About Death, and About the Dying Process

So many. Of. My. Friends. Colleagues. Acquaintances.

They are leaving or have already left. It must be my advancing age! Or perhaps I am just more acutely aware of the exits.

I’ve been thinking about death a lot recently. And the dying process. It is written somewhere or other than we begin to die as soon as we are born! How true!

Noted psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-­-Ross has written an excellent book ‘On Death and Dying’ in which she expresses a 5 stage model of death. This model is subject to much discussion, and is not a wholly reliable scientific concept. Yet, Dr. Ross opened up the subject to interpretation.

Accordingly to Dr. Ross, the 5 stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance......The model recognizes that people have to pass through their own individual journey of coming to terms with death and bereavement, etc., after which there is generally an acceptance of reality, which then enables the person to cope.

Yet these stages are entered into only upon hearing that death is imminent. Up until that immensely traumatic moment, we – for the most part – fear death, although every single one of us must go through this doorway into the whatever.

Indeed, death is seldom talked about, much less prepared for.

Yes, of course, we must remain present for as much of our lives as is possible. We were (somehow) put here on this earthly journey in a human body to experience life – with all of its suffering and with all of its precious gifts. It makes absolute sense to treasure the moments of our lives as they happen! Yet, the subject of death in our culture is largely dealt with by the ‘under the carpet with a sweeper’ technique.....!

The study of death and dying is actually called thanatology (Greek word -­- ‘thanatos’ meaning death. So, for the last little while I have been a thanatologist. Imagine that. It is actually a field of study. And I am a yogologist, I suppose, as I love all things having to do with yoga. Anyway, I digress. It’s a fascinating field of study, this death and dying thing.....and this month I’d like to share some of the Buddhist thinking on the subject.

Death and Dying in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition – compiled by Ven. Pende Hawter

Contemplation and meditation on death and impermanence are regarded as very important in Buddhism for two reasons : (1) it is only by recognizing how precious and how short life is that we are most likely to make it meaningful and to live it fully and (2) by understanding the death process and familiarizing ourself with it, we can remove fear at the time of death and ensure a good rebirth.

Because the way in which we live our lives and our state of mind at death directly influence our future lives, it is said that the aim or mark of a spiritual practitioner is to have no fear or regrets at the time of death. People who practice to the best of their abilities will die, it is said, in a state of great bliss. The mediocre practitioner will die happily. Even the initial practitioner will have neither fear nor dread at the time of death. So one should aim at achieving at least the smallest of these results.

There are two common meditations on death in the Tibetan tradition. The first looks at the certainty and imminence of death and what will be of benefit at the time of death, in order to motivate us to make the best use of our lives. The second is a simulation or rehearsal of the actual death process, which familiarizes us with death and takes away the fear of the unknown, thus allowing us to die skilfully. Traditionally, in Buddhist countries, one is also encouraged to go to a cemetery or burial ground to contemplate on death and become familiar with this inevitable event.

The first of these meditations is known as the nine-­-round death meditation, in which we contemplate the three roots, the nine reasonings, and the three convictions, as described below:

A. DEATH IS CERTAIN

1. There is no possible way to escape death. No one ever has, not even Jesus, Buddha, etc. Of the current world population of over 5 billion people, almost none will be alive in 100 years time.
2. Life has a definite, inflexible limit and each moment brings us closer to the finality of this life. We are dying from the moment we are born.
3. Death comes in a moment and its time is unexpected. All that separates us from the next life is one breath.
Conviction: To practise the spiritual path and ripen our inner potential by cultivating positive mental qualities and abandoning disturbing mental qualities.

B. THE TIME OF DEATH IS UNCERTAIN

4. The duration of our lifespan is uncertain. The young can die before the old, the healthy before the sick, etc.
5. There are many causes and circumstances that lead to death, but few that favour the sustenance of life. Even things that sustain life can kill us, for example food, motor vehicles, property.
6. The weakness and fragility of one's physical body contribute to life's uncertainty.
The body can be easily destroyed by disease or accident, for example cancer, AIDS, vehicle accidents, other disasters.
Conviction: To ripen our inner potential now, without delay.

C. THE ONLY THING THAT CAN HELP US AT THE TIME OF DEATH IS OUR MENTAL/SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT (because all that goes on to the next life is our mind with its karmic (positive or negative) imprints.)

7. Worldly possessions such as wealth, position, money can't help.
8. Relatives and friends can neither prevent death nor go with us.
9. Even our own precious body is of no help to us. We have to leave it behind like a shell, an empty husk, an overcoat.
That’s a whole lot to contemplate! And that’s only the first meditation! Anyway, to end this month’s little blurb, there is a beautiful Christian poem on death which follows:

Death Is Nothing At All by Henry Scott Holland (27 January 1847 – 17 March 1918) Mr. Holland was Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford

Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?

I am but waiting for you.
For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just around the corner.

All is well.

Nothing is past; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before only better, infinitely happier and forever we will all be one together with Christ.