TIBETAN SKY BURIAL

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{Tibetan: བྱ་གཏོར་, w bya gtor}, lit. ”alms for the birds” is a funerary practice in the Chinese provinces of Tibet, Qinghai, and Inner Mongolia and in Mongolia proper wherein a human corpse is incised in certain locations and placed on a mountaintop, exposing it to the elements {mahabhuta} and animals – especially predatory birds. The locations of preparation and sky burial are understood in the Vajrayana traditions as charnel grounds.

 

The majority of Tibetans and many Mongolians adhere to Vajrayana Buddhism, which teaches the transmigration of spirits. There is no need to preserve the body, as it is now an empty vessel. Birds may eat it or nature may cause it to decompose.

 

The function of the sky burial is simply to dispose of the remains in as generous a way as possible {the source of the practice’s Tibetan name}. In much of Tibet and Qinghai, the ground is too hard and rocky to dig a grave, and, due to the scarcity of fuel and timber, sky burials were typically more practical than the traditional Buddhist practice of cremation. In the past, cremation was limited to high lamas and some other dignitaries, but modern technology and difficulties with sky burial have led to its increasing use by commoners.

 

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Catholic rebel Kueng, 85, considers assisted suicide

By Tom Heneghan

Hans Kueng, Roman Catholicism’s best known rebel theologian, is considering capping a life of challenges to the Vatican with a final act of dissent – assisted suicide.

KüngKueng, now 85 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, writes in final volume of his memoirs that people have a right to “surrender” their lives to God voluntarily if illness, pain or dementia make further living unbearable.

The Catholic Church rejects assisted suicide, which is allowed in Kueng’s native Switzerland as well as Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and four states in the United States.

“I do not want to live on as a shadow of myself,” the Swiss-born priest explained in the book published this week. “I also don’t want to be sent off to a nursing home … If I have to decide myself, please abide by my wish.”

Kueng has championed reform of the Catholic Church since its 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, where he was a young adviser arguing for a decentralized church, married priests and artificial birth control. The Council did not adopt these ideas.

A professor at the German university of Tuebingen since 1960, Kueng was stripped by the Vatican of his license to teach Catholic theology in 1979 after he questioned the doctrine of papal infallibility and ignored Vatican pressure to recant.

The university responded by making him a professor of ecumenical theology, securing him a post from which he wrote dozens of books, some of them best-sellers, and many articles.

NOT LIKE JOHN PAUL OR MUHAMMAD ALI

In the third and final volume of his German-language memoirs, Erlebte Menschlichkeit (Experienced Humanity), Kueng wrote that a sudden death would suit him, since he would not have to decide to take his life.

But if he does have to decide, he said, he does not want to go to a “sad and bleak” assisted suicide center but rather be surrounded by his closest colleagues at his house in Tuebingen or in his Swiss home town of Sursee.

“No person is obligated to suffer the unbearable as something sent from God,” he wrote. “People can decide this for themselves and no priest, doctor or judge can stop them.”

Such a freely chosen death is not a murder, he argued, but a “surrendering of life” or a “return of life to the hands of the Creator.”

Kueng, who writes openly about his Parkinson’s and other medical problems in old age, said this death was compatible with his Christian faith because he believed it led to the eternal life promised by Jesus.

He cited the late Pope John Paul’s public struggle with Parkinson’s and the silent suffering of boxer Muhammed Ali, also afflicted with the disease, as models he did not want to follow.

“How much longer will my life be liveable in dignity?” asked Kueng, who said he still swims daily but is losing his eyesight and his ability to write his books by hand as usual. “A scholar who can no longer read and write – what’s next?”

Kueng, who repeatedly criticized the now retired Pope Benedict during his papacy, described Pope Francis as “a ray of hope”. He disclosed that the new pontiff had sent him a hand-written note thanking him for books that Kueng sent to Francis after his election in March.

It seems highly unlikely the new pope will include support for assisted suicide among possible Church reforms he was discussing with eight cardinals in Rome on Wednesday.

Speaking in Sardinia in late September, Francis denounced a “throwaway culture” that committed “hidden euthanasia” by neglecting and sidelining old people instead of caring for them.

