The Lesson of the Lilac
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
Outside my window there is a lilac bush, which I see every morning at breakfast. I don’t think I ever saw a lilac until I came to this country. At school in India we used to read about lilacs in English literature; but without any idea of what they were, it was difficult to understand why people should find them so poignant. We would ask our teacher, who happened to be my uncle, “What is this ‘lilac’?” He would just shrug and say, “How should I know?” It was only after coming to the United States that I made the acquaintance of the lilac, but it has become one of my favorite flowers. A few months ago I had only to open the window to smell its heady perfume, and for two or three weeks it was in opulent blossom. Then one day I looked out and noticed that the flowers had dried up and their fragrance no longer filled the air. How quickly it was over! For me it wasn’t a lesson in horticulture; it was the Lord telling me, “Let these lilacs remind you that someday your body too will grow old and fade away.”
Nothing in life is more pressing than learning to face death. If we could live for a thousand years, there would be no urgency in this lesson. We could devote a good seventy years to making money, and when this failed to bring us happiness we would still have plenty of time. We could devote another seventy years to attaining fame and another eighty to pursuing the pleasures of the senses, and when we had carefully explored all these blind alleys, we would still have the time and the vitality to change our direction and look for the source of lasting security and abiding joy that is within each of us. But the tragedy is that we have very little time to make this discovery.
I once read a story about a man who kept putting off taking to the spiritual life in order to have just one more fling, to make one more deal. Time after time he told himself that next week, or next month, or next year, he would change his life. Then one night he had a dream: he dreamed that he was dying. There was no chance now to change his direction; time had run out on him, and all his plans for making a new start in life could never be fulfilled. It was a terrifying experience, and as he struggled to wake up, he vowed passionately not to postpone the practice of meditation a single morning more. But it was too late. When he tried to sit up, he found it was no dream; he was on his deathbed.
It is a sobering story, but most of us have a tendency to postpone in just this way. Once we have finished painting the kitchen, we say, once we have finished our term paper, once we have paid off our loan, then we will have time to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to transforming our lives. But when the kitchen has been painted and the term paper has been turned in, there will still be letters to write, checkbooks to balance, garages to clean, places and people to see. So the Buddhist mystic Milarepa advises, “The affairs of business will drag on forever; do not delay the practice of meditation.”
In the Mahabharata there is a famous episode in which the hero Yudhishthira, who is very thirsty, wants to drink from a pool which is owned by an invisible spirit. The spirit asks him many riddles before allowing him to drink, and one of the most penetrating is: “What is the most amazing thing about human life?” Yudhishthira answers, “That a man, seeing others die all around him, does not think that he will die.”
No one would deny that the body will grow old someday, that sooner or later it must fail and drop away. But to judge from our behavior, very few of us really believe that this is ever going to happen to us. Have you noticed that drivers on the highway often slow down when they pass the scene of a serious accident? For an instant, while the evidence is before their eyes, there comes the sobering realization that could punctuate any of the events of human life: “That could have happened to me!” Yet only a few minutes later they are driving along at top speed again, the reminder of mortality forgotten. It is the same when a member of our family dies, or a friend, or for that matter our dog. Even the death of an utter stranger, reported on the back page of the morning paper, can penetrate the routine of our lives with the same insistent message: “Stop, remember; it is over so soon.” We reflect on it a minute, but soon we are going about business as usual, skimming along on the surface of life, forgetful that in the end death is waiting for us all.
As we grow older and the body begins to register the signs of aging, reminders of life’s transiency are more and more frequent. Past the midpoint of our lives, when the pursuits and ambitions of our youth begin to lose some of their glamour, the speed at which life goes by is seen more clearly. Just yesterday, it seems, we were in high school; today we are watching our son graduate from college. We remember being a newlywed as if it were last weekend, and today we are putting the third candle on our granddaughter’s cake. Like the lilac, like the death of a loved one or a friend, all these are reminders that it is time to wake up from the dream that money or pleasure or prestige can make us happy, time to wake up and discover why it is that we are here.
