The fear of death

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The fear of death

Postby zavk » Mon Apr 27, 2009 1:10 am

Dear friends,

In light of how recent discussions have once again returned to the question of rebirth (as they invariably do), I thought I'd post this story which I mentioned on ZFI a while ago. It's an anecdote from Sharon Salzburg about her early teaching days. Regardless of what one might think about such 'mainstream' Dhamma teachers (I know some consider such teachers as teaching a kind of 'watered-down' Buddhism), I think her story is worth pondering over.

I remember reading about Sharon Salzburg account of an argument she had with a student of Tibetan Buddhism back in the 1970s. They were debating about what happens to a person at the time of death--Salzberg's Theravadin view being that rebirth occurs in the next mind-moment, while the Tibetan view is that there is bardo before rebirth. They apparently got into a heated argument, one accusing the other of being a liar. She later realised that the both of them were really just two people harboring a fear of dying, both hoping for reassurance through doctrine rather than opening one's experience to the reality of life and death.


I like this story because it reflects: Firstly, Salzburg's willingness to acknowledge her limitations as a teacher. And secondly, it raises the question about the extent to which we are all deep down scared s**tless of death, and how we go to great lengths to convince ourselves otherwise.

Indeed, when I think about the possible death of those close and dear to me, I come up against this blank. I cannot imagine how it would be like to deal with that. Yet, it is something that I cannot avoid. And I haven't even begun to ponder my own death!


Best wishes,
zavk
With metta,
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Re: The fear of death

Postby pink_trike » Mon Apr 27, 2009 1:21 am

Good post. I've long thought that many people's interest in literal rebirth (bordering on cult-like obsession) is an egoic fear of death, and that their interest in something (anything!) after physical death would become de-emphasized (and physical rebirth would resume it's likely intended place as skillful means) if they did some serious corpse meditation or sustained death contemplation practice.
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Emptiness is Clear Light
Clear Light is Union
Union is Great Bliss

- Dawa Gyaltsen

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Re: The fear of death

Postby Ben » Mon Apr 27, 2009 1:21 am

It is indeed hard, harder than anything, and unavoidable.
Thanks Zavk for sharing.
Metta

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Re: The fear of death

Postby zavk » Mon Apr 27, 2009 1:30 am

I should also take this opportunity to :bow: to those who have had to deal with (or are dealing) with the death of loved ones or who are in professions that confront them with the reality of death.
With metta,
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Re: The fear of death

Postby Ben » Mon Apr 27, 2009 2:59 am

Just a thought...

I've often heard it mentioned, amongst my friends, that nothing prepares you for the experience of having and bringing up kids. Perhaps it is the result of the fractionated western societies many of us live in, that generational knowledge doesn't get passed down from father to son, mother to daughter any more.
My observation concerning death is that, at least here in Australia, it is something that is obscured from view. We appear to be a society that is obsessed with this or that new pleasure-producing distraction or accumulations of physical objects as icons of status or self. Unless you are in the thick of witnessing a relative or friend pass away or you are dying yourself, death is rarely discussed, rarely talked about. Apart from church sermons, the one exception in Australia on a grand-cultural scale seems to be the observance of ANZAC Day on April 25. A public holiday on the anniversary of the landing of Australian & New Zealand Army on the Dardenelles in 1915 that not only commemorates the disaster of the Galipoli campaign, but the sacrifice of Australian service people in every (futile) war.
Perhaps we should talk about death more as death stalks us all.
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"One cannot step twice into the same river, nor can one grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, but it scatters and again gathers; it forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs."

- Hereclitus


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Re: The fear of death

Postby pink_trike » Mon Apr 27, 2009 4:28 am

Our culture works so hard to hide the evidence of death, and overvalues anything that is young, new, and shiny. Sickness and dying are a feared imposition in modern life, and are often resented as an intrusion. To a large degree, sickness and death have become "unnatural", and taboo, a betrayal of sorts. Even to talk directly and openly, or to show curiosity about death/dying is considered to be odd or morbid. Ironically, in our rejection and shadow projection of these unavoidable states, we create much sickness and death, individually and as a culture, in our quest to feel eternally alive.