A spokesman for Rottenburg-Stuttgart diocese, where Tuebingen is located, said Kueng’s views on assisted suicide were not Catholic teaching. “Mr Kueng speaks for himself, not for the Church,” Uwe Renz told Stuttgart radio SWR.

Complete Article HERE!

We’re the lucky ones!

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
— Richard Dawkins

 

It might be odd to start a column about spirituality at the end of life with a quote from Richard Dawkins the noted atheist, but I believe there are plenty of spiritualties that don’t involve organized religion or even a divine being per se. So maybe he’s not as far off the mark as some traditionalists think.

I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphysics lately, because there have been several articles in the press lately that discuss the clinical efficacy of prayer in medical settings. Curiously enough, most researchers in this area of study will admit that it is very difficult to measure such things, but apparently antidotal evidence abounds and thus the continued interest.spirituality

For example, in one study sited by a doctor in her recent Boston Globe article, strangers were instructed to pray for patients undergoing heart surgery. The prayers did not seem to improve the patients’ outcomes. In fact, the study goes on to say, if the patients were told they were being prayed for, they had more postoperative complications. But for every study that finds a dubious connection between prayer and its effectiveness there is another study that suggests just the opposite—prayer as being powerful and transformative.

So I got to thinking; maybe it’s not so much if people pray, but rather what people pray. And maybe, just maybe, it is what we pray for, if we pray at all, that might be the determining factor in whether or not our prayers are answered or even perceived to be answered.

What I know for certain is, much of what passes for spirituality, particularly at the end of life, is fear based—dealing with divine retribution. It never ceases to amaze me that people continue to pray to a God that is abusive. Isn’t that like paying someone to beat you?

Many people embrace a spiritual path that teaches that there is merit in suffering. This, they believe, is a way of atoning for one’s sins. (I’ve always thought that such a philosophy was a no brainer since life is full of suffering and we humans are such flawed creatures.) But if there is virtue in suffering, how can suffering that makes us bitter and angry and at odds with our self and our God be the source of merit?

I reminded of the groundbreaking work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance has a lot to do with spirituality, and not always in a good way. For example, consider the bargaining stage. Traditionally this stage involves attempting to bargain with God to miraculously change the course of one’s life—I was dying, but now I’m not.

If one prays for deliverance—that this cancer be cured or this terminal diagnosis be reversed—perhaps the prayer will seem to go unanswered, because we are all mortal. But if the prayer is for serenity, under these same trying circumstances, perhaps that prayer will be answered, because serenity is easier to come by than a cure.

In the end, I think Professor Dawkins is right; we are lucky. Our existence, be it a quirk of cosmic fate or personally designed by the hand of God, makes us special. And regardless if we thank our lucky stars, or thank divine providence, our prayer of thanksgiving will always be answered, because, simply put, giving thanks is its own reward.

Live As If You Are Dying

I’m delighted to share with you a new review of The Amateur’s Guide To Death And Dying. It appears on the blog of Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Mandy Traut.

Mandy Traut

Just like the famous Tim McGraw song, I good friend of mine recently reminded me to “live like I was dying.” Many of you know that I was a recent guest on Dr. Dick’s Sex Advice: Sex Advice with an Edge (Sex Wisdom Show). Well, my association with “Dr. Dick” (AKA Dr. Richard Wagner) developed into a good friendship. I see him as a role model and mentor. So, I was quite privileged when he asked me to review his new book, “The Amateur’s Guide to Death & Dying: Enhancing the End of Life.”

Richard is, not only a renowned sexologist – Board Certified by the American College of Sexologists, The American Board of Sexology, and The American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, he is the founder and former Executive Director of the nonprofit organization, PARADIGM; “Enhancing Life Near Death — an outreach and resource for terminally ill, chronically ill, elder and dying people.”AGDD_front cover

His book, “The Amateur’s Guide to Death & Dying: Enhancing the End of Life,” is developed to be a workbook for terminally ill patients going through the process of dying. But, the reader realizes early on that one need not be terminally ill to follow the exercises. As Richard reminds us, we all die at some point. Richard introduces the concept of “proactive dying,” referring to an attitude whereby one addresses one’s mortality head-on. Richard illustrates how honest discussions, education and preparation, and support from family and friends, can really benefit all of us. Rather than present a typical workbook with a sequence of exercises, Richard has adapted his own workshop, associated with PARADIGM INC, into written form! You, the reader, become a participant in his workshop as you explore questions of mortality, loss, sickness, and isolation. Eventually, you and your fellow participants come to see death as a part of life.

