SuttaCentral

Bunnies, bones and funerals; some stimulus for contemplation of death and dying


#1

I’ve spent most of the past year dealing with death and dying, culminating with the funeral of my best friend last week.

It has been a wonderful opportunity to mindfully contemplate the suffering inherent in life, and the inevitable progress through aging, disease and death. Of particular note was the stark example of how the suffering inherent in this process can be reduced by following the Buddhas teachings, and how excruciating the suffering can be when approached in the ‘normal’ way in general Australian society today.

I thought it might be useful, and perhaps promote some more general mindfulness of the dying process, (and hence reduce suffering) to raise a few points here that stood out from this experience.

From the perspective of the Suttas, a couple examples.


Here’s the life of mortals,
wretched and brief,
its end unknown,
to dukkha joined.

There’s no means that those
who’re born will never die.
Reached decay, then death:
the law for beings all.

As with what’s ripe
there’s always fear of falling,
so for mortals born
there’s always fear of death.

Just as a potter’s vessels
made of clay all end
by being broken, so
death’s the end of life.

The young, those great in age,
the fools, as well the wise
all go under the sway
of death, for death’s their goal.

Those overcome by death,
to another world bound:
father can’t protect his son,
nor relatives their kin.

While relatives are watching,
they weep and they lament;
See mortals one by one,
led as an ox to slaughter.

As the world’s afflicted
by death and by decay,
so the wise grieve not,
knowing world’s nature well.

Their path you do not know
whereby they come, they go,
neither end you see,
useless your lament.

While lamenting,
The confused harm themselves;
If any benefit could be found,
Would not the wise do it to?

Not by weeping and wailing,
Can peace of mind be reached.
It just creates more suffering,
And distresses the body.

You become thin and discolored,
Harming yourself with your self;
And the departed are not protected by this,
Lamentation is pointless!

When grief is not abandoned,
A person falls into even more suffering;
Wailing over the dead,
They are overpowered by grief.

See how others fare,
People passing on according to their deeds;
Creatures tremble,
As they fall under the sway of Death.

Whatever you think it is,
It becomes something else.
Such is separation,
See the way of the world.

Even if a person were to live
A hundred years or more,
They would still be divided from their family,
Abandoning this life.

That is why having heard the arahant,
And dispelled lamentation;
When you see the dead and departed,
You don’t think you can get them back.

Just as one would extinguish
A burning building with water;
So too a steadfast, wise one, a skilful, clever person,
Would quickly blow away
Grief when it arises,
As wind, a tuft of cotton.

One who is seeking happiness
should draw out the painful dart—
lamentations and longings—
the grief that is within.

Dart withdrawn and unattached,
the mind attains to peace,
passed beyond all grief,
griefless, fires put out

Mindfulness of Death (2nd)

Dutiyamaraṇassati SuttaAN 8.74AN iv 320Dutiyamaraṇassati Sutta
AN 8.74
AN iv 320

A mendicant should reflect each night on the dangers that lie around them, and practice mindfulness of death with urgency to give up the unwholesome.

Bhikkhu SujatoEnglish& Pāli, 2018

Numbered Discourses 8

  1. Pairs

74. Mindfulness of Death (2nd)

At one time the Buddha was staying at Nādika in the brick house. There the Buddha addressed the mendicants:

“Mendicants, when mindfulness of death is developed and cultivated it’s very fruitful and beneficial. It culminates in the deathless and ends with the deathless.

And how is mindfulness of death developed and cultivated to be very fruitful and beneficial, to culminate in the deathless and end with the deathless? As day passes by and night draws close, a mendicant reflects: ‘I might die of many causes. A snake might bite me, or a scorpion or centipede might sting me. And if I died from that it would be an obstacle to me. Or I might stumble off a cliff, or get food poisoning, or suffer a disturbance of bile, phlegm, or piercing winds. Or I might be attacked by humans or non-humans. And if I died from that it would be an obstacle to me.’ That mendicant should reflect: ‘Are there any bad, unskillful qualities that I haven’t given up, which might be an obstacle to me if I die tonight?’

Suppose that, upon checking, a mendicant knows that there are such bad, unskillful qualities. Then in order to give them up they should apply outstanding enthusiasm, effort, zeal, vigor, perseverance, mindfulness, and situational awareness.

