There is a old story in Buddhism, usually referred to as the Mustard Seed story. A mother who has just lost her child hears that the Buddha is in town; she goes to him, weeping and begging him to use his supernatural powers to revive the child. The Buddha consents to this request provided she would fulfil a task. The task given to her is to go to the village, knock on each door, and get a mustard seed from any house where there has never been a death. The mother goes around and after some time comes back to the Buddha, having realized that death is inevitable and that there is no one who is not affected by death: Everybody has to die. What the Buddha indirectly taught her by this exercise was the First Noble Truth in Buddhism, known as Dukkha, often translated into English as “suffering”: Existence in this realm, in this form and with our sensory organs, is unsatisfactory in its essence. Life is full of anxiety and uncertainty. We are born, we grow, we get sick, and we die. We have to be with those whom we do not like, and sometimes we have to be away from those whom we like.
Even when we have health and wealth, we seem to be unhappy. This existence is described in the Diamond Sutra (1969):
Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world,
A star at dawn, a bubble in the stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream. (sect. 32, p. 74)
In the story of the mustard seed, there is a (relatively) happy ending. It is not that the Buddha cold-heartedly taught the mother about the inevitability of death but that through this process of enquiring and searching the mother came to an understanding of death. If the story had ended there, it would have only pointed to a part of the truth—namely, the inevitability of death. But what about the other parts—for example, on how to cope with death (and other miseries in life)? It is here that we can see the importance of Sangha, a spiritual community of like-minded people. The grieving mother joins the Monastic Order and with support from them and efforts on her part eventually achieves enlightenment.
Perhaps, one of the reasons why we avoid talking about death or tremble at the idea of facing death is that we can see our own end; we can see our own loneliness. We may study about death in books, and we may think that we are prepared, but when a loved one dies, there is nothing more helpful than having a few caring friends and family members around us, not so much lecturing us about life and death, or what happens after death, but simply being there and sharing the pain with us.
To study death, we must study life; to be more accurate, we must study living. The Dalai Lama (1997) says, “One of the principal factors that will help us to remain calm and undisturbed at the time of death is the way we have lived our lives. The more we have made our lives meaningful, the less we will regret at the time of death. The way we feel when we come to die is thus very much dependent on the way we have lived”. (p. 26)
Religions tries to provide a basic framework whereby questions related to the origin of life, the meaning of life, life after death, and so on, can be studied. Similar frameworks have also been provided by philosophy and science, even though there are those who say that science cannot deal with questions related to meaning. Organized religions through their dogmatic view and stance on what constitutes a (meaningful) life and how one should prepare for death and afterlife sometimes have closed the gates to fundamental enquiries.
How does one begin an enquiry and how does the genuine curiosity of a child change to cynicism or to the all-knowing arrogance of an adult? One can say that a child has a “beginner’s mind,” that is, a mind prior to conceptualization, discrimination, and judgmentalization and prior to thinking and comparing; in short, a child’s mind is the closest to the “no- mind” of Zen (Kapleau, 1979, 1980): a mind, empty yet full of potentiality and creativity, a mind full of awe and wonder. However, over the years, whether in school, a family, or society, the beginner’s mind is transformed into an expert’s mind, where there is little room for awe and wonder, the essential ingredients of and prerequisites to Wisdom.
In the Buddhist Scripture (Majjhima Nikaya, 1995, Sutras 63 and 72) there are basic questions that the Buddha refused to answer (Dhammananda, 1987, p. 34):
Is the universe eternal?
Is it not eternal?
Is the universe finite?
Is it infinite?
Is the soul the same as the body?
Is the soul one thing and the body another?
Does the Tathagata (a perfectly enlightened being) exist after death?
Does He not exist after death?
Does He both (at the same time) exist and not exist after death?
Does He both (at the same time) neither exist nor not exist?
John Hick in his book Disputed Questions (1993) proposes that, in general, there are two different kinds of questions that need to be considered: the unanswered versus the unanswerable: The difference, then, between the two kinds of avyakata [the undetermined questions is this. The unanswered questions are legitimate questions to which there are presumably true answers, but to which we do not in fact know the answers. It is not excluded, in logic, that human beings might someday come to know the truth of these matters. But it would still be the case that salvation/ liberation does not depend upon such knowledge and that the search for it is not conducive to salvation/ liberation. In distinction from these, the unanswerable questions are about realities transcending the systems of categories available in our human thought and language.
