In the spring of 2006 the WCF fielded a conference in Bristol on the theme of Death and Dying presented and organised by the Bristol Chan Group. We had talks, workshops and much discussion. The closing dinner was a fine occasion for Sangha building and getting to know one another. Although the theme might seem gloomy, in fact everyone found the occasion to be of much personal value. Here we present John’s opening talk and a discussion of “Euthanatos”, the good death, contributed by Sister Ruth Furneaux. Eds.
Let us begin with a quotation:
“One thing hastens into being; another hastens out of it. Even while a thing is in the act of coming into existence some part of it has already ceased to be. Flux and change are forever renewing the fabric of the Universe, just as the ceaseless sweep of time is forever renewing the face of eternity. All things fade into the storied past, and in a little while are shrouded in oblivion. Even to those whose lives were a blaze of glory this comes to pass; as for the rest, the breath is hardly out of their bodies before they are lost to sight and hearsay alike.
To what must we aspire? This and this alone; the just thought, the unselfish act, the tongue that utters no falsehood, the temper that greets each passing event as something pre-destined, expected- emanating from the one source and origin.”
So wrote Marcus Aurelius in 161 AD, the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor, campaigning against the barbarians on the eastern frontiers. The sentiments are ones of which the Buddha would approve. There is here a certain affinity between the Buddha’s thought and that of one of the founders of Western humanism.
Meditations on death and passing form the fabric of many religions – indeed, they are perhaps at root primarily what they are on about. Yet many of them end by putting forward false hopes and illusions of which the Buddha would not approve. Three main preoccupations lie at the root of most religions:
It is probably the third that has the greatest influence on thought about the other two.
Let us be clear: Science, which is a description of nature, says nothing about what happens after death. Indeed how could it? Likewise, modern Humanism, which is sometimes critical of reductionistic science, remains none the less agnostic about what happens after death. Yet, outside the academies, we all continue to wonder. Christians still have their Miltonic Heaven and Hell. Islamic terrorists go to paradise with their houris.
Buddhism is not so clear. There are two traditions, which we may call Folk Buddhism or vernacular belief and in contrast the philosophical perspective.
In Folk Buddhism there is a strong emphasis on reincarnation stemming from traditions in the ancient world well established before Buddhism. Yet the idea here is not at all what many people actually suppose it to be: it is not the ‘you’ or ‘me’ in our complex selfhoods that are reborn in successive lives - far from it. What passes from one death into a new life is ‘unfinished business’ i.e. incompleted karmic retribution. Karma depends on intention, not at all on accident or unintentional acts. So, what passes on are the intentions of a previous time that have not yet reaped their reward or come-uppance.
The Tibetans express this is some detail. The embryo is formed from egg, sperm and social residues of your previous unfulfilled intentions that unite in fertilisation. It is therefore a threefold entity that emerges from the womb. This set of ideas can be translated quite readily into a modern understanding. When we are born, and indeed even prior to birth, we receive influences from the social conditioning of parents, and later on from teachers, that come down from previous generations. Indeed, a third – social – element quickly impacts on our biological lives coming from the psychological past, even a remotely distant past. A modern humanist is not however arguing that there is a direct link between what YOU did in a past life and the result in the present because the karma that influences the child has a collective origin.
In the philosophical tradition there is no self other than an imputation from the activities of the skandhas. The idea of ‘me’ is an inference or imputation arising from observing sensation, perception, cognition, and karmic origins in consciousness. Cognitive construction creates an ‘I’ much as electronic processes create an image on a television screen. The experience of ‘me’ is virtual. Yet we become attached to this image as all we have – we long to sustain it, fear its loss, dread its death. We invent endless scenarios whereby we can survive death to live again elsewhere and where we hope our enemies will suffer for their sins. We surround our lives with heavens and hells that become the objectivised prisons of our own making.
Yet, if we actually examine this precious self, this I or me, in yogic meditation as indeed the Buddha did, we discover that it consists entirely of memories, hopes, and complex projects to obtain our ends – all of which constitute a kind of narrative. We are one and all stories – hopefully believing we have existence. And of course indeed we have - but not in the form that we think conventionally. There is indeed EXISTENCE but only NOW – the past is dead, the future not yet arisen. Instead of flowing with this flux using skilful means to negotiate its rapids we resist it, invent fixities and defend them – sometimes to the death. Buddha said – let go of this illusory self – flow with the moment – right now even over the waterfall.
