What Do We Take With Us?

Ajahn Karuṇadhammo • August 2013

We can take this moment to let the momentum of planning for the morning settle before launching into the day. Watch the mind that’s leaping forward to go and accomplish the tasks, to start the workday, to do what needs to be done. Watch the momentum of becoming—identifying with the various activities we’re about to perform and the roles that we have—the ideas, thoughts, views, opinions, perceptions, conceptions. Watch how we identify with the activities and emotions of the mind.

A couple of days ago I went to visit a woman who was in the process of dying. She probably doesn’t have too much longer to go now. She’s someone who has always wanted to live life fully, being involved and engaged with many different good things. Like most of us, she’s strongly identified with that and does not want to look closely at the dying process or what death means for her. When I saw her, she was at a point where her body was not responding to her wishes to keep it going. She wanted to continue living fully engaged and was trying to find gratification by doing all of the wholesome things she used to do, but her body was going counter to that. It was saying to her, “I’m packing it in” and it was no longer going to be a viable vehicle for living life fully. She is realizing all of this now.

When we have such a strong impulse toward becoming, identifying closely with the body, and then all of a sudden we’re faced with the dying process—the body going in the pposite direction, the direction of non-becoming—then we can experience a very sudden wake-up call. The momentum of the mind toward using the body as a vehicle for identification, for becoming, for gratification is ripped out from underneath us when the dying process begins. What a lesson this can be for all of us.

This is why the Buddha suggested the contemplation of death as a necessary reflection for us. It helps us to uproot that sense of identification and the impulse we have toward becoming what or who we think we are, or what we identify with—our bodies, our activities, or our roles in the monastery. In the ordination process here, when we’re long-term lay residents in the monastery, we look forward to becoming anagārikas. When we’re anagārikas, we look forward to becoming sāmaṇeras. When we’re sāmaṇeras we look forward to becoming bhikkhus. Then, when we’re bhikkhus, we look forward to becoming ajahns. And then . . . we’re almost dead.

What is it that we can take with us? We can’t take any of those identities or roles. We can’t take any of the accomplishments with us nor can we take our failures. We can’t take any of the praise we’ve received for things we’ve done well or the blame we’ve received for things we haven’t done well. Whatever we have gained or lost doesn’t go with us when we die. All of the status we’ve accumulated, all of our particular views about the way things should be run, all of the times we were able to be alone, wanting to escape from being around others, or all of the times we sought the company of others, being surrounded by family and friends—we don’t take any of those with us. They all disappear when we die. All we take with us are the impulses and the tendencies we have toward either skillful states of mind like generosity, morality, and patience or the more unskillful impulses of greed, hatred, and delusion. These tendencies, in as much as we develop them, are taken with us, but we don’t take any of the other things that we generally hold to as so important or permanent.

So throughout the day, what is it that we want to develop? If we’re going to die tonight, what qualities do we want to take with us? Do we want to take the becoming tendencies, the activities, the momentum of tasks, identities and roles, how we think we are, how we want to be seen by other people, or how we present ourselves to the world? Do we want to work on those? Or do we want to work on developing the essential aspects of our practice: service, kindness, skillfulness, wisdom, discernment, patience, or energy? Those are the qualities, the tendencies we can take with us. The choice is up to us. We can choose the skillful tendencies leading us toward seeing this process of becoming, this process of how we identify with the body. And then we can learn how to let it all go. Or we can go in the opposite direction. It all depends on where we focus our attention as we move throughout the day.