Class VI: Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
Perhaps it was extremely odd, or simply exactly correct to sit in the small, dark room in the Lower East Side and talk of death throughout the afternoon. The recent election of the logical end of American democracy, aided and abetted by what was once referred to as “the party of Lincoln,” has cast a pall on everything we do, these days. The constant exhortations from art groups and leftist politicians do little to assuage the feeling of doom. Might a far-off teaching on dying have an influence on what we are experiencing today?
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, is a 21st-century tract bringing the Tibetan Buddhist teachings on the centrality of death to life. It offers a specific conception of exactly what happens after a person passes on. It is the most beautiful, honest and relevant books on what awaits us all that I have ever read. And as we mourn the passing of hope in the political sphere, it seemed like the perfect text to be discussing as we keep up hope in the hereafter (at least).
We began by discussing how to apply the ideals engendered by a constant awareness of death to our daily lives. How does this awareness affect our actions? We discussed how a belief/faith/certainty in a life after death would alter one’s actions in life. After all, Songyal Rinpoche (the author) assures: “without any real or authentic faith in an afterlife, most people live lives deprived of any ultimate meaning.” And it is “ultimate meaning” which gives us the perspective to suffer the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (Shakespeare), as well as to operate in a bubble of hope and goodness in a world seeming gone mad.
And just to clarify, the Rinpoche also assures that the world is, most certainly, a house or mirrors and horrors: “Our so-called ‘ordinary’ world is extraordinary: a fantastic, elaborate hallucination of deluded visions.”
In light of this, and the current events, we kept cycling back to how we would or will behave if we simply worry about what is happening inside of us, as well as within arms reach – at all times. How would this perspective affect our moment-by-moment behavior, our thinking, our outlook? Our interactions with friends and strangers? Our decisions of how to spend our time, each moment? With more consciousness in our decisions?
We returned to the theme: dying. After all, teaching and learning always centers on experience, and although many mystical and some religious paths assure that we have died a thousand deaths before the one that awaits, almost none of us have an awareness of it. So how can we truly know anything about dying, if we have no experience in it? And the experience discussed in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: how are we to believe that it comes from anything other than another fantasy?
In a sense, it doesn’t matter. We made certain not to get lost in arcane arguments or discussions on the merits of whether this book was fantastical or, as the book assured, all of life was, with death the only and true unifier of all humanity. For even if we don’t “believe” in the propositions laid out in the text, by keeping an awareness of death by our side, it would certainly positively influence our actions and thoughts.
“Death is a mirror in which the entire life is reflected.” And what, exactly, does this reflection show us? How we have spent our lives. How, in light of spiritual and timeless values (as opposed to social and cultural ones), have we succeeded in aligning our actions with who we think we are, who we want to be. After all, Rinpoche assures that “Goodness is what survives death.” Not a “good name” or good time or our social standing or a cultural legacy. “The whole of our life is a teaching of how to uncover that strong goodness, and a training toward realizing it.”
And death is the greatest teacher in this regard.
So, why is our culture, and the people within it, so frightened of death? It is no less a part of life than birth or taxes. As Drakpa Gyaltsen assured: “Human beings spend all their lives preparing, preparing, preparing . . . only to meet the next life unprepared.” We talked of people we know or knew in their 80s and 90s who, as they approached death, seemed terrified and completely unprepared. Why cling to life? Especially when so many commit suicide, and so many more have thought of it? Does this represent a “cult of death” which understands “death” as a way out from pain (our reading would strongly disagree with this sentiment), and just another expression of ignorance, though this one solidifying pain and spiritual immaturity? After all, the thing about life is we have been given various tools with which to grow and understand. By killing oneself, they simply remove the tools for growth, while locking in the pain and ignorance.
There is no escape, other than by hard spiritual work and yearning toward comprehension.
Death can be present and not scary. Carried through every moment like an exhortation to live more fully, more aware, with more attention to our acts and thoughts. Influencing us, but not taking us over. If one simply removes “fear” from the thought of death, then a world of positive things unfolds before us, our interactions with the world heighten and deepen. We are far more “alive” when aware that death awaits (not “stalks”!), when we see our life as preparation, instead of finality. Accept the fact of death, and life reveals its many facets, instead of simply being the fantastical hallucination proposed by surrounding culture and society.
We get lost in “busy-ness” – the “active laziness” of doing anything except what we should be doing (devoting ourselves to “living” in the fullest manner possible). Our society has a cult of activity, in which there is a constant pressure to remain busy, and busier still. But stillness often holds many jewels that are unreachable through activity. However, anxiety drives us from ourselves, as does a fear of our inevitable demise.
So, how do we find the spirit within the mundane? Must we meditate? Can we find it in activities such as doing laundry, cooking for ourselves or for friends, walking in the street, riding the subway? Can the banal be a road to the eternal?
What about other so-called “negative” aspects of life? Pain? Regret? Mistakes? Hurtful actions? Can these become teachers? If we are aware of them, assimilate them in a certain manner? Milarepa said that his “religion is to live – and die -- without regret.” Given that this is unachievable for the rest of us mortals, what role can “regret” play in our lives?
So much of what we consider “normal” is, in fact, symptomatic of a social illness. The ideas discussed in this class – which run contrary to the illness which too-often defines our social interaction – must become goals, signposts, a practice, instead of just an ideal, read about and discussed, but never implemented.
We talked of letting go. Of the image of a coin, grasped in a palm. Held face down, the fingers must hold tightly to the coin so it doesn’t drop. Held face up, the coin can rest in the palm, the fingers opened. This metaphor becomes a guide for how to go through life: to “have” without holding.
And finally, which is more difficult: asking or giving? One of us told of “asking” as an exercise, to see what it was like. She stood next to the train turnstile and asked for a swipe. She discussed her discomfort. He sense of humility, or humiliation, or steadfastness in forcing herself to ask strangers for something. The homeless must do this everyday. Do they do this as a favor to us? To remind us, hold a mirror up to us, discomfit us? Is each of these moments a spiritual test, for us and for them?
This is but a spare compendium of the things discussed, as the light slowly darkened outside the windows and the super moon rose above the surrounding buildings. Ideas came and went, ebbed and flowed, fluttered into the room and then butterflied out again. And then, finally, with the sun already disappeared beyond the old tenements of Chrystie Street, we hiked our little rucksacks onto our backs and returned to the real life of New York City’s streets.