Everything Dies

It’s the Buddha’s basic teaching. It’s life’s universal truth. It’s what we most want to deny. Sallie Jiko Tisdale on how this hard but liberating truth can transform your life.

Death and Life” by Gustav Klimt.

by

Most Buddhists put flowers on the altar. We know flowers are beautiful, but that isn’t their purpose here. Flowers begin to die as soon we cut them; we carefully lay death in the place that symbolizes our awakening. We bow and make offering to this crucial truth, built into the bones of the world.

The Buddha spoke volumes of words, an immense canon, but most of what he said comes down to this: Things change. Change cannot be avoided. Change hurts. The fundamental teaching of all Buddhism can be stated as everything dies. The Buddha taught this, it fills the sutras, it is repeated by our teachers. But most of all, we learn this from our own daily lives.

Do we believe that we will dissolve? No. Not deep down in the root of the small self, because the small self plans to live forever.

You have probably learned a traditional formula or two for this insistent teaching about the transitory nature of all things:

Anicca vata sankhara: “Impermanent, alas, are all formations!”

Sabbe saokhara anicca: “All conditioned factors of existence are transitory.”

In the Maha Satipatthana Sutta: “[One] abides observing the phenomenon of arising…abides observing the phenomenon of passing away…”

As a new practitioner, I learned the catechism this way: “All compounded things are subject to dissolution.” The language was strange when I first heard it, and as a young practitioner I found myself parsing the words: Compounded. Dissolution. Notice, I was told, how everything is put together from other things and will be taken apart. I began to notice. A table, a house, a nation—I could see this.

But if all things are compounded and will dissolve, then I am compounded and I will dissolve. And this was not something I could easily accept.

I pretend to accept my own death. Most senior practitioners do; many of them may even believe they accept it. Buddhists have their own peculiar points of pride, outside the usual stream of things we pride ourselves on, like humility and asceticism. Plenty of us are proud of our equanimity in the face of extinction, at least until we see the headlights bearing down.

So how deep does this acceptance really go? It’s not just Buddhists who kid themselves about being prepared for death. It’s people. It’s all of us who don’t want to admit that we are organisms fighting for life, that we can sagely repeat, “Annica, annica, all compounded things are subject to dissolution,” without really confronting what it means.

Do we believe that we will dissolve? No. Not deep down in the root of the small self, because the small self plans to live forever. When we say that “Everything dies,” we mean everything dies but me. And we can get kind of fancy about this point: Everything dies, including my body (but not my awareness—not me). Everything is subject to dissolution, but something passes through to a new form and doesn’t ever go away (that’s me). In a thousand ways, most of them not entirely conscious, we hold on to the hope that something of this self, somehow, will remain, and we hold on to that even as everything we touch slides away like sand in running water.

Why should we pretend to more confidence than we feel? Everyone is a beginner when it comes to death. We can’t practice it. When my mother died, it was the very first time that my mother died, and I didn’t know how to do that, to be a daughter whose mother was dying, to be a daughter whose mother had ceased to exist. When my best friend died—when my teacher died—I didn’t know how to do it. Each death I’ve known has been the very first one of its kind. Even with experience—I know how grieving feels, I know the altered state of a vigil, I know a lot about that—I can’t entirely prepare. And when I die, it will be the first time this particular me dies, and I will be a beginner.

Yes, I know that we are all dying all the time. That’s what it means to be a compounded thing dissolving—this self, this moment, gives way to the next as the girl gives way to the woman who gives way to the crone. I know that the me of today is not the me of yesterday, and I was also taught that if you die once, you never need to die again. But the real teaching of that formula, the falling away of body and mind for a ceaseless moment, is that you are already dead. I know this, but I don’t think my body does.

Slay the demons of hope and fear. My teacher would say this to me at a time when I was knocking up against deepening anxiety. My stubborn refusal to submit to the meaning of that anxiety made me more anxious still. The stronger I resisted, the deeper my anxiety became, until I sank well into true fear. How could I slay that demon when I was afraid to walk out the door?

We need to talk about death bluntly, honestly, and often.

“Vanitas Life, Death, and Resurrection by Ezio Gutzemberg.

The original Pali word for aversion, dosa, is various and shaded. It can be translated as anger or hatred, denial, projection, distortion, aggression, repulsion, even disgust. That is how it can feel to talk about death, about our own death. But I want you to think about it and I want you to talk about it. Even if you have considered your own death deeply, how often do you talk about it? Do you talk about your private conflicts or confusion, your questions, your plans?

How do we begin? Begin with the fear. Begin with the resistance. We know the question. It is why we begin to practice in the first place: Why do we suffer? And we know the answer. It is why we keep practicing: We suffer because of change and resistance to change.

But knowing the answer does not stop the question from being asked, and knowing an answer today doesn’t mean we will remember the answer tomorrow. Ignorance is the first link in the twelve-fold chain of causation—ignorance of impermanence, of anicca, of anatta, of no-self. This chain feeds itself endlessly—our ignorance of the ephemeral nature of the self building a self over and over. The chain is broken only by the transformation of that first mistake, being ignorant about the compounded nature of the self, which is not separate or bounded at all.

What do you fear about death? Make a list. Be honest. Autopsy? Being alone? Pain? Loss of privacy? Do you fear soiling your bed? Do you fear needles? For what do you hope? Make a list. Be honest. Do you want to see it coming? Do you want to be asleep? Do you want to be very old?

Ask the question again. Why am I afraid? Because I will die. What does that mean? (Wait a minute. Will I die? Do I have to die?) Ask yourself: Are you ready to die? Don’t answer too quickly, because that last one is a doozy. Even people who have made great strides in accepting the fact of their own inevitable dissolution will be flooded with adrenaline when the headlights bear down. The body has its own hopes.

Talk about death. Talk about everything. Imagine it. Write a description of the scene of your death. Where are you? What do you see? What do you smell, taste, touch? Who is there? Are you inside or outside? Is it warm or cool? Is there music, or words?

Imagine it. Write it down. Then tell everyone who needs to know—your family and friends and teacher and doctor—what you want. Make a record of your wishes and don’t forget to decide how your body should be handled after you’re done with it. Make copies and pass them out.

Then tear it up. Let it go with all your heart. This will be the work of the rest of your life.

We can do all this. We can make a plan, buy a plot, fill out the advance directive, decide what music we want to hear as we go. But we can’t plan not to die. The essence of dying is the loss of control. This is the hardest part for many of us—not that death will happen, but that it will happen without our hand on the controls. It will happen as it happens, when it happens, where it happens, and chances are it won’t go according to plan. The only thing we can control, and only with practice, is how we face whatever happens.

These days it is common to talk about a “good death.” (There are many official, even government-issued, definitions of a good death.) A good death is usually defined as one where a person is comfortable and at peace.

For myself, I want to think about a right death, a death that fits the life I’m trying to live. Most deaths include what anyone might call good moments and bad moments, desired and undesired consequences. So it is with our lives, and so it is with death. Right deaths are all different; you can’t define the details. For me, it means a death unhidden—from me and from those who love me. It means a death met with grace and willingness when the time comes. Achieving this will be the work of the rest of my life.