When the alarm is ringing like this, the last thing to do is to pull the blankets up over our heads and try to fall asleep again. But most of us, because of our conditioning, seem to want to sleep on as long as we can. Our response to the body’s aches and pains, to the little wrinkles and grey hairs that signal the advance of time, is to try to hide them, to pretend that they are not there. We take a couple of aspirin, smooth on more cosmetics, double our dosage of vitamin E, distract ourselves with travel or social life or some new sport, as if by not thinking about it, we could escape death’s notice forever.
In village India, it is impossible to ignore the imminence of death. Lives are interconnected; everyone knows everyone else, and it is all too common to hear that somebody you saw only the other day, somebody with whom you went to school or whose mango tree you used to climb, has shed the body. In the modern world, however, I think we have compounded our natural inclination to isolate ourselves from death. Despite all the current emphasis on “death and dying,” hospitals and nursing homes still hide the dying from us, and instead we are exposed to the unreal images of television and films and books.
To take only one example, I think this is the reason why so many people who think of themselves as fond of animals never stop to think how many creatures are killed to provide some of the luxuries they enjoy. Because death is not real to them, they are insensitive to the suffering of animals who are slaughtered for their skins or fur or tusks. One popular women’s magazine I was looking at has a stunning advertisement for fur coats about every sixth page – and I am not exaggerating. People are simply not aware. Just last week a young woman I was talking to, describing the bitter cold of New York City, mentioned with a twinge of envy a friend’s coat which was completely lined in fox fur. Neither she nor her friend, I am sure, were aware that fox fur actually comes from a fox that would prefer to wear its coat itself.
Then there is this tragic dealing in ivory which is causing the death of hundreds of thousands of African elephants. The price of ivory has increased so much over the past few years that the African elephant is threatened with extinction. I have grown up around elephants, and I know that there is no more gentle or sensitive animal on the face of the earth. These poor creatures are being systematically hunted down with the most sophisticated instruments technology can provide – even planes and rockets – as well as slaughtered wholesale in the most primitive manner. It is not only a few greedy people who are responsible for this kind of destruction of life. The rest of us too need to remember that even behind a pair of earrings or a luxurious stole, there may be suffering and needless death. When we are mindful of this and do not buy, the profit goes; then there is an end to the slaughter.
Death should never be faceless; death is always personal. Whether it is someone in our home, or a child on the other side of the globe, or even one of God’s creatures like the elephant or the fox, all of us love life; all of us fear death. This is the unity that binds us all together, and as our eyes begin to open to it, we shall see life’s transiency everywhere we go.
In Kerala we used to be reminded of this in a particularly vivid way. Every year after the onset of the monsoon rains, the sky would be filled with thousands on thousands of shalabha moths. These moths live only for two or three hours, but they come like the locusts in the biblical plague; you cannot even yawn without running the risk of getting one in your mouth. For just a short while they are everywhere, and then, suddenly, they are gone. Their lives are spent in just a fraction of a day.
Look at the sense of time these moths must have. “Give us a calendar,” they would say, “for just two and a half hours; give us a clock for one hundred and fifty minutes to last us from birth to death.” Half a minute would be a year to them; the hundredth part of a second would be as precious as a day is to us. If we were to tell them that we live hundreds of thousands of times longer, they would not even be able to grasp the scope of it. And yet – from a cosmic point of view – our bodies are no more eternal than those of these moths, who come and go in a matter of hours.
At this very minute, the mystics remind us, the messengers of death are on their way with a letter for each of us. This letter was posted the day we were born, and we never know when it will arrive. For some the letter takes a long time to reach its destination; for others it comes by special delivery at midnight. It shocks us to hear about the sudden death of a friend in an auto accident, just as it shocks us to hear that someone has a terminal illness with only three or four years to live. But the truth is that the body is mortal, and whether it lasts five years or fifty is only a matter of degree.
