Wait A Minute! ~ LIVING & DYING

Some time ago, I had a letter from a lady who was quite distraught after running over a stray kitten she had taken in as a stray and nursed back to health. She had lavished care and attention on it and been extra cautious when driving in and out of the garage where she had housed it, but in spite of all this, the poor cat managed to get in the way of the wheels one day, and ............ RIP!

Just as with the birth and growth of anything, so, too, with Compassion: pain is involved; in fact, the very word means ‘to suffer, or feel, with’. It was compassion that had induced the lady to take in the abandoned kitten in the first place, and devote time and care to restoring it to health, seeing it was properly housed, fed and so on. Now she blames herself for its death and feels that she killed it, which is unjust to herself and only increases her suffering, and will never bring the kitten back to life anyway. Of course she feels sorry that something she cared for and loved is now dead; but although it died beneath the wheels of her car as she reversed out of the garage, she did not kill it, simply because she didn’t know it was there at the time, and would never intentionally have harmed it in any way.

We live within limits; all that is born will die, and it’s only a matter of time before we go off into the Void, and although there is nothing we can do to prevent this, there is plenty that we can do about the limits of ignorance, which is our greatest foe. While we are here, we should do what we can to alleviate and remove pain—in others as well as in ourselves—but, more than anything else, should try to understand the nature of life—how uncertain and insecure it is—and strive to help others to understand, too, for just as we are grateful if someone helps us to understand something, there are lots of people who would appreciate a bit of help from us. I know someone who imparts a little Dharma to people while giving driving lessons; he once told me about this, so: “I explain that driving involves not only driving skills but also a moral attitude, and can be compared to daily life, since all the time one is on the road the situation changes and is never the same; hence one has to be aware of everything that is happening on the road. I start my lessons with a warning of what people should try to avoid if they want to drive a motor vehicle: first, not to drink and drive; second, not to get upset or angry and drive; third, not to think too much about other things and drive; and fourth, not to drive when one is very tired. If one pays attention to such things, driving will be an art and a pleasure for everyone”. This is practical Dharma at the wheel.

Feeling and fearing—but seldom deeply understanding—the insecurity of life, we take out insurance policies of various kinds in an attempt to protect and buffer ourselves; man has done this for millions of years. And neither is it just humans who do this; it seems instinctual and can be seen throughout the animal realm, with birds building nests, squirrels storing up nuts for the winter, beavers constructing their lodges, down to tiny insects like spiders spinning their webs, and ants and termites providently working for the future. Nor is it confined to animals and insects, because—as I mentioned elsewhere in this book—plants also plan and provide for the future. It must be something that Nature, down the foggy ruins of time, has built into the genes of all living things. This causes us to query somewhat the well-known words of Jesus: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin, yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”; the ‘lilies of the field’ are not so improvident as they might appear; only by a long process of evolution have they become what they are; they didn’t start out like that in Jurassic Park.

Money, fame, power and the uses and abuses thereof, are all used as insurance policies, especially in times—most of human history and pre-history, in fact—when there were no things like welfare states or social security systems; it was expected that children should care for their parents in their old age. It is still this way in poor and not-so-poor countries. Wives, husbands, parents and friends are also insurance policies.

Religion and philosophy—the ‘love of wisdom’—are the ultimate insurance policies, on which people fall back and hold onto for support when all else fails. Often, however, it is too late then; the time for becoming religious and seeking wisdom is before disaster strikes, not afterwards.

We hear a lot nowadays of ‘death-bed conversions’ from one religious ‘brand name’ to another. I will not say ‘from one religion to another’ because that is rarely so. It is more the case of people whose minds—understandably—are fearful at the known or expected approach of death, and who succumb to the seductive wiles and promises of those who are drawn to death-beds like vultures in the hope of winning last minute converts with inducements of different kinds, including fear and threats. It is usually just a change of name rather than of substance, for if the dying had spent more time in trying to understand their religion when they were younger, healthier and better able to, and had also done some research into other religions—as we all should—they would have more to lean on and would probably be less afraid and more composed at the end. Of course, I am speaking from conjecture and generalizing here, and there is no blueprint that everyone can and should follow; surely, the end, and the way it is faced, will be different with every individual. If I have lived and died before, I do not remember it, and am yet to face my death in this life (although I have probably come near to it many more times than I was aware of); how I shall fare—supposing it doesn’t come suddenly and without warning—I cannot imagine, but must wait and see. Meanwhile, life provides us with many opportunities to prepare for it.

The concept of God as held by Christians and others, can be, at one level—I will admit—reassuring (it is also terrifying if one thinks about it in a wider way!) When I was a Christian I used to believe in God and pray, but that was long ago, and I now find the concept unsatisfactory and childish. Far from accepting the statement in Genesis that God created man in his own image, I feel that it was the other way around: that Man created God from his hopes and fears in his image! What, then, do I have in place of an anthropomorphic God* from which I draw strength and comfort? I have Dharma, the central principle of which is the Law of Cause-and-Effect; but this is not a person with likes and dislikes, unpredictable and volatile emotions and so on—as is the Christian God—and prayers of supplication to it, promises, pleas, bargaining, ceremonies, offerings, mediating priests, etc., will have no effect whatsoever, just as praying for light in a dark cave will never dispel the darkness; we must strive for understanding and light, and the more we acquire of these, the better equipped we will be to face whatever life throws at or brings us.