It seems appropriate to refer to the subject matter of these unanswerable questions as mysteries, matters that are beyond human comprehension and expression. But once again we do not, according to the Buddha, need to be able to penetrate these mysteries in order to attain liberation; and to feel that we must hold a dogmatic view concerning them is ultimately counterproductive.
The following (fundamental) questions appear in the various religious and philosophical traditions: (1) Who am I? (2) What is the meaning of life? (3) What should I do or not do? (4) How do I know, or how can I find the truth? (5) How do I know what I think I know? (6) How was the universe (or I) created? (7) What happens after I die? (8) Is there a God? (9) Why is there so much suffering in the world? Perhaps, a question to add to this list is “How would I (like to) die?”—with a possible follow-up: “What would I be thinking (or saying) at the last moments of my life?”
Dennis was a man of about sixty who had cancer of the liver, and when I last visited him after he returned from the hospital, he appeared rather healthy in spite of the fact that he was expected to die within a few months. He knew he was approaching death, and I found I could offer him no words of consolation. When we shook hands he said to me, “I am ready to go.” He survived long beyond the time expected by the doctors and his family, and during these last months he went many places and really seemed to enjoy his life.
Throughout these last months his life centred around the preparation for his death; he very carefully kept his personal belongings in order, bought a cemetery plot, made a will, and even washed the bowls from which he ate after every meal, thus indicating that he was quite ready to “leave” at every moment of his life. Nevertheless, according to his wife, from time to time he uttered the question, “Where am I going?”
I have a definite feeling that my good friend knew that his question could only be answered by “going,” or by experiencing death. He was driven to find the answer to his question by preparing to “leave” every moment, by living with his entire being from moment to moment. Dennis’ words “Where am I going” were not uttered out of anguish or desperation. His careful preparations and calm acceptance of his fate were very possibly the reasons why he lived much longer than was expected.
Interestingly, as mentioned in one of the sacred epics of India, the Mahabharata: Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most wonderful? That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.
The mystery of life and death has been one of the primary motives for humanity’s search for the meaning of life. This perhaps has most aptly been provided in the spiritual traditions of the world, especially in the Wisdom Traditions. Religions at their best guide, provide meaning, inspire, and question. It is the spiritual aspects of the religions that we are concerned with here; these are often known as the Inner Ways, or the esoteric, mystical, contemplative paths of the religions.
McGrath (2003) stated that “one of the assumptions that underpins the literature is the belief that facing a life threatening illness is a life crisis that intensifies the individual’s search for meaning” (p. 882). In fact, this along with death of loved ones are perhaps two of the most common reasons why people have turned to religions, and continue to do so, not only for comfort but also for finding the answer(s) to this enquiry. For me spirituality is the search for a sense of meaning and purpose in life implicitly imbued all aspects of lives. One can learn much from a near-death experience not only of oneself but also of others. Death also makes us face certain “unpleasant” situations in life, although most of us may prefer the “postponed living”. Studies have shown that physically healthy individuals with a well-balanced spiritual life also have better psychological health, while other studies have confirmed that a patient’s spiritual beliefs have a significant impact on their health.
When working for the London Buddhist Hospice I was made aware importance of meditation in the dying process. Meditation is an ancient transpersonal method for bringing about ‘peaceful heart and clear mind,’ even with individuals who have never meditated before. The notion or belief in afterlife, even with a certain degree of uncertainty, sometimes referred to as “uncertainty comfort,” has been shown to be comforting not only for survivors but also for some hospice patients.
Connelly (2003) found the art of dying consists in having cultivated throughout life a sense of acceptance and the will, the intuition, and the prudence necessary to know when to dully commit to this duty at the end of life. One of the important conclusions of the study was that the awareness of and facing one’s finiteness can promote personal growth in the second half of life. These studies are pointing to the importance of having a spiritual outlook in life and towards death.
