Zen, Grief & Death and Buddhism
I have over the last several years searched in books and on the Internet and in the far-flung reaches of my own humanity for some kind of guidance on death and grief and the loss of loved ones. I have found articles written by Zen priest and Tibetan priests and psychologists as well as so-called grief counselors and even lay men and women who wanted to put in their thoughts on the subjects of death and grief and coping with the death or loss of a loved one.I think it’s amusing that these articles always seem to be so poetic and philosophical they are so often written by people who use words every day in their jobs or professions and they are often very skillful in the crafting of these words. I should tell you right now that I have made my living for 30 years with words so I’m not unfamiliar with their use as a tool of persuasion. I seldom see in any of these articles or books much outlining of the person who is crafting these words qualifications for handing me their well-crafted and well-meaning advice.
I can start this blog by telling you that I am a lay Zen priest, that I have practiced Buddhism for almost 35 years, including Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism under several teachers some from Taiwan some from India and some from Japan and even an American Zen master or two. But if that is what you want to hear than your standard for qualifications on this subject are as prosaic as the many articles I have read over the last few years from monks and Lama’s and Zen priests. Now I want to start this article by stating my qualifications in a different manner.
A little over five years ago my wife of 33 years was diagnosed with cancer, it was a rare form of cancer with a low survival rate, four months after she was diagnosed my oldest daughter was studying for finals took a pill that a lot of college students take meant for people with attention deficit disorder to focus her mind, she went into anaphylactic shock and died. 11 months later after months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment my loving wife of 33 years set in a chair after her liver transplant and had a heart attack and died. Approximately 8 months later my oldest son was opening up a Starbucks getting it ready for the customers in the morning, his heart had a defect, a small hole and through a blood clot into his lungs and he died on the floor of a coffeehouse. One year after that my youngest daughter walked into her office fell to the floor and died of causes unknown. These are my qualifications to write this blog about death, loss of loved ones, and grieving, Zen and Buddhism.
Please don’t mistake my intentions here I am not writing this because I think I’ve had some epiphany or vision different from yours if you’ve lost a loved one. I’m writing this because all the well-crafted words neatly numbered clichés and well-intentioned crafted prose that I have found on the subject at hand has in total been all but worthless to me in my experiences with death and loss. If there is one thing that I truthfully believe that Buddha taught that we must all achieve if we are to come close to awakening it is compassion for others. I am writing this out of compassion in the sincere hope that something that I say in this essay may actually help you if you have suffered a loss so devastating that it is crushing your soul and you would give anything to hear, see or even see the hope of an offer of a modicum of relief. Being lost in grief, and seeking something that might help you find your way.
The very first thing that I would tell you is that people who you love when they die, do not die on a specific date or at a specific time or at a specific place. The people that we love and cherish do not pass away from us like a bus or a train leaving the station. The people we love die one memory at a time over a period of years. You should brace yourself for this and understand that you can make this a good thing or you can make this a bad thing but that you have the choice as to which it will be.
You can be walking through the mall or cruising through some channels on your television set and a memory of this person that you love so much will hit you; sometimes a gentle tap ; sometimes a slap on the face and sometimes it will hit you like a freight train. You can’t know what will trigger this. you can’t walk around these sections of your life. Nor can you not smell that smell or see that little child that reminds you so much the person you love, not loved, that person you love, there is simply no way of avoiding this, there is no way of predicting this and it’s going to happen, and it will not stop and can not be avoided.
You can run from this but you can't hide from it. I sold my house, stopped doing the things I had loved doing with them, I stopped, no I couldn't work at a career I had had for 28 years. I moved to a new city. I hide from all things that had come before, I could not sleep, because they lived in my dreams. I went to therapist, took antidepressants, drank alcohol, I bought things I didn't need. It was all a waste of time. Love and memory will note leave because combined they are what our reality is made of.
One thing that you’ve got to realize is this death happened to them not to you, it’s their death not yours. You are simply a witness to their death, they are the ones that suffered the pain of death so don’t be so selfish in feeling and acting as if death was something that happened to you and not to them. Your job in loving them is to bear witness to their life and the value of that life and while their death is something that you had to endure you were simply a witness and nothing else. You do a disservice to everyone that you love that has died when you mock them by acting as if it was your experience, your death and not theirs. Further you do them a disservice, because your assuming because their life was short, it somehow had less value than a nice long life. A beautiful, brilliant child's life short or long has value beyond your petty evaluation.
