’t know and we are not really sure we believe in anyways; but our present sufferings and problems seem quite real and immediate. We should remind ourselves that our present self is the future self of our past self. Don’t we wish our past self had enough foresight to not create all sorts of negative karma we are experiencing now? We will wish the same in the future.
Why does our lack of death awareness enable us to commit negative actions? When we think only in terms of this life, we think only in terms of cause and effect that we can see in this life. So we don’t internalize the possibility of the horrific consequences of our negative actions in our decision to engage in them. When we realize we are going to die at any point, we realize that the only thing that goes on are the karmic potentialities we have created for ourself. When we deeply internalize this, we won’t engage in negative actions because we will rightly conclude it is simply not worth it.
(2.39) Remaining still neither day nor night,
This life is continuously slipping away
And never increases in duration;
So why should death not come to one such as me?
It is not enough to have an intellectual understanding of the fact that we are going to die, we need to deeply internalize what this means. Venerable Tharchin says we should live our life from the perspective of not just “I may die today” but “I will die sometime around the end of next week.” Such an outlook radically alters our decision-making calculus for how we spend our time and what sorts of actions we engage in. If we make it to the end of next week and are still alive, then we can feel lucky to be alive (appreciate our precious human life), but then once again think, “I will die sometime around the end of next week.” Week after week, we live our life with this view. At some point we will be right. Until then, we don’t waste a second of our time alive.
We may think we realize we are going to die, but the real test is whether our actions are consistent with this fact or not. Venerable Tharchin also says that the sign we have a realization of Dharma is all of our actions are consistent with that realization and none of our actions are inconsistent with it. In the present case, if we are confronted with some opportunity to engage in negativity, we ask ourselves, “is it worth it for me to engage in this negativity given that I am going to die sometime around the end of next week?” Our prospects for harvesting a worthwhile samsaric reward for our negativity will seem insignificant compared to the karma we are going to create for ourselves.
Different people respond to the prospect of imminent death in different ways. Some people, who think death is the end, reason, “well, if I can die at any point, I might as well enjoy myself as much as possible while I am still around. When I stare death in the face, my answer is ‘time to party!’” But as Buddhists, we view things differently. Geshe-la explains in How to Solve our Human Problems that basic Buddhist view is “future lives are more important than this life.” If we know death is not the end, our reaction to the prospect of imminent death is quite different. We view what little time we have remaining as our opportunity to prepare for the long road ahead. We are about to embark on a journey into a new life in some unknown world, and we don’t want to leave without sufficient karmic provisions.
The only way to bring the intellectual understanding of our death down to our heart is to meditate on this knowledge again and again trying to make it personal. When we get some change in our feeling, we then meditate on that feeling to familiarize ourself with it. This is not an intellectual exercise, but one we need to work on to provoke the correct feeling in our heart.