Whether going through the group process of exploring various issues, listening to presentations on preparing Estates and Advanced Directives, or discussing the stigma of talking about death and dying in the first place, the reader gets to reflect on his/her own thoughts and feelings about death and learns how to be prepared for end-of-life concerns. Richard normalizes death in the most compassionate, authentic, and empathic way. I appreciated that he, as a facilitator, found a balance between professionalism and disclosing his own personal stories, fears, hopes, and dreams to the group. Additionally, reading his book, I, not only reflected on my own fears related to death, but I strangely began to relate and befriend the other participants in the group. I felt as if I were walking the journey with them. It was humbling and moving, as well as educational and informative.

As the group workshop was coming to an end one of the participants read a poem with the theme of “live as if you are dying.” As I read (imagining myself in the room with everyone else), tears welled up in my eyes. By now, I knew the group members pretty well. I empathized with their fears, their anger, and their sense of loss. Then, I thought of my own life and relationships. Inwardly, I thought, “How often do we go through life on automatic?” It is true: Like sleep-walkers, we miss the little moments that make life precious. It takes a terminal illness or a traumatic event to wake most of us up!

In the end, I completed “The Amateur’s Guide to Dying” with several take-aways: To my readers and clients alike, I hope that you can ponder these ideas and see how they fit in your own lives.

1) It is smart to explore your end-of-life wishes while you are healthy and can make these important decisions.

2) Live as if you are dying – do not take one breath – one hug – one smile – for granted. After all, sometimes death comes when we least expect it.

3) Honor and cultivate your relationships – our relationships are at the core of a meaningful, worthwhile life.

One last word: Thank you, Richard for sharing such a fresh, revolutionary perspective with the rest of us. This is not an easy subject for most of us to swallow.

Complete Article HERE!

Unafraid, CLU theologian faces death

Jarvis Streeter is dying.

Jarvis StreeterThe religion professor at California Lutheran University delivers the news of the pancreatic cancer that has spread to his lungs and a prognosis he measures in months without emotion.

It’s the first thing he told two dozen students in hooded jackets and T-shirts on a January Tuesday. In the same tone he uses to discuss the interplay of science and theology, Streeter told them he made it to the first day of class at the Thousand Oaks campus. He said he wasn’t sure about the last day.

Wearing a sports coat that enveloped thinning arms, he said he would understand if they didn’t want a class that might ultimately deal with more than its title: faith and reason.

No one left.

“He very matter-of-factly said how it is. Just point blank,” said Lacie Goff, a senior from Chicago. “I think I’ve thought about dying more. We’re confronted with it every Tuesday and Thursday. I think it’s good.”

Streeter is a 63-year-old theologian and ordained Lutheran pastor who does not always act like either. With silver hair and the looks of a California surfer, he plays alternative rock on a blue-violet Fender guitar. He owns a blow-dart gun from Borneo that he sometimes uses for target practice.

He taught school in Kenya, studied at Yale and met his wife of 24 years while leading a graduate class at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He just finished a draft of a book that dismisses intelligent design as junk theology and attempts to explain how belief in God and the big-bang theory fit in the same jigsaw puzzle.

About 18 months ago, Streeter woke up in his Santa Rosa Valley home feeling as if all the energy had seeped from his body. His doctor thought he might have an ulcer. He did. It was sitting underneath a tumor the size of a golf ball.

Two days later, surgeons removed his gall bladder, his duodenum and parts of his stomach, small intestine and pancreas. They removed all the cancer they could see, but the malignancy had spread to his lymph nodes.

“I just started thinking through it: OK, you’re going to die,” he said, explaining why the news about the cancer didn’t make him bitter. “What I asked was ‘Why not me?’ People get it. Am I so special I shouldn’t?”

