Everybody has to die one day or another. Nobody can avoid death. That’s where we should know what death means. In death we simply lose our body, that’s all. But the soul is eternal. The real you is never born and never dies. It is only the body that dies. We all should try to keep the body in as good shape as possible. But, even with all of our care, some part may become old or worn out for some reason. Like parts of a car, body parts also get worn out. And when they do, we can try to get spare parts or refurbish them. But for how long can you do that? One day or another you may have to let it go. When you cannot repair anymore or it becomes too old and it can’t run, you have to junk it.
Notice before that I said, “Everybody has to die one day or another.” I used the word, “every-body.” Isn’t it true? Every body will die one day or another. But, people don’t die. It is only the body that dies. The body is not the essence of a person. People live in a body. They use a body to move around in this world. We use the body, like we use a car to get around in. If your car was to break down because of the long usage or because of an accident, wouldn’t you discard it by sending it to the junkyard and getting a new model? In the same way, when a person loses their body, which we call dying, they get a new body.
There are many reasons why we lose the use of the body. Sometimes, we abuse our bodies by working too much. Again, we can compare the body to any type of machine. If you overwork the machine it will get worn out very quickly. We see this happen in the life of athletes who overwork their bodies. By training, overtraining, straining, and abusing the body, it soon gets worn out. I am not saying that we shouldn’t exercise the body. I am only suggesting, that whatever exercise that you do, do it in moderation.
At the same time, we should also know what kind of fuel our special vehicle requires in order to work with maximum efficiency. That is why I recommend a healthy, well-balanced, vegetarian diet. But even with all the right rest, proper exercise, healthy foods, and so on, there is still a time limit to the life of the body. Aren’t our cars also made in the same way? The manufacturers build them in such a way that they may run well for ten years or so. No matter how good care you take of the car, if you use it regularly it won’t last beyond a certain time and usage. Our vehicles—our bodies—are also made for a certain time limit. And if you take the optimal care and perform all the preventive maintenance they can last for 100 years or so. If you don’t take such good care of them, they may begin to disintegrate sooner. But eventually, they will all disintegrate.
We should always remember that dying means only losing the body. You will get a new body. Isn’t it nice to get a new car? You don’t always want to use an old car. So, when you die you can get a brand new car. If people know the benefit of dying, they won’t be so fearful of death. Please do not misunderstand me and think I am suggesting that people should kill themselves. I don’t advocate suicide. What I am saying is that when the time comes that the body has to die, accept that.
There is also a deeper understanding of the meaning of death when viewed from a spiritual perspective. First, we should understand why we were born. Is there a purpose to our lives? I would say that there is. All the souls are in the process of growth and evolution. When you are born, you are given a body to live in to enable your soul to have various experiences. Then when your soul has completed that learning, it will drop the body and move on. It is something like students who enroll in the university. When they are there as students they will study and learn and when they have completed their courses they will graduate.
Then if you want to go on to graduate school what happens? You transfer over to another school. In the same way, if the soul wants to continue its journey it will get another vehicle. Don’t think that this is the one and only body we will ever have. God never said, “This is the only one. Either keep it or lose it!” Nature is always ready to provide us with more bodies. So when you junk the old one, you get a nicer body, a more beautiful, and younger one. Remember that you don’t die; the soul is immortal. It’s the body that dies and then you get a new body. That’s exactly what birth and death means.
When the soul has gained all the knowledge that is to be gained through this body you are using in this life, then the body is no longer needed. This is similar to the idea of the fruit ripening process. Until it is ripe, the fruit sticks to the tree. In the same way, the soul sticks to the body in order to further its ripening process. When it’s all ripe it drops out of the body and the body dies. If we really understand what death means we won’t be unhappy or afraid to die. With this deeper understanding, we will be able to welcome and embrace the death process rather than being frightened of it.
In fact, after death we will have more freedom. We are confined to this body while we live on this earth. The body is almost like a prison. If you want to move around or travel here and there, you are limited by the physical parameters of the earth plane. But after you drop the body, you can move easily and effortlessly. That is why when you dream, you seem to be able to easily move around to various places and have many different experiences. Because you are not limited by the physical body. In a way you are using a different body in the dream state, not this physical body. So, wherever you want you can go. If you want to go to Hawaii overnight, within a second you are in Hawaii, or London, or Africa. You can enjoy everything and come back.
