“Love and Death are the great gifts that are given to us; mostly, they are passed on unopened.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
In Buddhist teachings, the great divide between life and death collapses into an integrated energy that cannot be fragmented. In the Buddhist view, to deny death is to deny life; to live well is to die well. It is easy enough to repeat the truism that death is a part of life and is the only known fact of our existence. This, however, is not the place from which most Westerners function. Throughout most of our culture, the denial of death runs rampant, leaving us woefully unprepared when it is our time to die, or our time to help others die.
The movement that is now called Death and Dying arose in response to the life-denying, antiseptic, drugged-up, tube-entangled institutionalized version of “the good death.” The glaring absence of meaningful ritual, manuals, and materials for a conscious death has, in the past ten years, generated a plethora of literature. Yet although much of it has been developed specifically for dying people and caregivers, the traditional Buddhist teachings on death address healthy adventurers, acolytes eager not only to explore the full range of life’s possibilities, but also to pragmatically focus on the one and only certainty of our lives.
In Buddhism, the acceptance of death influences not only the experience of dying but the experience of living. The Buddhist view holds life and death to be a continuum. One cannot—as so many Westerners try to do—lead life fully and struggle to keep the inevitable at bay.
A well-known Woody Allen joke typifies the attitude that most of us find “normal”: “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Funny, yes, but the tragic distortion from a Buddhist view is that the avoidance of death is the avoidance of life.
People who are sick or suffering, who are dying of old age or terminal illnesses may be more receptive to exploring the great matter of life and death than those who are young and healthy, or immature enough to still believe in their own immortality. Yet the sooner we can embrace death, the more time we have to live completely, and to live in reality.
As someone who works with dying people, I used to feel somewhat apologetic about being Buddhist, concerned that Buddhism might seem sectarian and inappropriate for the Judeo-Christian West. But over the past twenty-five years, these reservations have been dissolved by seeing how much the teachings of the Buddha have helped the living and the dying of every faith.
At the turn of the millennium it seems crucial that we discover a vision of death that valorizes life. The encounter between East and West has unwrapped the gifts of love and death, and now we can see that they are two sides of the coin of life.
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