This paper will relate The Road to Tibetan Buddhism. It will show that by reading the book, we are actually practicing an important part of the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. Whether or not McCarthy had Tibetans in mind when writing the book, I do not know. But what I do know is that both he and this Eastern religion have similar goals in mind – namely, to help people appreciate life by confronting death.
When asked what he wanted readers to take from his book The Road, Cormac McCarthy answered, “simply care about things and people and be appreciative… life is pretty damn good. You should be grateful.”[i] This message is conveyed through a story about a father and son’s journey through a post-apocalyptic world. During their journey, they encounter death at every turn; they fend off robbers and “bad guys” and find food in order to survive. Life is cradled in the arms of death throughout the whole story. But living in this world turns simple pleasures, like drinking a Coke, into moments brimming with pure joy.
In relation, Tibetan Buddhists teach that we must be mindful of death throughout our living days. We must surround our lives with it, as if we were the father and son in the story, continually encountering death. Kadampa, a well-worn monk holds, “that if one does not meditate on death in the morning, the whole morning is wasted. If one does not meditate on death at noon, the afternoon is wasted, and if one does not meditate on death at night, the evening is wasted.”[ii] Exploring death will help us appreciate life and be more peaceful and less fearful when we actually do die.
There are many uncertainties in life, but one thing we are certain of is that we will die. McCarthy writes, “Everyday is a lie… But you are dying. That is not a lie.” Everyday we are simultaneously living and dying. As an example, cells of our skin die and fall off and are replaced with new ones all the time. So, if we know that we are in the process of dying and one day we will be dead, why do we avoid the topic of death? Why do we try to stay young and prolong our lives at all costs? Why do we sometimes consider death to be the ultimate failure? Tibetan Buddhists say that we are, without a doubt, fearful of death, and this is why we try to ignore it.
Because death is certain and the time of death is uncertain, we must focus on the moment. We should not be worrying about tomorrow, because we do not even know if we will live to see tomorrow. The father and son meet an old man, who is fittingly described as a “threadbare Buddha.” He says to them, “People were always getting ready for tomorrow… Tomorrow wasnt getting ready for them. It didnt even know they were there.” To say that we will live tomorrow is saying, in essence, that we will not die today. When we say this, we continue to push death back further and further. When we finally encounter it, we do not know what to do because we kept pushing it aside. This outright denial of the death causes suffering. When we suffer, we forget to enjoy that every moment in life is precious.
Tibetan Buddhists say we must be mindful of death in order to become more accepting of it. As Kadampa makes clear, it is important to think of death throughout the day. There are different ways to go about doing this. We can meditate on death, we can take care of the dying, or we can picture our own death. It is apparent that reading The Road is a similar practice.
McCarthy’s descriptions bring our imaginations as close to death as possible. He writes, “The wall beyond held a frieze of human heads, all faced alike, dried and caved with their taut grins and shrunken eyes,” and later, “A mile on and they began to come upon the dead. Figures half mired in the blacktop, clutching themselves, mouths howling.” He is trying to bring this world to life. He wants us to see death, and he wants to make sure it is right in front of our eyes. With all these images of death, we cannot help but ponder it.
McCarthy references a similar idea at another point, earlier on, during a conversation the man remembers having with his wife. “We used to talk about death, she said. We dont anymore. Why is that? …It’s because it’s here. There’s nothing left to talk about.” Tibetan Buddhists believe it is good to talk about death, meditate on death, and imagine death. Though it can be a morbid topic, we should do this while we live. Gamawa, another Tibetan monk, says, “We should be frightened of death now. We should be fearless at the time of death. In fact, we are the opposite; we are not afraid now, but at the time of death we dig our fingernails into our chest.”[iii] McCarthy points out that there is no use talking about death when it is here on our doorstep, instead, our minds should be peaceful and clear.
If we follow the advice of Tibetan Buddhists, we will be confronting death throughout life. When we are living in the face of death, we will come to appreciate the worth of life so much more. This is exactly what McCarthy shows with the man and his son who are always in the midst of death: “He scooted forward and reached again and laved up a handful of it and smelled it and tasted it and then drank. He lay there a long time, lifting up the water to his mouth a palmful at a time. Nothing in his memory anywhere of anything so good.” There are many more occasions in the book that show how much enjoyment and appreciation they get from the simplest and most ordinary things.
Here, we can reference the old cliché, “Live every moment as if it was your last.” It may be corny, but it is true. And when we start looking around, we notice these clichés are everywhere. It is not just a teaching in the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. It is not just a theme in The Road. Life and death are the two most fundamental ideas seen throughout literature, religion, music, art, you name it. Even McCarthy himself has said that it’s not really literature unless you’re writing about life and death.[iv]
Our lives are filled with the reminder that life is precious and death is close at hand. We never know when we are going to die or when our loved ones are going to die, so we must be thankful for every moment, we must appreciate every breath, and we must remind our family and friends how much they mean to us.
When we begin to understand that we live in the face of death at all times, we can appreciate life for all its worth. Sogyal Rinpoche writes, “when we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, heartbreaking sense of fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being.”[v]
Tibetan Buddhism and The Road work very well together, even if they were not intended for one another. Both the teachings and the story emphasize imagining death and dying in order to more fully appreciate the lives that we have been given. After all, “Life is pretty damn good. [We] should be grateful.”
[i] Quote taken from an interview with Oprah.
[ii]Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism.
[iii] Lopez, Daniel S. “Mindfulness of Death.” In Religions of Tibet in Practice, edited by Daniel S. Lopez.
[iv] I couldn’t find the quote where he said this, but I remember it was mentioned in class. Hopefully I remembered correctly.
[v] Rinbochay, Lati and Jeffrey Hopkins. Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism.
All other quotes are taken from The Road by Cormac McCarthy.