Working with the sick and dying, and witnessing actual death helps to normalize these experiences for us. I was fortunate to have been able to care for my partner as he transformed from a vibrant, energetic, life-filled being through his stages of illness and decline over a period of ten years, and to assist in his end-of-life transition - at a time when the epidemic had claimed 15 thousand lives in a close-knit community within a close-knit city and showed no signs of abating. The phobia of death that grips modern life became increasingly apparent as some long-time friends and even some family members simply disappeared from our lives.

Fortunately, the Dharma and meditation practice, and my decades long experiences in wilderness nature and in the garden had revealed to me, to a useful degree, the same stages of movement in the mind and the natural world that I was observing in the stages of his illness/dying - and these experiences provided a way of being relatively neutral and present as he graphically revealed/experienced the essential process that is found at the base of all phenomenal experiences and appearances, both material and mind-states. Birth, Aging, Sickness, Dying, and Death. Generation, Expansion, Degeneration, Decay, Collapse. Spring, Summer, Late Summer, Fall, Winter

During the final two days of his life, as he negotiated whatever takes place in a state of coma, I sat by him and used his labored breath as a focus of meditation and awareness. During the final 6 hours of his life, I sat in open-eyed meditation with his body and breath as my object of concentration and neutrally observed the process, careful not to bring intrusive mind-states into this shared experience that I was aware was all about him and not about me. Periodically, I would calmly verbalize the possibility of "gently letting go", and a couple of other phrases that would have meaning to him from his experience with his Vajrayana practice. About an hour before the end, his breath became very shallow, quiet, and irregular, and he ended life with an quiet exhale that reminded me of the sound of air being forcefully released from a vacuum-packed container.

I then sat with the body in open-eyed meditation for several hours, before attending to the body. To attend to the body, I laid it out and bathed it with herbs, mindful of it's rapid cooling and the change in weight/sensation to touch. A lifeless body feels like meat. After bathing the body, I wrapped it in white sheets, changed the bed linens, and laid the body out for 3 days before cremation, as is the custom in Tibetan Buddhist death care. For those three days, I alternated between the necessities of life...working in my studio down the hall, and periods of contemplation meditation using the body as my focus of concentration. On the fourth day, I opened the house to friends and family so they could view/sit/converse with the body - and of course, a party ensued with the body of the person who was much loved right there in the living room, surrounded by flowers, Buddhist iconography, the cats, lots of food, and a crowd of loved one who laughed and cried - while I busily played host. I knew there would be personal grief but I chose to experience that later, alone. I spent most of the party explaining to friends and family what Buddhism is.

The next morning the crematory came, matter-of-factly stuffed the carcass in a body bag, schlumped it onto a stretcher, and it was gone. I picked up the ashes a couple days later, and walked home through the neighborhoods of San Francisco that we had played in for 13 years. It was a beautiful day, with unusually pleasant weather for San Fran. The next day a Tibetan Lama ritually mixed the ashes into small ceramic icons (see image - the white spots are fragments of bone), which I gave back to the Earth in the wilds of a park in the center of the city, and in the coastal wild areas at the edges of the city. But that part was for me.

After all that was done, then it was time for me to let go. I did, and it was raw. But again, the Dharma and practice provided an "observing self" (not to be confused with "distancing") and a perspective that normalized the experience of grief - just more rising and falling of reactive mental/emotional vomit that needed to be released. I had no idea a human being could cry so much, which in turn made me more human.

Throughout the entire experience of my partner's illness, dying, and death I was aware that these experiences seemed more normal and natural to me than what I was observing in the world all around me...a sharp contrast. The grief healed with time, but the understanding of how we live our lives in our alienated modern culture stayed with me, and helped me understand that our fear of death is a result of how we live, which is a result of how we think. Mind is the forerunner of all things, including fear of death, and fear of grief. Working with the sick and dying is really an elemental part of life and community that we've sacrificed for egoic comfort and convenience. Just as the alienation from the natural world is the cause of much dis-ease, even madness - so too the absence of death from our lives causes us dis-ease, even madness. Death is sanity, as Stephen Levine (author of "Who Dies?") once said.

