On a Mountain of Bones

“This world is unstable, it is swept away… this world has no shelter and no protector.”

Raṭṭhapāla Sutta MN 82

melancholy painting of person with head on fire

Abnormally Normal

There’s a pandemic going on. Currently, 165,257 people have died of covid-19, unconfirmed figures are thought to be much higher and many more will die yet. We stand on a mountain of bones. But yet, life goes on. We are self-isolating, sheltering in place, being socially distant. Maybe we feel a bit listless and lonely, rattling around our suburban houses, with nothing much to do. The dangers seem so far away, remaining unseen, a theoretical threat, a mere inconvenience. It’s easy to forget what the grim reality is like in the hospitals where this humanitarian disaster is playing out, over and over and over again. But if we allow ourselves, it doesn’t take much to imagine a different scenario to the one we are currently experiencing in the comfort of our home. Real loneliness is dying all alone, without friends or family, in the ICU ward of a hospital. Or the loneliness of losing your partner and not being able to hold a funeral for them, or be held by loved ones as you grieve. Then there’s the loneliness of the health care workers; people will never understand the terrible, sad things they have experienced. And the loneliness of the grave diggers, who know all too well that this is how we will all end up, eventually. Who can protect us? Deep down we know the truth: There is no shelter, or protector…

We hope that face masks and hand-washing will safeguard us from infection. But no amount of Personal Protective Equipment can keep us free of illnesses forever. It is our nature to get sick. This is what happens to bodies. In the Raṭṭhapāla Sutta, we meet the elderly but powerful King Koravya who is conversing with the determined young monk Raṭṭhapāla. The king mistakenly believes that his royal army of elephants, cavalry, chariots, and infantry will protect him, but Ven Raṭṭhapāla points out the king’s vulnerablity is similar to a chronic illness, we alone must endure it. No-one can save us from getting sick.

[Raṭṭhapāla] “What do you think, great king? Can you get your friends and colleagues, relatives and family members to help: ‘Please, my dear friends and colleagues, relatives and family members, all of you here share my pain so that I may feel less pain.’ Or must you alone feel that pain?”

[King Koravya] “I can’t get my friends to share my pain. Rather, I alone must feel it.”

[Raṭṭhapāla] “This is what the Buddha was referring to when he said: ‘The world has no shelter and no protector.”
Raṭṭhapāla Sutta MN 82

Protective gear, social distancing, not shaking hands; all this has become normal now. But things are not normal and that’s okay. Isn’t it? We are doing our best to maintain our sense of normalcy. Everything can happen online! We can stay in touch. We will stay home and barely notice, it will be like a long weekend. We shall carry on, we shall adapt and we shall triumph! The human spirit will not be cowed by the Corona!!

Yet, looking at this kind of response—desperately pretending that everythings fine, making it feel ‘normal’, telling ourselves that it’s just a little bit different—maybe this reveals a big part of us that is not actually okay with situation un-normal, afterall. Nothing to see here! Sure, we can try to institute a sense of ordinariness amongst the uncertainty and keep up our familiar activities; we can work from home, move all our activities online, have zoom catch-ups with family, sing along in virtual choirs and watch theatre from our bedrooms. But in trying to recreate a sense of normalcy, perhaps we are missing an opportunity for some spiritual growth?

Afterall, is it really true that things are not normal? It does feel a bit unusual out there. People with face-masks crossing the road to avoid you on near-empty streets… Yes, something has certainly shifted. But what? Well… Maybe it’s that disease and death have recently stopped lurking in the shadowy corners of our minds and are now walking through our cities, stomping about in plain sight for all to see. We think this is not normal. But, actually, it is. What is ‘not normal’—the thing that has really changed— is that we have been suddenly compelled to take notice, forced to watch; the veil that usually covers the difficult truths of our human fragility has slipped, and suddenly we feel vulnerable and exposed. The human instinct is to hastily pull that veil back-up again, and mask the distressing truths. But maybe we shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry; if we allow ourselves to glimpse these realities but all too quickly turn away, then we will deny ourselves a meaningful opportunity to learn something very profound about ourselves and what it means to be human. The desire to create normality and strive for business as usual is just like a fragile facade, doomed to collapse. Yet, here we are, convincing ourselves that if we can just adapt as swiftly as possible to embrace some different formats for all our activities, then the bogeyman won’t become real enough to truly catch us, and we can carry on with delirious determination to fill up our lives once again with more of our usual distractions, and safe and untouched front the horrors of the pandemic. In truth,this is just all just smoke and mirrors; a tawdry, deceptive show. And deep down we know it. In order to maintain the illusion, we must collectively whisper to ourselves: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