If we can face it, recognizing the reality of death will transform our lives.
Flowers are beautiful because they are brief. Beauty is a measure of fragility and brevity and transformation, created in part by our awareness of the precious value of this moment—this moment is what we love. Death is utterly natural, shared by all; it is also heartbreaking. That equation isn’t dissonant; it’s the nature of love. With our eyes open to change, each thing we meet is luminous and sparkling. To love means to lose. To lose means to love. The last breath allows us to cherish another without reservation, holding nothing back.

Slay the demons, my teacher told me. That meant accepting my anxiety, my fear. It meant coming to see that hope and fear are one thing: fantasies of the unborn future. Hope pulls and fear pushes and together they keep us stuck in what has not happened, living a half-life of imaginary events. I exhausted myself on that mountain, until I gave up. Giving up was the key. Accepting the demons of hope and fear until they slew me, which was what my teacher had been saying all along.

The parable of the burning house told in the Lotus Sutra is a familiar one. The children do not know the house is on fire, so they won’t leave until their father tempts them with carts full of treasure. So we are with our own suffering, our ignorance. The Buddha offers us treasures, including one so great we couldn’t even imagine it.

Some years ago, I had a brief, vivid dream. I saw a room completely engulfed in flames, and several people were walking calmly through the room, smiling. One turned and looked at me and said, “I can’t tell you how safe I feel in this house.”

When I begin to truly accept myself as this compounded thing—a dewdrop, a bubble, a cloud—when I really believe for a moment that my precious me is a passing sigh in the oceanic cosmos of change, then I begin to find safety inside the burning house. I don’t need to escape if I know how to live inside it. Not needing to escape, I no longer need rewards. I just walk through it, aware of dissolving.

Complete Article HERE!

Goodbye and Good Journey

Buddhist funeral traditions around the world help both the dead and their loved ones let go and move on.

Funeral ceremony at Jigenji Soto Zen temple in Yamanashi, Japan.

by

Final Ordination

At the heart of a Zen funeral is ordination. In the ceremony, the deceased is ritually ordained in the same way that living monks and nuns are. This is done because total dedication to spiritual life, of the kind undertaken by monastics, is seen as the natural endpoint of life, even if that wasn’t the case when the person was alive. Ordination is also seen as increasing the probability of a favorable rebirth.

To begin the funeral ceremony, a vigil is maintained by relatives for a day and a night while Zen priests chant from scripture and an altar is prepared in the household. Attending mourners offer okoden, or “condolence money,” to the family of the deceased. The centerpiece of the altar is a portrait of the deceased, alongside candles and offerings of flowers and fruit.

The dead’s ordination is the same as a living nun’s or monk’s. The precept master asks the body three times if the deceased will observe and embody the five precepts. Where a living monk or nun would offer their vow, the corpse’s silence is interpreted as acceptance.

The deceased is then given a Buddhist name and presented with a lineage chart connecting them with enlightened masters stretching all the way back to the Buddha himself. The family of the newly ordained is provided with their own tablet with the deceased’s Buddhist name on it, and the tablets are either kept in the local temple or displayed in the family’s household altar afterward.

Some Zen funerals also feature a shout which is meant to sever the deceased’s bond to the earthly plane. Those who have attended such ceremonies say this also provides a moment of catharsis for the mourners. The funeral concludes with the cremation of the deceased’s body.

What, then, are Zen funerals like for those who are already ordained? The funeral of a monk or nun can take different forms, both long (involving a procession including the deceased’s robes and lineage papers) or very short. The funeral for the founder of the Soto Zen, Dogen, is famously said to have consisted of just a short moment of chanting by his most senior disciple.

Sharing Merit with the Dead

White cloth, a symbol of virtue, marks a Theravadan funeral in the Sri Lankan tradition. Fringed palm fronds and white banners, often with a picture of the deceased, mark the way to the home of the deceased. A white banner declares in large writing: “All conditioned things have the nature of decay.” In the house, mourners in white are greeted by relatives of the dead, the men dressed in sarongs of white cloth and white shirts, the women in white saris. Having been washed by family members, the body of the dead is also attired in white.

The wake, during which the deceased’s family greets and feeds the guests, lasts for several days, which allows those traveling to reach the funeral house. Guests sometimes bring gifts of food for the family.

The funeral ceremony truly begins with the arrival of the monks. They enter the front room of the funeral house, where their feet are washed by a male member of the household. The monastics are guided to chairs draped in white cloth and the deceased’s family kneels before them in respect.

Then the coffin is brought to the front room, or remains in a tent in the front yard if there isn’t room in the house, and a salutation chant to the Buddha is offered, followed by the chants of the three refuges and the five precepts. Parcels of white cloth are presented to the monks, and the mourners chant, “We offer the ‘cloth of the dead’ to the community of monks.” This gift of cloth has a practical origin. Monks in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere in Theravadan societies, rely on the community to feed and clothe them. Payment for presiding over the ceremony comes in the form of white cloth.

In this merit-sharing culture, the Theravadan funeral also features a bowl filled with water by the deceased’s family until it overflows, representing giving merit to the dead so their rebirth will be a promising one. As the water is being poured, the monks chant: “Just as rivers full of water fill the ocean full / Even so does what is given here benefit the dead.”

After a sermon based on Pali scripture is delivered by the senior monk, the mourners chant “Sadhu!” three times, an expression of gratitude connected to the attainment of arahatship. Speeches by family and neighbors follow and then the coffin is conveyed to the burial ground or crematorium under a white umbrella.

Two important dates continue the remembrance ceremonies after the day of the funeral: Mataka-bana, when a monk returns a week later to deliver a sermon to the family and other mourners, and Thun masa-dana, an alms-giving three months after the funeral to support the monastics who officiate at funerals and other ceremonies in the community.

Guiding the Dead Through the Bardo

A Tibetan thangka painting of the pure land of the primordial buddha Amitabha, known as Amida in Japanese.

The Tibetan approach to death and dying is guided by the teachings of the Bardo Thodol, popularly known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This text describes what happens to us in the bardo, an intermediate period or gap between death and rebirth. During this time, it is possible to advise and help the deceased so they can achieve enlightenment or at least a favorable rebirth.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there are a number of meditations and rituals that can be performed after someone dies or during their dying process. These include reading them the Book of the Dead over a forty-nine-day period to guide them through the various stages of the bardo journey, and powa practice, in which an accomplished master can help the dying person transfer their consciousness directly into an enlightened state.

The sukhavati ceremony is traditionally performed shortly after a person’s death. In this ceremony, their loved ones, friends, and fellow practitioners, guided by a Buddhist teacher, pray they will be reborn in Sukhavati, the Western Paradise or Land of Ultimate Bliss. This is the enlightened pure land of the primordial buddha Amitabha in which they are free of all karma, defilements, and suffering.