There are many ways in which one can study death. One can actually die and see it for oneself (conscious dying); one can see what happens when someone else dies (this might be an emotional encounter, especially if that person is a dear one); one can read about the death accounts of different people; one can consider death as another stage in life; one can look at death as the end of life; one can think of death as a release from this prison like life. However we look at this issue, the existential point remains: Until a few minutes ago, there was a being here, in a body, and now the body is here, but something is not there. We may not know what death is, or we may not be able to define it exactly, but we certainly know when life is no more. This sort of experience is a “hmmm” experience. If there is a moment of realization or an insight into this mysterious process, then it is an “ahhh” experience. If a genuine transformation of heart or mind has occurred, the attachment to the body is dropped.
As Dorothy Sayers (1987) puts it,
The only two things we can do with death are, first: to postpone it, which is only partial solution, and, secondly, to transfer the whole set of values connected with death to another sphere of action—that is, from time to eternity. (p. 197)
Death is a mystery, and there is very little that a comparative religious study can reveal about it that the actual existential experience of dying cannot teach us. The difficulty is that this experience is often shielded from most of us. Examining death leads to examining life. The question of meaning—meaning of life and death—is one that has been considered and discussed in the world’s religions. This question, however, is by no means limited to the domain of religions; it also belongs to philosophy and psychology. It can be said that this question goes to the core of our humanness. When one listens to a dying person, or reads the accounts of terminally ill people, it is clear that, as death nears, the perennial idea that grips the imagination is the idea of meaning or value.
Many people consider the process of dying as the Ultimate Journey, with death as its destination. We do not know exactly how or when we will get to that destination or whether there is somewhere else that we have to go after we reach there. At the same time, we do know (based on observation) that we will get there. Different spiritual traditions provide, sometimes detailed, explanations about how to prepare for such a journey, how to have the knowledge of when our death might happen, and what happens to us after we have died.
A journey usually begins at one point and ends at another. This is not necessarily the case for a spiritual journey. A sacred quest starts with oneself and ends with oneself; for this reason it is often called an Inward Journey. Before we begin a journey, we need to know our destination. With that, we study the various ways of getting from Point A to Point B, arranging for the necessary materials, and so on. A guide, sometimes considered to be indispensable, is one who knows the way, who has already gone from Point A to Point B, and is willing to show the way. Some say that a guide is absolutely necessary and that one should not venture or start the (spiritual) journey without a proper guide.
There is a school of thought that says that the real guide is already within us—often called the Divine seed or the Buddha nature. A spiritual journey, in many ways, is similar to a regular journey. It takes time; it needs supplies and ammunition; it requires strength, discipline, faith, and hard work. Tillich (1957) says,
Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned; the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern. Man, like every being, is concerned about many things, above all about those which condition his very existence, such as food and shelter. But man, in contrast to other beings, has spiritual concerns—cognitive, aesthetic, social, political.
If life is a series of experiences, then there are certain experiences that we can avoid, for example, by seeing the effects they have (had) on those who experienced them. Then, there are certain experiences that we cannot avoid, some of which might be pleasant, in which case we might try to repeat them, and some of which might be unpleasant, and we try not to repeat them. In all these experiences of varying depth and value, there is one element that is common—that is, the experiencer, who can review and evaluate the experience afterward. Among one of the experiences that cannot be avoided, there is one that holds the supreme position, for the experiencer afterward is no more: That ultimate experience is death.
Interestingly, the experience of enlightenment, as depicted in various spiritual traditions, is similar to the experience of death in the sense that the experiencer, although still alive, is no longer the same person.
As Lama Govinda (1976) shows us, “life means giving and taking: exchange, transformation. It is breathing in and breathing out. It is not the taking possession of anything, but a taking part in everything that comes in touch with us. It is neither a state of possession nor being possessed, neither a clinging to the objects of our experience nor a state of indifference, but the middle way, the way of transformation. We are transformed by what we accept. We transform what we have accepted by assimilating it. We are transformed by the act of giving, and we contribute to the transformation of others by what we are giving”. (p. 182)
There are yogis who practice “meditation on death and dying” throughout their lives so that they can have a peaceful and aware death. There are those of us who avoid or postpone thinking about death and dying. Perhaps a proper dosage would be frequent (meditative) reminders of the inevitability of death; more important, it is recognizing that living well determines, to a large extent, dying well. Living well means living a spiritual life.