Suppose your clothes or head were on fire. In order to extinguish it, you’d apply intense enthusiasm, effort, zeal, vigor, perseverance, mindfulness, and situational awareness. In the same way, in order to give up those bad, unskillful qualities, that mendicant should apply outstanding enthusiasm …

But suppose that, upon checking, a mendicant knows that there are no such bad, unskillful qualities. Then that mendicant should meditate with rapture and joy, training day and night in skillful qualities.

Or else, as night passes by and day draws close, a mendicant reflects: ‘I might die of many causes. A snake might bite me, or a scorpion or centipede might sting me. And if I died from that it would be an obstacle to me. Or I might stumble off a cliff, or get food poisoning, or suffer a disturbance of bile, phlegm, or piercing winds. Or I might be attacked by humans or non-humans. And if I died from that it would be an obstacle to me.’ That mendicant should reflect: ‘Are there any bad, unskillful qualities that I haven’t given up, which might be an obstacle to me if I die today?’

Suppose that, upon checking, a mendicant knows that there are such bad, unskillful qualities. Then in order to give them up they should apply outstanding enthusiasm, effort, zeal, vigor, perseverance, mindfulness, and situational awareness.

Suppose your clothes or head were on fire. In order to extinguish it, you’d apply intense enthusiasm, effort, zeal, vigor, perseverance, mindfulness, and situational awareness. In the same way, in order to give up those bad, unskillful qualities, that mendicant should apply outstanding enthusiasm …

But suppose that, upon checking, a mendicant knows that there are no such bad, unskillful qualities. Then that mendicant should meditate with rapture and joy, training day and night in skillful qualities. Mindfulness of death, when developed and cultivated in this way, is very fruitful and beneficial. It culminates in the deathless and ends with the deathless.”

The Buddha clearly emphasised that mindfulness of death and dying reduces the suffering inherent in the experience, and for those working towards awakening, that it can lead to the deathless. However, todays approach to funerals and the entire process of dying seems to be geared to the opposite of this. Indeed I found the funeral itself to be more ‘Disneyland’ than anything resembling reality. I found it very disturbing to see that this approach is now the Norm… that the current attitude to death (thought it may appear to be ‘protecting’ people from suffering, it is actually perpetuating it. It’s like with a small child and the removal of a splinter. The best way is to be matter of fact and cause a little bit of pain and remove the splinter, rather than be so worried by causing this small amount of pain and leaving it behind, that one puts a Disney band-aid over it to make it look pretty yet let it become infected and suppurate causing lots of extended pain. It is this insistence on sugar coating everything - on denying the reality of life, this body and experience, that builds delusion and causes much greater suffering in the medium and long term.

This aspect of sugar-coating death (development of rites and rituals) is not new. It was touched upon in this discussion about Kamma.

Points that stood out for me as exacerbating suffering

Overall general conclusion

  • The modern western approach to death and dying cultivates suffering and delusion rather than alleviates it. The funeral was the final ‘show piece’ - complete with stage make-up, opening and closing curtains, and a focus on the great loss for those left behind. Overall, it was as if some great injustice was perpetrated upon the living… the outrageousness of Death interrupting the proper order of things…

Ways that this is set up by social conventions

  1. Denial of aging, sickness and death (culture of youth, camouflage of aging and death)
  2. Active maintenance of the illusion that the body is the self (emphasis on physical properties not spiritual or metaphysical)
  3. Discouragement of contemplating death and dying (categorised as morbid and unhealthy)
  4. Metaphors of fighting and winning the battle with death… or losing
  5. Language and projection of death and dying ‘sanitised’ to the point that denial is easy
  6. Stigmatisation and discomfort dealing with facts of dying or grief and suffering - somehow seen as a bit weak and somewhat shameful - just put it behind you - forget it - move on - fight it - Avoid it.

The work involved in seeing the reality of death and dying needs to be done well in advance if it is to be of real benefit, before the emotional and physical challenges are acute. It seems that the moment of realisation that death is near - always comes as a surprise… no time to do anything more about it…

I found it very unsatisfactory to witness this self, and socially, perpetuated suffering, without being able to do anything substantial about it…

However, I am very grateful, that I have found and followed the Buddhas teachings. And I’d just like to encourage others not to delay in doing this work, and to be aware of how this situation will affect each of our own lives and the lives/deaths of those close to us. Don’t delay! Do the work as if ones hair is on fire!