I’ve read so many articles on death and loss written by Buddhist and perhaps the first word that jumps off the page of each of these writings is the word "impermanence". One of the fundamental elements of the Buddhist view toward reality is of course impermanence. The problem with using the word impermanence in English is that it’s tends to lend itself to a meaning that something is here and then it’s gone. That people are like a cloud of smoke visible for a moment and then blown away by the wind. Now I’m not talking about reincarnation or rebirth or the transmutation of the soul. I’m talking about the impermanence that is the fundamental nature of things as they really are and that in reality impermanence is composed of never ending change, not extinction.
Earlier in this essay I was talking about memories and the things that trigger them and in doing so bringing back experiences of our life with the person that we love and that has died. In so many of the articles I’ve read the experts will list phases of grieving and telling us that we must get over grieving that we must work our way through these experiences by the numbers and finish off our grief like it was a bowl of soup that needed to be consumed and then done with. These experts explain that grief is a process like having a tooth extracted.
First we are told that the tooth’s got to go and then an appointment is set where a dentist reaches into our mouth and yanks the tooth out. And this hurts. In grief, just like having a tooth extracted in the modern world, we are given drugs to ease the pain of the extraction. To soothe the pulling of the tooth the dentist will inject some pain relieving drug into our gums and then once the tooth is pulled give us a prescription for pain relievers like hydrocodone because we all know it is going to hurt for a while afterwards.
We are told that grief is like that, that our gums where the tooth was will begin to heal and that the pain will go away and eventually we will learn to do without it. In the modern world they give us antidepressants for the loss of a loved, some drugs to ease the pain and make the loss that’s going to hurt for a while more bearable. But like the extracted tooth we will eventually heal and learn to do without it or in this case the person that we loved. It’s all very neat and tidy and they’ve got it all figured out. You just follow the instructions on the pill bottle and everything will be okay. When a tooth is pulled it's nice to not feel the pain. But in grief the drugs they give you, change you in a way that simply delays the pain, there must come a time when you must face the pain of your loss, and it must be you, not a cardboard mockup of you that deals with the loss and the pain. My advice is antidepressants are fine for a while but don't wait to long before you give them up or what's left won't be you, it will be something else.
The cliché of course is that time heals all wounds whether it be an extracted tooth or our dead child or dead wife. That somehow our brains are wired in such a way that we will get over it and everything will be okay in the end. It has not been my experience that this approach to grief and grieving is not overly successful. It’s not the same thing and it doesn’t work the same way. This is especially true when the loss happens out of the natural order of things. We all expectant parents to die before us and we all miss and suffer grief for them when they pass. But their passing is expected and accepted by us as the natural order of things. But this is not the case when we lose a child or even when we lose our mate. These losses are out of order, they are not the expected, not the way things are supposed to proceed, which makes them that much harder to cope with, alas they are often inexplicable to the mind. Then that wiring mentioned above becomes twisted and often breaks rather than heals.
Our wife or husband or children are by their very nature an integral component to our perception of the world and our life. I think it can truly be said that when you lose a child or person you shared your life with for 30 years it is a loss of part of yourself maybe even more significant than the loss of an arm or a leg, it is truly an overwhelming and incomprehensible experience. And when I talked about death happening to them and not to you and when I talked about self cherishing and the loss of the child or a wife or husband makes that tendency almost justified almost true because they were a part of you, a part that you naturally feel you cannot do without. But the reality is you must now do without them and that is hard and that hurts beyond description.
The only way to truly survive such a loss is virtually to undergo a form of rebirth of your mind and soul, you must be reborn, and yet remain, you must somehow accomplish this and there is no guidance and no pill that will accomplish this for you or even deaden the pain because birth is always a painful experience and a shock to the soul. This is an experience that’s for you and you alone, there is no science to it. If anything there is an art to it, a creative process. But if you do not accomplish it in some manner you will be crippled, damaged beyond repair, so it’s something you must do despite the pain.
It’s about this time that most Buddhist start talking about attachment and not being attached even to the ones you love, and this is absurd. You can no more remain human and at the same time unattached to the people you love then you can turn to stone and still keep breathing. For me I have found that turning those memories that could’ve destroyed me into something that gives me joy and helps keep me afloat was what I had to do to obtain the rebirth that is required after the loss of a wife and children. These memories can keep you warm at night can make sure that you’re not alone and never will be. This takes effort on your part not willpower and not force of ego, perhaps a little compassion for yourself mixed in with love for those you remember helps in changing what would be poison into something else completely. Always remember nothing is ever truly lost. But it will be you who must mix the potion to make this work. You must conjure this cure.