To the question of “What is death?” Robert Thurman (1994), a scholar of Buddhism, says, “the question is a scientific one. Western science holds that a “flatline” on the EEG means cessation of heartbeat and brain activity, and therefore represents death. The illusion of the subjective “I” in the individual consciousness assumed by materialists to correspond with the presence of brain wave activity, should cease with the cessation of brain waves. Yet the picture of death as a nothing in consciousness is not a scientific finding. It is a conceptual notion. There are many cases of people being revived after “flatlining” for some time, and they report intense subjective experiences. (p. 23)
Life consists of various stages (or processes) of birth, growth, decay, and death. Seen in this way, life is not the opposite of death. Viewed as process, dying is a continuation of living. In fact, this perspective is used in the world’s different religions and mythologies as the merging or unification of the individual’s consciousness with the Infinite (the Divine, the Ultimate). Although dying is a process, death is but a moment. As Tagore said, “Death is just the moment when dying ends.”
The life of a being is composed of many (transformative) processes, which ordinarily are called experiences. There are some who believe that there is a continuous cyclic process, implying not returning to the initial state but repeating birth (more accurately called “appearance or formation”), growth, decay, and death (more accurately called “dissolution”). Those who hold this view, in a certain sense, subscribe to the continuity of life, with all its ramifications, such as rebirth, or reincarnation, and karma.
Erich Fromm, (1992) argues if avoidance of pain and maximal comfort are supreme values, then indeed illusions are preferable to the truth. If, on the other hand, we consider that every man, at any time in history, is born with the potential of being a full man and that, furthermore, with his death the one chance given to him is over, then indeed much can be said for the personal value of shedding illusions and thus attaining an optimum of personal fulfillment. In addition, the more seeing individuals become, the more likely it is that they can produce changes—social and individual ones—at the earliest possible moment, rather than, as is often the case, waiting until the chances for change have disappeared because their mind, their courage, their will have become atrophied.
How one lives has much to do with how one dies. It is this awareness that helps us prepare for the final departure; every person we meet might be the last person that we face in this life. Every action that we perform might be the last action that we do.
There is a famous story about a Zen monk that makes this point: On his death bed a Zen master was asked by his disciples to leave his last words for them, and thus they brought him a brush and ink. The dying monk wrote, “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die (Shini tomo nai. Shini tomo nai).” The disciples were very much perplexed and annoyed because the words did not seem to be those of an eminent Zen monk, so they asked him to write what he really felt. The monk then wrote, “Really, really (Honmani, honmani).”
This story may conflict with our image of a great Zen master; the Zen monk is expected to be calm in facing death as the result of his Zazen practice which presumably enables him to live constantly in the here and now and to transcend the dichotomy of life and death. Assuredly this monk did not betray the general expectation as he wrote his last words with such self-composure, not in confusion and despair. The master was experiencing his immediate reality, which was his natural unwillingness to die, while in contrast his disciples were concerned with their image of what it means to be a famous Zen master. This story seems to convey that, as long as we live, the natural attachment to our physical existence is undeniable, even for someone who has cultivated the ability to transcend life and death.
Kishimoto Hideo, was a Japanese scholar in the field of religion. He suffered for many years from a terminal illness and left us a valuable document which contains his talks about his experience of death in life, and also a manuscript in which he set down his perception of what it means to die. Being driven by the physical terror of death, which he characterized as incomprehensible, unquenchable “thirst or hunger for life,” he had hopelessly attempted to intellectualize about the life hereafter. As he was a scholar, he first endeavored, in vain, to convince himself to accept his fate by utilizing the religious knowledge which he had accumulated. As in our previous stories, the attachment to physical life was unquestionably overwhelming for him. Then, he writes suddenly one day he had a flash of illumination: The only necessary thing is our preparation to confront death when it comes. What I discovered here was that I was afraid of death because I was thinking that I would experience it, and then I discovered that death was outside of my experience. What we can experience is only life or living. It was a shocking experience for me to realize that there is no other way permitted for human beings to live except to keep living.