In this ceremony, the congregation generates loving-kindness and compassion toward the deceased, who may be suffering confusion and fear in the bardo. They urge the deceased to let completely go of their previous identity and karma and ask the buddhas and bodhisattvas to guide them to the pure land. Here is a prayer that is typically recited in Sukhavati ceremonies in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism:

Wonderful Buddha of Limitless Light [Amitabha], to his right the Lord of Great Compassion and to his left the Bodhisattva of Great Power, surrounded by an infinite retinue of buddhas and bodhisattvas.
The joy and happiness is limitless and wonderful in this pure land called Dewachen [Sukhavati].
As soon as this life has passed away, without the diversion of other births,
May [name of the deceased] be born there and thus behold the face of Amitabha.
All buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions, please grant your blessing that the wish expressed in this prayer be accomplished without hindrance.

In some versions of this ceremony, a photograph of the deceased is burned at the climax of the ritual so the deceased does not hold on to their former identity. As the photograph becomes ash, the prayers conclude and in the silence, the teacher intones the single syllable HUM, the mantra of great compassion. All pray their loved one will take the excellent opportunity of the bardo state to enter Sukhavati, the paradise that is freedom from karma and suffering.

Taking Refuge in Amida Buddha

The funeral rituals of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, as practiced in the Buddhist Churches of America, remind practitioners that through taking refuge in Amida Buddha, the central figure in Pure Land Buddhism, one can transcend time and space, and join together in the pure land as buddhas before returning to samsara to help others. In this way, death is understood to be a beginning rather than an end, and funeral rites offer comfort, solemnity, and the opportunity to express gratitude to the surviving family and friends.

After a person’s death, the minister is contacted by the family and the Makuragyo (literally “pillow service,” or bedside service) is performed. The home altar is decorated with white cloth and flowers, as is the body. The minister will chant one of the gathas from the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life, such as Juseige or Sanbutsuge.

Often, relatives live too far away for the body to remain long enough for them to travel to the funeral, so a cremation is done and the funeral takes place with a photo and urn. The funeral service itself begins with the ringing of the calling bell, reminding listeners of the impermanence of all things, an important remembrance in times of death.

Next, the presentation of the Buddhist name occurs. If the dying person has not already received a Buddhist name, the chanting of Kisamboge, by Shan-tao, helps to confirm the person; for those who have already received their name, the chanting is considered a rededication.

Then there is a chanting of Shoshinge, by Shinran, during which guests come up to burn incense, symbolic of the purification of one’s heart and mind to receive the truths of the Buddha. After this, there is an opportunity for eulogies by friends and family, followed by a dharma teaching and the recitation of Rennyo’s “White Ashes” from the minister, which concludes with the line: “By so understanding the meaning of death, we shall come to fully appreciate the meaning of this life, which is unrepeatable and thus to be treasured above all else.”

Traditionally, the service ends with some words of acknowledgment and a meal afterward, held at the temple or a nearby restaurant.

Complete Article HERE!

We Are the Flowers in the Garden

By Margaret Meloni

Once while I was visiting my mother, she looked out of the window and saw some strangers wandering around in her backyard. She opened the sliding glass door and asked, “Can I help you with something?”

Sheepishly, one of the visitors replied: “We heard about your garden and we just wanted to take a peek.”

My mother had a beautiful English garden. It was her pride and joy. I know for a fact that on the morning that she died, she had worked in her garden. Which is exactly what she would have wanted. Sometimes, when I visited, we would walk through the garden together. She would give me a tour; while pulling a weed or two she would teach me which plants should be near one another, and what to plant to stave off intrusive insects or aggressive vines. She carefully cultivated each section of her garden, paying regular, focused attention to what was or was not working and adjusting as needed. I view her garden and her work as an analogy for our own spiritual practice.

“I don’t envision a single thing that, when undeveloped & uncultivated, leads to such great harm as the mind. The mind, when undeveloped & uncultivated leads to great harm.”

“I don’t envision a single thing that, when developed & cultivated, leads to such great benefit as the mind. The mind, when developed & cultivated, leads to great benefit.”

“I don’t envision a single thing that, when undeveloped & uncultivated, brings about such suffering & stress as the mind. The mind, when undeveloped & uncultivated, brings about suffering & stress.”

“I don’t envision a single thing that, when developed & cultivated, brings about such happiness as the mind. The mind, when developed & cultivated, brings about happiness.” (AN 1: 27–30)

We are like the flowers in the garden. We require careful cultivation. To grow in our practice, we need to place ourselves in an appropriate environment, surrounded with the right companionship, placing regular, focused attention through learning and meditating and following the Noble Eightfold Path.

During our garden tours, Mom would often cut back or completely remove a dead or dying plant. On more than on occasion she said to me: “There is a lot of death in the garden.” Her tone was very matter of fact. Her statement came from a place of this is how it is.

Mom never let gardening deaths and disappointments get the better of her. She had a very good understanding of the expected lifespans of her plants. She was not completely surprised if a raccoon dug up her bulbs, or if a passing deer bit the head off of a flower, or if a plant seemed to randomly die. Occasionally she would express annoyance at the raccoons and the deer, and disappointment when a plant did not work out, but she did not dwell on it.

Mom gardened with non-attachment. With a complete understanding of horticultural impermanence, she did not avoid using a flower that would bloom quickly and then fade away. She would showcase that flower. Finding a way to surround it with plants that would allow it to have a brief moment of stardom. Then, the surrounding plants would have their turn. And eventually, they too would disappear. Within the context of her garden, Mom understood the truth of aging and death. She knew that once planted, a flower would bloom and then die.

“The aging of beings in the various orders of beings, their old age, brokenness of teeth, grayness of hair, wrinkling of skin, decline of life, weakness of faculties — this is called aging. The passing of beings out of the various orders of beings, their passing away, dissolution, disappearance, dying, completion of time, dissolution of the aggregates, laying down of the body — this is called death. So this aging and this death are what is called aging and death. With the arising of birth there is the arising of aging and death.” (MN 9.22)

We are like the flowers in the garden. Once we are planted and begin to grow, we will die. And others around us will die. Take a look at a garden, or a park, or a forest. There might be tall and mighty trees that are more than a hundred years old. Then there is a flowering ground cover that shows up in early spring and fades away with the summer heat. There are rose bushes, which last several seasons. And, perhaps, tulips or daffodils that pop up once a year; they have one bloom and they are done. We do not know who that seasonal ground cover or the ancient tree will be.

Do not let the concept of impermanence discourage you. When the meaning of impermanence is misunderstood, it can push you toward nihilism. Some develop an attitude of “if nothing lasts, why bother?” If my mother had taken this point of view, she would have missed out on all the joy she felt while gardening. Her neighbors would have been denied the opportunity of walking past such beautiful scenery.

Go all in. Instead of avoiding experiences in life, learn the most you can from those experiences. Instead of avoiding relationships with others, be fully in those relationships, without attachment. Learn from the present moment because it will be gone. Don’t think, “Why bother? This will not last.” Do think: “This opportunity will not be here again. Let me really be in this moment and let it be my teacher.” Like my mother with her garden, be skillful in how you cultivate your practice and your mind. Be aware of death. And let it encourage you to live.

What arises, ceases. With each passing moment, even the strongest, sturdiest tree becomes closer to death. Today, petunias might be blooming, yet they will wilt under the hot summer Sun. It is not about if we and our loved ones will die, it is when.

