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Death and the Deathless #1

Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp because dawn
has come.

--Rabindranath Tagore

To ask whether there will be everlasting life or whether this mind or this self will remain, disregards everything else that you already are. The question of death can be asked only from the contracted state; it has no meaning from the whole.

--Steven Harrison

If people tried to convince you that the shapes in a cloud are a stable world, with beings and things, you would say it isn’t true, because those shapes are obviously fleeting. There is no form there. It only appears to be there. I’m pointing out that it’s the same with all of existence.

--Darryl Bailey

Impermanence (the relative) is total, complete, thoroughgoing, Absolute. It’s not that the universe is made up of innumerable objects in flux. There’s only flux. Nothing is (or can be) riding along in the flux, like a cork in a stream; nothing actually arises or passes away. There’s only stream.

--Steve Hagen

A drop of water when it evaporates has become infinite. There is no death for anything, everything finishes to become infinite…..The idea of rebirth is a concept, because for something to be reborn something has to die. What is dead? Nothing is dead. Who is there to be reborn? No one was born.

--Nisargadatta Maharaj

The question of what will happen to me when I die is indeed as misconceived as the question of what happens to my lap when I stand up or to my fist when I open my hand.

--Ramesh Balsekar

The body exists, or seems to, because you believe in death. Body and death are part of the same illusion.

--Eckhart Tolle

Reincarnation is a fantasy. Existence has never had a form that could be repeated. It's forever unformed. The shifting of galaxies on the far side of the universe is the same shifting event of our bodies and minds. This happening has never become anything in particular; it's only shift and flux. There's no thing becoming some other thing; there's one great unformed presence remaining unformed.

--Darryl Bailey

If nothing is permanent, what can be impermanent, both, or neither?


You can live every moment of every day deeply, in touch with the wonders of life. Then you will learn to live, and, at the same time, learn to die. A person who does not know how to die does not know how to live, and visa versa. You should learn to die -- to die immediately.

--Thich Nhat Hanh

I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I've been knocking from the inside.


Worrying about death is like worrying about what will happen to us if we fall off the edge of the flat earth. The problem is imaginary. What dies? What is born?  

We might say, my baby Bobby is born. But what is Bobby? This baby we call Bobby emerged out of other life forms and is utterly dependent on air, food, water and relationships with other beings in order to survive and prosper. The ever-changing appearance we call Bobby is never found outside of consciousness or present experiencing (even memories of him and sightings of his baby pictures can only show up here-now in conscious experiencing), and my Bobby is not exactly the same as your Bobby. In fact, my Bobby isn't the same from one moment to the next. Sometimes he is funny, sometimes he is irritating, sometimes he is open-hearted, sometimes he is self-righteous.

On every level from the subatomic to the organic to the neurochemical to the emotional to the cognitive, “Bobby” is nothing but constant flux and impermanence. In fact, “Bobby” is a conceptual abstraction – functionally useful and relatively real – but ultimately, as unrelated to the ever-changing actuality of Bobby as a map is to the territory it describes. “Bobby” is an abstract idea that gives the illusion of continuity to the embryo, the baby, the toddler, the teenager, the adult, the old man, and the dead body. But if we look closely, with either scientific or meditative inquiry, we can't actually find any-thing that continues from one moment to the next.

Maybe Bobby decides to change gender at some point and turns into Roberta. Or maybe he goes to war and comes back without his limbs, or with his face burned off, or with a traumatic brain injury that completely alters his verbal, emotional and cognitive faculties. Maybe at age 25, Bobby was a wild radical, and at age 65, he is a rigid conservative (or visa versa). Where in all this ever-changing movement is “Bobby”?

Finally, we say Bobby has died. But what exactly has died? We cannot deny the reality of something we called Bobby that is no longer with us, but we can't actually find or pin down precisely what that was either. Perhaps birth and death is every moment, and perhaps there is no solid thing that begins or ends.

We fear death because the single thing we cherish most is our beingness – the undeniable sense of aware presence that we learn to conflate with the conceptual abstraction we think of as "me," the self. But if we look for this self, all we find are ever-changing thoughts, memories, mental images, sensations and stories. We think that "I" am encapsulated inside "the body, " authoring "my" thoughts and making "my" decisions. But is this actually true? If we watch closely, thoughts and decisions happen; there is no "me" there doing them. That "me" is a thought claiming authorship after the fact: "I decided; I did it."

Even the first, bare sense of aware presence disappears every night in deep sleep and no one is left to miss it. Every night, our unique Movie of Waking Life ends completely – and the phantom watcher ends too. No one is left to miss the show. We find this refreshing and rejuvenating, not terrifying. But when we think about death, we imagine ourselves buried alive, unable to turn the TV back on and find out what happens next in The Story of Me. This fear is like the fear of stepping off the edge of the flat earth.

This whole undivided happening that we variously call energy, matter, intelligence, consciousness, the Tao, God, the vibrant dance of existence, the universe, or simply Here-Now is infinite: unborn and unending, ever-present. And yet, it is ever-changing. When we look at nature, we see that everything is endlessly being recycled. A dead body nourishes the soil and becomes food for other life forms. There is no end and no beginning to this seamless, boundless unfolding that is always Here / Now. Now is timeless presence, the only real eternity there is. Here is this immediacy or present-ness that is the only real infinity. Here / Now is the groundless ground that Buddhists call emptiness and Advaitans call the Self.

We won't find the deathless by thinking about all this. It is not some concept that we finally understand. It is simply waking up from the illusion of separation and substantiality, relaxing into the simplicity of Here / Now, realizing that there is no one to fall and no ground to hit.

“Bobby” was a creation of smoke and mirrors rather like the illusion of continuity and narrative created by the pages of a flip book or the frames in a movie appearing in rapid succession. Bobby was an activity of the totality in the same way that a wave is an activity of the ocean. There is no real boundary between one wave and another, and no wave is any wetter or any closer to the water than any other wave.

Our true immortality is not in fighting off death and keeping the body alive forever, nor is it in some individual “soul” that leaves the body and either goes to heaven or reincarnates in a new body. Our true immortality is waking up to the vastness, the True Self that is without beginning or end. Just as the eye cannot see itself, and the hand cannot grasp itself, and the fire cannot burn itself, and the sword cannot cut itself, so you can never find this boundless unicity because you are not apart from it, and "it" is not a "thing" that can be grasped.

To realize this Ultimate Reality is to pass through the gateless gate of enlightenment. The gate is said to be gateless because when the illusion of separation is seen through, when the bubble of apparent encapsulation pops, you realize that You (the True Self) were never not here, and that the little "me" at the center of your life story was never anything but a dream-like imagination. And thus it is clear that there was never anyone who passed through any gate. Nothing was ever lacking. But at the same time, there is an undeniable and life-changing difference between knowingly realizing this and being confused and entranced by the story of separation and lack, which is why there is said to be a gate rather than no gate at all. As the great Advaita sage Nisargadatta put it, “Your begging bowl may be of pure gold, but as long as you do not know it, you are a pauper.”

Waking up is like dying. Dying to the past. Dying to the known. Dying to all your thoughts, ideas and beliefs. Dying to who and what you think you are. Dying to all hope and hopelessness. Dying to everything. Letting go of every attempt to hold on, to grasp, to control. Losing everything that can be lost and discovering what remains.

---copyright Joan Tollifson 2011, 2017--

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