He decided to deal with it as another part of life, the final part. He talks about it with anyone who asks: his students, his friends, his wife, his two stepdaughters.

He hides nothing. When the woman with the lap dog in a doctor’s waiting room wants to know why a newspaper photographer would take his picture, he turns to her. “I have cancer,” he said evenly.

To those who want more, he explains how different chemotherapy drugs keep the cancer from progressing, temporarily. Then the malignancy mutates. The cancer grows.

His doctor said the toxic chemicals fed through a port in his chest every 10 days seem to be working for now. He said statistics that show how long most people survive with an incurable cancer can’t be used to predict how long Streeter will live. If they could, he’d already be gone.

“A person is never a statistic,” said Dr. Martin Palmer, a UCLA oncologist.

But because he is on his third regimen of chemo, Streeter thinks his time may be running out.

The ifs could hang in the air like a death sentence. His friends say that hasn’t happened.

“I think with his attitude and the way he has communicated with other people around him, it’s allowed us to focus on enjoying every day with him as opposed to dwelling on the loss,” Hengst said.

Goodbye tour

Susan Streeter took her husband to a Bruce Springsteen concert in December. They went on a cruise to the Caribbean in January. But he doesn’t worry much about making checkmarks on a final litany of to-dos. His bucket list is dominated by relationships.

About 150 friends from school and a Shakespeare company that he supports came to a surprise party planned by his wife. A bagpiper played. So did a rock band. People stood up and told stories. Streeter hugged everyone.

“It’s the greatest gift anyone could give you: taking the time and effort to see me,” he said.

His days are like that, too. His friends see their conversations and dinners as a chance to spend more time talking about religion, science and their love of Shakespeare. But in a sense, it’s as if his memorial service has been bumped ahead of his death.

“Sometimes, he refers to it as the long goodbye tour,” said his friend Michael Arndt. “He’s still fighting the disease and he doesn’t want to die. But he also knows he’s going to die and he’s trying to make the best of his life, every single minute.”

Perhaps the strangest thing about Streeter’s end are the words people use to describe it. Arndt said the way his friend has dealt with it has made the journey a wonderful experience to share. Streeter focuses on the chance to affirm relationships and tell people he loves them.

“I’ve had so much love poured out to me, it’s stunning,” he said. “It’s been the most fulfilling time of my entire life.”

He wants to be cremated. He wants a bagpiper to play at the beginning of his memorial service at CLU. He wants the service to end with Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams.”

But Streeter hasn’t fleshed out many of the details. He hasn’t written his obituary. Those jobs may be left for Susan Streeter, who worries something won’t be exactly the way he wants it.

“It’s important to me,” she said, focusing on the obituary. “I wonder how much detail he wants. … I don’t know.”

They met in a classroom in Dallas 26 years ago. She was the student. He was the teacher. Sometimes, she sits in his class at CLU to see him teach again.

She writes a blog that details his blood counts and the effectiveness of the latest drug. She sits beside his reclining chair in two-hour chemotherapy sessions, watching toxic chemicals drip down a plastic tube into his body.

It’s their journey. She said her part is walking down the path with him.

“It has helped give meaning for my life,” she said. “I feel like if this was the only reason for being put on the Earth, besides having my kids, of course, this is worth it.”

She has two adult daughters who play a central role in their lives. They’ve visited with both since the news of the cancer. Jarvis Streeter’s father is 91 and lives in a Thousand Oaks retirement community. He calls his son every evening just to chat, timing the calls so he can tell how the day went.

When the end comes, they’ll still be here. Streeter won’t. He and his wife say that’s the hardest part.

“I have faith enough that I will get through it,” she said. “Somehow, it will be OK, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.”

Complete Article HERE!

Patients, doctors, and the power of religious faith

By Dr. Suzanne Koven

In the lobby of the hospital where I did my medical training stands a 10½-foot marble statue of Jesus. Patients and visitors often pause before the imposing figure to gather their thoughts, pray, or just touch its smooth white foot. The hospital has always been secular, but the statue has brought comfort to thousands for over a hundred years. It also reminds doctors that, in medical matters, our patients do not necessarily see us as the final authority.

praying_handsSeveral surveys show that over 90 percent of Americans believe in God. It’s not surprising, then, that religion plays an important role in medical care. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, a nonbeliever might reconsider while being rolled into the operating room or waiting for a biopsy result.