Complete Article HERE!

The mourner’s Kaddish

— A prayer for the living

By Moshe Meirovich

In the words of Ben Sira, the second century B.C.E. Jewish apocryphal sage: “We are all destined to die. We share it with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be.”

This is a fact of life. Yet, with each death we enter a mourning period that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1926-2004) has so eloquently described as five stages of grief:

  • Denial;
  • Anger;
  • Bargaining;
  • Depression;
  • Acceptance.

Likewise, rabbinic scholars centuries ago comprehended the need to ‘concretize the abstract’ by embracing the grieving process even while standing at the grave of a loved one.

At the very moment when the heart is broken, Judaism mandates the public recitation of the Kaddish prayer thereby aiding the mourner to begin to move beyond denial by confronting death head-on.

The Kaddish, at this time of emotional upheaval, ever so slowly addresses the grieving process by encouraging the mourner to begin to accept a new reality with the ubiquitous reminder: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and helps those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:19)

In the ancient Aramaic prayer, the Kaddish asserts: “Yitgadal V’yitkadash Shmei Rabbah.” Magnified and sanctified be the great name of God throughout the world created according to the divine will.

These words underscore the words of the prophet Isaiah: “For My plans are not your plans, nor are My ways your ways declares the Lord. But, as the heavens are high above the earth, so are My ways high above your ways and My plans above your plans.” (Isaiah 55: 8-9)

Poignantly, the psalmist reminds us that even though we may not comprehend God’s inscrutable will, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm for Thou art with me.” (Psalm 23:4)

Hence, with the recitation of the Kaddish, the mourner publicly declares there is indeed hope and redemption beyond this moment of unbearable pain. Step by step, the Kaddish provides the mourner with a ritual to traverse the stages of grief that will surely follow while embraced by a community of family and friends who provide comfort in the house of Shiva (seven days) where Kaddish will be recited, thereby sustaining the mourners in their quest for healing.

Moreover, in the words of an anonymous author, we discover an additional purpose in reciting Kaddish: “… if there is one thing I beg you to take to heart, it is this: Say Kaddish after me, but not for me. Kaddish is the unique Jewish link that binds the generations of Israel. The grave hears not the Kaddish, but the speaker does, and the words will echo in your heart …” (“Jewish Reflections on Death” by Rabbi Jack Riemer)

Thus, the Kaddish not only connects one generation to another; it also ‘jump-starts’ the grieving process in the midst of a caring and loving community, so that the mourner can again begin to experience a measure of hope, even in moments of despair.

Complete Article HERE!

The Dancing Skeletons

By John Harvey Negru

One of the more enchanting costumed Tibetan Buddhist dances involves a couple of jovial skeletons (citipati) who perform a jig that is, to me, vaguely reminiscent of Abbot and Costello in a vaudeville routine. Their grins are ear-to-ear, one holds a skull cup full of blood and the other holds a wand comprising a child’s spine and skull. Charming.

There are many images of these two clowns; it’s not a particularly obscure bit of tantric exotica. They’re just part of the entourage. They come on between the multi-octave throat singers and the more elaborately gowned Black Hat re-enactment or Yamantaka dance.

Clearly this is not an image of death that was part of the zeitgeist when and where I grew up as a nice Jewish boy, down the street from Leonard Cohen in Westmount, the English enclave in Montreal, Québec, a Canadian province still in the fading grip of the Catholic Church after the Quiet Revolution.

And yet, as I and my generation have grown older and older, we find ourselves with a ticket to the Greatest Show on Earth: our demise, like it or not. Leonard has already made his own curtain call.

These days, we have a cornucopia of narratives about how our end of life will go. And as you can imagine, each of us is pretty darn committed to finding the one that will bring the greatest peace of mind and no regrets.

As we have learned over the past year and a half, dying is a much more difficult passage than being dead. Tragically, many of us have found ourselves unprepared to deal with the passing of a loved one or recognizing that we ourselves are leaving lots of loose ends for those we love.

Linda Hochstetler. Photo by Kristina Ruddick. Image courtesy of the author
Linda Hochstetler.

The end of life is not something folks like to talk about, but it is our ultimate mystery. On another plane, it is also a tricky logistical path across a gameboard, with pitfalls such as dealing with hospital bureaucracy, filling in forms, searching for hospice care, making advanced care plans, and so much more.

I know several Canadian Buddhists who have served as death doulas. A few months ago, I was approached by a Buddhist social worker from Toronto, Linda Hochstetler, who has specialized in death work for many years in a variety of capacities. She explained that she had written an end-of-life guide and asked if I would be interested in publishing it. The short answer was yes and the book will be out this autumn.

It seemed worth interviewing her because I wanted to learn more about her perspective on the end of life, and to explore some of the themes she raises in her book but which were subsumed to the need to keep it practical for its intended Canadian audience. Here is a portion of our conversation.

Buddhistdoor Global: When we talk about death and dying, reversing the order of things, we make death the focus of our attention at the expense of understanding and working with the process of dying. In the best of all possible worlds, how would you change that?

Linda Hochstetler: I would spend much more time teaching about the dying process. Everyone should know the death process intimately before they graduate high school. The dying process is not really understood or taught anywhere. Not to adults and certainly not to kids. I would love it to be a part of school curricula. It’s too often avoided at all ages. Switching the order within the phrase dying and death allows us to really look at dying up close and to spend much more time and interest here, understanding this before we try to move on to death.

BDG: The pandemic has transformed our awareness of the fragility of life, our interbeing, and our relationships with old and young. In offering spiritual care to frontline healthcare workers, what do you see and how do you respond?

LH: Frontline healthcare workers are called to do their work because it matters to them. They want to be a part of a system that they approve of and where they feel they can make a difference. The pandemic has been challenging because many of the policies in healthcare were not in line with healthcare workers’ priorities. Healthcare workers were asked to work without PPE initially, and there were often staff shortages when staff were sick themselves or just stressed out. These situations were unfortunate because they pitted the workers against families, and even when the healthcare workers wanted to work together with families to provide good care to sick family members, they were unable to do so. We have been hearing that we’re all in the pandemic together, but too often our needs have been competing and we have not been able to work together well. Under these conditions, spiritual support is often considered to be superfluous and the easiest part to cut out. This is unfortunate, because it is our spirituality that is the core of our common humanity.

BDG: What is “a good death” and is this a goal we need to strive toward?

LH: A good death will differ for everyone. It is one that is in line with one’s values. It is also one that is the best in those circumstances from the options available. It is helpful to aim for a good death but not to cling too tightly to the idea, because sometimes things come up that are a surprise. It’s easier to say what is not a good death than what is a good death. What is not a good death is hanging on and slowing down death with the idea that it can be prevented. Attached to this is the idea that resisting death increases interventions at the end. Interventions create activity and distraction from the dying process, and often require professionals and hospital rules to take precedence over the dying process, which belongs to the dying person and their loved ones.

BDG: How is death work different from grief work?

