Dangers of Emotional Attachments at Death

From the Autobiography of Ajahn Mun (1870 – 1949)

The wise always teach us that at the moment of death we should be careful not to have emotional attachments to anything whatsoever. The danger is that we may recall, then, an infatuation of some kind, or even worse, angry, revengeful thoughts about a particular person. The moment when the citta (Mind or Heart) is about to leave the physical body is crucial. If at that moment the citta latches on to a pernicious thought, it may get burned and end up being reborn into a realm of misery, such as one of the hells, or a world of demons, ghosts, or animals – all miserable, unfavorable existences. The following story is an example of such a problem.

stupaOnce while he was meditating, deep in the Chiang Mai mountains, Ãcariya Mun saw a vision of a woman and a small novice walking back and forth through the area, nearly every night in the late hours. Becoming suspicious after a while, he asked why they were there. They told him that they were worried about the fate of an unfinished stupa (a Buddhist Structure built to store relics) which they were building together when they died. The small novice was the woman’s younger brother, and they had worked together to construct the stupa. Their concern about the stupa and their regrets at having died before its completion made them feel a strong, persistent obligation to it.

Although reborn into a state of anxiety, they were not as tormented by it as might be expected. Still, they could not feel decisive about being reborn into another realm of existence.

So Ãcariya Mun advised them: “You should not be concerned about things that have already come and gone, for they are truly irredeemable. No matter how convinced you may be that you can turn back the clock – it’s just not possible. Anyone supposing they can will experience nothing but frustration when their hopes fail to materialize”.

“The future, having yet to come, shouldn’t be clung to either. What has already happened should be let go of as being past. What has yet to arrive should be let go of as its time is not yet ripe. Only in the present is it possible to accomplish something meaningful”.

“If your dream of building that stupa were meant to come true, then you would have had a chance to finish it first instead of dying unexpectedly. Now you are trying to deny death. Not only that, you still long to complete the stupa even though it is now wholly impossible. So, now you have erred twice in your thinking. If you continue on hoping to fulfill this wish, you will compound your mistake yet a third time. Not only is your thinking affected by this, but your future state of birth and your well-being in that state will also be adversely affected. Such an unreasonable aspiration should not be allowed to continue”.

“In building a stupa, we hope to acquire merit and goodness – not bricks and mortar. The value you obtain from building a stupa is the merit that you gain from this action – merit which results from your efforts and which rightly belongs to you. You shouldn’t worry about gross material things like bricks and mortar that can never fulfill your desires anyway. People everywhere who gain merit by doing good deeds take with them only the merit they’ve thus acquired, not the material things they gave away as donations. For example, contributing to the construction of a monastery, a monk’s residence, an assembly hall, a road, a water tank, a public building, or any other offering of material goods, are simply the outward manifestations of the good intentions of those wishing to be generous. They are not the actual rewards of generosity, meaning that material offerings themselves are not merit or goodness or heaven or Nibbãna (enlightenment), nor are they the recipient of such rewards. For, over time, all material things disintegrate and fall apart”.

“The spiritual qualities that are gained from the effort and the generosity required to do charitable works are experienced internally as merit and goodness. The inspiration behind the good intentions to make such donations is the heart of each individual donor. The heart itself is virtuous. The heart itself is meritorious. It is the heart that exists as heaven or magga (cessation of suffering), phala (fruit of one’s actions) and Nibbãna, and the heart that achieves these attainments. Nothing else could possibly achieve them”.

“The unfinished stupa that you two were building lacked the conscious capacity to have good intentions for its own spiritual improvement. Your concern for it stems from a covetous mentality that is a hindrance to you even though it is directed at holding on to something good. Clinging to it is not in your best interest. Your procrastination here is retarding your progress to a favorable rebirth. Instead of trying to take the whole thing with you, had you two been satisfied with the merit you made from working on that stupa, you would both have comfortably gone on to a favorable existence long ago – for merit is the mainstay of a good rebirth. And merit is never transformed into something bad. It remains virtuous forever”.

“It’s a mistake to be unduly concerned for things past. There is no way you can possibly finish that stupa now, so you shouldn’t set your hearts on such a hopeless endeavor. The power of the merit you have made impacts you here in the present. So, don’t waste your time thinking about the past or the future when now you should be reaping the good results of what you’ve already done. Correct your thinking and soon you will be able to pass on, free of anxiety. Turn your attention to the present. It contains all the virtues necessary for magga, phala, and Nibbãna. The past and the future are impediments you must overcome without wasting any more time”.

“I feel really sorry for you two. You’ve done some very meritorious work for the sake of a happy future, only to get so bogged down in your attachment to mere bricks and mortar that you can’t freely move on. If you both make the effort to cut these attachments from your hearts, before long you will be free of all binding ties. The strength of your accumulated merit is ready and waiting to take you to the rebirth of your choice.”

