Impermenance & the Four Horses
In ancient Japan, a thin, wispy trail of smoke rising up from the mountains and leading up into the sky meant one thing -- the dead were being cremated. People would cast their eyes down, remember their deceased loved ones, and hope their families were not amongst the ones burned that day.
We see this same sight today perhaps from the chimney of a mortuary, but how often do these scenes make us reflect upon our own mortality or even affect us on a deep level?
Sensitivities to death vary from person to person. So in Pure Land Buddhism there is "The Metaphor of Four Horses" in order to describe the differences. This analogy uses a horses' attitude toward the whip, which represents the animal's greatest fear.
The Metaphor of the Four Horses
1.) A Horse that Sees the Whip's Shadow
People surprised by the idea of their own death
when they see falling blossoms or smoke from a crematory.
2.) A Horse that Feels the Whip Brush Over Its Mane
People stunned by the idea they too will die one day
when they see a funeral or hearse
3.) A Horse Cut to the Flesh by the Whip
People who are shocked to think they could be next
when they attend the funeral of relatives and neighbors
4.) A Horse Pierced to the Bone by the Whip -
People who are moved by their own impermanence
when they lose their family
Modern society goes to great lengths to shield us from seeing death or even thinking about it, because this unsettled issue of where we go when we die troubles us so deeply. Some people go to extremes and even whisper the word death or get squeamish at just the mention of a terminal illness. Seeing death near us invokes a dreaded realization that one day... even as soon as today or tomorrow... we must leave all we have come to know and love in this life.
The starting point of Buddhism is having this sensitivity toward impermanence. We must direct our thinking about the deaths of others and reflect seriously about our own imminent demise. Without this crucial awareness, we can't advance even one step forward in Buddhism. We listen to reach the all-important, end goal of solving the crucial matter of our afterlife.
Sakyamuni Buddha had great compassion for human beings, even while knowing that we were all falling into the world of suffering without knowing it because of our evil deeds. Every second nearly two people die. Those that pass away from this world are like raindrops in the downpour of a tropical storm. People we know may leave us, but for some reason we feel we won't be the next to go. We still vainly think that impermanence is something that can be put off until a more convenient time for us while we simply enjoy the moment.
"Buddha taught, 'The outgoing breath awaits not the incoming breath, and so life ends.' Death may be but a single breath away. Fail to take in the next breath, and immediately your afterlife begins. Each breath you exhale and inhale brushes shoulders with death. On December 31, one second after [11:59:59 P.M.] it is [12:00:00 A.M.]. At the same instant, the [31st] changes to the [1st], December gives way to January, and one year yields to the next. In the same way, this life transforms into the next life in the space of an instant.
If you do not achieve the purpose of life now, when will you? When can you? Now is your only chance, for untold ages to come. Gaze steadily at the shadow of impermanence drawing closer every moment, and have no regrets."
--You Were Born for a Reason
Each morning we start fresh. We may go for a jog to get our blood flowing, wash our face to feel fresh, and treat ourselves to a warm cup of invigorating coffee. Every evening after we brush our teeth tiredly, we must finally at long last fall over into bed completely exhausted from the day's activities. At 7:00 A.M. we may have a radiant face, but by 11:00 P.M. we can be as white as bones. This is the way we carry on our lives, day in and day out, with the mentality that we will live in this body forever.
Say you put Ultimate Fighting Champion (UFC) Cain Velasquez in the ring against a little kid. And during the match no matter how many kicks or punches Velasquez throws, the kid still wins with one knockout punch. "How's that possible you ask?" It's because this kid's fighter name is "Wind of Impermanence." He holds an undefeated title, and one day it'll be a match between you and him.
Young and old should face their impermanence equally, since it can occur at any time. We discuss how important planning for retirement is, but not everyone will be alive for retirement. Everyone will face death, and yet in spite of this no emphasis is placed on resolving it anytime soon.
"We have squandered our days. We have sought the wrong objectives. Talent, property, and power have earned us the respect of others without affording us either joy or satisfaction. Why have we not rather sought happiness to satisfy the soul? We are left with nothing but sighs of regret. ... This lament can only be the regret of someone taken aback by the blackness of his [or her] prospects after death (darkness of mind)."
--You Were Born for a Reason, p. 69
We are simply unable to see through this darkness to know our True Self; we don't even know for sure who we really are or why we're alive. Yet somehow we still feel that we have all the answers even though we're really in the dark.
Any concept or impression of death we might have is merely an emotional reaction or creative speculation. It is nothing like facing death when it actually arrives.
"Anxiety about what may lie beyond death is inseparable from anxiety in the here and now. It stands to reason, therefore, that efforts to make the present bright without resolving this darkness of mind can only come to nothing."
--You Were Born for a Reason, p. 67
This uncertainty toward our death and the afterlife is the very real question that must be faced, and we must listen to Buddhism in order to find the answer clearly. Let's reflect on our own impermanence and obtain true clarity on this issue as quickly as possible.