LH: Death work is the honest seeing of the process of dying. It is witnessing the changes in the body, understanding how this affects the mind and ultimately our conversations and interactions with those remaining. Grief work is both the work of the dying person, who is letting go of this lifetime, and the work of the loved ones, who are releasing the dying person, and imaging a life without their loved one even while they are still alive. Very basically, death work has a greater focus on the body, while grief work has a greater focus on the mind and feelings. And both can happen both before and after the final breath.

BDG: The use of self is one of the benchmarks by which neophyte chaplains are evaluated in their CPE training. Yet the role of a spiritual caregiver demands the abandonment of self for the benefit of the patient or client. Since Buddhism negates the idea of a self, is there some special advantage a Buddhist approach can offer here?

LH: The use of self in a therapeutic sense begins with an awareness of self and an awareness of other. Buddhism negates the idea of a self—not in the sense that it doesn’t exist but that it is not inherently different from the other. Awareness training helps to hold this seeming dichotomy together. In this way, a Buddhist chaplain has the experience and training to see the patient or client as themselves and can more easily offer help from this perspective. They can go between their needs and their client’s needs seamlessly without needing to drop either side. Buddhist chaplains are way more comfortable with “both/and” situations.

BDG: When a loved one is dying, it is often the nexus for family conflict that can leave lasting scars. Of course, preventing such conflict is important, but when it has been unavoidable, what is the best way to repair the damage?

LH: Preventing family conflict around the death bed is so much easier than repairing it afterwards, so whenever possible, resources and time should be spent here. Making room for all loved ones to share in the dying process is best, even if that means making a schedule and taking turns in the care. However, when damage has occurred, it is best to find a neutral person—a chaplain or social worker—to speak with all sides individually and invite them to consider the wishes of the dying person. The dying person’s wishes should be of greatest importance, and ideally this priority can guide the overall decision-making.

BDG: How do Western Buddhist views of dying and death differ from those of Asian Buddhists? How are they the same?

LH: Buddhism is always a combined product of the scriptures/teaching and the local culture. As such, it is often hard to know what is influenced by Buddhism and what is influenced by culture. In many ways, there are fewer differences between Western and Asian Buddhists, and more differences between traditional Buddhist interpretations and modern options. For example, 50 years ago if someone was close to dying, they would be doing so at home and tended by family members into a natural death. Today, modern medicine presents many options for extending life and often these extensions are what is considered controversial. These options, which involve feeding and breathing tubes, are offered around the world. Taking someone off of life support, medical assistance in dying, or organ donations are all options that have come up in the last 50 years and were not even imaginable in the Buddhist scriptures or teaching, so much must be extrapolated from the culture on the rightness and wrongness of these choices. I think Western Buddhists and Asian Buddhists have much more in common than is often assumed and would do well to look at their similarities rather than their differences.

BDG: Briefly, what is the difference between palliative and hospice care, from a Buddhist perspective?

LH: There is no difference between palliative care and hospice care from a Buddhist perspective. In actuality, palliative care can involve a greater resistance when it includes death hidden from the community, but this doesn’t have to be so. Hospice care often occurs in locations—home or residential hospice—that allow for fewer rules regarding spiritual practices, but this is not inherently so.

BDG: What is the difference between spiritual care and psycho-spiritual therapy?

LH: Spiritual care emphasizes both the individual and the community aspect of spiritual practice. This might include formal practices such as prayer and chanting, with the support of spiritual leaders or lay chaplains or sangha members. Psycho-spiritual therapy often involves a relationship that works on individual ego work, often throughout one’s life. It includes explorations of where spiritual practices and aspirations fit into an individual’s life. Ideally, therapy is done long before the dying process so as to clear away energy for dying without also having the weight of previous relationships unresolved.

BDG: Is it possible to celebrate dying?

LH: Absolutely. Just like there are many challenges in one’s life, dying is a final one. Celebration comes from training for death and then completing it according to the training. As with many challenges, the focus doesn’t have to be on the exact result, but more in the effort in a particular direction. And the celebration of dying includes the celebration of living. Look at the whole life and see that dying is one more step of the life, and celebrate when it all hangs together consistently and as a whole.

Complete Article HERE!

Liberal Judaism, Modern Church join new Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying

  • New group of interfaith leaders and laypeople following more than a dozen denominations call for change in law on assisted dying
  • Poll finds 53% people of faith felt religious leaders were wrong to campaign against last assisted dying bill, while just 22% felt it was right
  • Christian man who accompanied wife to Dignitas welcomes new Alliance

Liberal Judaism, a progressive strand of Judaism, and the Modern Church, an Anglican society promoting liberal Christian theology, are the latest faith organisations to join the new Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying, a collection of multi-faith groups, leaders and laypeople calling for a change in the law on assisted dying. Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has also joined the Alliance and the Chief Officer of the Unitarians has recognised the strong support among many of their members. The Alliance is also welcomed by a Christian man who accompanied his terminally ill wife to Dignitas in 2019 at her request.

The Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying is formed of religious organisations, leaders and people who follow more than a dozen different denominations and who support a change in the law to enable terminally ill people the ability to determine how, when and where they die alongside high quality end of life care. This comes as a private member’s bill on assisted dying was introduced to the House of Lords last month by Baroness Meacher, Chair of Dignity in Dying, paving the way for the first debate on prospective legislation in Parliament for more than five years.

In a YouGov poll of 5,039 adults published yesterday, 53% of religious people felt it was wrong for religious leaders to actively campaign against an assisted dying bill that was debated in the House of Commons in 2015, with just 22% saying they felt it was right for them to do so.

Faith leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster wrote to MPs in September 2015 to urge them to oppose the Second Reading of the assisted dying bill in the House of Commons. The bill was based on one introduced by Lord Falconer in 2014, which was supported by Peers both at Second Reading and at Committee Stage, where two opposition amendments were defeated by large margins. Unfortunately, the parliamentary session ended before it could progress further. Baroness Meacher’s bill, also based on Lord Falconer’s bill, was drawn seventh in the House of Lords private members’ ballot last month and a Second Reading is expected in the autumn.

A 2019 Populus poll found that approximately 80% of religious people (and 84% of the general public) support the change proposed in Baroness Meacher’s bill – namely that terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months would be able to request an assisted death, subject to approval from two independent doctors and a High Court judge.

Similar legislation has been in place in Oregon, USA for over 23 years, and has since been adopted by nine other American states plus the District of Columbia, three Australian states and New Zealand.

The Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying brings together followers of the Church of England, Church of Scotland, Church of Wales, Catholicism, Baptism, Evangelism, Methodism, Unitarianism, United Reformed Church, Quakerism, Liberal Judaism, Reform Judaism and Sunni Islam.

Rabbi Charley Baginsky, Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism, said: “Liberal Judaism has a proud history of being at the forefront of progressive societal change, speaking up for much-needed liberal reforms with compassion at their heart. Much like votes for women or equal marriage – rights which now seem unchallengeable – assisted dying is a right we are proud to champion for people nearing the end of their life.”

