Living and Dying:

A Buddhist Perspective

by Carol S. Hyman

"The basic impact of the experience is the same whether you believe in reincarnation or not: it is the discontinuity of what you are doing."
Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche

Recently I had the chance to put 25 years of Buddhist study and 
practice to the test.  After driving to Boston to attend the funeral of a friend, a dear man who died in the prime of life, I flew on to California because my mother was dying. 

Regular contemplation of death is part of Buddhist training.  Various schools of Buddhism take different approaches based on the Buddha's insights, among which one of the most fundamental is that existence is marked by impermanence: everything put together sooner or later comes apart, including our precious lives. 

The word buddha means awakened one.  One of the things the Buddha woke up to was the fact that most of us spend our lives trying to avoid reality--especially the grittier aspects of it such as sickness, old age and death-or manipulate it to get what we think we want, which often doesn't bring us the satisfaction we had hoped for anyway. The Buddha also woke up to his true nature, which is the same as that of every human being-open, compassionate, intelligent, self-existing energy-and saw that our sense of being separate from the world is an illusion.   Having seen all this, the Buddha taught a technique, a tool for uncovering our basic nature,  exploring experience and facing our lives.  This tool is mindfulness/awareness meditation, and with it we can make a direct connection with the facts of life, including death.

Meditation is a practice in how to let go, first of our thoughts, emotions and opinions; later, as we settle down and are able to be simply present, we let go of each moment, constantly moving into the next. Paradoxically, such relaxation, rather than spacing us out,  brings us more directly in contact with what actually is, which might be called nowness or being awake in the eternal present.  For this reason, the symbol for meditation is an endless knot, also called the knot of eternity. Training in such a way is, in effect, training for the ultimate surrender human beings encounter, letting go of this body at the time of death.

My mother, having been raised a Southern Baptist, would certainly not have called herself a Buddhist.  But she had to face her mortality more often than most of us ever will.  Three heart attacks, two coronary by- pass operations, breast cancer, diabetes: these were some of the physical challenges she met with courage and grace.   She also had, as a friend of mine put it in a eulogy poem about her, "the strength to raise three willful girls."  This willful one, having given her a world of trouble, was delighted when she told me, after I had been practicing meditation for a number of years,  that Buddhism seemed to be good for me.  Could I recommend something she might read about it?

Wanting something that made Buddhist teachings seem applicable to life in America and not just some exotic foreign philosophy or religion, I suggested several books by Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, my teacher and the founder of Karme-Choling in Barnet.   My mother read them, incorporated from them what made sense to her, and even did some meditation practice. In the end, she taught me more about letting go than I ever taught her.

When we die, according to Buddhist doctrine, the energy of our being continues, going into an intermediate state before reincarnating.  If, during life, we have remained completely self-absorbed, caught up in our beliefs, concepts and habitual patterns, then according to the laws of cause and effect, or karma, we will be swept into a rebirth based on our karmic momentum. 

But if  we have learned to rest in nowness and have realized our true nature, which is awake, then what continues is awareness, and we have some choice about what happens.  Just as, when meditating, one can experience the continuity of discontinuity, or impermanence, directly, so it is possible, if one is aware and present at the moment of death, to understand what is happening, to rest in that basic nature which is not different from that of the universe and thus short-circuit the karmic cycle.  However, as Trungpa Rinpoche said in a 1972 seminar in Barnet, "The basic impact of the experience is the same whether you believe in reincarnation or not: it is the discontinuity of what you are doing." Life as we know it stops.

The Buddha's final instruction to his followers before he died was that they should diligently work out their own liberation.  In the 2500 years since then, Buddhists have sought to follow that advice in ways as diverse as the cultures into which Buddhism has spread, such as India, China, Japan, Tibet, and Southeast Asia.  Now these ancient teachings, transplanted again, flourish in the Northeast Kingdom; it was these teachings that I found myself remembering as I flew west.

It is hard to let go of what we love.  It is hard to live with uncertainty.
Yet we have no real choice if we are to face reality, for we will inevitably let go of all that we love, including our bodies, and the time when that will happen is uncertain.  Whether my mother believed in heaven or reincarnation, I do not know.  What I do know is that she recognized what was happening to her and she was ready for it.  Talking, on the day before she died, to my sister whose five month old baby was the joy of her last days, my mother said, "I kind of hoped we'd have a little more time, but I guess we just get greedy." 

If we learn to let go into uncertainty, to trust that our basic nature and that of the world are not different, then the fact that things are not solid and fixed becomes, rather than a threat, a liberating opportunity. Then we are free to savor what life offers, to taste the texture of each moment fully, whether the moment is one of sadness or joy. There is a story of an awakened person who, chased off a cliff by a ravenous tiger, saved himself from immediately falling by clutching on to a cherry tree that had taken root on the side of the rocky precipice.  Realizing the hopelessness of his situation, he picked a cherry and tasted it.  "How sweet," he said, before he fell.

You weren't greedy, Mom.  You just had an appetite for the sweetness life offers.  And as I sat with my sisters around your chair in your living room watching you while your generous heart finally gave up beating, as we encouraged you to let go of your ravaged body and assured you we would all be fine, I found myself savoring the sweetness of that situation. It was then that I was grateful for my Buddhist training.

Text copyright © 1999 Carol S. Hyman

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Revised on April 5, 2000

Text copyright © 2000 Carol S. Hyman

Images courtesy of Virtual Thangka Gallery

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