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.
In our Zen Buddhist tradition, we don’t just discuss sutras and study texts, but actually we spend most of the time in meditation, in silent concentration and acceptance of whatever is arising. I often say that our monastery in Santa Fe should have a slogan hanging over the gate: “Just show up.” That’s all we have to do when we meditate—just show up. We bring ourselves and all our of thoughts and feelings to the practice of being with whatever is—if we are tired, angry, fearful, grieving, or just plain resistant and unwilling, it really doesn’t matter what; we just come to the temple and sit down.
So experiment with using whatever arises for you as a component of your meditation practice: “Oh, look who’s here today—resistance. How interesting.” Whether you are reading this article, writing or sitting in silence, be willing to use all of the ingredients of your life as they present themselves to you. I promise you that, as Rilke wrote, “No feeling is final.” However unbearable any discomfort seems, know that, ultimately, everything we experience is temporary. And please make the wonderful effort to show up for your life, every moment, this moment—because it is perfect, just as it is.
I grew up in the South, and one of the people I was closest to as a girl was my grandmother “Aunt” Bessie. I often spent my summers with her in Savannah where she worked as a sculptor, carving tombstones for local people. A rather remarkable village woman, she served her community as someone comfortable around illness and death, someone who would sit with her dying friends. And yet when she herself became ill, her own family found it difficult to offer her the same compassionate presence.
My grandmother, who suffered first from cancer and then had a stroke, was hospitalized and then left largely alone. And her death was long and hard. I visited her in a plain and cavernous room in the nursing home, a room filled with beds of people who had all been unwittingly abandoned by their kin—and I can never forget hearing her beg my father to let her die, to help her die. Her stroke-strangled voice pleaded, and we stood by her bed, mute and helpless. She needed us to be present for her, and we were withdrawn in the face of her suffering.
When she finally died, I felt deep ambivalence, recalling how much she had suffered at the end of her life. I looked into her coffin in the funeral home, and saw that the terrible frustration that had marked her features was now gone. Her brow was smooth, her mouth untwisted from the grip frustration; she seemed at last at peace. As I stood looking at her gentle face, I realized how much of her misery had been rooted in her family’s fear of death, including my own. At that moment, I made the commitment to practice being there for others as they died.
Although I was raised as a Protestant, I turned to Buddhism soon after my grandmother’s death. Its teachings put my youthful suffering into perspective, and the message of the Buddha was clear and direct: freedom from suffering lies within suffering itself, and it is up to each individual to find his or her own way. But the Buddha did suggest a path through our alienation and toward freedom: practicing helping others while cultivating deep concentration to nourish compassion and wisdom. He further taught that enlightenment is not a mystical, transcendent experience but an ongoing process, calling for intimacy and transparency; and that enlightenment arises when confusion and fear change into openness and strength.
In my twenties, I entered the “cave of the blue dragon” where the bilge of my life had accumulated. During this dark, difficult passage, I drew comfort from writers I loved, such as Albert Camus, who wrote: “There is no sun without shadows / it is essential to know the night.” I knew instinctively that I had to realize healing directly through my own experience—that my habitual relationship to anguish could be resolved only by facing it fully. I felt that befriending the night was an assignment for survival, and knew intuitively that thinking about it would not be of much help. I had to practice: that is, I had to sit still and look within for my natural wisdom to show itself.
I also understood through the civil rights movement and protesting the Vietnam War that the rest of the world suffers as well. My bones told me that Buddhist teachings and practices might be the basis for working with and transforming the experience of alienation, both personal and social—so a commitment to social action began to grow strong roots inside me. I found I could put my own difficulties into perspective through working with those whose problems were more difficult than mine.
My grandmother’s death guided me into practicing medical anthropology in a big urban hospital in Dade County, Florida. Dying became a teacher for me, as I witnessed how spiritual and psychological issues often leap into sharp focus for those facing death. I discovered the ways in which caregiving is a path, a practice, and a school for unlearning the patterns of resistance so embedded in me and in all of Western culture. And giving care, I learned, also enjoins us to be still, let go, listen, and be open to the unknown.
As I worked with dying people, caregivers, and others experiencing catastrophe, I practiced meditation to give my life a spine on which to hang my heart and a view from which I could see beyond what I thought I knew. I was grateful to find that Buddhism offers many practices and insights for working skillfully and compassionately with suffering, pain, dying, failure, loss, and grief—the stuff of what St. John of the Cross has called “the lucky dark.” The great Christian saint recognized that suffering can be fortunate because, without it, there is no possibility for maturation, no place for compassion.
For years the lucky dark has been the atmosphere that lends clarity to this Western life, a life that had always seen death as an enemy, but was to discover death as a teacher and guide. I further explored death as a young anthropologist through studying the archeological record of human history. Through the millennia and across cultures, the fact of death has evoked fear and transcendence, practicality and spirituality. Neolithic grave sites and the cave paintings of Paleolithic peoples capture the mystery through bones, stones, bodies curled like fetuses, and images of death and trance on cave walls.
Even today, whether people live close to the earth or in high-rise apartments, death is a deep spring. For many of us in Western culture, this spring has been parched of its mystery. And yet we have an intuition that a fragment of eternity within us is liberated at the time of death. This intuition calls us to bear witness—to apprehend a part of ourselves which has perhaps been hidden and silent. As death draws near, a dying person may hear a still small voice inviting him to freedom. Sitting with the dying, sitting still in meditation, and sitting at the edge of cultures far different than my own, I have also encountered that still small voice. It is there to speak to us all, if we can give it enough silence to be heard.