LOL I think I’m going to be very unpopular with my nieces this Easter, as I describe reality to them… no Easter Bunnies… just reality, mortality and the temporary and unsatisfactory nature of the body… Maybe we can make chocolate Easter ‘bones’ :bone::bone: Too much? :rofl:

:rabbit2: :skull_and_crossbones:

Please excuse this unstructured meander through this topic. It is just meant to stimulate some contemplation. Death and dying don’t have to be awful :slightly_smiling_face:


#2

Easter encompasses both death and birth but the overwhelming emphasis in the west is on birth, the rabbit and the eggs symbolize that. In Theravada the cycle of impermanence is referred to as origination and dissolution, and the emphasis is on the latter. The dissolution phase of impermanence encompasses decline, ageing and death. The reason the emphasis is placed on dissolution is to oppose the primal tendency to prefer the stage of “ripeness” (origination) which is a material survival instinct. This results in agitation because it is an unbalanced appreciation. The mature observation of samsara resulting in insight demands a mentally integrated knowledge of dissolution, such as intended in three of the six exercises in the first foundation of mindfulness.


#3

Thank you for sharing!! :anjal::yellow_heart: I couldn’t agree more about the warped attitude toward sickness, aging, and death in modern society. IMO, a tragic and extreme example of this is the anti-vax movement. Kids dying of preventable diseases like tetanus and measles in the US in 2019 because their parents deny the reality & facts of sickness and its causes.

Top causes of death today (#deaths in US, 2016; source):

  • Heart disease 635k
  • Cancer 598k
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries) 161k
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 155k
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 142k
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 116k
  • Diabetes: 80k
  • Influenza and pneumonia: 52k
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 50k
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 45k

Might respond in more detail later.


#4

Thank you for opening up this topic @Viveka. I’m embarking on a similar journey with the best friend of my college days, albeit at long distance. She writes of the surreality of knowing that she has only months left to live despite still feeling perfectly healthy. I understand this feeing because I once received a similar diagnosis. It turned out to be a mistake and I experienced a second layer of surreality in the weeks after the mistake was identified and my life was returned to me.

I remember you asking for links to recordings that might help your friend; I wonder if you’d mind sharing them here, so that they can ripple out a bit and help others?


#5

One reaction to death is magical thinking. This allows us to go to the other extreme, and eternal life. The other extreme is catastrophic thinking. Freud called the nuanced middle position the depressive position. It’s reminiscent of dukkha, where sukha/assāda (eternal and wonderful life) and ādinava/drawbacks (catastrophic imminent death) have both been transcend with the view that which born is set to die.


#6

Thank you for your lovely post.

For me, in the UK, I have witnessed some good deaths and some not so good deaths and I think that much of it is to do with the individuals involved (the dying and their supporters) and their spiritual views and practices.

I wonder if you might consider commenting on the particulars of your friends situation.

So, for example: were they religious themselves? If so what religion and denomination? How did this help them, how did it hinder them? Which friends and family suffered the most? Was it those who had a religious underpinning in their lives? What sort of assistance was offered by their religious (or secular) community before, during and after the death of your friend? The grief process can range from ‘intense and protracted’ to ‘shallow and brief’. Which people were the most resilient? What made them so?

Much of what you mention seems to be a problem with approaching death from a secular viewpoint. I wonder how we might incorporate some Buddhist views and practices on death and dying into the mainstream, like Buddhists are currently doing with mindfulness training in secular environments (especially in schools)? The idea here would be to address your six ‘social conventions’ and any others people can think of. Maybe there is already Buddhists working in this area? How can we help bring their work into the mainstream?

One thing that I noticed, is that maybe some of the religious notions may (when handled in the wrong way) bring about the social conventions that exacerbate the problem. So, for example in ‘The Dart of Death’ we find:

Just as one would extinguish
A burning building with water;
So too a steadfast, wise one, a skilful, clever person,
Would quickly blow away
Grief when it arises,
As wind, a tuft of cotton.

Might lead to:

Thank you very much for starting this discussion.


#7

Many Thanks @Media
What a great idea :smiley:

Before replying, I’ll consider your post a bit more
:dharmawheel::anjal:


#8

This isn’t an easy question :slight_smile: But from my perspective I believe that a lot of suffering could be curtailed/minimised, if the idea of the body as a ‘vessel’ could be incorporated into the main stream. While it is not exact re the Dhamma, it would be on the par of ‘mindfulness’ in general society.

