This morning, sitting in meditation with a headache, I caught myself thinking that I can’t meditate very well with a headache. The thought wasn’t there in words, so much as an attitude, or view, if you like, that I hold. Nevertheless, it is still thought and I realised I had created a thought-world of I can’t meditate properly with a headache, and when I asked myself if that was really true the answer, of course, was no, and immediately my experience of the meditation changed.
Lama Shenpen Hookham talks about thought-worlds in her book There’s More to Dying than Death. It is a book I often recommend to people who want to know more about the Buddhist perspective on death and dying. I gave away my copy some while back, and having recently recommended the book again I got another copy and am just now re-reading it. Describing meditation Lama Shenpen writes:
We see that each thought that arises is like a gate inviting us to go through into its world, which is like dying to one world and taking birth in another. … That thought-world has its own storyline of the past and future, its own value system, its own flavour and mood. It has its own story of who we are, and we find ourselves identifying with that. We have taken birth in it!
The first paragraph of the Shushogi, a compilation of the teachings of Great Master Dogen, says:
The most important question for all Buddhists is how to understand birth and death completely for then, should you be able to find the Buddha within birth and death, they both vanish. All you have to do is realise that birth and death, as such, should not be avoided and they will cease to exist for then, if you can understand that birth and death are Nirvana itself, there is not only no necessity to avoid them but also nothing to search for that is called Nirvana. The understanding of the above breaks the chains that bind one to birth and death therefore this problem, which is the greatest in all Buddhism, must be completely understood.
So I recommend Lama Shenpen’s book not just for its perspective on death, but for its relevance to the central question of Buddhism.