There was a time several years ago, when I used to read out to my little one, perched up on my lap, all cozy and warm. During the long story reading sessions, we would break for impromptu discussions, once in a while when we would discuss the most random things under the Sun, before resuming again.
One day, while we were reading the Jataka Tales, my little one was a little quieter than usual. He kept listening to the stories, but did not ask me any questions. I noticed something was bothering him. After a while, I sat him down next to me and finally asked him the reason for his quietness.
After some initial hesitation, he replied,
“I was thinking —why do people die?”
“Hmm. So this is what is bothering you,” I said. I knew I had to put him at ease with his thoughts but it was hard to explain the concept of death to a child. I thought for a moment and then, said,
“You know, there is something common about everything we see in this world, and that is— everything changes. The law of nature says that all living beings that are born must die. Me, you, our families, our friends, our plants and trees and the animals around. Everything must come to that state we call death.”
His next question was,
“Does it hurt a lot when we die?”
I hugged him tight and kissed his forehead. I had no answer to be honest, but I made the bravest face that I could and told him,
“No, it doesn’t.”
And, then, for some reason, I veered him away from that topic to something else and the topic was forgotten. Over the years we never spoke about it again.
Last week, we came upon this topic again by chance. The news of yet another teenager killing himself over the notorious Blue Whale challenge has been sending shockwaves around the country. As a mother of a teen, I know my apprehensions are not unfounded. I’ve always kept the lines of communication open with Arjyo knowing how trying things can be when you’re caught in a limbo between childhood and adulthood. After his evening snack, we got down to talking about how his day went. We spoke on all and sundry until we came upon the topic of death and how everything we are connected to, is only short-lived. The mood and tone of our chat suddenly turned solemn. I decided to tell him a story again, reminiscent of the early years. Maybe, I was missing those story-telling days more than he did.
I narrated the story of the Buddha and how one day a woman with a dead baby came to him asking him to bring the child back to life. The Enlightened One, of course, would not give sermons. So, he sent her to go looking for a mustard seed instead, which alone could save the child’s life, but on one condition—it should come only from a house where death had not touched anyone. Over time, and after a couple of visits, the woman realised that there was not a single household where death had not visited even once. She came to the realisation that her only way forward was to accept that death was inevitable in everyone’s life. The Buddha, full of compassion for the welfare of mankind, must have already seen it! She said to her son,
“Dear little son, I thought that you alone had been overtaken by this thing which men call death. But you are not the only one death has overtaken. This is a law common to all mankind.” So saying, she cast her son away in the burning-ground, uttering the following words.
“No village law, no law of market town, No law of a single house is this—
Of all the world and all the worlds of gods
This only is the Law, that all things are impermanent.”
Arjyo listened to the story with a maturity that was well beyond his years and a vulnerability that was a sign of his young mind trying to come to terms with the concept of loss and impermanence. Never an easy topic to discuss with your teen, mind you. Knowing that he was on the verge of that uneasy stage in life when emotional turmoils run high, I said,
“Everything in this world is temporary— me and you and everyone we know. But should that stop us from living life? NO. Even our favourite things are here today, gone tomorrow….and so are all our lovely moments of happiness and so are the hard times and the painful things that we find difficult to endure. So, if you are happy, enjoy the moment because it is short-lived and if you are sad, know that this too shall pass soon.”
He has always been a child with a certain philosophical bent of mind and he has always been a quick observer of things around. While he confessed the other day how that chat of ours made him sad, he also acknowledged the fact that it made him wise enough to understand that this was a “fact of life.”
I recalled how I had stumbled upon this profound truth in my Philosophy class in college—one of the foremost teachings in Buddhism that says everything in life is impermanent. Buddhism’s main concern has always been freedom from pain and the path to that ultimate freedom consists in ethical action and in direct insight into the nature of “things as they truly are”.
According to the teachings of the Buddha, life is like a river. It is a successive series of moments, joining together to give the impression of one continuous flow. But in reality, it moves from cause to cause, effect to effect, one point to another, one state of existence to another.
So, what makes this knowledge relevant to us?
Perhaps the fact that our inclination to cling to things we are attached to is one of the major reasons for our suffering. When we are aware of the ever-changing nature of reality and appreciate the present moment we are able to accept that nothing will stay with us forever, that all things including our moments of happiness and pain are ephemeral.
The river of yesterday is not the same as the river of today. It changes continuously from moment to moment. Everything we see around us is there only for a moment. In the very next, something will change and so will our life. The only way to align our lives with this reality is to accept the impermanence of life and make the most of living in the moment.