Still image from Wizard of Oz movie with quote "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

Discomforting Truths

After a talk I gave a little while ago about old age sickness and death—a frequent theme in the teachings of the Buddha—a lifelong Buddhist told me that he didn’t think people really wanted to hear about these sorts of things.It would be much better if I only gave talks on relaxation and happiness. Fingers in our ears, eyes firmly shut, perhaps if we don’t see or hear it, maybe it won’t exist? We forget. We cocoon ourselves in the soft cotton-wool of denial, and distract ourselves with the agitated busy-ness of life. We push down that disquieting feeling of unease and create a fantasy world of fun and frivolity—obsessed by youth, health, and vitality. We believe we’ve escaped from the truth of our uncertain fates. Subconsciously, we remain perturbed by the possibilities. No-one likes to hear about the precariousness of our lives. Mention it and see people wince and shrink away. But when we will be ready for such truths, if not now?

The truth is, things are always uncertain. The only real certainty is that there is always old age sickness and death. It’s easy to lose perspective of this fact. Our culture keeps death from us as much as possible but from time-to-time, death turns up, like an unexpected guest, or a stranger. However, death has always been with us. This is why we must make a friend of death and learn to be comfortable in its presence. Otherwise, whenever we glimpse the precariousness that underpins our existence, we shall only see death as a monster, something unnatural, unwanted and horrid, when in actual fact, it is the very essence of our reality. Death is entirely natural and maybe, in some ways, even beautiful.

The answer to the problem of fearing death, the Buddha said, is to go beyond death all together, and birth too; to escape from the endless cycle of suffering in saṃsara. As the cemeteries fill up and the mass graves get dug, it seems legitimate enough to be concerned about catching covid-19. After all, we are not a Buddha, and for us it’s still natural to fear death. But from the perspective of the Buddha, we haven’t quite grasped the scale of the problem of our suffering in saṃsara:

One person roaming and transmigrating for an eon would amass a heap of bones the size of this Mount Vepulla, if they were gathered together and not lost… Why is that? Transmigration has no known beginning. No first point is found of sentient beings roaming and transmigrating, hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving. For such a long time you have undergone suffering, agony, and disaster, swelling the cemeteries. This is quite enough for you to become disillusioned, dispassionate, and freed regarding all conditions.
Puggala Sutta SN 15.10

Dhamma as Medicine

The Buddha likened himself to a doctor, offering Dhamma as medicine. However, this medicine is powerful. It can be used not merely to just treat the symptoms we are experiencing, but also to look to the causes and treat those, too. Casting an eye over the spiritual offerings online during the covis-19 pandemic, many are geared at dealing with the symptoms of our new-found uncertainty but not delving too deeply into the causes, not tackling the root of the problem. There are plentiful online teachings helping us relax, soothing voices to calm us down, allowing us to feel okay with what’s going on, to catch a few deep breaths, so that we can keep going. It’s true that many people are feeling anxious, uncertain and overwhelmed at the moment. Many have lost their loved ones, others have lost their jobs, or face financial insecurity. We are all isolated and deprived of the people and pleasures that usually make our life enjoyable, or at least bearable. So, treating these symptoms is important and actually, essential. But although we must treat the symptoms, we mustn’t neglect the causes. Otherwise, we won’t have the peace and stillness we need to look deeper into our malaise; we won’t have the steadiness required to see the true nature of things, or the equanimity to not turn away. This means we need to get to the crux of what keeps us locked in the cycle of old age, sickness and death. According to the Buddha: ‘we are hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.’ So at this time of international crisis, with the horrors of the pandemic causing the veil of ignorance to slip a little, we cannot just ignore the root problems of saṃsara and paper over the cracks to keep pretending they are not there.

