As we advance in age, death becomes less and less an abstraction. It becomes a reality that we have to honestly reckon with.
Some of my friends are having a difficult time. They have aging parents who are either sick or dying. Being good children, they dedicate their time to take care of their parents at their last stage of their lives. I find this very admirable and touching. Last month, I was invited to give a Zen talk to an audience of patients under hospice care. That speaking engagement did not materialize. But death is an important topic. The art of dying is an integral part of the art of living. The Stoic philosopher, Seneca, said, “A whole lifetime is needed to learn how to live, and — perhaps you will find this more surprising — a whole lifetime is needed to learn how to die.” This short essay is dedicated to all my friends and sentient beings troubled by the prospect of death, either for themselves or for their loved ones.
How can we comfort the dying? How can we console those who grieve? How can we find happiness in a world of impermanence?
Most world religions console those who grieve by pointing to an afterlife. But there is an alternative — instead of fighting the law of impermanence, you accept it. Acceptance is an underappreciated virtue. This is Buddha’s approach. In Buddhist literature, there is a story of Kisa Gotami, a young mother who was driven to madness because her infant child died. In her grief, she carried the corpse of her child on her back as she wandered around town. She would not let go. Some kind folks advised Gotami to seek the counsel of the Buddha. When she came to the Buddha for help, Buddha told her to go door to door to find a household that had never had death in the family, then asked for some mustard seeds.
Gotami followed Buddha’s instructions. She knocked at every door in her town. She could not any such household. At the end of the day, Gotami was still empty-handed. She sat at the river bank and watched the setting sun. By then, she realized that there is no family which is not touched by death. She now understood the unreasonableness of her request to be an exception. She came to accept the reality of impermanence. Right at that moment, Gotami was enlightened. Gotami became one of the first enlightened women in the history of Buddhism.
Many people make enlightenment into a very mysterious, magical thing. But enlightenment is actually very simple. It is has three parts — (1) seeing reality, (2) accepting reality, and (3) letting go. Letting go is the secret of true freedom. One cannot truly enjoy life without accepting the reality of aging, sickness and dying.
Every year, I talk about death at least twice — one in Spring and one in Fall. In Spring, I talk about the beauty of the cherry blossoms. The beauty of the cherry blossoms has two sides to it. On the one hand, it is about the passion of awakening from the cold Winter and blooming. On the other hand, it is also about the transience of life. The beautiful cherry blossoms don’t last. They stay for perhaps a week or so. Then, after a night of rain, they will be gone. We see their petals scattered in the wind, on the ground, in the streams. It is precisely because their blossoms have an expiration date that we treasure their moment of bloom so much. If the bloom were to last forever, we would not be so touched by its passing. This is perhaps the upside of our mortality — it forces us to try to make something of our limited life. Cherry blossom time typically coincides with Easter holiday. Jesus had a similar message, although I wonder how many Christians noticed it. Jesus said, “ Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” There is much wisdom in this teaching. This is what Alan Watts called the wisdom of insecurity. When Christians celebrate Christ’s resurrection, do they also ponder this— that without Christ’s dying, there will be no celebration of new life?
Another good time to talk about dying is in the Fall. We are touched by the passion and the vibrancy of the Fall colors. It is one reason why I choose to stay in the Northeast. Nowhere in the country can you see the exquisite beauty of the Autumn foliage. Yet, Autumn forebodes Winter, when life must come to an end. There is a spiritual lesson in this too. The autumn leaves don’t hold on to the branch. They let go. It is because of their letting go that the cycle of life can continue. If the autumn leaves were to stay on forever, we will probably become bored of their colors. The poignant sadness of life lies in the imperative of change. But the beauty and variety of life also hinge on impermanence. Earlier, I found a posting on Instagram which reads, “The leaves are about to show us the beauty of letting go.” So true!
The Japanese Zen masters have a tradition of writing “death poems” on their death beds. Similarly, Chinese Buddhist master, Hong Yin, wrote four words during his last moment. I would translate it as “the mixed feeling of sorrow and joy.” This juxtaposition of two opposite feelings is very interesting. It is more like a mysterious Zen koan. I think I understand his sentiments, but it is difficult to explain in words.
The famous Theravada monk, Ajahn Chah, once said, “ If you let go a little you will have a little happiness. If you let go a lot you will have a lot of happiness. If you let go completely you will be free.” I cannot agree more.