Kishimoto goes on to state that death is simply the lack of life, and the only thing given to us is life or living, nothing else. Thus his question became very clear: “How can I ’really’ live what is left of my life?” Since life, for which he was “thirsty,” was no more granted, he tried to live best each and every given moment beyond which there was no further assurance of life. He convinced himself that it was necessary for him to be ready to confront death at any moment when it came with the attitude of calmly bidding farewell to his life. Thus, whenever he said goodbye to others, he experienced that moment as if it had been the last opportunity for him to exchange these words.
According to Kishimoto, this attitude was the only way he could face the physical fear of death and best live his given life. Kishimoto submitted himself to the necessity of death and demonstrated the freedom of the human will in choosing his attitude in confronting death. Thus Kishimoto’s efforts to live consciously and fully in the present began as soon as he was sentenced to death by his terminal illness, and his stance of constantly dying to his previous self seems to have enabled him to exist in the immediate present.
Kishimoto’s attitude of being ready to confront death with a calm and serene mind, as the result of his effort to experience each and every moment of living as the last moment, reminds me of the story about the famous haiku poet Basho (Iwami, 1958). Basho (1643-1694) when he was about to die at the age of fifty-one, composed a haiku which can be translated:
In my journey
I suffer from sickness.
And yet my dreams
Are running in the withered fields
Basho’s disciples asked him: “Can we consider this haiku as the last one that you leave to us?” He answered, “this haiku cannot be considered as either the last, or not the last. Each and every haiku that I composed throughout my life is no other than my last” Thus, Basho referred to this attitude or way of living in the presence of death. Basho was not a hermit nor did he abhor life; rather, he loved his life deeply, and all the by living his life in the presence of death. With the conviction that travels through life as if it were a journey, one becomes aware that each and every stage of the journey is the ultimate in itself and should be lived with one’s entire being and effort in the expectation of death.
In the eyes of the man with this conviction, the world he lives in appears at each and every moment as extremely beautiful and as the manifestation of eternal life itself. Like the following poem, many of Basho’s haiku express this feeling:
Of an approaching death
Showing no signs
The cicada’s droning
Such a short lived insect that puts all of its efforts into singing in harmony with the forest intrigued the mind of the poet. As a nature poet, Basho does not speak of the cicada as outside of himself but as his inner reality through which he experiences the approach of death. Suzuki (1970) has commented on this poem saying: “The cicada is perfect, content with itself and with the world…. As long as it can sing it is alive, and while alive there is an eternal life and what is the use of worrying about transitory-ness”? In hearing the cicada’s drone perhaps Kishimoto would have felt that even the cicada was saying goodbye to its life by living each moment with great intensity, or, while “showing no signs” of approaching death.
The question then arises, Why was it so desirable for Kishimoto and the poet Basho to have a calm mind, undisturbed by the fear of death? To find an answer to this question, we must consider the Japanese cultural tradition. According to Kishimoto, the place occupied by death in the East and West differs because of the socio-cultural traditions involved. In the West death is outside of life as well as the negation of life, and people tend to make an issue of whether or not the dying person physically suffered. In the East death or dying is regarded as one’s last enterprise in life; death exists inside, or as a part of the journey of life. The concern is therefore not with physical pain or suffering, as in the West, but rather with the kind of attitude the person had when he or she met death. What is most important for the Easterner is the demonstration of control over the fear of death, and this control is considered to be the result of a lifelong effort to keep the mind calm and serene in the face of any emotional experiences.
Kishimoto understood that someone filled with agony at the time of his death and this would not be an appropriate death in the East for one who is spiritually matured. For the Easterner, the idea of a good death is exemplified by the description of the death of Buddha, found in the Mahii-parimibhiina Suttanta. Buddha passed away while experiencing samadhi, or the calmness and peacefulness of mind, which was the result of his lifelong meditation practice.
If we explore the importance of living a spiritual life and if we undertake and maintain a regular meditative experience it will likely lead us to a reflective attitude toward life, death, and dying.
Nowadays, we can easily access the spiritual or medicinal teachings of the traditional systems, such as Yoga and Ayurveda of India, Sufi healing of Islam, Chinese (herbal) medicine, and native peoples’ healing arts. The self- help sections in many bookstores is filled with “How to” books and video and audio tapes: how to remain young and beautiful, how to be happy, how to be healthy, how to be free of pain. It is not that one should ignore the health of one’s body or mind, but when the focus of spirituality becomes solely the improvement and the appearance of the physical body, with little emphasis on the mind and the spirit, then that spiritual system has gone out of balance.