Rabbi Danny Rich, Liberal Judaism rabbi with responsibility for hospital and prison chaplaincy and former Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism, said: “I have long been an advocate of the right of terminally ill individuals, subject to appropriate safeguards, to decide the manner and timing of their own deaths. Twenty-seven years ago my own great uncle, suffering with inoperable cancer, ended his own life with help from a relative. That dying people are still forced to contemplate dying by suicide as an alternative to a traumatic or prolonged death by their disease is shameful. I add my voice to the growing number calling for true choice and control at the end of life.”

Alan Race, Chair of the Modern Church, said: “Christians place high value on human dignity and compassion and believe we should relieve suffering where possible. We welcome medical intervention in order to relieve pain, especially when suffering becomes unbearable. Relationship with God is a freely chosen commitment and this means that we do not leave it to God to determine the time of death. Trusting in God’s unlimited compassion therefore includes the desire to relieve unbearable suffering at the end of life. In practical terms, granting permission for assisted dying often has the effect of releasing renewed spirituality for living a more fulfilled life prior to death itself.” 

Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “For too long we have turned a blind eye to the suffering inflicted on terminally ill people by the ban on assisted dying. Compassion, a central tenet of the Christian faith, should not be a crime, and yet under the current law it is treated as such. I believe a change to the law is urgently needed to enable our dying citizens the ability to go as they wish. To my mind, this is the moral, and the Christian, thing to do.”

Liz Slade, Chief Officer of the Unitarians, said: “The Unitarian movement voted in 2013 on the issue of assisted dying; in our recognition of the worth the dignity of all people and their freedom to believe as their consciences dictate, members voted to support the principle that individuals should have the right to seek support for assisted dying in certain circumstances, and that legislation should respect this choice and allow them compassionate assistance without fear of prosecution of anyone involved. Many Unitarians are passionately in favour of a change in the law, while recognising the need to allow a diversity of voices to be considered on this important moral issue.”

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, Chair of the Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying, said: “This new Alliance is a truly multi-faith rallying call for a compassionate, safeguarded law on assisted dying for the UK.

“In the 60 years since the blanket ban has been in place, medical advances have done wonders in prolonging life, but this often means prolonging the dying process too, causing suffering that may be beyond the reach of palliative care. Religious teaching evolves to deal with the challenges of modern life, so too should the options we offer people when they reach the end of it. That we continue to deny our dying citizens a choice that is now available in states and nations around the world is morally indefensible. It’s time to have a national debate on assisted dying that respects all views while recognising the strong support among religious people.”

Len Taphouse, 81, a former lecturer in engineering and father of three from Hornchurch, is a member of the Church of England and welcomes the new Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying. Len accompanied his wife of 55 years, Stella, to die at Dignitas in Switzerland at her request in August 2019. Stella was terminally ill with Parkinson’s disease and breast cancer, and in previous years had been diagnosed with cancer of the womb and skin.

Len said: “I was brought up as a regular church-goer, and in 2014 Stella and I renewed our vows 50 years later in the very same church we got married in. Neither of us found our faith a barrier to supporting Stella’s decision, quite the opposite. But this option should have been available here at home. Stella should not have had to spend £11,000 and my daughters and I should not have had to break the law and risk prosecution to accompany her in her final moments. It’s time the law was changed so that people like Stella can die as they wish in this country, surrounded by those they love, in their own bed.”

Tom Davies, Director of Campaigns and Communications at Dignity in Dying, said: “Medical organisations are increasingly recognising the range of views among their members, with doctors accepting that whatever their personal opinion they cannot deny their dying patients the choices they want. Religious organisations and faith leaders are now doing the same, recognising the support for change among their congregations and putting the choice and autonomy of those at the end of life before doctrine.

“With an assisted dying bill in the House of Lords, the Health Secretary commissioning data on suicides by terminally ill people, Scotland due to consult on potential legislation and Jersey conducting a citizen’s jury on the subject, it is essential that parliamentarians across the British Isles understand that the vast majority of the pubic, with faith and without, want change.”

Complete Article HERE!

The Secret to Happiness?

Thinking About Death.

In an excerpt from his new book, journalist Michael Easter travels to Bhutan to learn about how confronting death head-on can lead to a more fulfilled life

By Michael Easter

In his new book, The Comfort Crisis, Michael Easter investigates the connection between modern comforts and conveniences and some of our most pressing problems, like heart disease, diabetes, depression, and a sense of purposelessness. Turns out, engaging with a handful of evolutionary discomforts can dramatically improve our mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. One of those fruitful discomforts? Thinking about dying.

Death has always been the most uncomfortable fact of life. And as modern medicine, comforts, and conveniences have given us more years, we’ve seemingly become less and less comfortable with life’s only guarantee. Roughly seven out of ten Westerners say they feel uncomfortable with death. Only half of people over 65 have considered how they want to die.

After someone dies we’re encouraged to stay busy to take our mind off it. A dead person’s body is immediately covered and sent to a mortician where it is prepared to look as youthful and alive as possible before one final, hour-long viewing, after which it is dropped into the ground of a perfectly manicured cemetery.

But new research is showing that death awareness is good for us. For example, scientists at the University of Kentucky had one group of people think about a painful visit to the dentist and the other contemplate their death. The death thinkers afterward said they were more happy and fulfilled in life. The scientists concluded, “death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts.”

The country of Bhutan has made it part of its national curriculum to think about death anywhere from one to three times daily. The understanding that we’re all going to die is hammered into Bhutan’s collective conscience, and death is part of everyday life. Ashes of the dead are mixed with clay and molded into small pyramids, called tsa tsas, and placed along heavily trafficked areas like roadsides, in window sills, and public squares and parks. Bhutanese arts often center around death; paintings of vultures picking the flesh from corpses, dances that reenact dying. Funerals are a 21-day event where the dead body “lives” in its house before being slowly cremated over fragrant juniper trees in front of hundreds of friends and relatives.

All of this death is doing anything but bumming out the Bhutanese. Despite being ranked the 134th most developed nation on earth, extensive studies conducted by Japanese researchers have found that Bhutan is among the world’s 20 happiest countries. But what you probably don’t know is how morbidity contributes to their feelings of happiness. And neither did I.


After four flights across 48 hours, 14 time zones, and 9,465 miles, I stepped off an aging 737 onto a runway 7,333 feet above sea level at Bhutan’s Paro International Airport. THE thin air filled my lungs as the sun illuminated the surrounding snow-capped Himalayan foothills. I was there to find out how Bhutan’s uncomfortable intimacy with death might improve my life—and maybe yours too.

I’d arranged to meet with a host of characters, including government leaders who study happiness in Bhutan. But the most compelling men I met with were both leaders in the Buddhist faith.

The first was Khenpo Phuntsho Tashi. He knows as much about death as a living human can. He’s one of Bhutan’s leading Buddhist thinkers, and he’s found a niche in the study of death and dying. The Khenpo is the author of a 250-page book called “The Fine Art of Living and Manifesting a Peaceful Death.” And unlike many of Bhutan’s monks, the Khenpo is intimately familiar with what ails people in the West. Before he dedicated himself to his spiritual practice he lived in Atlanta, with a girlfriend who was the Dalai Lama’s translator. He, I thought, would be able to get to the heart and consequences of the West’s fear of death.