As well as emphasising the temporary nature of the body/vessel, also an emphasis on expecting it to break down and die. From the moment of birth we expect it to happen - at any-time. This of course is currently a very distressing thought and to be avoided at all costs in the mainstream.

However, I believe that focusing on’ body as vesse’l could have a fundamental impact on not only easing age, illness and death, but also on the ‘out of control’ levels of materialism today.

If the body is a vessel for travelling through life - then one must see that there are other components (consciousness etc) that require things other than sensual/material comforts.
It also means that there is no identification with the body as self which makes letting go of physical changes and discomfort easier.

Tibetan Buddhists have already done a very good job of relaying the message of body as vessel. (I say this from an Australian perspective where Tibetan buddhism is perhaps the most well known, and promulgated amongst westerners).
Unfortunately, unlike mindfulness, I can’t see many opportunities for ‘business development’ in expanding this idea. In my mind there is no doubt that mindfulness has become so pervasive because people can make money from running all the many, many classes, retreats, books etc. This is only possible because there is an immediate tangible benefit for the person participating - they feel more relaxed, they feel better, they believe that they will feel better if they continue.

The issue with popularising a concept and attitude like the body is just a vessel, is that the rewards are in the future… and furthermore - these rewards appear to be just potential, not guaranteed, unless one is already aware of dhamma to some extent. It also requires effort without immediate reward. As such the most basic aspects of motivation come into play, and self discipline and restraint is not seen as valuable by todays mainstream. This doesn’t mean that it is hopeless, just very difficult, to frame it (popularise it) in the right way :slight_smile:

But still incorporating it into mainstream language, and perhaps as part of secular meditation and mindfulness could have far reaching benefits and set the direction.

The difficult part about this question for me was about how to bring relief to the ‘mainstream’ - to those who are not awake to Dhamma at all.
For the rest of us the Buddha gives the perfect instructions, for which I am so grateful. Having the opportunity to put it into practice has indeed reduced my own suffering and that of those close to me.

Don’t put off doing the work - life is unpredictable and you may need it later today!

With metta and karuna
:dharmawheel: :anjal: :thaibuddha: :skull_and_crossbones:


#9

:thinking:

But then there will always be those who love to decorate their vessels. My internet installer explained with visible passion and pride how he was looking forward to spending USD4000 to … get his favorite car painted. He had four cars and was over 30. :see_no_evil:


#10

I’d have to reply that he doesn’t see his cars as means of transport for the vessel of his body - but that his cars are a conditioned expression of his self/identity. It is how he wishes to be ‘perceived’ by others, because this is what he values (conditioned) - he believes it makes him happy - but it is only craving for acceptance/admiration by others. This is exactly what this question is trying to counteract.

In cases like this question I like to adopt the K.I.S.S. principle - Keep it simple stupid :slight_smile:
There is a lovely scene in a movie where the Tibetan Lama breaks a ceramic vessel with tea in it… and he asks - is this still tea? The vessel is expendable, impermanent, limited… but it is only the container for the tea… It is only a relatively insignificant job … containing the tea…

It is this ‘down-grading’ of the significance of the vessel of our bodies, that I believe would result in reduced suffering. To expect this vessel - my body- to degrade and break. To realise that the form of the vessel is just a temporary thing and not of primary focus…

I’ve witnessed such pain in people who are genuinely outraged that their bodies are not perfect - that they are finite and do their own thing, ie not within the control of an individual. Ant tiny step towards the awareness that the expected and anticipated process involves a terminal breakdown is a move in the right direction, and rather than lamenting this fact, to just see it as one part of the process of life > to value other aspects of life (inner happiness peace and serenity) rather than just the material. As an aside, this also ties in with managing the ‘fault finding mind’. Often, if focusing on the ‘failures’ of the body and the resultant physical suffering, one fails to be aware or grateful for everything else that is going on - again this only increases suffering.

Anyway this could end up being endless speculation and only stop with full enlightenment :smiley: , but I have recently had the opportunity to test this out in small general ways, and have found the general ideas to be palatable, and to go some little way towards easing suffering due to illness and death, for those with no other awareness (or desire of awareness) of the Dhamma.

Added:
I suppose I’ve come to this conclusion, at this point in time, because, while an understanding of Not Self is fundamental to the Dhamma, it is too subtle and complex to use as a general way to reduce suffering, while in the midst of challenging circumstances, for the mainstream. The idea of my body is not self, is much easier to grasp immediately, and to allow some small separation to occur. As a ‘band-aid’ measure I’ve found it useful, uncontroversial and non-challenging.