There is therefore a possibility of diluting the highest values of these traditions to simply leading a healthy, peaceful, and happy life. In many mystical traditions there are different forms of meditations and spiritual exercises to help the individual face the process of dying. For many of these traditions, death is just another stage in life. An interfaith or multifaith approach can show how various traditions look at the process of dying, afterlife, grieving, and rituals and ceremonies for the dead.
Specifically, one can look at the lives of the sages from the various religious traditions and see how they died and how they viewed death. Having presented a brief survey of the death accounts of many sages from Asia, Blackman (1997) stated, “The masters from the East maintain that to live righteously, let alone to die well, one must act without any personal attachment to one’s actions. To be delivered from the fear of death and the certainty of rebirth, one must act without desire, without a personal agenda, and without attachment to results”. (p. 8)
Inevitably, one then begins to see that the lives of the sages signified their deaths. I have also noticed that the sages from the Wisdom traditions (of both the East and the West) have considered their teachings in life to comprise various connected elements, such as (1) liberation: showing ways of being liberated from the mundane attachments of daily life and overcoming one’s ego; (2) union: showing ways of reuniting or reconnecting to our true nature, to God; (3) transiency: teaching us about the illusory or impermanent aspects of life; (4) wisdom: providing us with the means and ways of seeing the Reality and how to live peacefully with ourselves and with others. Many of these sages, who through years of discipline and spiritual practice had achieved mastery of mind and body, did not use these powers to remain young, to heal themselves, or to have a peaceful death.
Some of these sages died very young, some were killed, and some died of very painful diseases. They never thought that the Eternal Life was this material life. They were all good physicists, knowing that any living physical organism is subject to the laws of nature. What they perceived was a different dimension, a dimension that the laws of physics, as we know them at the present time, are not capable of identifying or describing. Most came to this conclusion through a “mystical” experience. This experience is often called the experience of the unity of existence. To that extent, having a body was and is necessary to carry out the daily activities, but at no time was the focus of the sages’ attention or thoughts the beautification, the excessive maintenance of the body or the prolonging of life.
According to Buddhism, and perhaps Hinduism, the last thought in the present life is the impulse or the imprint for the first thought in the next life. The Buddha said, “Rebirth arises from two causes: the last thought of the previous life as its governing principle and the actions of the previous life as its basis. The stopping of the last thought is known as the decease, the appearance of the first thought as rebirth”. (Kapleau, 1979, p. 68) Thus, what one says, thinks, or does at the last moments of one’s life is of crucial importance. If one has lived a pure life, the chances are that at the last moments, thoughts of love, compassion, forgiveness, and equanimity would arise.
Victor Frankl argues “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves, and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and, instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual (Victor Frankl, 1984, p. 85)
There are different reasons why we become interested in spirituality in general and as a special path in particular: the loss of a loved one, a terminal or a painful disease, an enquiry of existential magnitude. According to Zen Buddhism and other forms of Mahayana Buddhism, the relative realm of existence (Samsara) is not different from the ultimate realm (Nirvana), and it is only in the Samsaric realm that one can recognize the Ultimate. Buddha (1989) identified eight worldly concerns as the basis of human misery: Monks, these eight worldly conditions obsess the world; the world revolves round these eight worldly conditions. What eight? Gain and loss, fame and obscurity, blame and praise, contentment and pain. (Anguttara Nikaya, Vol. 4, p. 107)
These four pairs deal with one’s attachment toward what one thinks are desirable (gain, fame, praise, and pleasure) and one’s aversion toward what one thinks are undesirable (loss, shame, blame, and pain). Because of the impermanence and transiency of all things and phenomena, we experience Dukkha, the unsatisfactory nature of existence, the main cause of unhappiness. In Buddha (1987), one reads, “And what, monks, is the Noble Truth of Dukkha? Birth is Dukkha, ageing is Dukkha, death is Dukkha, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness and distress are Dukkha. Being attached to the unloved is Dukkha, being separated from the loved is Dukkha, not getting what one wants is Dukkha. In short, the five aggregates of grasping are Dukkha”. (Digha Nikaya, Sutra 22, verse 18)
There seems to be a longing to be free from this painful existence. For the Sufis (the mystics of Islam), the separation from the Beloved is the ultimate pain, and until the reunion happens (through fana, or extinction of the individuality or the lower self), the continued existence, baqa, is only a dream (see Nurbakhsh, 1978, 1979). The 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi says, “Between a man and God there are just two veils, and all other veils manifest out of these: they are health, and wealth. The man who is well in body says, “Where is God? I do not know, and I do not see.” As soon as pain afflicts him he begins to cry, “O God! O God!” communing and conversing with God. So you see that health was his veil, and God was hidden under that veil. As much as a man has wealth and resources, he procures the means to gratifying his desires, and is preoccupied night and day with that. The moment indigence appears, his spirit is weakened and he goes round about God”.