We are able to enjoy all these things because we are using a different body when we dream. The body we are using is the subtle body, not the physical body. Can you see how, in a way, the physical body confines us? The South Indian sage, Thiruvalluvar, said: “The soul is like a bird still inside the egg. When the time comes it breaks the egg and flies away.” A soul wants to soar but the body is a fetter. We are all confined in these shells. Because we have gotten used to this life in the body, we think this is all there is. We become attached to this physical body and life on this earth. We don’t want to leave it and go when our time here is completed.
That is what you call “maya.” It is the veil of ignorance that falls over us and makes us believe this is the only life there is and that the soul is not eternal. We are hypnotized by the belief that we have only lived one life and that we are here for no other purpose than what we see before our physical eyes. This lack of understanding causes us to limit ourselves.
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, a young man went to visit a very wealthy friend. The friend was a rich woman who lived in a beautiful, palatial house and had a parrot as a pet. Inside the spacious living room, he saw a beautiful golden cage that was the home of the parrot. As he entered the room, he heard the parrot crying, “I want freedom! I want freedom! I want freedom!” But he couldn’t do anything to help the parrot because he was just a guest in the house. It would not have been his place to go and open the door of the cage and let the parrot out. But yet, his heart was moved by the parrot’s predicament.
Late at night, after everyone had gone to bed, the man slowly snuck out of his room and went into the living room. He quietly unlatched the door of the cage leaving it wide open so the parrot could fly out. Then the man went to sleep. The next morning he was happily looking forward to seeing the cage empty. But, to his great surprise, when he went near the cage he saw the parrot still there. The bird began crying, “I want freedom! I want freedom!” No one was stopping the bird from flying away. But it stayed put. In the same way, the soul gets attached to the body and even when the door opens, we cling to that.
We get deluded by all the so-called worldly pleasures, the physical pleasures of this world. And then we don’t want to get out of it. But if by any chance it happens that the body dies, we will soon realize how happy we are to be free. The whole universe will become yours. You can go wherever you want. Here, on the earth plane, if you want to go from one place to another you need a car, a plane, etc. But when we are out of this body, we can reach anywhere and everywhere. In that level, space and time mean nothing.
We get very attached to this physical plane of existence and even when it comes time for someone to move on, we don’t want them to let go and we don’t want to let go of them. We hook them up to all kinds of life support. I am not saying that we should not do what is possible to help someone regain their health, but not to unnecessarily prolong the life artificially.
We seem to be living in a sort of upside-down world. When the soul comes into the body it is as if the soul has gotten stuck in a cage or prison. But what do we do when the soul comes into the world, when the baby is born? We laugh and celebrate. When the soul drops the body and is completely free, what do we do? We cry and mourn. So, when they come crying, we laugh. When they go laughing, we cry! What kind of sanity is that?
We don’t have to be in a hurry to drop the body either. But there is no need to be fearful about death. The body is given to us to have certain kinds of experiences in life. As long as the body is there we will experience these things. When we experience everything that is to be experienced by this soul, then the body itself will drop or decompose. That will happen naturally. There is nothing we need to do to speed up that process; we should not. Let it take its time, but don’t be afraid of death. It’s a joyous thing to die. So, never have fear or worry about dying.
The process of birth and death is caused by our desires. As long as we have desires we have to find ways to get them fulfilled. Every desire calls for a time, space, and a vehicle in order for it to get fulfilled. Unfortunately, the
vehicles—these bodies we get—are not strong enough to continue to fulfill all of the desires we create. When the body becomes too old or too ill, it cannot help us fulfill those desires. So, we just drop the body and get another body to continue the process.
Many people would wonder if it is possible to be desireless. As one Zen master once said, “Is not wanting to be desireless itself a desire?” It’s true. It is not possible to live without any desires. But what we say is that there are desires that will be less binding than others. What kind of desires are these? Desires that are rooted in selflessness and do not add to your karma. Selfish or self-centered desires bind you and result in karma. Birth and death is the process of working out all the karmas.
