On my 28th birthday, many years ago, a simple card arrived from my guru. He wished me well and reminded me to contemplate Yama. The previous year, he had given a talk about Yama, one of the Tibetan wrathful deities of death. Our teacher mentioned that one’s birthday is one of the best times to contemplate one’s own demise.
On ones birthday, there may be friends, happiness, and perhaps cake and presents. It’s easy and socially expected to feel happiness and calm. He reminded us of a pithy saying, “When you are well-fed and basking in sunshine, you look like a practitioner. When faced with a dire crisis, you reveal your true nature.”
Twice, I’ve needed no prompting on a birthday to contemplate death and impermanence. Twice, a funeral took place on one of my birthdays. The first was that of a close friend and the other was that of my step-mom, Tippy. It’s somewhat awkward for people to wish you a happy birthday at the funeral luncheon of a loved one. However, it’s not a bad thing. Sharing the funeral celebration of a loved one and your own birthday is really quite special. In a way, the coincidence cements the relationship in a deep way.
When we forget or deny death, as is common in the West, our behavior at times of crisis is less skillful. We can become excessively attached, jealous, or angry, depending on the situation. Extreme awareness of death in situations like the battlefield or natural disaster is conducive to life-affirming actions, and acts of heroism.
When we deny our own demise, we have the mundane aspects of life at the center of our concerns. If one is obsessed with status, fame, wealth, and our own happiness there is little concern for what is really important in life. We have learned to think about how to find a fancy place to live, nice clothing, and fine food. Modern society tells us these are the high marks of capable, skillful individuals and that we should aspire to have these things, above all other concerns.
It is on our birthdays that we are encouraged most to deny our own deaths. There are cards, maybe parties, cake, and laughter. These things are quite nice and should be encouraged. We should also privately ponder the reality of our own impermanence.
Whether you visualize the Deity of Yama or not, contemplation of our demise reminds us of our own and everyone else’s mortality. To quote Dilgo Khynentse Rinpoche, “This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by like a torrent down a steep mountain.”
To contemplate Yama or death should not mean we are to torment ourselves or become morbidly infatuated with such concepts or become gloomy and depressed. The idea is to understand that death need not be an enemy, death is always at our sides to act as our ally.
The Wrathful Deities, like Yama, are thought of as defenders of ones inner goodness. Traditionally, the Wrathful Ones wage war against the enemies of Buddhism. Hinduism also recognizes Yama in a somewhat similar manner. The utilization of Wrathful Deities came about with the intersection of Bon (the ancient, indigeneous Tibetan religion) and Hinduism with Buddhism. (The study of this combination of theism and non-deism is fascinating and time consuming in and of itself.)
We must not take the contemplation of our own demise too far. We certainly do not want to cultivate a morbid desire for it to occur or become suicidal. Just as there is the common desire for life’s pleasures, there is the craving for death to extinguish our sufferings. The idea of contemplating death is not to become involved in some sort of occult or spiritualistic cult or practice; it is to enhance our appreciation for the preciousness of this short life.
Ultimately, we step out of our self-centered mind towards a more altruistic, joyful realization that all human life is boundlessly precious. The healthy contemplation of our death can transform our belief in powerlessness into awareness of our positive potential. We no longer want to put off our dreams of tomorrow. We want to realize our dreams in the here and now.
Smile at death, but do not laugh at death. This is one way we can be mindful of the fear of death and discover a wholesome, joyful life.