I’m very much of the opinion that any real transformative benefit requires following the Noble 8-fold path for the long term (permanently).


#11

Dear Gillian, indeed I searched a lot, and didn’t get to use any of the material. This was because of the nature of acceptance (or non-acceptance) of imminent death by the person.

When a person still has some hope, often they don’t want to focus on what they see as negative. In this case hope can feed denial, and it is jealously guarded. At the moment when hope is dispelled, one is already in distress and not in a state to really ‘engage’ in any conscious way.

At the next stage where visible consciousness has moved inwards - one can create an environment that is conducive to reduce distress and fear of dying, and to make the final letting go calm and peaceful. But at this stage I’d say it is really really personal, and anything beyond generalisations is not that useful.

From my own observations, the things that worked best are the firm establishment of metta and karuna in the room. To focus on gratitude, acceptance and a happy relinquishment of the suffering body. This may include just sitting, or touch, or music, or occasional gentle speech.
This also sets the tone for others, as they then have alternative methods of responding than grief and anger or continued denial.

@Timothy you may have more to add on this :slight_smile:

I just want to add that even a situation that can be interpreted as horrifying and unbearable, can be reframed in such a way as to make it completely bearable. Most of us are very lucky to liv in a time and place where medication is available, to dampen the most excruciating of pain. With the fear of pain removed, one can focus on removing the fear of our ending, of death :slight_smile:

I would be highly appreciative of the views of any monastics with experience in this area. It is something that is not often discussed, with even meditators and lay practitioners often finding the subject difficult :slight_smile:
@sujato @brahmali @Vimala and all of the other Venerables who visit this site :anjal:


#12

Apologies for going on about this, and I’ll finish here.

My purpose in starting this topic was 2 fold. 1) to remind and encourage everyone how important it is to do the work as soon as possible!!
2) That there needs to be NO FEAR at all about death and dying. I took an intimate part in this process, even spending 24/hrs per day sleeping next to the person during the last week of a gruesome death. Witnessing this has removed any fear that I may previously have had. Death will come :slight_smile: but it is our attitude and preparation that will determine any suffering. Death can be a wonderful, liberating thing (apart from the temporary physical discomforts).

It is in the hope of encouraging people to explore the idea of having a good death, that I have written this account.

Blessings to the Buddha for showing us the way :anjal:


#13

Viveka, how did that happen?


#14

Which bit are you referring to? :slight_smile:


#15

The bit in the paragraph. How did observation of the gruesomeness of the dying process remove the fear of death? I imagine for some people it would only be a reminder that they have something very painful and gruesome in their future.


#16

Easy :smiley:
Our imagination and fantasy is what makes it so terrible. Being caught up in the unknowableness, uncontrollableness of things

Just seeing it, accepting it, as it is, bringing nothing else to the process…

Referring to the Buddhas message - I believe it is all about understanding things as they truly are, and not engaging in delusion :slightly_smiling_face::dharmawheel::anjal:


#17

Well, maybe accepting it from the outside is easy, but what about from the inside? I have a friend whose father died of emphysema, and for many weeks near the end he suffered greatly , and had horrible torturous attacks during which he felt like he was drowning .

We might hope that through advanced meditation practice we are able to achieve an experience of attachment or dissociation from our bodies and their pains. But how many people actually achieve that?


#18

How many - is not the right question for me. If there is even one who achieves this, if I, or anyone else, can achieve even a small degree of this, then the work is worth it.

It’s not just dissociation or achieving samadhi through meditation that yields results, but the continual observation and contemplation of mind and reactions, observing our own conditioned responses, defilements etc - the whole Noble 8 fold path.

Enough from me :slight_smile: it’s become more like 20 cents rather than 2 cents worth of my views here :rofl:
I’m handing on to the experts

Given the nature of this forum, I’m uncomfortable turning this into a personal discussion. I am sure there are many wise people who can provide the Buddhas words as resources and teachings, and I encourage them to do so.

If however, anyone feels it would be beneficial to ask any specific questions I’m happy to discuss via the Personal Messages facility.


#19

Could I quote this on Facebook?


#20

As it’s such a personal subject it’s easy to slip into that kind of discussion. Your reminder is well-timed. :slight_smile: Thank you for providing a good example of restraint. :sunflower: