Death Fear Fear Fear

“Dissolving Polarities”

Te Wahi Ora retreat at Piha, New Zealand, 2017. Image taken by the author.

“It is said that before entering the sea A river trembles with fear.

She looks back at the path she has traveled, From the peaks of the mountains,

The long winding road crossing forests and villages.

And in front of her, She sees an ocean so vast,

That to enter

There seems nothing more than to disappear forever.

But there is no other way. The river cannot go back.

Nobody can go back.

To go back is impossible in existence.

The river needs to take the risk Of entering the ocean

Because only then will fear disappear, Because that is where the river will know

It is not about disappearing into the ocean, But of becoming the ocean.”

–“Fear” by Khalil Gibran

For the most of us, our impression on death is sheer fear. As a poor defense mechanism, we spend our lives by distracting ourselves with mundane activities. But is this unwillingness to confront death ultimately fruitful? Can we not live in any other way? If we can look at life and death with a fresh awareness and bracket all our ideas and imputations that we impose upon them, how would that impact our moments of living and dying? If seen through the lens of impermanence as described in Buddhist Philosophy, there is no boundary in life and death. This is also reflected in many other Eastern religious and spiritual traditions. Instead of conditioning us to a specific label, can we afford to drop the whole game of pretending to be a practitioner of a specific tradition and make an effort to experience life and death just as they are? As Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche points out, ultimately, we have to discard the idea of a Buddhist path and if one still identifies oneself as a Buddhist, one is not enlightened yet. Can we become brave enough to leave all our habitual ways of living so that we can taste the true experience of being alive? I think, going to retreats can serve as a very effective practice in this regard.

I spent this year’s summer in an unusual way. In the midst of uncertainties and challenges of being affected by the pandemic, I tried to develop my own unique retreat. Dzongsar Khyentse explains in one of his talks on the topic of retreat that the Tibetan word for retreat, i.e., མཚམས་, literally means a boundary. During a retreat one creates a set of boundaries and pledges to abide by them. In order to go beyond our dualistic thoughts governed by boundaries, we work our way through by using boundaries as a skillful means. Establishing suitable boundaries can help us see things clearly, as our mind can

take a break from the endless mundane tasks. But often times, the beginning phase of entering a retreat makes our mind rather more turbulent than usual. We begin to doubt if we are worthy of the practice or worse, we do not entirely trust in the efficacy of the practice itself. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, while sharing her personal experience in this regard, mentions that while she was practicing certain sessions during her twelve year retreat, at the beginning, the sessions seemed very repetitive, but as one continues for few years, one begins to get a true taste of the practice. As ordinary beings who are constantly being tossed and turned by habitual tendencies and dulled by the charge of afflictive emotions, let us not reprimand ourselves for not trusting us or the practice. Rather, with a fervent intention to break through the prison of saṃsāra, let us take inspiration from the substance teachings (i.e., learning from someone’s way of living and dying) of the realized ones. Sushila Blackman’s Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die can be a wonderful resource in seeking inspiration, a book that I have been reading for the past seven years. How exactly do we apply such inspiration in our practice? Let me wrap up this writing by sharing her nectar of wisdom:

“As you read through these stories, you may want to savor the feelings or attitudes these great masters embody as they are dying. Sit and contemplate one of the underlying qualities—such as joy, courage, fearlessness, humility, or simplicity— and reflect on how you can acquire that in your own life. Another fruitful practice is to hold the reality of your own death in front of you each day. This often throws everything into a clearer and sharper perspective, and our priorities naturally rearrange themselves, yielding a richer and more deeply satisfying time spent on this planet. All the great masters wish for us one thing: that we become able to identify with the true part of our being—our essence, our inner self, our soul— before we leave our physical body.”

—Sushila Blackman, Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die, page 23.

May all of us, regardless of the nature of our paths and stages of our practice, approach closer to the truth and may we all have the most precious opportunity to experience life to the fullest and transition through death and beyond with utmost grace.

~Moondil Jahan