In other words, if I may put it a little grimly, this whole universe is a theater of death; everything that has been created is in the process of passing away. For the shalabha moth it is a matter of hours; towards the other end of the scale there is the sun, which has been blazing away in the sky in the same way for much longer than there has been life on our earth. It is difficult to imagine that the sun has not been around forever. Yet like us, our sun has a kind of birthday too. He was born some six billion years ago, probably out of contracting clouds of gas, and though he seems fit enough now – just right to sustain life – he has already entered into middle age. Gradually the vital fusion fires at his core are going to cool and then flare up erratically as he swells into a so-called red giant, a lethargic solar Falstaff with a middle age bulge that engulfs the earth. After another ten billion years, when his temperature drops for the last time, he will explode in a final display of solar dramatics, or suddenly begin to contract and cool until he is no more than another cold cinder floating in space.
Against this vast life cycle, only the universe could seem eternal. Yet even that may have an end, and according to one current theory in cosmology, just as the universe was born in an unimaginable explosion from a single point before there was either space or time, it will eventually collapse into a point again and disappear, pulling its grave in after it. The Hindu scriptures give us much the same picture when they say that there have been countless universes like this and will be countless more hereafter, in an endless cycle of creation, expansion, and destruction. In the language of the Buddha, the whole of creation is an endless process of birth and death.
The miracle here, as all the world’s great religions testify, is that you and I can break out of this cycle of birth and death once and for all. My spiritual teacher, my grandmother, had her own ways of teaching me this when I was still quite small. I was always an enthusiastic student in school, and because I loved my Granny very much, I used to run home every day to tell her what we had learned. And every day she would be waiting for me right by the front gate. Once, however, I must have come home with gloom showing all over my face, because Granny immediately asked what was the matter. “Bad news, Granny,” I said. “Today in geography our teacher told us that compared to the universe, you and I are no more than insignificant specks of dust.”
Granny was a simple village woman, but she was never one to be intimidated by book-learning. She laughed and took me by the hand. “Look, Little Lamp,” she said, pointing up at the sky. “Even that sun is going to burn out someday and pass away. But you and I, because the Lord lives in us, can never die.”
I don’t think there is any superstition with more disastrous consequences than this universal belief that we are the body. This one fatal error is the source of all our suffering from birth to death. Of course, the body must wear out and fall away someday; no one would deny it. But you and I are not the body. As the Sufi mystic Al- Ghazzali puts it in a little poem composed on his deathbed:
When my friends
weep over my dead body,
Ask them, “Do you mistake him to be this?”
Tell them I swear in the name of the Lord
That this dead body is not I. It was
My garment while I lived on earth;
I wore it during my stay there. Today, after I have learned through many years of meditation and its allied disciplines not to identify myself with what is changing, this is very much my attitude too. I have a brown jacket with a Nehru collar, made in India, of which I take very good care. I expect it to last me for several more years, but when it is no longer presentable, I am going to give it away without any feelings of regret. It has served me well, but it is in the nature of a jacket to wear out. Similarly, this body of mine is another brown jacket made in India – it has the label of its Maker right inside. I take good care of it too, because I expect it to give me many more years of service, but when the time comes, I will be able to take it off without any break in consciousness.
The Hindu scriptures throw considerable light on how this can be true. Death, they say, is not an event that takes place suddenly; it is a gradual withdrawal of consciousness from the senses into the mind and the mind into the Self. First, the doors of the senses shut completely, and external awareness of the body and of our surroundings is gone. We still have ears, but we hear nothing because consciousness has been withdrawn; we still have eyes, but there is nothing outside that we see. Yet even though we can no longer experience any external sensation, there is still consciousness in the mind, with all its desires and regrets, all its conflicts and hopes and fears. At this point there is no longer a surface level of consciousness; there are no random thoughts. The content of consciousness will be whatever we have most dwelt upon, whatever we have worked hardest for, whatever we have desired most intensely. As the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad puts it,
A man is what his
As his desire, so is his will.
As his will is, so is his deed.
As his deed is, so is his life.
