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Conquering Death: A Commentary on Buddha's Words 
by Swami Nirmalananda

Fear of death is the most widespread and deep-seated fear within the hearts of the human race. All religions pay a great deal of attention to the subjects of death and immortality. They all claim to have the way to avoid death and enter into immortality. These ways consist of avoiding wrong action and cultivating good action, faith in and worship of their gods, and (in the background always) the matter of material contribution.

Buddha stands in contrast to all this. As any responsible spiritual teacher would do, he places the matter solely upon the individual. First he sets forth the relevant question: "Who shall gain victory over this earth together with the domain of Yama (ruler of the Underworld) with its gods? Who shall find the well-proclaimed Dhammapada (path of truth), even as the expert gardener selects the choicest flower?" (Dhammapada 44)

This world and the next

First off Buddha lets us know that there is no mastery of a future world until we attain mastery in this world. It is the failing of every major religion on the earth to despise this earth in some degree, whether spoken or not. Everyone is so intent on getting beyond this world that they ignore its absolute necessity-and this includes popular Hinduism which is a major offender in this matter. The result, then, is guaranteed return to this world as a slave. "This old world of sin and sorrow" happens to be as much the kingdom of God as the highest spiritual world. It is our ignorance that produces the sin and sorrow, not the world. That is like calling the weapon of a murder "a vicious killer." But we are just that crazy. Buddha points the way to sanity.


The conqueror of both "life" and "death" is he who will seek and find the Path of Dharma, using his intelligent discrimination to distinguish true dharma from the false, "even as the expert gardener selects the choicest flower."

The Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates this verse in the following manner: "Who will penetrate this earth and this realm of death with all its gods? Who will ferret out the well-taught Dhamma-saying, as the skillful flower-arranger the flower?" To "penetrate" something means to know it thoroughly, and by that wisdom to master it. Here, too, we see that to minimally live in this world and minimally deal with it-an ideal also set forth by all religions-is to miss the mark completely. We must comprehend this world. And to do that we must diligently seek-"ferret out"-the way of dharma. Then we must put ourselves in control and order things accordingly, "as the skillful flower-arranger the flower." This is not the picture of some pious nitwit proudly proclaiming his ignorance and declaring his total dependence on God or gods. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna tells Arjuna to take refuge in God, but also he tells him to stand up and fight. The two go together. One without the other is nonsense, producing chaos.  

And the winner is...

Who, then, will conquer? "The disciple will gain victory over the earth and the realm of Yama together with its gods. The true disciple will indeed find the well-proclaimed Dhammapada, even as the expert gardener selects the choicest flower." (Dh. 45)

"Disciple" has a lot of connotations, most of this negative and erroneous as applied in the religions that seek to dominate their adherents. The Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates it "learner-on-the-path" which gives a much better idea than mere "disciple," for most "disciples" are enslaved sheep, praised for their dim-witted acceptance and obedience. Buddha advocates no such any more than he advocates the dominating and commanding teacher. Rather, it is The Path itself that teaches the worthy disciple as he applies what he has learned from a worthy teacher.

Seeing true

"Recognizing this corporeal body to be evanescent as foam, comprehending this worldly nature as a mirage, and having broken the flower-arrows of Mara, the true aspirant will go beyond the realm of the Evil One." (Dh. 45)

What characterizes a learner-on-the-path? Three major traits.

Recognizing this corporeal body to be evanescent as foam. Older people who have not seen through the world envy the young. Naturally, the state of health and the prospect of years ahead in which to attain goals is desirable, but the terrible delusion and illusions of youth far outweigh that. One of the worst blindnesses of youth is the heedlessness of death, the baseless feeling of assured life and well-being in the future. Long ago the sages of India stated that one of the most amazing things about human beings is their inability to grasp their own mortality although they see others dying around them. This of course comes from an intuitional grasp of our innate immortality, but the placient is mistaken. Only the Self is immortal. The incredible fragility of "life" must be grasped by those who would learn on the path, not in a pessimistic manner but in a realism that cannot be clouded by false confidence. Think of all we accomplish when we realize we have little time in which to do it. Awareness of the brevity and fragility of life can be positive if it spurs us on to wisely-directed action.

Comprehending this worldly nature as a mirage. Life is not only fragile, it is insubstantial-even illusory. The right attitude toward the world and its nature, as well as the "earthly" parts of our own being, is absolutely necessary for us, and a simplistic view will not suffice-it will get us into major difficulties.

In India we find two conflicting statients: 1) the world is real; 2) the world is unreal. And so the wrangle goes on, and those of us coming from "outside" are supposed to choose which we think is right. I can help you on this. They are both wrong and they are both right.

In our modern times we have many advantages over the ancient philosophers because a great deal of our modern science and technology actually makes easy the knots they found so hard to loosen and eliminate. One of our most inspired examples is the motion picture. It is real and it is not real. The filmmakers and film students and film historians take motion pictures quite seriously. Yet, what is a motion picture but a series of images that do not move and yet appear to move and speak?

