Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Embracing Being Alone

To help us reduce our attachment to worldly concerns and to increase our wish to withdraw and go on retreat, Shantideva now gives us some verses about death and impermanence to reflect upon. If we reflect on death and impermanence, we can reduce our attachment and we can increase our wish to do retreat.

(8.29) I should withdraw to a burial ground
And meditate on the impermanence of my body
By thinking that it is really no different from a dead body,
For both are decaying moment by moment.

(8.30) It might happen that, when I die,
My body will decay quickly and emit an odour so foul
That not even foxes will want to come near it!
I should happily accept that such things could happen.

In truth, we should consider our body a walking corpse.  For all practical purposes, that is what it is.  We are convinced that we will not die today and we go about our day as if this is the reality of our situation.  But we don’t know.  Today could be our last day.  This may be the last sentence you ever read.  We should live our life as if we could die at any moment, then we will not waste a single second of our precious human life but use each to go for refuge and mix our mind with virtue.

We spend so much of our life trying to please our body.  Think of all of the things we do beyond what is necessary to keep it healthy, sheltered, and alive.  All that extra – completely unnecessary, simply wasted energy and merit.  If we start to view our body as already dead – already a corpse destined for the burial grounds – then we won’t be so preoccupied with it, and we certainly won’t engage in negativity for its sake.

Of course, out of consideration for others, we need to clean it.  We do not have to wait until we die for it to emit a foul odor.  We should likewise take good care to keep it healthy and fit so we have a long life because we need it to practice Dharma and help others.  But it is a tool, nothing more, and we need to reduce the exaggerated importance we place upon it. 

(8.31) If this body, which is one unit,
Will break into separate pieces
Of flesh and bone,
What can be said of my relationships?

(8.32) At birth I was born alone
And at death I shall have to die alone.
Since I cannot share these sufferings with others,
What use are friends who prevent me from practising virtue?

Many people take refuge in their relationships.  During the COVID pandemic, many people were in lockdown for a very long period of time, and this was hell for many people to be cut off from the rest of the world.  It forced hundreds of millions of people to come face to face with their attachment to relationships with other people, and millions fell into terrible depression and sadness. 

Even outside of pandemics, many old people and prisoners and so forth find themselves alone for extended periods of time.  Sarte said hell is other people; but for others hell is being alone.  Due to our attachment to others, we convince ourselves we can’t be happy without companionship or a shoulder to cry on.  When we are unable to change our circumstance, we fall into despair and think nothing can help us.

But the truth is whether we are with others or not makes absolutely no difference to whether we are happy or not.  Our happiness depends upon our inner peace and the state of our mind, not whether there are people around us.  It is perfectly possible to be in a giant crowd, but feel completely alone; or to be completely alone, but feel we are one with all living beings.  The feeling of aloneness fundamentally comes from our self-grasping – we grasp at ourselves as being separate from others.  This is a mistaken conception.  In truth, we are all equally empty and there is no separation between any of us and us and all of the Buddhas. 

But if we have attachment to others, we will suffer throughout life when we need to be alone, and we will suffer terribly at the time of death.  We will feel as if we are being ripped away from everything that sustains us.  When we are temporarily separated from those we love, we feel this great loss and we cry as they board the plane.  Imagine what we will feel at the time of our death when we realize we will never see these people ever again.  Is it any wonder why at the time of our death so many people develop grasping minds?

We need to think about these things now and decide whether it is wise to place our refuge in other people.  How can they help us at the time of our death?  They can’t.  And in truth, it is often our relationships with them that prevent us from fully dedicating our life and time to the practice of Dharma.  When we want to practice Dharma, they want to go do other things, or they come and bother us.

Of course, they are not inherently obstacles to our Dharam practice.  I used to think that, but then my teacher Gen Lekma told me, “your girlfriend (now wife) is not an obstacle to your practice, she is your practice.”  We can learn how to train in virtuous minds of love and how to overcome the many delusions that arise in our mind over the course of our relationship – some attachment, but mostly frustration.  So yes, we can transform our relationships into the path to enlightenment, but others can never be reliable objects of refuge, and frankly, they also make terrible objects of attachment too – never giving us the satisfaction and joy we were hoping for. 

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