For those free from selfish desire, who desire nothing but the Self, their consciousness is not ruptured even at the moment of death. With all their love focused on God, they become united with him.
What occupies our consciousness at the moment of death, therefore, is of the utmost importance. That is why in India some great scripture like the Bhagavad Gita is usually read aloud while a person is dying, so that something of its message will be with that person in his final moments. Very much the same thing is done in other great religions like Judaism and Christianity, Buddhism and Islam.
Even more effective in this critical transition is for the dying person to repeat the mantram over and over in the mind. The mantram is always a powerful ally, and if we can cling to it at the time of death, we will already have focused a good deal of our consciousness on the Lord. When I have had occasion to sit by the side of someone who is dying, I just hold his or her hand and repeat my mantram silently. There is no need to talk at such times; just being together and repeating the mantram, especially if the person is responsive to us, can help a great deal to calm the turbulence that overtakes the mind at the onset of death.
For anyone who has not learned through meditation to make the mind one-pointed on the Lord, the onset of death often precipitates a terrible sense of deprivation. All the attachments we have formed over a lifetime, all the virulent self-will we have cultivated, all our cravings for sensory experience, tie us to the body. Then when death comes, there is a terrible struggle when it tears us away – and the harder we cling, the more it will hurt.
My grandmother had a vivid way of getting this point across. Once, as a child, I asked her why death should involve so much suffering. She didn’t answer; she just told me to sit in one of our big wooden chairs and hold on with all my strength. Then she tried to pull me out of my seat. I held on for all I was worth, but Granny was a strong woman and with one painful wrench she had me on my feet. “That hurt,” I said.
“Now sit down again, Little Lamp,” she told me, “but this time don’t hold on.” I did as she said, and there was no struggle, no pain; she raised me gently into her arms.
This is the secret of facing death. When death comes and growls that our time has come, we just say, “You don’t have to growl; I’m ready to come on my own.” Then we take off the jacket that is the body, hand it over carefully, and go to our real home.
It is not only at death that we encounter the costs of thinking we are the body; we pay the costs throughout our lives.
For the rare men and women who do not dwell on themselves very much, who are not particularly attached to physical satisfactions, the burden of body-consciousness is comparatively light. But many of us carry a heavy load of body-consciousness, and the heavier the load, the more burdensome life is going to become with the passage of time. The body functions best when we do not cling to it. It is a good idea to do all we possibly can to maintain our health, but after we have done this, it is best simply to forget about the body completely.
Since I began the practice of meditation many years ago, I have tried to give my body what it has needed for optimum health – nourishing food in moderate amounts, plenty of exercise, the right recreation, and, when necessary, the attention of a good physician. Because I have taken all these steps so important for good physical health, I am on very good terms with my body – in fact, you might say we are the best of friends; we trust each other.
In other words, the body becomes a burden when we cling to it, by dwelling on its problems and going after things that are pleasant to the senses but not beneficial for either body or mind. It seems to be the lesson of life that whatever we cling to selfishly will one day become a burden. That is why I recommend an eight-point program for spiritual development, each point of which is designed to help us overcome our compulsive attachment to the body and the ego. When we follow these eight steps, we will find that we no longer cling to the body and the ego for support, and both body and mind will function at their best.
Even in life, the person who is diminishing his identification with the body and learning to put the welfare of others first has begun to glimpse the underlying unity in all life. This death of the infantile ego is the purpose of all the disciplines of the spiritual life. As St. Francis says, “It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”
Even in little things, whenever we drop a job we are attached to or cheerfully do something we dislike for the benefit of others, a part of our selfishness and self-will has died. This is painful at times, but there is an exhilaration in it. And it is far less painful than going on building up our self-will until all our selfish attachments are wrenched from us at death. On the spiritual path, we surrender everything little by little – not under duress or because someone else insists on it, but entirely by free choice, until finally we no longer need to hang on to anything outside us for support.