This might appear rather stark and stoical philosophy and I know that it will not suit everyone, but there are plenty of people who do and would subscribe to it, who are fed-up with airy-fairy ideas and untenable doctrines. I might have stated it rather forcefully and some people might think I am trying to deprive others of hope, but this is not so; I am trying to impart something that people may accept or reject as they see fit, something that I feel is better and more reliable than the ‘pie-in-the-sky’ hope held unthinkingly by vast numbers of people around the world; with so many negative ideas thriving therein, I feel I have something positive and constructive to contribute.

If we examine hope, we will find that it is always accompanied by fear; hope is, in fact, the other side of the coin of fear. Where there is hope, there is fear; where there is fear, there is hope; they go together inseparably and perhaps we can say that they are really two different names for the same thing, because when we hope for something, there is fear of not getting it, and when we are afraid of something, there is hope that it will not happen. Can we separate hope of winning or succeeding from the fear of losing or failing? And the things that we hope/fear for: is there a realistic basis for them? If we would examine them, we would almost certainly find that we have merely adopted the standards of others, which they adopted from others, back and back; in other words, our hopes and fears—especially of things abstract and unseen, like what will happen after we die, heaven and hell, etc.—are inherited from others. This is not to say they have no substance and are false and illusory, but neither does it say that they are time tested and true. It merely says that they should be thought about and investigated.

Since Buddhism rejects the notion of a personal ‘Creator-God’ who or which will take the faithful to heaven upon death and cast the sinners into hell forever, how are Buddhists taught to face death?

Buddhism teaches and encourages us to develop self-reliance while we are alive and able to, and to accept responsibility for our own living; it teaches us to face the inevitable end—if death is the end—with understanding, courage and detachment. It teaches that rather than praying/hoping/fearing, it is better to focus on good and positive things like the virtues of the Three Jewels: the Buddha, as the one who discovered and revealed the Way, the Dharma, as both the Way and the eventual Goal, and the Sangha, or those who have experienced or attained—in some degree, at least—the Goal that the Buddha indicated. We should reflect on the virtuous things we have done and accomplished in our lives—not in a manner, however, that would cause us to think egoistically, “How good I have been!”, which we must always be alert against, but because such accomplishments are indications that we have, at times, drawn near to Dharma. We should recall things we have done that were of benefit to others, particularly things of public benefit rather than restricted to specific individuals, things which helped us to transcend personality, both of self and of others. Thinking of how one’s life has been useful to others—of how it has not been a complete waste or in vain, and that good seeds were sown—will help to counteract fear and uncertainty and enable the mind to become peaceful and joyful, buoyant and light, and will make the passing easier. As far as possible, the mind should not be allowed to dwell on negative things like fear, worry, anger and regret for things done and undone. Remorse is useful and productive of good while we are alive and able to correct things, but should not be indulged in when it comes time to die, as it makes the mind sorrowful and unclear and drags us down, rather than helping us to ‘soar from life’s low vale’. Most useful of all at the time of death, however, is the insight—penetrating and clear—into the nature of life that we experienced while alive, as this influences us very much, of course; it is this, most of all, that can carry us through, and this is one of the reasons we are advised to take advantage of our opportunities while we are healthy and well to inquire, investigate, meditate on and apply ourselves to Dharma, instead of living mainly and merely to enjoy ourselves, so that at the end we will be better prepared.

It is good, too—very good—if it can be arranged—either by us in advance or by others for us at the time—for someone to be present at the death-bed to talk us over, someone who understands and who might inspire, uplift and encourage us, someone who cares. It need not be an ordained person; there is no monopoly on sympathy, love and wisdom. It is often enough for someone like that to be there, without saying or doing anything special. Help can be rendered on a non-verbal level, too, if words are not appropriate, such as when the languages of the dying and the helper are different. I was once called to visit an old lady in a nursing home who had been comatose for some weeks and whose son felt was near the end. Her mouth had been open for some days, unable to close, it seemed. Because she knew no English, I did not endeavor to speak to her as I sat by the bedside, but asked her son for a moist face towel, which I held and concentrated on while trying to tune-in to her consciousness and send her positive thoughts. After some minutes, I gave the face towel back to the son and told him to gently wipe his mother’s face with it. As he did so, her mouth closed. Later that night, a nurse phoned to inform the son that his mother had just passed away peacefully.

For all our religious and philosophical beliefs and theories about what happens after death, no-one really knows. Now, let us suppose—just suppose, if we are not afraid to—that this life is all we’ve got and there is nothing further beyond death; certainly, it is a belief or even a conviction that many people hold, and it is, as far as we know, a possibility, so let’s consider that it might be so (I’m not saying that it is, mind, but just looking at the possibility of it, and cannot prove, one way or the other, that it is or is not). Would that preclude or invalidate any attempt to lead a moral or religious life? Would it render meaningless any effort to make sense out of life, with all its pain and confusion? I don’t think so; on the contrary, if we lived nearer to the present than we do, instead of worrying and speculating about what—if anything—lies beyond death, we would probably make a better job of living than we do. There would be a good reason to live fully and responsibly if we thought that this is the only time we have; we would not defer our living until later—after-death living, so to speak. We don’t know if there is life after death, but there is certainly life before it!

Life, from the infinite past, is fulfilled and expressed in each one of us. Feeling this deeply, we ask ourselves, “What is my role in this great drama? What can I leave to those who will come after me?” Such soul-searching will counteract the tendency in us to be complacent and take everything for granted, and discover that we all have qualities, talents and abilities that can be of benefit to others. And shall we always put a price on and market these abilities? Or shall we offer them,

with love?

[*Anthropomorphic means ‘having human form’, ‘in human form’.]


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