My boots kicked up a low-hanging dust as the Khenpo’s cliff-side shack came into view. It was wooden, tin-roofed, and in the shadow of Dakarpo. Dakarpo is an ancient Buddhist monastery built on an outcropping that overlooks the Shaba valley. Fifteen or so people walked clockwise around the white, fortress-like monastery. They chanted as they carefully stepped around its rocky terrain. Bhutanese mythology says a person will be cleared of all of his or her sins by circumventing the Dakarpo 108 times. Each lap takes roughly 25 minutes. The full 108 takes most pilgrims about four full days, a relatively small fee for absolute absolution.

The scent of burning incense crawled into my nose as I peeled back the heavy orange embroidered silk drape leading into the Khenpo’s room. Light was entering the room through a hazy window, catching smoke. It obscured a small altar anchored by a three-foot statue of the Buddha. Around it were smaller Buddhist statues, photographs, and burning sticks of champa. Through the smoke I saw the profile of a face. It was the Khenpo.

“Welcome,” said the Khenpo, his voice a heavily accented butter. I bowed and sat. “You want to talk about death?”

I nodded. “Hmmmm,” he said. His chest slowly rose and fell in the silence.

“You Americans are usually ignorant,” he said, using a word often seen as an insult in the United States, but that by definition means “lacking awareness.” In Bhutan and other Buddhist countries, “ignorance” is the rough English translation of “Avidyā.” That’s a Sanskrit word that means having a misunderstanding of the true nature of your reality and the truth of your impermanence. “Most Americans are unaware of how good you have it, and so many of you are miserable and chasing the wrong things.

“You act like life is fulfilling a checklist. ‘I need to get a good wife or husband, then I get a good car, then I get a good house, then I get a promotion, then I get a better car and a better house and I make a name for myself and then …’” he rattled off more accomplishments that fulfill the American Dream. “But this plan will never materialize perfectly. And even if it does, then what? You don’t settle, you add more items to the checklist. It is the nature of desire to get one thing and immediately want the next thing, and this cycle of accomplishment and acquisitions won’t necessarily make you happy—if you have ten pairs of shoes you want 11 pairs.”

The Khenpo then pointed out that by pursuing this checklist, we’re often forced into acts that take us away from that higher reality and happiness. He was echoing a sentiment shared among many leaders in the tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism. Sogral Rinpoche in his 1992 work The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying called this checklist phenomenon “Western laziness.” It consists of “cramming our lives with compulsive activity, so that there is no time at all to confront the real issues … If we look into our lives, we will see clearly how many unimportant tasks, so-called ‘responsibilities’ accumulate to fill them up … Going on as we do, obsessively trying to improve our conditions, can become an end in itself and a pointless distraction.”

The average American works 47 hours a week. Our entrepreneurs and “productivity gurus” preach that a “grind” and “shut up and work harder” mentality is the secret to satisfaction. This upset in our work/life balance—or, perhaps, our problem integrating our work into our life and not the other way around—factors into why other research has shown that America is, in fact, less happy than it was decades ago.

“So this checklist plan does not make you truly happy. Then what?” said the Khenpo. He was silent. Left it open for me to ponder.

“I don’t know. I’m an ignorant American,” I said and smiled.

“Then you could be happier!” he responded with a chuckle. “Whereas if you understand this cycle and nature of mind and you prioritize mindfulness then everything will be ok. Even if you don’t become rich. Fine, you’re mindful. Even if you don’t get a perfect wife? Fine, you’re mindful.”

Ah, yes. “Mindfulness.” That squishy, what-the-fuck-does-that-even-mean word that’s so hot in America today but has, in fact, been a part of Eastern traditions since before Christ. It’s roughly defined as purposefully paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment without judgment, according to Jon Kabat Zinn, a profes-sor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and pioneer of mindfulness in the Western world. In other words, it’s being aware of what’s going on upstairs.

The Khenpo made mindfulness sound akin to jamming a stick into the spokes of the checklist and developing a state of okayness. In other words, whether I’m rich or poor or famous or a nobody, I should avoid becoming caught up in the narratives my mind spits out and just accept the direction of things. This will help me go beyond the checklist and be just fine.

The woman who took me through the cleansing ritual entered the room. She placed a plate of sliced cucumbers and mandarin wedges on the floor between the Khenpo and me. “All organic!,” he said and grabbed a spear of cucumber. It crunched as he bit into it.

“Well, the Bhutanese, we also have ignorance, anger, and attachment. We have the same problems of the checklist. But I think less. This is because we apply what we call mindfulness of the body. We remember that everyone is dying right now,” said the Khenpo. “Everyone will die. You are not singled out. Do you know this? To not think of death and not prepare for it … this is the root of ignorance.”

Pretend you are walking along a trail, he explained, and there is a cliff in 500 yards. The catch: The cliff is death and we will all walk off it. “Buddha died. Jesus died. You will die. I will die. I would like to die on that bed,” said the Khenpo, pointing to a twin mattress on the floor.

“Don’t you want to know that there’s a cliff?” he asked. Because only then can we change our course. We could take a more scenic route, notice the beauty of the trail before it ends, say the things we truly want to say to the people we’re walking it with.

“When you start to understand that death is coming, that the cliff is coming, you see things differently. You change your mental course—you naturally become more compassionate and mindful,” said the Khenpo. “But Americans, they don’t want to hear about the cliff. They don’t think about death. After a funeral, they want to get their mind off the death and just eat cake. The Bhutanese, they want to know about the cliff and they will be happy to talk about death and ruin the cake eating.”

“So remember,” he continued. He was able to sustain the perfect upright lotus position while I was slumping and couldn’t feel my legs. “We are all dying right now. To develop this mindfulness of death you have to think of Mitakpa.”

“Mitakpa?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Mitakpa.”

Before I could probe the Khenpo on Mitakpa—what it is and what it might be able to do—his time was up and I was back in Dorji’s hatchback. We were like bouncy balls in the seats as gravity aggressively pulled the car over all the rocks and ruts that once thwarted us. As we descended I asked, “Dorji, what is mitakpa?” He looked at me and shook his head. “Mi-tak-pa,” I said.

“Oh. Mitakpa,” he replied, pronouncing the word less like an ignorant American. “Takpa ‘permanent,’” he said. “Mi ‘no.’ Mitakpa ‘no permanent.’”

I began to ask him to explain further, but a Bhutanese traffic jam interrupted me. A herd of seven bulls and cows ambled up the one-lane road. Dorji pressed into the brake to slow the car to a crawl. The half-ton animals lazily parted around us. Their bells clanked as they slid down the length of the hatchback.

The next day, I headed into an apartment in the city of Thimpu to meet Lama Damcho Gyeltshen. He doesn’t ponder death in any abstract sense—he experiences it every day. He’s the head Lama at the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital, the main hospital in Bhutan. It’s there that he councils the dying. After the Khenpo elucidated the problem and hinted at some solution, the Lama, I figured, might be able to expand.

The Lama was sitting on a platform that was covered in silk meditation pads. He hopped off of it as we entered. He and I shook hands and did a lot of smiling and nodding. He was bald, short, and doughy, with wire-framed glasses. His bright white smile popped against his blaze orange robes. He sat back atop the platform, in the lotus, while Jigme and I sat on the floor. Jigme explained what I was there to talk about. Death, dying, and the Bhutanese death complex.

