Friday, July 1, 2016

Finding emotional middle-ground in responding to death: A Buddhist perspective

I and many friends have endured multiple deaths this year—so much so that it’s one of the biggest themes of 2016 for several of us. One friend even lost her adult son last month. Because of this, I felt it apropos to write another post about our range of experiences with grief. In particular, I dedicate this post to Julie E. and Lin D. 

We see so many things in extremes, and are often not even presented with a middle way of seeing the same concept. Regarding death, we’re advised to, instead of seeing it as a tragedy to mourn, see it as a celebration of life. Some people can make this switch without a lot of emotional turmoil, but this is too extreme for people who aren’t emotionally wired to think positively about death to begin with. (One emotion this conflict brings up is guilt, which I’ll discuss in my next post.) 

My practice of Nichiren Buddhism has directly helped me to deal with the four significant deaths I’ve experienced since late 2014, because of the emotional middle-ground it strikes between being devastated and celebratory. The middle ground I’ve found in Buddhism is seeing death as part of the continuum of life. Buddhists believe that we don’t just die and that’s it, or die and go to a spirit world never to return in any form to this or any other physical realm. Buddhism teaches that we can come back to this world, or any other inhabited world in the universe, and that we have a say in where we go next. 

So, the positive-feeling aspect in our response to death comes from our understanding that the person who died gets to continue living and contributing to other people’s happiness in some other form, whether or not we have the opportunity of seeing them in this new form before we die. This is not to say that Buddhists don’t feel upset or grieve the death of loved ones, or that we see death only in terms of celebration. It just means we’re not as likely to plunge into long periods of despair or to seem like it’s nothing to experience any sadness about at all. 

SGI President Daisaku Ikeda beautifully sums up the Buddhist view of death in an article that appears to have only ever been published in the Philippines, as part of a 1998 essay series featured in the magazine Mirror. 

Many people asked me for a copy of this passage after hearing me read it at John Suggs’s funeral or in my Buddhist experience talk, so I have included below the abbreviated version of it that I read. 

“… [T]he idea that our lives end with death [is] a serious delusion. … everything in the universe .. [is] part of a vast living web of interconnection. The vibrant energy we call life which flows throughout the universe has no beginning and no end. Life is a continuous, dynamic process of change. Why then should human life be the one exception? Why should our existence be an arbitrary, one-shot deal, disconnected from the universal rhythms of life? 

“…Death makes room for renewal and regeneration. Death should therefore be appreciated, like life, as a blessing. Buddhism views death as a period of rest, like sleep, by which life regains energy and prepares for new cycles of living. Thus there is no reason to fear death, to hate or seek to banish it from our minds. 

“… To die well, one must have lived well. For those who have lived true to their convictions, who have worked to bring happiness to others, death can come as a comforting rest, like the well-earned sleep that follows a day of enjoyable exertion. 

“An awareness of death enables us to live each day—each moment—filled with appreciation for the unique opportunity we have to create something of our time on Earth. I believe that in order to enjoy true happiness, we should live each moment as if it were our last. … And confronting the reality of death actually enables us to bring unlimited creativity, courage and joy into each instant of our lives.” 

Image: "Caring Hands" by Karla Joy Huber, 1995, colored pencil

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