I tell this story occasionally in Buddhist forums when the subject of death comes up because so many people have no experience with death or illness until they find it on their plate, and find themselves unprepared. We have the opportunity in our practice to make friends with death. Not just with death-specific practices like the recollections and corpse contemplation, but also in the simple observation of mind as it rises and falls away. And also in our daily life...death is as evident as life, if we allow ourselves to experience it. We can volunteer at hospices, and at hospitals just to spend time with people (all too many) who are dying alone. We can also recognize death in the rise and fall of the seasons, in the garden, and sometimes even in those science projects in the back of the refrigerator. These experiences are profoundly effective teachers.

We are choosing in every moment to rob ourselves of reality or not, and we are daily choosing the quality of relationship we have with our own aging, sickness, dying, and death as they arise. May we all make wise choices. :anjali:
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Vision is Mind
Mind is Empty
Emptiness is Clear Light
Clear Light is Union
Union is Great Bliss

- Dawa Gyaltsen

---

Disclaimer: I'm a non-religious practitioner of Theravada, Mahayana/Vajrayana, and Tibetan Bon Dzogchen mind-training.
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Re: The fear of death

Postby Ben » Mon Apr 27, 2009 4:47 am

Thank you Pink.
"One cannot step twice into the same river, nor can one grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, but it scatters and again gathers; it forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs."

- Hereclitus


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Re: The fear of death

Postby pink_trike » Mon Apr 27, 2009 4:50 am

Ben wrote:Perhaps we should talk about death more as death stalks us all.

You're so right. You posted this while I was yakkin'. :)

Taking care of infants and children is great preparation for taking care of the very sick and dying. Plenty of poopy, stinky diapers to manage. :)
Vision is Mind
Mind is Empty
Emptiness is Clear Light
Clear Light is Union
Union is Great Bliss

- Dawa Gyaltsen

---

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Re: The fear of death

Postby Ben » Mon Apr 27, 2009 4:56 am

Hi Pink
I didn't articulate myself very well back there. I guess I wanted to segue from one aspect of life where one finds oneself unprepared to another. What I failed to do was to link both birth and aging/death with the same sense of being alone and being sucked into the samsaric whirlpool.
Speaking of children, I'm off to collect one of mine from school.
Metta

Ben
"One cannot step twice into the same river, nor can one grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, but it scatters and again gathers; it forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs."

- Hereclitus


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Re: The fear of death

Postby pink_trike » Mon Apr 27, 2009 5:29 am

Ben wrote:Hi Pink
...one aspect of life where one finds oneself unprepared to another.

That would be the whole of life! We've all lost the operating manual for life in human form, and are having to learn it anew through experience and practice. Samsara ain't for the faint of heart. :jumping:
Vision is Mind
Mind is Empty
Emptiness is Clear Light
Clear Light is Union
Union is Great Bliss

- Dawa Gyaltsen

---

Disclaimer: I'm a non-religious practitioner of Theravada, Mahayana/Vajrayana, and Tibetan Bon Dzogchen mind-training.
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Re: The fear of death

Postby zavk » Mon Apr 27, 2009 6:25 am

Thanks for sharing Pink.
:bow:
With metta,
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Re: The fear of death

Postby BubbaBuddhist » Mon Apr 27, 2009 6:44 am

I've seen death (or Death, if you personify Him) a lot, I guess. Most of my family is in that state. I have two existing family members left, my son and one brother. I've had three friends die in the past two years, hard to remember how many over the course of my life. I've held five dogs, four cats, a hamster, a mouse named Frito and a child while they breathed their last. You can tell the difference between someone who's alive and someone who's not. You feel them go away. It's not a pleasant feeling; the first time you feel it for someone you love it's panicky and helpless and you would give anything not to feel it. I'm fifty years old. Sometimes at night I wake up and think "Holy crap--I'll be dead one day," and the fact of my non-existence seems real. It seems sad for a moment, because I like the bundle of skhandhas that make up me and also because I know when I die there will be a lot of people who will grieve. I don't want to be the cause for anyone's sadness. Being dead doesn't scare me though. The thought seems kind of comforting. Everyone I know who's died seemed very peaceful.

