Q&A

A monk once told me that when one grieves the death of the loved one, that this will affect the smooth passage of the departed on his/her journey through the bardos. The deceased is upset by the grieving of the people left behind & doesn’t want to continue his/her journey. What are your thoughts on this?

Anonymous

When we lose a loved one — a close friend, a teacher, or a close relative — of course, we grieve. We’re human and we feel the loss very deeply. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a natural thing. It’s a factor, of course, of our attachment to our loved ones. This hearkens back to the Buddha’s most basic teachings: the more attached we are to people, the more we will suffer when we lose them. Understanding the cause of grief is an awareness and a realization. It doesn’t mean that we don’t grieve, though. When we lose a loved one, we grieve but we don’t necessarily grieve out loud. We want to avoid grieving uncontrollably in the presence of the dying person because it can make the person feel bad, that they’ve let you down. They may feel like a failure, like they have somehow failed you in not sticking around. Realistically, we know that physical illness comes to us all. Death comes to us all. There’s no failure here. Death is just a normal part of life. What the teachings are implying is that if we can’t control our weeping, we should go to another room and send good thoughts and loving kindness to our loved one from there, until we’ve got our emotions under control and can be calmly with the dying person. Being with the dying can be a very positive thing, but if we’re too attached to the person who’s dying, it can also present an obstacle to their smooth passage.

I’m interested in bringing the social dimension of precarity further into focus. I’d especially like to know more what kinds of deaths get classified into the category of “accidental” that you mentioned. E.g., Would it include women in childbirth? Unhoused people in cold weather? Disabled people who die due to inaccessible infrastructure? Victims of state violence? Etc. Could you tell me more about how deaths like these treated? Also, are you planning to include the social dimension of precarity in further research on this topic? If so, could the category of “accidental death” offer an avenue for exploring that dimension of the research?

Melanie

The examples that you give are quite varied. There’s a whole spectrum there. Usually when we talk about accidental death, we are speaking of something like a traffic accident, for example. You’re riding a motorcycle and you get hit. I witnessed such a death recently when a Hell’s Angel on a motorcycle went right under a truck in the next lane of the highway and was finished in one moment. The point here is that the person doesn’t have time to collect their thoughts or to guide their consciousness through the intermediate state, even if they had been so fortunate as to have practiced in advance. A sudden accident doesn’t allow us time for reflection. I think dying in childbirth would not be completely sudden because one anticipates a birth, knowing that there is some element of danger in giving birth. In the case of disabilities or a lack of health care, again you have some time to prepare. When we speak of an accidental death, it means something like bungee jumping or a parachute malfunction — just wham. In that wham situation, you really don’t have a chance to get your head together to navigate the stages of the dying process.

In the other cases you mention, many different factors are involved. I’ve just taught a course on Dying, Death, and Social Justice where we discussed dying while Black, dying while incarcerated, dying in poverty, dying by execution, and so on. These are all special circumstances, and they require our immediate attention, but they would not necessarily be categorized as a sudden death because the person has some forewarning. I believe there is a great need for research on the nature of the dying process for individuals in these circumstances and we need to think carefully about how to proceed, since the circumstances are varied and unpredictable.

The idea is that we should all try to be prepared for death, because we do not know when death will come. Any one of us could step out of the house this evening and get hit by a truck. We always have to be ready for that eventuality. The idea is that in this lifetime, we want to create as much benefit or merit as possible. The Buddhist concept of “merit” is a kind of spiritual power that accrues from doing ethical, wholesome deeds. We want to accumulate as much merit as we can so that no matter what happens, even if we were to get hit by a truck, a desirable future would be likely because of our good deeds. We could anticipate a fortunate rebirth rather than a horrible rebirth. I’m not sure how to go about researching this question, beyond what the tradition has normally advised or recommended, which is practice, practice, practice.

Buddhist families will typically accumulate as much merit as possible on behalf of their departed loved ones and dedicate it to the deceased. There are many sociological ramifications of these practices, including the cost of funerals. Inviting a bunch of monks is expensive, and I’ve heard that families in countries such as Bhutan often go into debt to pay for funerals. The question of transfer of merit is also up for inquiry. If the benefit of our wholesome actions accrues to ourselves, and is said to apply to our families, with whom we share resources, but how does the accumulation of merit work for someone outside our family? By what mechanism do those outside our immediate family create merit on our behalf? That’s a perennial question.

I want to move away from the theological to the sociological aspect(s) of death within the Himalayan Buddhist sub-cultures of India, and focus on the ritual of mummification which we see in the case of certain practitioners of the Shangpa-Kagyu sect. How does one read the mummy relic? Do we see the deified mummy of a Rinpoche as continuing the biography of the practitioner, as a sacralised trace of the master, even when the Rinpoche has been reincarnated? How ‘exceptional’ is a case of mummification? And how do we locate this Shangpa-Kagyu practice (a minority practice within the Tibetan community) within a larger set of practices vis-a-vis death within the Tibetan Himalayan cultures?