The purpose of spiritual practice is to help you to learn to function in a selfless way. Love and serve, care and share. By living a serviceful and compassionate life you will not produce further karma. When the karmas are finished the cycle of birth and death will end. Then we say the person is liberated or has attained nirvana.
Unfortunately, in western religions, we don’t talk much about reincarnation. It’s very important to know that there is immortality of the soul. Nothing can destroy it. There is no death for us; none of us is really going to die. For the Self there’s no incarnation or reincarnation. We are always immortal. We are never dead, and we never have to be reborn. But until we realize the truth we seem to be coming and going all the time. If you believe in some life before, why not a life after? Every action has its own reaction. We do so many things now. If we don’t face them in this life, we’ll face them in a later experience.
In a way, everything is immortal. Everything is filled with life. There’s no dead matter in the entire universe. God created everything. And God created everything in God’s image. So, how can a living God create dead matter? If God is alive, everything is alive. Then what is it that we call “death.” Death is only a change of form, a change of name. Somewhere in the forest a tree lives. When the tree dies, it becomes lumber and is used in rafters and beams. The tree dies and a rafter is born. A piece of wood is burned and ash is born. Food dies when it goes into the stomach and energy is born. What does that mean? Nothing ever dies, it only changes from one form into another form. The essence is the same; it is always there. Likewise, the soul doesn’t die. Living particles from the cosmos were gathered to make the body and when the time comes, the composed body decomposes. And then they go back to their source. So, everything has that immortal soul. We never die. We are eternal because we are the image of that eternal God.
In the ancient scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, death is made even more simple to understand. In one passage, the Gita says: “My goodness, what is death after all? You had a shirt but now it’s all worn out. So, you throw it out and get another shirt.” That is the very example given in Bhagavad Gita! Death and birth are nothing but changing the old shirt and putting on a new shirt in order to work out all your desires and karma.
It is very important to understand the true meaning of death and rebirth. Once we understand it, there is no need for any fear. It is the lack of knowledge that causes fear. Let me illustrate this idea with an analogy. Imagine that one day, at the time of sunset, you are going for a walk. As the sun sets, you are just turning a corner when you see something coiled up on the road. You immediately think, “Oh, my gosh! There is a snake!” You begin to shake and shiver in fear. Just then someone comes along who has a flashlight and shines the light on the snake. But it turns out that it’s nothing but a coiled rope. In the twilight, the rope looked like a snake. The minute you knew it wasn’t a snake, you laughed at yourself. Your fear was gone.
Death is like that. If you know what death means, you laugh at it. I will tell you a story from the ancient scripture, the Mahabharata. Once upon a time a great king’s son, Dharmaputra, was asked this question by someone: “What is the strangest thing in this world?” And Dharmaputra replied, “The strangest thing is that, even though I have seen dead bodies going to the crematorium every day, I still think I will not die.” It’s very true, isn’t it. We may see death every day. We may read about it everyday in the newspapers. We know that those who are born will one day die. But to think that I will not die and, or, that I should not die, is nothing but insanity.
There is no need for the fear of death, or the fear of loss. I have been talking about death, but the same applies to the fear of loss. Can you tell me something that is permanent? Property comes and goes. Money, power, position, name, and fame, all come and go. Nothing is permanent. How many multi‑millionaires become paupers? Where is the Shah of Shahs? What happened to the richest man in the world? He didn’t even have a country of his own to go to lie down and die. We’ve see it in our own lifetime. Where is President Marcos of the Phillipines? Where is his wife with 3000 pairs of shoes?
When you have it you should enjoy it, share it with others, be nice to everybody. When it goes, say good-bye! Nothing is permanent in worldly life. Is beauty eternal? Where are the beauty queens? Gone with the wind. Politicians run and run and run to chase after the votes. For how long are they in office? Four years if you are lucky and are not impeached or have to resign. Life is like that. Take it easy. Never be afraid of anything.
I am not saying that you should not enjoy the things of this life. And I also don’t mean that because you are going to die one day that you don’t have to take care of the body. Nor, am I saying you should be looking out for or running after the death. Take care of yourself, enjoy the life, and if the time comes to say good-bye, say good-bye with peace in your heart.