Ãcariya Mun then explained to them the essential meaning of the five moral precepts, a code of conduct applying equally to all living beings. “First: Every living being values its own life, so no one should destroy that intrinsic value by taking someone else’s life. This results in very bad kamma”.

“Second: All beings cherish their own possessions. Even if they don’t appear to have much value, the owner values them nonetheless. Regardless of its worth, nothing belonging to another person should be debased by theft or robbery. For such actions debase not only their possessions, but their hearts as well. Stealing is a terrible act – so never steal”.

“Third: Husbands and wives, children and grandchildren, all love each other dearly. They do not want to see anyone taking liberties with their loved ones. Their personal rights should be respected and their private space should be off limits to others. Spousal infringement is extremely damaging to people’s hearts, and as such is an act of incalculable evil”.

“Fourth: Lies and prevarication destroy other people’s trust, causing them to lose all respect. Even animals abhor deceit, so one should never hurt others by using false, deceitful language”.

“Fifth: Alcohol is by its very nature intoxicating and immensely harmful. Drinking it can cause a perfectly normal person to go crazy and steadily waste away. Anyone wishing to remain a normal, sane human being should refrain from drinking any form of liquor because it damages physical and mental health, eventually destroying people and everyone else around them”.

“Each of these five moral precepts has its own special benefits. By maintaining the first one, we can expect to enjoy good health and longevity. By the second, our wealth and property will be safe from criminal attack or other misfortune. By the third, family members will keep faith with each other, and live contentedly without unwanted interference. With the fourth, we will be trusted because of our integrity. When our speech is charming and pleasant, humans and devas (Divine Beings) alike will respect and cherish us. Honest people pose no threat to themselves or anyone else. And by maintaining the fifth precept, we will be clever, intelligent people who are not easily misguided nor readily thrown into confusion”.

“People who maintain moral virtue tend to reassure living beings everywhere by promoting a sense of satisfaction and mutual trust. Immoral people, on the other hand, cause untold suffering by harming people and animals all over the world. Those who value their own existence should understand that all people value themselves similarly, and should, therefore, refrain from harming others in any manner. Due to the supportive, protective power of moral virtue, honest, virtuous people can expect to be reborn into an elevated, heavenly existence”.

“Thus it is vital to maintain high moral standards – the result will surely be a heavenly destination in the next life. Remember this Dhamma (Spiritual Truth) teaching, practice it diligently, and your future prosperity is assured”.

By the time Ãcariya Mun finished advising the small novice and his sister, both were delighted by his teaching and requested the five moral precepts from him, which he gave them. Having received the moral precepts, they respectfully took leave of Ãcariya Mun, and immediately vanished. The power of their accumulated merit and the goodness they cultivated from attending to his discourse and taking the five precepts, led the two to be quickly reborn in the Tãvatiÿsa heavenly realm.

They then regularly visited Ãcariya Mun to hear his teaching. On their first visit they thanked him for his kind assistance in illuminating the way out of the vicious cycle they were in, allowing them to finally enjoy the pleasure of the heavenly existence they had anticipated for so long. They told him that they now realized the great danger that attachments pose to the heart, and the delay they can cause in moving on to a favorable birth. Having received his compassionate advice, they were able to transcend all their concerns and be reborn in a heavenly realm.

Ãcariya Mun explained the nature of emotional attachments to them, pointing out that they are a hindrance in many different ways. The wise always teach us that at the moment of death we should be careful not to have emotional attachments to anything whatsoever.

So when we’re in a good position to train the citta – when we are in human birth and fully cognizant of ourselves – we must take decisive advantage of it. As human beings, we can realize our short comings and quickly act to correct them, so that, later, when our backs are against the wall – at the time of death – we will be fully prepared to fend for ourselves. We need not be worried about falling prey to the destructive forces of evil. The more we train ourselves to sever all emotional attachments, both good and bad, the better our position will be.

The wise know that the heart is the most important thing in the whole universe, for material and spiritual welfare are dependent upon the heart. So, they make a point of training their hearts in the correct way and then teach others to do the same. We live by means of the heart, and experience contentment and dissatisfaction by means of the heart. When we die, we depart by means of the heart.

We are then born again according to our kamma – with the heart as the sole cause. As it is the sole source of everything that befalls us, we should train our hearts in the right way so that we can conduct ourselves properly now and in the future.

When Ãcariya Mun finished speaking the newly reborn Devas were overjoyed by his teaching. Praising it highly, they said they had never heard anything quite like it before. Upon their departure, they circumambulated him three times, then withdrew to the edge of his living area before floating up into the air like wisps of cotton borne by the wind.

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