Filed in Death & Dying

Death Becomes Us

Helen Tworkov

Imagine that a great sage arrives in the West to give the secret teachings on living and dying. Thousands of people pack the stadium. The master says: “We are born. We die. The sooner you understand this, the better off you are.” Then he stands up and bows good-bye. But everyone gets angry and says, "We already know that. We want our money back." So he sighs and continues.

Perhaps the sage quotes from the historical Buddha (p. 20) or from the Tibetan master, Dilgo Khyentse (p. 23). Maybe he discusses particular practices (see Brown, Rosenberg, Sogyal Rinpoche) or suggests contemplating the reminder that Rick Fields repeats (p. 42): “Death is real. It comes without warning. This body too will be a corpse.”

Death is real. Yet our denial remains so entrenched and convoluted that the master must return, not to the reality of death, but to the slipperiness of our own minds: Death is not the problem. Fear of death, attachment to this life, to this body, cherishing this form in the face of inevitable change—these are the delusions that cause anguish and suffering and leech life from the living. Fear of death is fear of life.

Inspired by the master’s discourse and by the exhortation to wake up, people leave the stadium making silent vows to stop squandering their life on petty grievances, to forever dissolve greed and anger and abandon self-pity. But then, on the way home, their internal televisions click on again. They channel surf through relationship anxieties, office problems, clothes, sex, food, cranky children, mortgage payments, and soon enough, they need to be reminded.

This sixth anniversary issue, guest edited by Joan Halifax, is devoted exclusively to the Buddhist teachings on The Great Matter of Life and Death; their pragmatism and candor provide benefits for people of all persuasions in societies such as our own, where “the great matter” of death has been treated as the great taboo. Yet even when a cultural recognition prevails, we see that individual acceptance does not come naturally—for one theme reiterated by the voices in this issue, from classic to contemporary, Asian and Western, is how easily we continue to live forgetting that we’re going to die.

Those close to death don’t need to be reminded. What they often do need is a companion to remain present, without grasping or recoiling, and most important , without changing the subject (see “Village Women: A Roundtable,” p. 61). For this reason Buddhists will continue to play an important role in what has been labeled the “death and dying movement.” As immature practitioners, we have not dissolved our own fears and anxieties. Yet the dharma encourages an ease with impermanence, change, transformation, and death. And the very possibility of becoming comfortable with death itself is a radical departure from a culture burdened with a vision of death as morbid, an affront to dignity, a reproach, or moral judgment.

Buddhism’s insistence that death is innately a part of daily life—not a process or event confined to the end—has been perceived by some Westerners as itself morbid, further fueling a misconception of Buddhism as nihilistic and life denying. Even though many caregivers bring the Buddha’s teachings to their work and offer a blessed alternative to “the American way of death,” these teachings are not particularly for the dying; nor do they ever position “death-as-separate-from-life” at the heart of “life-as-separate-from-death.”

The Great Matter addresses the young, old, sick, and healthy, whose capacity to live fully, completely, remains stunted and handicapped by the fear of change, dissolution, death. They’re for anyone who wants to absorb—and function from—the recognition that whether we have one day left or five decades, that our lives are, as the Diamond Sutra puts it, like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud.

So you should view all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, a dream.

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