Once, I remember vividly, my grandmother came very close to death. I was a child then, and because my love for her was so great, I was sent upstairs to be away from the scene of death. Granny had cholera, and everyone, including the doctor, thought she had only a few more hours to live. She had even given instructions about the funeral pyre, requesting that no mango wood be used because its acrid smoke would burn the mourners’ throats and eyes. Even in death she was thinking of the comfort of others.
Suddenly a tremendous feeling of desertion came over me, and I cried out to her from the depths of my heart: “Granny, you can’t die! What will happen to me without you?”
Granny didn’t seem to respond, but a few hours later, instead of breathing her last, she sat up on her bed with great difficulty and asked my mother to bring her a pot of tea. I firmly believe it was my deep desire for her loving guidance, and her equally deep desire to help me, that made her pull herself back from death to continue her work as my spiritual teacher.
People with spiritual awareness do not live for themselves alone; they live because they feel they have a contribution to make to life. For such servants of the Lord, death is not just a matter of gracefully giving up the body and personal attachments; it means going home after completing their work on earth.
In India there is no more inspiring example than that of the Compassionate Buddha, who died at the age of eighty after a long, fruitful life teaching the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to an end to sorrow. He was a vigorous teacher right up to the swift spell of illness just before he shed his body. When his disciples gathered around him, all his concern was for their welfare. In his final words he told them to work out their salvation for themselves and not to be discouraged because he would no longer be with them in the physical body. In Sri Lanka, one can see a beautiful representation of this scene sculpted in rock. Lying peacefully on his side, just entering his parinirvana, the Buddha is giving his last instructions to his grieving disciple Ananda, showing him the way to immortality.
The records of the Christian mystics too are full of inspiring accounts of how mortal men and women can face the challenge of death in calmness and with faith. We can read the account of Teresa of Avila’s death, and nearer to our own times we have the story of Th.r.se of Lisieux. Both were exalted in their last moments by a vision of Christ coming to rescue them from the sea of death.
Even ordinary men and women like you and me can receive this kind of assurance if we practice meditation and the allied disciplines with real earnestness. In my own life I have had such a blessing. I hadn’t been meditating for many years, but my progress had been rapid, thanks to my grandmother’s influence. One night in a dream, if you like to call it that, I saw myself all alone, drowning in a vast shoreless sea – the sea of samsara, the sea of birth and death. I was about to despair when from the depths of my consciousness I cried out to Sri Krishna to save me. That night I knew that Sri Krishna had come to me and pulled me up out of the sea of death.
Since that time I have had complete confidence that the Lord will always come to my rescue when I call on him from the depths of my heart. That is why I recommend the mantram with such certitude, because I know without doubt it can be relied upon in times of distress. This is the advice many great mystics have given us – to call upon the Lord, by whatever name we use, to help us overcome our enemy, Death. If we begin now to repeat the mantram, and repeat it whenever we get an opportunity, it will be there when we need it even in the turmoil of the body’s final hours. Even though our repetition may seem mechanical to begin with, if we practice meditation earnestly and support our meditation with a program of spiritual living, the mantram will enable us to go deeper and deeper into our consciousness. Practice is the important thing, and sustained enthusiasm.
Sometimes I come across rugged individualists who find repeating the name of the Lord simplistic, perhaps even somewhat embarrassing if they have to admit to doing it. But the practice of the mantram is a private affair, and there is no need to feel diffident about it. After all, we really need no one’s approval in life as much as our own. If we can please that little heckler inside us, we will have pleased the right person – and when we use the mantram, the inner Self cannot help but be pleased.
The mantram is the raft to carry us across the sea of death to the other shore. Together, meditation and the mantram can establish us in the state of spiritual awareness. Once we realize God, we are united with him forever. This is what Jesus means when he promises us life everlasting: our constant awareness of the unity of life, our constant awareness of the Lord, is not interrupted even when the physical body falls away. Sri Krishna gives us the same promise in the Bhagavad Gita:
They for whom I am the goal supreme, Who do all work renouncing self for Me and meditate on Me with single-hearted devotion – these will I swiftly rescue from the fragment’s cycle of birth and death to fullness of eternal life in Me.