Parjanya

The two examples I mentioned, one from Spiti and one from Buryatia, were not cases of mummification. As far as we know, they were cases of sanctification of the body. I think the word “sanctification” is apt, because in the Christian traditions also there are cases where it is said that a saint’s body did not decompose, that it remained as is. The case of Gendün Rinchen. the 69th Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) of Bhutan, who remained in meditative equipoise after the vital signs ceased, was also extraordinary. I’m not sure to what extent it was documented, but there are other cases, too, such as the 16th Karmapa, whose death in a hospital in Zion, Illinois, was witnessed by medical staff and documented. The staff reported that his mind was joyful to the end, unlike the stressed state of mind of an ordinary dying person. To die with courage in a joyful state of mind is an achievement. Buddhist practices prepare us to die with awareness. Mummification is a different thing, using chemicals, cloths, and various external means to preserve the body. The case of a body that naturally does not decompose is quite different. It’s due to the power of the person’s attainments through spiritual practice.

Are there practices that one can do to in preparation for accidental death? I once spoke with a Tibetan man who carried a lineage of practices for unexpected death. He had a near death in a big car accident on a highway, and we spoke at length about how the practices manifested. His is an oral tradition, I am curious if there are any textual sources.

Anonymous

I’m not aware of texts that deal with accidental death in detail, though there may be some. To my mind, the same practices that prepare us for a natural death would prepare us for an accidental death. After all, what we’re doing is training the mind; creating a calm, clear, present, compassionate, wise state of mind that would stand us in good stead no matter how we die. If there are special practices for accidental deaths, I’d like to know more about them. If anyone has access to such texts, please let me know.

One thing that came up earlier was the sociological cost of practice: the idea that certain practices in preparation for a future event, such as a death, depend upon our privilege in life to some extent, whether this privilege is the privilege of an able body, the privilege of money, the privilege of status, and so on. Therefore, how do we think about the cost of practice in advance of death?

Jessica

My first thought is that practice doesn’t cost anything. Practice is a matter of transforming our minds, and we can do it no matter how rich or poor we are, no matter how able bodied we are, regardless of our social status. We may think that practice is easier for people who have a lot of money, especially in the United States where retreats are often very expensive. This is something new in the Tibetan cultural sphere, where the thought of paying money for teachings or retreats or meditation courses is unknown. Traditionally, people gave by donation, if they had the means, but it was not required. The financial aspects of Buddhist practice do become an issue of access for people. Pamela Ayo Yetunde wrote an article in Lion’s Roar titled, “What About the Cost of Retreats?” In North America now, we see that in some cases getting teachings is a privilege with a price tag, but it wasn’t usually that way in Tibetan cultures.

Of course, being in good health is a privilege. If we’re not in good health, it may be more difficult to practice because mind and body are interconnected. For example, after my snake bite, when I was in the hospital in severe pain, it was not as easy to meditate as I had anticipated. I also had not anticipated that I would be given loads of drugs. In India, the doctors come around with a handful of white pills and you’re expected to pop them without question. Once when I asked, “What’s this?” they told me it was valium. I said,”Valium?!? That’s bad for your mind!” and refused to take it. We need to recognize that it is more difficult to keep a steady state of mind when we’re not feeling well. That’s a teaching moment, a case in point. My teachers used to remind us to practice as best we can while we’re able, while we’re still young. Don’t wait until old age to practice, because when your body breaks down and you’re in pain and not sleeping or eating well, it’s going to be more difficult. Now is the time to practice.

This also applies to circumstances like practicing while incarcerated. It’s not so easy to practice inside because the atmosphere is not very conducive. It’s definitely more difficult, but there’s also a line of reasoning that practicing when conditions are difficult is even more valuable, more beneficial. My teachers said that to create one act of merit in this degenerate age is worth far more than meritorious deeds at the time of the Buddha when it was quite easy to be good. Now, at a time when people’s minds are so degenerate, it’s all the more valuable to practice.

This is a follow up on the thread of a preserved body which invites offerings and respect, whether we call it a mummy or not. Have you encountered any examples of preserved bodies that invite respect beyond the normal categories of the holy man or elite monk?

Jessica

I’m not sure that I have. Most of the preserved bodies, whether they were mummified or just naturally preserved, were of high-status practitioners. I don’t know of any cases of ordinary beings. Offerings to deceased practitioners are symbolic, of course. The dead do not eat the offerings. The Buddha told his disciples to take his relics in the eight directions and so they did. He told them that the relics would be objects of respect and that paying respect to them would create merit.