It was motion pictures that revealed the unreal nature of "reality" to me when I was just a child of eight. First I noticed that at the start of the movie I would hear the sound coming from speakers at the side, but in just a few minutes I would "hear" the sound coming from the screen, and not just from the screen but from the characters that were speaking. This was obviously an illusion created by my mind, and it disturbed me somewhat. Next I saw that when spoked wheels (as on a stagecoach) turned rapidly they appeared to stand still and then begin to move backwards. Again, an obvious illusion showing that the senses were not reliable in perceiving reality. The most amazing thing was my discovery that the perception of passing time was completely subjective. One evening I liked a motion picture so much I decided to stay on and watch it a second time. To my bewilderment the picture seemed to take only half the time it had the first time through. Again, it was all in my head-an idea I did not like very much, because everything was then seen as unstable and, as I say, mostly subjective.

By studying our experience of motion pictures (and now television) we can get some idea of the unreality of "reality," understanding that even an illusion is real. Reality is unreal and unreality is real! No ancient sage of India ever demonstrated this as clearly as Edison's Wonder.

Our cooperation/creation of illusion is also shown by motion pictures. We know it is all illusion, yet we react as though we were witnessing something real. We respond with a range of emotions, liking and disliking characters and situations that are nothing but light patterns on a screen. (And how profound is the insight that the relationship between picture and screen perfectly mirrors Purusha and Prakriti, samsara and the atman, matter and consciousness.) Even stranger, no matter how many times we see a movie, we still react to it. Although we know exactly what the outcome will be, we find ourselves involuntarily feeling tense, even anxious, about "what may happen." We laugh as much at a comic situation as we did the first time-maybe even more- and even jump at a no-longer-unexpected development. Why? Because it is the nature of the mind to fool and be fooled. We truly are Dwellers In The Mirage-and voluntarily. So we not only come to realize that the world is ultimately a mirage, so is the mind that perceives it. The capacity of the mind to create a world in dream drives the point even deeper home. A dream is totally unreal and yet is real at the same time.

Having broken the flower-arrows of Mara. Cosmic Delusion hooks us like the gullible fish takes the tasty bait unaware of the horrible steel beneath. If you have ever seen a fish that has not just been hooked in the mouth but has completely swallowed the hook then you have some idea of the consequences of being struck by the flower-arrows of Mara. How we like being hit! Poor fools. As the Gita points out, we live "desiring desires," (Bhagavad Gita 18:24) or, as Swami Prabhavananda put it: "under the whip of lust and the will of the ego." "The man who stirs up his own lusts can never know peace," (Gita 2:70) yet we keep right on. In India they set forth the example of camels that keep chewing on thorns however much their mouths are pierced and bleeding. But "He knows peace who has forgotten desire. He lives without craving: free from ego, free from pride." (Gita 2:71)

Buddha does not speak of someone who has learned to evade the flower-arrows or who has become impervious to thi. Rather he speaks of those who have broken the arrows. That is, he has rendered thi not just ineffectual but, practically speaking, non-existent. He has destroyed thi. For "when a man enters Reality, he leaves his desires behind him." (Gita 2:59) Thus-and only thus-he has gone beyond the realm of Death (Yama). He has gone "where the King of Death cannot see," as Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates it.

"Cravings torment the heart: he renounces cravings....Free from the things of desire,...the bonds of his flesh are broken." (Gita 2:55-57) "When he has no lust, no hatred, a man walks safely among the things of lust and hatred....Sorrow melts into that clear peace: his quiet mind is soon established in peace." (Gita 2:64,65)

Seeking death

This is a happy picture, but truth is both happy and sad. So Buddha shows us another view in conclusion, perhaps because it is the situation of the majority of human beings, and of us if we are not vigilant. No, he is not being "negative" he is being truthful. Worthy teachers do not hesitate to tell us or show us what we may not like, but which must be changed if we would pass from death unto life. Here are his words:

"The hedonist who seeks only the blossoms of sensual delights, who indulges only in such pleasures, him the Evil One carries off, as a flood carries off the inhabitants of a sleeping village." (Dh 47) What a horrible truth! We can be carried off by Death while sleeping and dreaming just the opposite. "It shall even be as when an hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is ipty: or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and, behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and, behold, he is faint, and his soul hath appetite." (Isiaiah 29:8) It is worldly life and not religion that is the opium of the people, though of course worldly religion is part of the poppy field. There is more:

"The hedonist who seeks only the blossoms of sensual delights, whose mind is agitated, him the Evil One (Mara) brings under his sway even before his carnal desires are satiated." (Dhammapada 48) Now this is the truth! Delusion never really comes through or pays off. Oh, yes, just like crooked gamblers, for the first few times the forces of Mara let us "win." Then, when we are addicted, the sorrow sets in. All we really end up with is addiction and the inevitable frustration of that addiction. What an awful trap, and what an awful willingness to be trapped.

Nevertheless, if we hearken to Buddha's wisdom and follow it we shall transcend delusion and death. This is sure.

About the Author

Swami Nirmalananda Giri is the abbot of Atma Jyoti Ashram in Borrego Springs in southern California. He has written extensively on spirituality, especially about yoga and meditation. More of his writings may be found at the Ashram's website,


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