Also, we should be cautious about using the powerful medicine of the Buddha’s teachings in the same way we use other activities and entertainments; merely to fill in the time and lessen the boredom of being stuck at home; casually flicking through Dhamma books but not actually reading, just skimming, not absorbing. Or, putting dhamma talk on in the background whilst cleaning the house, filling the air with the voice of another to distract us from their thoughts, or disguise the feeling of loneliness. Or, using meditation as a numbing spiritual balm, to just block everything out, to soothe and placate our feelings of unease or distress, to tune out, rather than tune in to what is really going on.

Cartoon by Ellis Rosen of child looking into abyss in living room, mother says 'it's just the abyss dear, try not to gaze into it'

Dreading Death

The truth the Buddha taught is that things are always falling apart. If we look hard enough we can always see this somewhere, and usually in much worse ways than we currently have to deal with. There’s constantly wars, famines, natural disasters and emergencies happening somewhere in the world, our world. But things are also always falling apart in our life, too. We are shattered by disappointments, thrown about by emotions. Our hearts get broken. Our body parts, too—we get sick, coughing and spluttering, ejecting vile substances like mucus and phlegm. Our hair turns grey and falls out, our skin gets wrinkled and thin. Soon, we’ll all be dead. That discomfort we have been feeling, that unease; that’s our fear of dying, our dread of death.

Our contemporary culture tries hard to disguise things like old age sickness and death; keeping us looking young with creams and cosmetic surgery, pumping us full of vitamins and antibiotics, hiding the aged away in nursing homes, and keeping corpses cold and concealed in coffins. It’s easy to forget the truth; we will all experience old age sickness and death. Even at the time of the Buddha it was difficult for people to stay mindful of these truths. The Buddha recognised this tendency is a barrier to our spiritual development, keeping us mired in delusion and ignorance. So, when these things become apparent to us, we should not turn away but instead look at them directly, see them very clearly, and most of all, understand what it means for us. This is a glimpse of the true nature of our existence. Once seen, it cannot be forgotten. The question is; what to do about it? In the midst of uncertainty we have an opportunity to ask ourselves, really ask, deeply ask: How am I living my life?

This deep reflection on our life’s meaning is why the Buddha praised the practice of maraṇassati, mindfulness of death:

And how is mindfulness of death developed and cultivated to be very fruitful and beneficial, to culminate in the deathless and end with the deathless? As day passes by and night draws close, a mendicant reflects: ‘I might die of many causes. A snake might bite me, or a scorpion or centipede might sting me. And if I died from that it would be an obstacle to me. Or I might stumble off a cliff, or get food poisoning, or suffer a disturbance of bile, phlegm, or piercing winds. Or I might be attacked by humans or non-humans. And if I died from that it would be an obstacle to me.’
That mendicant should reflect: ‘Are there any bad, unskillful qualities that I haven’t given up, which might be an obstacle to me if I die tonight?’ Suppose that, upon checking, a mendicant knows that there are such bad, unskillful qualities. Then in order to give them up they should apply outstanding enthusiasm, effort, zeal, vigor, perseverance, mindfulness, and situational awareness.

Dutiyamaraṇassati Sutta AN 8.74

Head on Fire

Our human body is very fragile.There are countless ways to die. There is always danger, there is always uncertainty, and there is always death right here alongside us. Reflecting in this way produces insights that are powerful motivators to practice the spiritual path. It is this path that will treat both the symptoms of our current predicaments and also treat the deeper causes of our suffering. The Buddha’s medicine of Dhamma will always support us, both in good times and bad. But we shouldn’t hesitate to take this medicine or wait to see if things improve. The future is uncertain. The time to practice is now! The Buddha uses one of the most memorable images in the suttas to exhort us to practice urgently, before it’s too late:

Suppose your clothes or head were on fire. In order to extinguish it, you’d apply intense enthusiasm, effort, zeal, vigor, perseverance, mindfulness, and situational awareness. In the same way, in order to give up those bad, unskillful qualities, that mendicant should apply outstanding enthusiasm…
Dutiyamaraṇassati Sutta AN 8.74

Behind us lies a mountain of bones. In front of us, an unknown future. There will be more pandemics, more wars, more natural and man-made disasters, the climate crisis still looming over us, and death—as ever—is right here by our side. There is no shelter or protector. Like fruit falls from the tree, we will all experience old age, sickness and death. The question remains: how have we lived our life?