“What did the earwig say as he fell over the cliff – ‘ere we go”1
Zen practices suggest we should take our vivid awareness of the present right into the moment of death. This is an idea of which Marcus Aurelius would have approved. If life becomes impossible, he said – let it go. Yet, in our present age with its emphasis on mundane individuality, it becomes difficult to think of self-dissolution without horror. So, we hide death away. Unlike Greek mountain villages where the elderly sit smiling on the doorsteps, we put our old people in badly smelling homes often far from being residences of kindness, indeed sometimes of loveless starvation. The fact is – culturally – we fear death even though death is as natural as birth. If you want life you get both. Yet, sometimes we do meet the challenge of death in such a way that its sting is surely removed and the fear conquered.
Don Ball was given the choice of living helplessly on a drip for six more months or quietly slipping away in a kindly coma. He signed his life away and waited. I was with him for a while on his last day. Some years before he had been on a WZR with me in Wales. He had chosen to work with the question ‘What is Death?’ His answer on the last day of the retreat was: “John- Death is Now!” As the day of his passing came, he was able to recall that profound experience and told me so. Just before he slipped away he told his son “You know I am enjoying dying – but I am afraid no one will believe it.“ His son told him “I think your friends will understand.”
Another friend recently began to suffer from a severely debilitating form of lung cancer. He foresaw months of slow suffering not only for himself but also for his loved ones. He made up his mind to travel to Zurich to precipitate a legally assisted suicide. His wife, son and two others accompanied his wheel chair on the flight to Zurich. Afterwards they spoke with admiration of the kindness and compassion with which the whole matter was resolved. As the hour approached, he spoke individually with each of his loved ones and then they sat together with him as the glass of terminating drugs was brought. He sat up and lifted the cup. With a broad smile, “Cheers!” he said and departed.
But what to do where fear remains? The Buddhist seeks to apply both wisdom and compassion. Wisdom to face the koan ‘what is Death?’ and compassion to be with those who are nearing the end of their lives in kindly understanding. Mindfulness allows attention to the possibility that the sick and ill know more than you think. Recent research suggests that forms of consciousness persist often long beyond their apparent disappearance. Great care is needed. Care of the elderly should be in preparation for death and not in denial of death. Carers need to have come to terms with their own attitudes to their own death. They need training in the practice of empathy with failing minds and to support intelligence where it remains through discussion that is not condescending. There are deep problems in Western institutional care of both elderly and the dying to which Buddhist thinkers need to address themselves and make their voices heard.
I want to conclude with a further quotation, this time from the Mahãparinibbãna Sutta describing the response of monks to the death of the Buddha at Kusinara. After Ananda had discussed with the Buddha what to do with his remains after his death, the text reads as follows:
“And the Venerable Ananda went into his lodging and stood lamenting, leaning on the door post. Alas I am still a learner with much to do! And the teacher is passing away, who was so compassionate to me!” Then the Buddha enquired of the monks where Ananda was and they told him. So he said to a certain monk; “Go monk and say to Ananda from me: Good friend Ananda, the teacher summons you.” “Very good Lord” said the monk and did so. “Very good, friend” Ananda replied to the monk and he went to the Lord, saluted him and sat down to one side. And the Lord said, “Enough Ananda, do not weep and wail! Have I not told you that all things that are pleasant and delightful are changeable, subject to separation and becoming other? So how could it be, Ananda - since whatever is born compounded is subject to decay - how could it be that it should not pass away?”
And he goes on to praise Ananda, encourage him and recommend him to the monks. Later on, after the Buddha’s death, the Venerable Anuruddha uttered this verse:
“No breathing in and out – just and with steadfast heart the Sage who is free from desire has passed away to peace- with mind unshaken he endured all pains; by Nirvana the illumined mind is freed.”
And the Venerable Ananda said, “Terrible was the quaking of the Earth. Men’s hair stood on end when the all accomplished Buddha passed away. And those monks who had not yet overcome their passions wept and tore their hair, raising their arms, throwing themselves down and twisting and turning crying, “All too soon the Blessed One has passed away, all too soon the Well-farer, has passed away, the Eye of the World has disappeared. But those monks who were free from craving endured mindfully and clearly aware saying, “All compounded things are impermanent – what is the use of this?”
Then the Venerable Anuruddha and the Venerable Ananda spent the rest of the night in conversation on Dharma.2
Let us now proceed to hear what our speakers and workshop leaders have to show us.
1 A saying much loved by my father.
2 Walshe,M (translator) 1995. Mahãparinibbãna Sutta. In: The Long Discourses of the Buddha. A translation of the Digha Nikãya.Wisdom.Boston Mass. p 265f.