Deeply understanding the truth of impermanence – including death – is central to the Buddha’s teachings, but for those of us living in contemporary western society, this can seem a very alien and alienating concept. It’s more the norm to avoid anything to do with death and dying for as long as possible, until at some point, it inevitably confronts us.
Early on in my own practice I noticed this tendency in myself, and a little reluctantly at first, tried to do something about it. With hindsight though, I feel very fortunate to have been able to explore impermanence in various ways over the last few years: through Zen chaplaincy training, doing volunteer hospice work, and helping set up a Death and Dying group when I was on staff at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. (Six years later, that group is still going strong: it’s morphed into the Caregivers Sangha, which continues to explore different aspects of death and dying, and also offers support to anyone in the community who may be injured, ill, or in the last stages of life.)
And, in spite of all that preparation, when my father died in New Zealand a couple of weeks ago, I still felt the impact, and on many different levels simultaneously. He was 87 and had been in poor health for quite a while, so it wasn’t unexpected. Yet when I sat and meditated alongside his body in the funeral home, each time I took another sidelong glance at his face, there was a visceral response in my own body, a primal recoil from the truth of impermanence.
At the same time, during the funeral preparations, people in my father’s community who I barely knew were suddenly willing to start conversations with me about their own experiences of loss. I heard many poignant stories, and the universality of death started to sink in more deeply.
Then a few days ago, it was time to send out my usual bi-annual newsletter to all the people on my mailing list. I wasn’t sure whether to mention my father’s passing or not, but because it was still occupying a large part of my psyche, in some ways it would have felt strange not to acknowledge it.
So in the end I did mention it, and after the newsletter went out, many people emailed saying how much they appreciated my sharing the news. Again, quite a few people movingly described their own experiences of losing someone close to them, and I realised that there are still not many opportunities to talk about death and dying, even though it’s an inevitable aspect of life.
So over the last couple of weeks, I’ve felt like a modern-day Kisa Gotami, belatedly coming to more understanding that actually, death is everywhere – if our eyes and hearts are open to letting it in.
Kisa Gotami was a woman who, according to the discourses, was unable to accept the truth of her only son’s death until the Buddha helped her put the tragedy in a bigger context. The story goes that after her infant son died, Kisa Gotami went into deep denial (as we might say today), and carried his corpse around the village, asking everyone she met for help to cure him. Most people tried to tell her the truth that the child was dead, but she simply couldn’t hear it. Eventually, a kind person suggested that she go to the Buddha and ask for his assistance.
The Buddha saw immediately that Kisa Gotami’s mind was not able to take in the truth, no matter how clearly it might be expressed. So he told Kisa Gotami that he could cure her problem, but that he would need some ingredients to make medicine. He asked her to go into the village and collect some mustard seeds from any households where there had been no death.
Kisa Gotami hurried off, going from house to house with her request. At each house, people were keen to give her a few mustard seeds, but when she questioned the householders further, in every single house, someone had died: a grandparent, mother, father, aunt, uncle, sibling or child … Eventually, Kisa Gotami understood that death is universal. She went back to the Buddha, buried her child and joined the Buddha’s community, and it’s said she later attained the deepest freedom, Nibbana.
Remembering this story, I wondered how Kisa Gotami might access this same truth if she were alive today. And I thought of the “Death Cafe” movement, which I’d read about a couple of years ago. Apparently, the first “death cafe” was established in London in 2011 to allow people, often strangers, to gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. The objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’.
Over the last four years, this idea has spread around the world and according to the Death Cafe website, there have been 1992 death cafes in 32 countries, including Australia and New Zealand. You can find more information about it here: http://deathcafe.com/what/
Although I haven’t been to one myself yet, I love the idea! And it’s renewed my interest in providing opportunities for people to explore this whole theme of death and dying. A few years ago in Massachusetts I offered a couple of day-long workshops to do this. I remember how powerful those experiences were, so if any of you reading this have interest in doing something similar in your own communities, I’d be happy to help facilitate a workshop, discussion group, or even just an individual conversation – whatever feels appropriate, just let me know.
To close, here’s a traditional Buddhist funeral chant:
Anicca vata sankhara
Tesam vupasamo sukho.
All conditioned things are impermanent
Their nature is to arise and pass away.
To live in harmony with this truth
Brings the highest happiness.
May we all realise the highest happiness.