In many countries, death is generally looked upon as a tragedy. It is an event marked by an extravagant display of powerful, raw emotions called grief, and elicits sympathy and condolences from acquaintances, both near and far. Viewed dispassionately from a distance, it looks like an orgy of wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Death is the opposite of life, they say. This attitude solidifies the idea of the unjust nature of death, as the epitome of all that is evil and undesirable. In such times, it is often heard said that death is the work of hell. But this is not quite accurate, in fact, not at all.
Death is as ubiquitous as birth itself and every known living creature, good or bad, young or old, beautiful or ugly must go through it, sooner or later; and in Buddhism, this event does not spare even the celestial beings though their lives may span aeons to seem like an eternity. Yet without enlightenment, the Deathless State is not attained even by God.
In the West where I had lived for 10 years, death is a taboo subject, with most people continuing to live their lives as if their own deaths would never come. The person who dares mention death is considered morbid. Death is a topic unfit for conversation or discussion. If one mentioned it, it is often couched in indirect and obscure language which, in the long run, is not a compassionate way of dealing with the reality of death. This attitude does not prepare one to face death’s inevitability with wisdom and compassion.
Instead, shock, disbelief and denial are the hallmarks of this attitude when confronted by mortality. People are upset when a young person dies, even more so if it’s a child. The general uproar often heard is, ‘this should never happen; it is not the normal course of things.’ But reality dictates otherwise, as it occurs naturally more often than we realize.
And because of this, our distorted perceptions are reflected in our beliefs and our everyday dealings which further reinforce our confusion, frustration, anger and aggression, with not a glimmer of genuine wisdom and compassion. This happens as the facts are twisted to suit one’s faith and one’s faith is not adapted to reflect the facts. This disconnection of faith and reality creates a psychic turmoil within an individual which further triggers frustration, anger and hatred, culminating in a full-blown crisis seemingly beyond one’s control.
Life is a learning process. Being truly human is a rare event in the cosmos. A human has the capacity to understand and see reality as it is – not how he wants it to be, but how it really is, and then act accordingly. The attitude of wanting to tame and then dominate nature is an unfortunate expression of unenlightened behavior. Nature is not the enemy. Rather, we are our own worst enemy.
A language student who happened to be a doctor recounted that her mother was so scared of death that she refused to view or go near the remains of dead acquaintances. Said mother was in her advanced 60s, and no amount of persuasion could relieve her of this phobia.
The French philosopher Voltaire said that if one wants to know the mathematical concept of infinity, one only needs to look at the extent of man’s stupidity. One has seen the ravages of man’s own rapacity and ignorance, their direct impact on the environment, enough to make you think: there must be an alternative, a more humane, and enlightened way. And there is, if one cares to look.
Ajahn Brahm, who is a Buddhist monk residing in Australia, once mentioned in one of his now famous lectures on the internet, about an incident that occurred in England.
A mother went inside the temple where people were attending a Buddhist ceremony on a warm, sunny day. She left her sleeping boy inside the car and locked it to ensure that her child was secure and undisturbed. While everyone was inside the temple, the car overheated and burst into flames, consuming the car and everything in it. The mother, in dazed confusion and grief, as with everyone else there, could only manage to ask why this happened. And the officiating monk of the now disrupted ceremony replied, “ Because, he was born.” From a western perspective, this may sound callous but with more discernment, it was the most compassionate expression at that moment.
During the Buddha’s time 2,600 years ago, a similar incident occurred – a young child died and its mother, Kisa Gotami, was stricken with such grief it drove her to the brink of madness. This incident triggered a whole series of events that eventually led her to meet the Buddha, whose skillful handling of her request of bringing back her dead son’s body back to life with one mustard seed coming from a house that had not experienced death, in time, led her to the realization of the futility of finding the elixir of life, and this understanding further steered her to renounce worldly life by entering the order of nuns, and finally to gain enlightenment. She became one of the most illustrious women disciples of the Buddha.
Birth is the consequence of death and vice-versa. Death is not the opposite of life. Rather, life is the matrix upon which birth and death intertwine or are entangled.
By not seeing life as an enemy to be subdued, but rather as a friendly tool for learning its hidden lessons through direct experience, one therefore reaches the Deathless State of which the scriptures speak of – without the intervention of any divinity, but only by dint of one’s efforts.
Life gives both positive and negative experiences. What matters is not wallowing even farther into these experiences, but what one’s attitude towards them is, and more importantly, what one does with the experience. A setback when viewed as a positive teacher becomes a friend. And so, should our attitude be towards death.