Practice Dharma Without Delay, and Practice It Purely

The awareness of mortality

Living gives us many unknowns, and the most compelling of these is the whole matter of death…


In this place and time, most people’s relationship to death and dying is one of denial, or ignoring it completely. As comfortable as this may be, to not think about it, this approach isn’t useful, and it has some real disadvantages. Like a shadow, fear and sadness often accompany this failure to account for death. People then lead lives without a sense of meaning, and without gratitude or much care about others. We can say in a sense they have not solved this challenge.

It’s important that we are able to factor death and dying into our living while we still can. Without an awareness of these truths, our lives are shallow, and not grounded. We can actually lose this opportunity to be here with each other fully, and compassionately, since we will all go through experiences of loss, and we will all need to face our own mortality at some point.

One of the most difficult aspects of incorporating death into living is that we only go through some things once, and so there is really no way to be completely prepared for our own dying, or for the unique passing on of a loved one.

What’s more, we need to somehow account for the uncertainty of the time and circumstances of death. This can be frightening, but also, after a long while thinking about it, reflections along these lines can be liberating in a way. When done well, so that this insight is kept in mind, it effects our values. We take much less for granted, and with some things that we may have hesitated to say, or to try to do, we can more easily make an effort.

In a math problem, x represents an unknown quantity. The challenge then when we’re given an equation is to figure out the value of x, so that we can put that formula to practical use. When we do that we say we have ‘solved for x’.

How then do we integrate the awareness of mortality, and the motivations that come from reflecting on death?

In the Lam Rim, they point to these essential points, that we should

Practice Dharma

without delay,


that we should

practice it purely.

To practice the Dharma means to tame our minds, to abandon all harmful actions, and to cultivate kind actions, helping each other as much as we can;

to do this without delay means just that. We may think we have time, or that we will engage in practice after we have completed some important project, or next month, or next year, or when we finally retire. But the teachings are clearly pointing out that none of us are guaranteed even another hour, let alone a day, week, month, year, or five years.

There is a passage in the Sutra in Forty Two Sections that reads:

The Buddha asked a Shramana, a spiritual seeker,

What is the span of a human life?

and he replied, A day and a night.

The Buddha said, You have not yet understood the Way.

He asked another Shramana,

What is the span of a human life?

and he reply was, The time it takes to eat a meal.

The Buddha said, You have not yet understood the Way.

He then asked another Shramana,

What is the span of a human life?

and he replied, The length of a single inhalation and exhalation.

The Buddha said, Excellent. You have understood the Way.

When we think this way, we’re not putting off our practice until after we have eaten, or after we feel up to it. Now is the time to practice, as well as we can, which bring us too,

and practice it purely.

This means that whatever practice we are doing, we are not distracted. We are also not mixing our practice with thoughts of material gain or loss, pleasure and pain, praise and criticism, or having a good or bad reputation. These are all meaningless in the light of mortality.

When we practice purely, we get a good result .

They say in classical music study that it isn’t ‘practice makes perfect’, but ‘perfect practice makes perfect’ – and we can learn something here about our meditation and spiritual study.

In the teachings on calm abiding, they say it’s better to meditate in short sessions, that have a good quality, rather than to meditate for long periods of time with our mind becoming dull. Of course we can extend the length of practice, but we keep our aim in mind, that we are cultivating clarity.

To practice Dharma, without delay, and to practice it purely, no matter who we are, where we’ve been or where we’re aiming to go is the real solution to samsara, the way to peace and fulfillment in this life.

When we have solved this challenge of how to factor an awareness of mortality into our lives, the sense of fear that accompanies thoughts about death is then much less, or it is no longer present at all. This awareness also serves then as a clarifying and motivating force for the good. We become more loving, and gentle, patient, forgiving, and generous.

We all naturally want to live our best lives while here, for as long as it lasts. If it feels like a blessing to be alive today, with these resources, and these abilities, and these dreams and visions, then this is the tangible power of assimilating this truth about our lives here.