I remember many years ago attending a talk given by a Buddhist monk back when I lived in the United States. Something he said has stayed with me to this day, and I am confident always will remain with me until I die. It was something obvious, something we all know, but I suppose the context drove home a crucial message. The monk did work in prisons… work with death-row inmates. People who were sentenced to die for the crimes they committed. There was no going back, they knew they would be killed and their time was limited. The monk talked about how some of these prisoners had realized greater freedom than the mass majority of people who are living ‘free’. Then he said the sentence that grabbed my head and has never let go… He said ‘We are all on death-row’
Now, of course, we all know that we will all die, someday. But, at least for me, it was always some abstract thing to occur in the incalculable future..
We will all die, we are truly all already on death-row.
Yet… how liberating.
How would you act towards yourself today if you knew you were to die tomorrow? How would you act towards other people?
In one sense, knowing we will die can free us from the fear of the consequences of our actions… both good and bad… we can become fearless.
In another sense however, knowing we will die can bind us with crippling fear of the upcoming death we know awaits us.
We are all on death-row… how will we make the time we have left in the prison we have put ourselves in?
In Buddhism, there is a Way, a path, in which we can escape our prison before we die.. so that when we do die, we die free. … like some of those inmates in the electric chair.
In a flash of clarity, a path is illuminated before us. We treasure that experience and hold this direction, this image, this path close to our hearts and follow it with deep faith. The faith is unshakable as the clarity, this vision, was not shown to us by another, not read in a book or explained during a speech. We experienced it ourselves directly so there is no doubt.
Years pass and while this path may have proven itself well time after time, the clarity of our memory may fade. Even if the clarity doesn’t fade, as we progress down the path, we only were shown part of the path… eventually we reach the end of our vision. Where do we go from there?
This may happen without us realizing it and we blindly forge ahead, but now with a false confidence, a blind faith, and when we stumble, we might not learn from it but instead think it’s just a rough part of the path. We may defend our path and get angry and disillusioned and then despair appears.
The Buddha dying words were to be a lamp unto ourselves. But what do we do if we can’t remember how to turn on our flashlight? Imagine you are in the forest with steep cliffs all around. It is pitch black during the dead of night. Do you blindly forge ahead? Sometimes it is not wise to try to forge ahead, but remain calm, steady and unmoving. Eventually, like as in the forest, the sun will rise and show us the way home. Sometimes while we wait for the sunrise, we realize our eyes have adjusted to the dark and we see the path, oh so faintly but that’s all we need, and we can make slow progress.
In the end, there is no path, no progress, we are already home but it is sometimes useful to trick our minds into turning back on our flashlights.