Untimely death

This talk was given during the White Tara Winter Retreat at Sravasti Abbey.

  • Understanding our precious human life is rare and precious
  • Death is certain and the time of death is uncertain
  • The importance of purification practice

White Tara Retreat 15: Untimely death (download)

We are heading into the end of our first month of the three-month Tara retreat and today we are having billions and trillions of limitless White Taras falling on our heads [it’s snowing outside] and dissolving until we are fully connected. I have been thinking about what I would like to share with you about the sadhana.

Death and impermanence

In the past few days I have been thinking about White Tara and she has been telling me to think about death and impermanence. We have a lot of really beautiful sadhanas on different Buddhas, and this is the only one that really asks us to think about untimely death, and what can happen to us, and how we can not have the lifespan that we wish and that we want.

For those of us who have gone into precious human rebirth it makes this life even more rare and even more precious. The past few days I have been thinking about White Tara; what is it that she is trying to guide me and inspire me to do? I have gone back and revisited the lamrim meditation on death and impermanence. I do not know about the rest of you folks, but I generally have an intellectual understanding that death is certain: I can go there in my head. Now that I am going to be 56 years old, which I cannot even imagine how I got here—death is on the horizon somewhere in the distant future but it is getting a little bit closer.

Uncertainty of time of death

There is a second point in the lamrim meditation that the time of death is uncertain. That is the one that I have been thinking about because this whole idea in the practice is that we are trying to purify the negative karma and the disturbing attitudes and the causes of disease, interferences, and the dangers of untimely death. So here we are. We have garnered this beautiful precious human rebirth and due to some ethical discipline and protecting life, some of us have lived to be at least 55 or 56 years old and hopefully we will live a long, long time. But somewhere in our mindstream, at least this is the way I have been thinking about this the past few days to really deepen my understanding on the lamrim meditations, is that somewhere since beginningless time I have created the causes for an untimely death. It’s out there somewhere. I have no idea, because I am not a Buddha, but it’s out there.

The way that I think about it is that that would come upon me because at some time or many times at one of my countless lifetimes I have harmed another sentient being with the mind of rejoicing. I have taken delight in either torturing them, maiming them, beating them, killing them, cutting them into little pieces and being glad that I did it.

I garnered this beautiful precious human rebirth of which so far the lifespan is going along; perhaps through a lot of ethical discipline I have cultivated a long life and in the background somewhere is this negative karma that may one day, we see it all the time, that people just go out into their life and their life is severed. Whether they’re 15 years old or 75 years old, there are things in this world that can be the cause of untimely death due to this negative karma that ripens.

People die at all ages

The second point of the nine point death meditation is that the time of death is uncertain. There is no certainty. People die at all ages. That we have an understanding of, at least on an intellectual level I do. Then the lamrim continues: there are more chances of dying and less of remaining alive. During the course of our day we put a lot of energy in keeping ourselves warm, keeping ourselves sheltered, keeping ourselves fed, and that keeping this body alive on a daily basis takes a lot of energy.

Over the years I have read many times of people, in their efforts to clothe and feed and shelter themselves, have come upon an untimely death; whether they choked on a piece of food, or they have fallen off the roof of the home where they were replacing the shingle, or they have gone outside and underestimated the weather conditions and died of hypothermia. Here they are, just basically taking care of their physical needs and this negative karma, who knows what cooperative conditions have ripened, and severed their lives.

So this life, despite how precious it is, is extremely fragile. We have, during this degenerative time, all sorts of diseases. We have sharp objects, we’ve got thorns, we’ve got viruses, we’ve got bacteria, we’ve got icy roads, we’ve got horses that lose their footing and fall down on top of people.

Importance of purification

What Tara is telling me in this sadhana is, “Semkye, you have garnered a precious life. Purify as deeply and sincerely as you can.” This is the part of the practice where the beautiful light and nectar is just pouring down from the Tam at her heart, just pouring down to purify all the causes and conditions that could bring disease which makes it difficult enough to practice. Illness: I don’t know about you folks, but when I’m sick and I’m not feeling well, my mind is so hard to focus on Dharma, to use it and to take it onto the path, I’m too spaced out. I’m too worried about my health, my future, much less having something unsuspected come into our life that will end our life quickly.

It’s sort of like we’re these little vehicles in samsara riding along. We have these gas tanks filled with life force or life energy but the gas gauge is broken. That’s hard enough to digest, but then somewhere along the line something is going to sever the gas and we don’t know when that’s going to happen. Or what causes and conditions we have created, that we are holding in our mindstream to have that happen.

This is a sadhana practice that specifically helps us to purify, or at least to dispel or to lessen the karmic imprints, that could bring huge obstacles to having a long, happy human life so that we can continue to practice the Dharma. Also, to continue to create the causes and conditions to have another precious human rebirth, and another, and another, and another.

White Tara is giving me the opportunity to look and see my complacency about death. The fact that I think because I am in good health and I live at the Abbey, I am somehow protected from my own negative karma. That’s simply not true. This practice and this meditation on death and impermanence, and the fact that I don’t want the causes and conditions of an untimely death to sever this precious life—because I met the Dharma fairly late in my life and I have some catching up to do—and I don’t want it to be severed if at all possible. I want to practice the Dharma until I’m an old, old nun.

So I have used the White Tara practice to bring me back into the mindfulness of how precious this life is and that I have to purify whatever causes and conditions could be in my mind to create a short life or life that is filled with a lot of obstacles.

May White Tara give you, help you, inspire you along the path.

Venerable Thubten Semkye

Ven. Semkye was the Abbey's first lay resident, coming to help Venerable Chodron with the gardens and land management in the spring of 2004. She became the Abbey's third nun in 2007 and received bhikshuni ordination in Taiwan in 2010. She met Venerable Chodron at the Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle in 1996. She took refuge in 1999. When the land was acquired for the Abbey in 2003, Ven. Semye coordinated volunteers for the initial move-in and early remodeling. A founder of Friends of Sravasti Abbey, she accepted the position of chairperson to provide the Four Requisites for the monastic community. Realizing that was a difficult task to do from 350 miles away, she moved to the Abbey in spring of 2004. Although she didn't originally see ordination in her future, after the 2006 Chenrezig retreat when she spent half of her meditation time reflecting on death and impermanence, Ven. Semkye realized that ordaining would be the wisest, most compassionate use of her life. View pictures of her ordination. Ven. Semkye draws on her extensive experience in landscaping and horticulture to manage the Abbey's forests and gardens. She oversees "Offering Volunteer Service Weekends" during which volunteers help with construction, gardening, and forest stewardship.