After that initial jolt I usually roll over and go back to sleep. Life is a stage, and we all have our time on it. We take our bow and give the next guy his shot. :bow:

J
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Re: The fear of death

Postby cooran » Mon Apr 27, 2009 7:10 am

Hello Pink,

Yes, thanks for telling us the story of your partner and his death, and thank you for your constant caring and support for him until the end. :group:

Most of us live in the Eternal Now where we are the Stars of the top Soap Opera and everyone else are guest actors who pass through and leave through one circumstance or another. But the Stars go on forever.....

It is frightening for most people when someone they know is dying - and many find all sorts of excuses to justify not visiting, not 'being with', the person.
"I want to remember her how she was" ... "I don't want to intrude" ...."She tires easily and needs to save her energy for her family" ....
"She knows I love her, I don't have to be there when she would be embarrassed by how she looks now" .... and on and on. and on.

To die is not so very great a thing, but most people think it is .... "we" have all done it a million million times .... May we all practice to put an end to our continual dying.

metta
Chris
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---It's not what happens to you in life that is important ~ it's what you do with it ---
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Re: The fear of death

Postby Dan74 » Mon Apr 27, 2009 10:44 am

Wonderful thread - deep bows to everyone. Thank you.

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Re: The fear of death

Postby floating_abu » Mon Apr 27, 2009 11:34 am

pink_trike wrote:We are choosing in every moment to rob ourselves of reality or not, and we are daily choosing the quality of relationship we have with our own aging, sickness, dying, and death as they arise. May we all make wise choices. :anjali:


Thankyou.
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Re: The fear of death

Postby Fede » Mon Apr 27, 2009 12:45 pm

I almost think it should be pinned.....
:clap:
:namaste:
"Samsara: The human condition's heartbreaking inability to sustain contentment." Elizabeth Gilbert, 'Eat, Pray, Love'.

Simplify: 17 into 1 WILL go: Mindfulness!

Quieta movere magna merces videbatur. (Sallust, c.86-c.35 BC)
Translation: Just to stir things up seemed a good reward in itself. ;)

I am sooooo happy - How on earth could I be otherwise?! :D


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Re: The fear of death

Postby Rui Sousa » Mon Apr 27, 2009 5:02 pm

The way I see it our fear of dying is proportional to our desire to be.

In my observation of this mind this desire to have a body, to eat, to be with the ones I love, and to do 'things/projects/ideas' is a real source of pain. Something I can see, but not avoid or even lessen. I am confident that as wisdom will increase with practice, this fear will decrease.
With Metta
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Re: The fear of death

Postby fijiNut » Sun May 03, 2009 7:00 am

floating_abu wrote:
pink_trike wrote:We are choosing in every moment to rob ourselves of reality or not, and we are daily choosing the quality of relationship we have with our own aging, sickness, dying, and death as they arise. May we all make wise choices. :anjali:


Thankyou.
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Re: The fear of death

Postby Jechbi » Sun May 03, 2009 11:37 am

Hello Jeff,

Thanks for a beautiful post.

:heart: :buddha1: :anjali:
Rain soddens what is kept wrapped up,
But never soddens what is open;
Uncover, then, what is concealed,
Lest it be soddened by the rain.
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Re: The fear of death

Postby EOD » Fri Sep 04, 2009 5:00 pm

zavk wrote:Indeed, when I think about the possible death of those close and dear to me, I come up against this blank. I cannot imagine how it would be like to deal with that. Yet, it is something that I cannot avoid. And I haven't even begun to ponder my own death!

I think one of the problems is that we don't really know that we are going to die. We mostly infer from other peoples death or need some life-threatening situation. We are possibly very much convinced that we are going to die one day but our everyday awareness is not telling us this. The "knowledge" of our own death (and birth!) is not based on introspection or self-observation. We seem to exist in a timeless state. Our own impermanence is not obvious to us. An end seems to contradict our everyday awareness of permanence. Most of us don't yet have the so-called "clear and stainless Eye of the Dhamma" of the stream-entrant, which means to see: "Whatever has the nature of arising, all that has the nature of ceasing." We are still believers. And this is certainly one of the reasons why we are so shocked when death approaches us. We can't believe it's true, because impermanence seems to exist only in our environment.

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