I often think of the story of a particular Buddhist retreat, because what happened that day illustrates with fierce clarity the fragility of these human bodies we inhabit, and the gravity of what Buddhists call “this great matter of life and death.” The event took place sometime in the 1970’s at a quiet retreat center on Cortez Island in Canada, a place called Cold Mountain Institute. It was the opening morning of the retreat, and we had just settled down into our first period of sitting meditation. The bell rang softly to announce the end of the period, and we all stretched our legs and stood up to do walking meditation—but one man remained seated. I remember feeling concern as I turned to look at him: why was he not getting up, I thought. He was still sitting in the full lotus position, his legs perfectly folded and his feet resting on his thighs; then his body slowly tilted over to one side, slumped and sagging as he fell to the floor. He died on the spot.
There were several doctors and nurses participating in the retreat, who helped us perform CPR and administer oxygen; later we learned his aorta had burst while we were all sitting. This man was healthy enough—perhaps in his late thirties. He certainly had not imagined when he came to this retreat that he would die during it. And yet, that day, sixty people sat down to meditate—and only fifty-nine stood up.
This might be an unnerving story to some of us, who move through our lives feeling and acting as though we are immortal. We glibly reel off truisms about death being a part of life, a natural phase of the cycle of existence—and yet this is not the place from which most of us as Westerners really function. Denial of death runs rampant through our culture, often leaving us woefully unprepared when it is our time to die, or our time to help others die. Many of us aren’t available for those who need us, paralyzed as we are by anxiety and resistance—nor are we available for ourselves.
There is an important Buddhist sutra called “On the Better Way To Live Alone.” Is there not also a better way to die? Can facing the inevitability of death galvanize us to respond, not just with fear but with our full attention? Ultimately, can we be present for our own endings? In Buddhist teachings, the great divide between life and death collapses into an integrated energy that cannot be fragmented. In this view, to deny death is to deny life; to live well is to die well. Within Western Buddhism, the work of spiritual care of dying people has arisen largely in response to the life-denying, antiseptic, drugged-up, tube-entangled, institutionalized version of “the good death.” And the glaring absence of meaningful ritual, manuals, and materials for a conscious death has generated a plethora of literature telling us how we should die.
Although techniques for compassionate care have been developed specifically for dying people and caregivers, the traditional Buddhist teachings on death address healthy adventurers as well, acolytes eager not only to explore the full range of life’s possibilities, but also to focus pragmatically on the one and only certainty of our lives. This certainty, our very mortality, has the potential to open our hearts and lives to this very moment, as it is.
In Buddhism, the acceptance of death, it is believed, influences not only the experience of dying but also the experience of living; life and death lie along the same continuum. One cannot—as so many Westerners try to do—lead life fully and struggle to keep the inevitable at bay. In our discomfort, we often joke about death—the only thing as certain as taxes. Woody Allen has famously typified the attitude most of us find amusing and 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 when you avoid death, you also avoid life. And I don’t know about you, but I want to be there through all of it—why would any of us want to miss a moment of what poet Mary Oliver calls this “one wild and precious life”?
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 thirty-five years, seeing how much the teachings of the Buddha have helped the living and the dying of every faith has dissolved these reservations. 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. This discovery reflects the many years of work I have done in the field of compassionate care of the dying, reflects back to you the extraordinary possibilities that can open for each of us in life as we encounter death.