In the Tibetan traditions, there are also cases of rainbows appearing when a great practitioner passes away. Sometimes people who were not considered particularly special when they were alive turn out to have been excellent practitioners, as evidenced by the fact that, at the time of their passing, rainbows appear in a clear blue sky. We also have examples of practitioners’ bodies disappearing. They are said to take the rainbow body. In Tibet, there was a tradition of going into retreat for life. These dedicated practitioners would build an enclosed mud hut over a stream and get their water from the stream. The hut had a small window with two doors. An attendant would place food inside the first door and the practitioner would take it from the other door and then put the empty bowl back when they had finished. If the food was not taken for three days, the attendant would assume that the practitioner had passed away and would break down the meditation hut. Sometimes they would find that there was no body left, just the hair and fingernails, and, when they looked  up in the sky, they would see a rainbow, signifying the achievement of the rainbow body. Another case I’m aware of comes from the Vietnamese tradition. A nun in San Jose, California, Venerable Đàm Lựu was a great teacher who trained a large number of nuns and also taught the lay community. When she passed away, they told me that they cremated her body for eight hours at two thousand degrees, and when they pulled it out there were thousands of relics in the form of gemstones in pastel colors. If you go to Đức Viên Temple in San Jose, you can ask to see them. She was highly respected but very humble, so it was not assumed that she was necessarily highly realized, and yet she left so many relics when she passed away. That’s just one example.

In Canada currently, up for social discussion and now becoming part of law is medical assistance in dying. What are your general thoughts on euthanasia, especially in cases where people are afflicted by severe illness and pain?

Jessica

This is a very difficult question and it can be answered in many different ways. The discussion is just beginning, really. I was happy to start learning more about all the various aspects of assisted suicide and medical assistance in dying as I was writing my dissertation. First, we recall that in the Buddhist traditions, all actions are the responsibility of the person who does them. We are the owners of our karma, so we are responsible for our own actions. We are also, therefore, responsible for the consequences of our actions. That’s the baseline. The second point is that, in general in the Buddhist traditions, the first precept for laypeople is to refrain from killing. This is also a major precept for the ordained sangha. This means that, in general, not to harm and especially not to take life is a basic principle. When we say to refrain from taking life, the most serious case is to take a human life, including to take one’s own life. This principle, to refrain from taking life, is very clear in the texts but there are also a couple of counterexamples in the texts. One is the case of an arhat who was in severe pain and fell on a sword and died. Interestingly, in the text, the Buddha does not condemn him for this action. But this  an example of someone who has already become an arhat, a liberated being. Having already achieved liberation, this person did not have any mental defilements left, which is an unusual and very special case. We cannot extrapolate from that to assume that the Buddha would have condoned terminating one’s life among ordinary individuals. It would be a different situation.

The next thing to consider is that we don’t know what comes next, after death. We cannot know. Some people think that when they “put their animals to sleep” they’re putting them out of their misery, but we cannot know that. Lama Thupten Yeshe, one of my teachers, said: “If you know for sure that you are relieving the suffering of that sentient being, then no problem [to terminate a life].” But how can you know for sure? The next thing to recognize is that, for example, in the Netherlands where termination of life has been legal for some time under certain circumstances, it has been found that most people do not make the decision to end their lives because of pain. Pain can usually be managed, but the majority of those who decide to terminate their lives say they do so because they feel that they are a burden to others or feel that their lives are meaningless. If friends and relatives and other concerned individuals were to provide more loving kindness and more compassionate care, these people might make a different decision. They might feel more comfortable and content as they near the end of their lives. Of course, we all feel pain as we age, and some experience serious pain, but pain is usually manageable at least to some extent.

Buddhists generally counsel that it’s better to live for as long as one can in order to engage in spiritual practice. Imagine all the potential for realization when one is facing death. We can understand the Buddha’s First Noble Truth of suffering and dissatisfaction. We can understand impermanence. We can practice moment-to-moment awareness. We can practice loving kindness for all sentient beings. We can realize that we’re not the only person in pain. We’re not the only person who is sick. We’re not the only person who is dying. We can use that time and awareness to practice loving kindness for all living beings and create tremendous merit. Why forfeit this special opportunity for practice? In a way, it’s an ideal opportunity. This is probably quite countercultural, but I’m speaking from a traditional Buddhist perspective. I’m not saying all Buddhists would agree with my understanding, but these are points to consider. The net result is that we should live with loving kindness and compassion for all beings. That is a very good mindset in which to die. These practices and realizations will be very helpful as we prepare for death and they will also help us care for others who are facing the end of life.