What used to take many years, and perhaps many lifetimes, is now thought (at least by some) to be achieved in a short time, and the process of natural maturation and spiritual growth is artificially hastened, providing a market for genetically engineered spirituality; meanwhile, many sages have said that there are no such shortcuts to enlightenment. The spiritual maturation process, or spiritual fermentation, involves an earnest, hardworking, and sincere student who is ready to work, an honest and enlightened teacher who is willing to teach, and a society that supports many spiritual activities.
Sri Aurobindo (1983) says, “Being attracted to any set of religious or spiritual ideals does not bring with it any realization… a mere mental activity will not bring a change of consciousness, it can only bring a change of mind. And if your mind is sufficiently mobile, it will go on changing from one thing to another till the end without arriving at any sure way or any spiritual harbour. The mind can think and doubt and question and accept and withdraw its acceptance, make formations and unmake them, pass decisions and revoke them, judging always on the surface and by surface indications and therefore never coming to any deep and firm experience of Truth, but by itself it can do no more. There are only three ways by which it can make itself a channel or instrument of Truth. Either it must fall silent in the Self and give room for a wider and greater consciousness; or it must make itself passive to an inner Light and allow that Light to use it as a means of experience; or else, it must itself change from the questioning intellectual superficial mind it now is to an intuitive intelligence, a mind of vision fit for the direct perception of the divine Truth”.
The day is no more, the shadow is upon the earth.
It is time that I go to the stream to fill my pitcher.
The evening air is eager with the sad music of the water.
Ah, it calls me out into the dusk. In the lonely lane there is no passer by,
The wind is up, the ripples are rampant in the river.
I know not if I shall come back home.
I know not whom I shall chance to meet.
There at the fording in the little boat the unknown man plays upon his lute.
Every inhalation and the following exhalation signify life and death: There is a continuous dying. The moment when the next breath does not arise is considered by many as the moment of death, a transition, or a step toward the next rebirth. Chuang Tzu (1968) says, “Life is the companion of death, death is the beginning of life. Who understands their workings? Man’s life is a coming together of breath. If it comes together, there is life; if it scatters, there is death. And if life and death are companions to each other, then what is there for us to be anxious about? (p. 235)
Things and beings come into existence when the conditions are appropriate; they last for a while, growing and decaying, and finally when conditions are again appropriate, they simply disappear or dissolve. The last moments of our life are perhaps the most important and precious moments, since to a large extent our thoughts during these moments will determine who we will become in the next life. Would we be conscious and aware at these last moments? Would our mind be in a peaceful, relaxed, and compassionate state? Would we be surrounded by family and friends in a conducive environment? When the time has come to leave, can we let go? Can we forgive all those who may have knowingly or unknowingly hurt us? Can we ask forgiveness from all those whom we may have knowingly or unknowingly hurt? Can we look back and have no regrets about the things we should have done or should have said? Can we review our life, even if it is in a few seconds, and feel that we have done what we came here to do? Would we be able to look back at life and sing along with Tagore sentiments:
I have had my invitation to this world’s festival, and thus my life has been blessed.
My eyes have seen and my ears have heard.
It was my part at this feast to play upon my instrument, and I have done all I could.
Now, I ask, has the time come at last when I may go in and see thy face and offer thee my silent salutation?
My deepest thanks goes to Meenakshi for sharing her understanding and insight in Sufism (the mystical tradition of Islam).