The clinical efficacy of prayer is difficult to measure, though researchers have tried. In one study, strangers were instructed to pray for patients undergoing heart surgery. The prayers did not seem to improve the patients’ outcomes. Interestingly, if the patients were told they were being prayed for, they had more postoperative complications.

Still, there’s no question that prayer benefits many people. Prayer, like meditation, can lower blood pressure and anxiety and put patients in a more positive frame of mind. Even doctors like me who are not religious appreciate the element of mystery in medicine; an unexplainable force that seems, at times, to aid recovery. I was discussing this recently with a patient of mine who is a nun. She pointed out that what I call a coincidence she calls a GOD-incidence — even though we might be talking about the same thing.

On many occasions I have found myself humbled and inspired by my patients’ religious faith, even when I did not share it and even when it did not produce a cure.

One devout woman in her 50s who was dying of uterine cancer made an appointment with me to discuss what she had only identified on the phone as “plans.” I assumed she meant hospice care, DNR orders, and pain management. But what she had in mind was none of these. She told me, matter-of-factly, that she had no fear of death, that she fully expected to be reunited in heaven with her late father, and that she looked forward to this.

She did, however, have some loose ends to tie up before then, including arranging for the care of her mother, an elderly woman who was also my patient. In a very organized and business-like way she told me that she intended to move her mother in with a cousin, and enlisted my help in transferring her medical care to a physician closer to her new home — or, her next-to-last home, the one she’d inhabit before she too arrived in heaven.

I found myself full of admiration for this woman, and envious of her, too. I could not imagine having this kind of equanimity myself, faced with a hereafter about which I did not share her certainty. I had to admit that God offered her more beneficial “end-of-life counseling” than I ever could.

Another time, I found myself in a diagnostic dispute with God. A middle-aged woman developed a series of neurological symptoms. Neither I nor several specialists could determine their cause. The patient, on the other hand, was quite sure that she had chronic Lyme disease. She’d had a divine vision one night, in which the word LYME appeared in large letters. For a few years she took antibiotics continuously, prescribed by a doctor who treats chronic Lyme.

Unfortunately, her symptoms progressed, and she ultimately proved to have ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. After the woman died, I reflected that while her vision had been misleading, it had brought her hope during the last years of her life — hope that she would not have enjoyed if she’d known from the start that she had ALS.

Occasionally, even I wonder if an event can be purely coincidence.

Years ago, I headed out of town on vacation, neglecting to tell a hospitalized patient of mine that I would not see her for several days. I had arranged for one of my partners to care for her, of course, but worried about whether she would feel I’d abandoned her. This was before the era of cellphones, and the pay phone at the seaside motel where I was staying was broken. I decided that it really wasn’t necessary to call my patient and went for a walk on the beach.

By the water, coming toward me, emerging through the bright sunlight, was a man wearing a T-shirt with a single word imprinted on it: my patient’s last name. I left the beach and found another pay phone. She was doing fine, and was happy to hear from me.

My patient the nun once asked if I might visit her mother, also my patient, at home when the older woman was near the end of her life. She asked if I would draw her mother’s blood during my house call.

I was a crackerjack phlebotomist back when I was an intern, but it had been years since I’d drawn blood and told her I might be rusty. That was OK, she said. She had faith in me.

I dusted off my black doctor’s bag, threw in a needle, some tubes, alcohol wipes and a tourniquet, and headed to my patient’s house. When the time came to draw the woman’s blood, I had trouble finding a vein.

“You can stick her again if you need to,” said the daughter kindly. I confessed that I’d brought only one needle.

“Then, doctor,” said the nun, “I will pray for you.”

I adjusted the needle slightly, and a flash of red appeared. I turned to the patient’s daughter, seeking her approval. But her eyes were not on me.

They were lifted to the sky.

Complete Article HERE!