“Well first I’d like to thank you for coming and reminding me of death because it is important for the mind,” said the Lama. His words, naturally, set me up to ask why.

“When people come into my hospital there is a chance they leave,” he said. “But there is also a high chance they do not leave. My job is to help people prepare for death. I have found that the people who have not thought about death are the ones who have regrets on their deathbeds. Because they have not used a necessary tool that could have made them live a fuller life.” An American study conducted across various hospitals like the Yale Cancer Center, Dana -Farber Cancer Institute, and Massachusetts General Hospital supports this notion. It found that dying patients who had open conversations about their death experienced better quality of life in the weeks and months leading to their passing, as judged by their family members and nurse practitioners.

“The mind is afflicted with many delusions. But they come down to three,” continued the Lama. “And those are greed, anger, and ignorance. When your mind is not taken care of these three things have an advantage. The dying people I council … they suddenly do not care about getting famous, or their car or watch, or working more. They don’t care about the things that once angered them.” In other words: When a person realizes death is imminent, their checklist and everyday bullshit becomes irrelevant and their mind begins to center on that which makes it happy. Research from Australia found that the top regrets of the dying include not living in the moment, working too often, and living a life the person thinks they should rather than one they truly want to.

“Whereas those who have thought of their death and prepared for it,” said the Lama, “they do not have those regrets. Because they have often not fallen so much into those delusions. They have lived in the moment. Maybe they have accomplished a lot. Maybe they have not. But regardless it has not affected their happiness as much …” He expanded on this phenomenon, explaining that a sort of cosmic psychic shift often occurs in the dying. It brings them closer to the things that matter in the end. A living person who thinks of dying will, yes, initially face mental discomfort, but they’ll emerge on the other side having stolen a bit of this end-of-life magic.

“What is mitakpa?” I asked. “Someone told me it translates to ‘no permanent…’”

“Close. Mitakpa is impermanence,” said the Lama. He raised an arm and finger, like a professor making a point. “Impermanence, impermanence, impermanence.” This, he said, is the cornerstone of Buddhist teachings. Nothing lasts and, therefore, nothing can be held onto. By trying to hold on to that which is changing, like our life itself, we ultimately end up suffering. Buddha’s final words were on impermanence, a reminder that all things die. “All things change. Whatever is born is subject to decay…” he said. “All individual things pass away.”

“It’s important to preserve this precious understanding of mitakpa in your mind. It will significantly contribute to your happiness,” said the Lama. He echoed the Khenpo’s sentiment. He explained that not thinking of mitakpa often leads a person to believe that “things will be better when I do X.” Or with a false sense of permanence that causes a person to put off the things they truly want to do because “I can do that when I retire.”

“But when you understand that nothing is permanent you cannot help but follow a better, happier path,” he said. “It calms your mind. You tend not to get overly excited, angry, or critical. With this principle, people interact with others and it improves their relationships. They become more grateful and gratuitous. Because they realize all their material goods and status will not matter in the end.” And not just in Bhutan. A study in Psychological Science discovered that people who thought about their death were more likely to show concern for people around them. They did things like donating time, money, and even their blood to blood banks.

“How often should I be thinking about mitakpa?” I asked.

“You must think of mitakpa three times each day. Once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening. You must be curious about your death. You must understand you don’t know how you will die or where you will die. Just that you will die. And that death can come at any time,” he said. “The ancient monks would remind themselves of this every time they left their meditation cave. I, too, remind myself of this every time I walk out my front door.”

We talked for a half-hour more about death and his work at the hospital. Then it was time for me to leave.

“Remember,” said the Lama as we were saying goodbye. “Death can come at any time. Any time.”


The next day I spent the morning hiking five steep miles to Paro Taksang, “The Tiger’s Nest,” a sacred 15th-century Buddhist monastery built in the traditional Bhutanese Dzong style. The monastery sits at 10,240 feet above sea level and clings to a cliff like a reptile on a vertical wall. It’s the location where in the eighth century Padmasambhava, a man considered the “Second Buddha,” meditated in a tiger-filled cave for three years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours.

I’d come to see the monastery’s famous artwork, much of which depicts death. It holds various images and statues of, for example, Mahakala, a protector god whose crown is ringed with skulls and whose sash is strung with severed heads. His Sanskrit name translates to “beyond time” or, more simply, “death.”

As I exited the monastery and put my shoes back on, Dorji, my driver (Bhutanese law requires all tourists to hire a guide and a driver … my guide had conked out due to the altitude), hurriedly approached me. “Someone sick,” he said in his broken English. He pointed up the trail, to a set of steep stairs cut from a cliff that lead up to a small meditation hut next to a waterfall. Towards the top of the steps, a group of people huddled. They were all wearing either traditional Bhutanese ghos or monk robes. Dorji jogged towards the group. I followed. As I quickly stepped up the thin stairs I could see feet hanging from the edge of the steps.

A monk—bald head, thin glasses, maroon robes—was down on the steps, unconscious. I recalled some basic emergency wilderness training I took and checked his spine for signs of fracture. Nothing. A general understanding arose within the group. The man needed to be moved to flat ground so he could be airlifted out.

The stairs were too steep and thin for a group carry. So we carefully propped the monk onto the back of the largest driver, who hoofed him down the steps. With the help of the group, he laid the monk onto a flat grass patch along the cliffside trail.

The monk’s eyes were rolled back as if he was scrutinizing the brain above them. “I’m going to do CPR,” I slowly told the group. They only partially understood me. As I knelt in front of him two tiny women, a mother and daughter who were both doctors in Hong Kong, were suddenly at my side. They were hiking to the monastery when they walked into this scene.

They pressed their fingers to the man’s neck to check vitals and agreed that CPR was needed. These two were surely better trained. But I was the only person with any training who was also large enough to optimally execute CPR on the 200-pound monk.

I tore open his robe, revealing a gold t-shirt. I dug my knees into the dirt, overlapped my hands, and placed the heel of my right hand on the monk’s sternum. Then I began hammering into his chest; 100 beats a minute as the daughter doctor began a timer.

I was unsure of the cultural implications of giving a monk mouth-to-mouth. So the younger Hong Kong doctor quickly instructed one of the other monks, a woman, on how to do it. She breathed into him, repeatedly pushing air into his lungs. Then I was back to compressing his chest.

“Time is 10:26,” said the daughter. A crowd had formed around us, and a driver who was on the phone stepped into the group. “Helicopter cannot come,” he told us. There was nowhere to land, and the cliffs were too close for an airlift.

The daughter checked the monk’s vitals. She shook her head. I continued pressing. Pressing, pressing, as hard as I could, thinking that if I could push hard enough it might kickstart his heart. We hit the fifteen-minute mark. His face was distant. “20 minutes 11 seconds,” said the doctor. “You can stop.” He was gone.

Here was a man who just minutes ago had hiked five steep miles. And he was joking and laughing and talking with friends along the way. Death can come at any time.

Complete Article HERE!