Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  When death comes, we’ll be ready

(5.66) It is suitable to protect it and care for it
Only for attaining spiritual goals –
This body of a human being
Should be used just for practising Dharma.

(5.67) But if you guard it for other purposes,
What will you be able to do
When the merciless Lord of Death seizes it
And reduces it to a pile of ashes?

Shantideva does not hedge his words here – he is saying the only thing this human body should be used for is practicing Dharma.  Any other use for it is, in effect, a misuse.  Are we comfortable with that?  Doesn’t that seem a bit extreme?  How can we understand this?  What does this mean in practice?

No, we are not comfortable with that.  When we think about all of the things we do with our body, it is clear many of them are not practicing Dharma.  Words like this make us feel guilty, like we are doing something wrong, anytime we do anything other than practice Dharma.  This definitely seems extreme to us.  Geshe-la says in Transform Your Life that we need to avoid the extreme of materialism but also avoid the extreme of spirituality.  We need balance.  Here Shantideva is saying the only thing we can do with our body is use it to practice Dharma.  Since we currently use our body in many other ways, does this mean we need to cease all other uses of it?  If we do that, how will we eat, survive and function in this world?  Who can just meditate, attend teachings and work for the center 24/7?  Who will take care of our kids?  Who will pay the mortgage?  Is Shantideva even right about this one?

Yes, Shantideva is right.  The question is why?  We live in a meat-grinder.  Samsara is nothing other than a slaughter house in which all within are perpetually resurrected only to be slaughtered again.  It wouldn’t be so bad if while we were alive we were happy and only occasionally had to experience death.  But how much happiness do we really have?  We are born screaming, go through the unique hell that is middle school, struggle through college, then we can’t find a good job for many years (if ever).  Getting married is nice, until the real work starts the next day learning how to live with somebody.  Often it ends in divorce and tears.  If we had kids we then confront their endless irrationality, late nights, teenage rebellion, worried nights, finding the money to pay for college, only to be taken for granted and constantly criticized for everything we didn’t do right.  We never quite get our relationship right with our parents throughout life, and then they die and it is too late to fix.  We are eventually pushed aside at work by younger people who view us as dinosaurs.  We then discover we didn’t save enough money for retirement, and all that we hoped to do when we are finally free from working is out of reach.  We remain trapped at home, often finding ourselves alone and abandoned while the world passes us by oblivious to our sorrows.  At some point, sometimes much sooner than we expect, we start losing capacity to use our body and mind, develop increasingly severe sicknesses until eventually one of them becomes terminal.  We then face the horror of realizing we have wasted our precious spiritual opportunity on meaningless pursuits only to face death empty handed.  Alone, scared, weak in both body and mind we eventually have our body ripped away from us, often in pain and gasping for air.  And that is just when we are born human.  Our real home is life in the lower realms.  In a condition such as this, what point is there in remaining in samsara.  The only thing there is to do is get out!  Only Dharma practice can save us.

All of our concerns about how it is possible to only use our body for Dharma practice fall away if we are clear what it means to practice Dharma.  Dharma has one purpose:  to gain control of our mind.  Delusions make our mind uncontrolled.  Wisdom and virtue make it controlled.  All of the sufferings of life described above kick up their own set of delusions.  Working through those delusions with Dharma wisdom and virtue is practicing Dharma.  Life will still happen one way or the other, but if we view life uniquely through the lens of taming delusions and cultivating virtue, then there is not a single moment we cannot practice Dharma.  Of course we also need to go to teachings, festivals, meditate, etc., but these are just particular forms of practicing Dharma.  Most of our Dharma practice is all the rest.  Since all situations are equally empty, all situations are equally perfect for practicing Dharma.  We still do all that we need to do, we just do it with a different goal in mind.

Practically speaking, what should we do?  We all, more or less, have a daily routine.  Sit down with a piece of paper and write down in one column the different things you do in a day with your body.  Yes, you can even include the different things you do at night with your body.  Then, in the second column write down what practice you will do with your mind while you are doing that thing with your body.  Taking a shower – purification.  Eating – making offerings.  Walking – reciting mantras.  Working – serving others.  Taking care of your kids – training in patience.  Having sex – training in selfless love.  Sleeping – practicing dying.  Or any other practices that work for you.  Then, every day as you go about your daily routine, make a point of engaging in the same practices at the same times. 

In the beginning, this will be hard and will take some concerted effort.  But eventually, it will become routine and effortless.  The shower goes on, the Vajrasattva mantras just start being recited in your mind.  Once you have your daily routine firmly anchored in your practice of Dharma, you will then have the mental space to start doing it in the non-routine moments as well.  When life throws you curve balls or smacks you down with major problems, that’s when we really start practicing because that is when the delusions really start arising.  Conflict with your loved ones – check.  Financial difficulties – check.  Facing unwanted change – check.  Losing loved ones – check.  Yes, it is one struggle after another – but we do work through them with the Dharma we have learned.  If we live our life in this way, it will be our habit.  When death comes, we will be ready.

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