When you suffer a devastating loss your friends want to help you and they all say they’re there for you. After a while this compassion becomes a very irritating experience but it’s something you’ve got to learn to live with. I know this doesn’t make sense and that it’s what we call counterintuitive, but having people feeling sorry for you can often be as destructive as anything in the experience of suffering such a loss. I can’t speak for other people but I myself want my friends to treat me the way they did before the loss I want them to be my friends I want them not to tiptoe around me and treat me different. I once had a well-meaning friend I had not met in a long time blurt out “my God why haven’t you killed yourself”. Needless to say he suddenly realized what he said, he saw that it was perhaps the most damaging statement I had heard in a few years. He didn't understand my laughing at him.
Almost every article I’ve read about grief and dying has the expert giving advice to the friends of the person who is grieving or for that matter the person that is dying. I didn’t find any of it anything much but condescending. I think people who are dying and people who are grieving want you to treat them like you did before they were dying or were grieving. I don’t think I’ve had more than one or two of my friends call me up like they did before my so-called tragedy and invite me out to dinner or to a movie or to any of the things that they used to do. The last thing a person who is grieving wants is to be treated like a leper. They want to be listened to when they feel like talking and when they don’t feel like talking don’t ask them to. No one likes to feel like they’re being managed or treated like someone with a disease or mental illness because they are grieving. If you tell a person who’s lost a loved one that you’re there for them then be there for them the same way you were before nothing more or less.
Almost every article I’ve ever read by a Buddhist when dealing with death and grief includes the story of the woman who brought her dead daughter to the Buddha and asked him to bring her back to life. In the story the Buddha tells the woman to go find a household that death has not touched and he will bring the daughter back to life. The woman of course goes door-to-door and finds no house and no family that death has not touched. And somehow this makes the woman more able to cope with her daughter’s death when she sees that everyone has experienced what she’s experiencing. It’s a simple parable but I don’t think it’s for a person who’s actually suffering grief. I think it’s more of a warning that the death of a loved one is inevitable and that every person must find some way of coping with it. I can’t say that this has been some great comfort to me and I wish people would quit throwing it out every time someone suggests they do a talk or write an essay on death in Buddhism. It almost seems like your being told to suck it up and walk it off.One day word came to the Buddha who was a prince from a royal family that there was an army led by a vengeful king on its way to destroy his father’s kingdom. The Buddha ran in front of the Army and sat down in front of it. It was the tradition in those times that the army could not pass a holy man so temporarily the attack was called off. But not too long afterward the vengeful king did attack again. He took all of the Buddha's family that were still in the kingdom put them in a pit and had them crushed by elephants. The Buddha himself found that he was powerless to save his father or his kingdom. Just as I was powerless, just as you were powerless to stop the deaths of your loved one. And he grieved just as your doing. This is a story for someone who is grieving: that not even the Buddha could save his family and in the end he had to share the grief that we all share in this life.
I’m much more impressed with the story from the Buddha’s own life concerning the death of his family at the hands of another king.
I’m much more impressed with the story from the Buddha’s own life concerning the death of his family at the hands of another king.
We all ask ourselves at one time or another what is the point of life. We all must endure unending change that is the impermanence that is the hallmark of our existence. But impermanence is not extinction and while life may have no purpose as we define purpose it has a direction and a flow and in the case of a sentient being that direction and that flow is best toward awakening and away from delusion, seeing things as they really are, as free from the delusions that create suffering as possible. A life of compassion and wisdom, imperfection and learning.
I know most of my modern Zen brothers and sisters do not believe in karma or rebirth but I cannot see the why of this. All the best efforts of man since he first became sentient has pointed in the direction that nothing is ever lost that things only change and that what is one thing today will be another thing tomorrow. How boring the universe would be if there was no change and how hopeless would be a world both static and predictable.
This gift of being sentient is more than a blessing or curse it is a responsibility. It has been said that the Buddha after he awoke paced back and forth for days and finally said "this cannot be taught it can only be experienced" . But despite knowing this he still walked barefooted from one end of India to the other his long life teaching and pointing the way to the path of awaking, he was a compassionate man who did not let the knowledge of his own limitations or our temporary nature dampen his compassion or lessen his efforts. If there is a lesson for those who grieve in Buddhism it is to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha no matter how hard or unbearable that path may sometimes seem. Nothing is ever truly lost.I hope there is something in this essay that will be of value to you, if you suffer from grief or have suffered the loss of a loved one. Even a grain of helpful wisdom at this time is rare, believe me I know.