Sun, 05 Nov 2000

Death is just another beginning

By Rahayu Ratnaningsih

JAKARTA (JP): I have been thinking about what I consider to be the single most fascinating subject a lot lately -- death. A colleague, whom I used to work with, recently died of breast cancer. She was only 34, a mother of two with a bright promising career. Despite her serious illness, nobody expected her to depart that early. It made me ruminate even more: how imminent our death is. How mortal we all are, how vulnerable our position is.

Death can be around the corner, yet we know little of it: what it actually is and when it will exactly come to fetch us. And it is really non-discriminatory. We have seen the bold, the beautiful and the rich die unexpectedly: Princess Diana, John Kennedy Jr., Dean Martin. It may sound melodramatic and neurotic, but actually not. Only when you can accept and prepare for death you know how to live. And the meaningfulness of life is not a matter of how long you live but how you live. For many great spiritual traditions death is even an opportunity for growth or a gate toward liberation. Life and death are two sides of the same coin: death is the beginning of another chapter of life. Death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.

However, a good number of us are not too pleased to talk about death. "Sure, sooner or later, we all are going to die, but let's be positive, let's think about it later when it is comes." But no, I refuse to only think about it when I will be too helpless to really come to terms with what is happening on my deathbed, assuming my dying process is a natural, gradual one.

Natalie Goldberg in her book Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America tells about her experience of raising funds for the Zen Center she helped run. One spring, they decided to reach out to the Twin Cities community in the hope of receiving some big donations. They worked really hard to prepare for the occasion; they would have a lovely Sunday afternoon tea and invite guests who could potentially contribute large sums to their waning funds. They set up card tables in the zendo (meditation room) -- they did not want their guests to have to sit on the floor cross- legged as they did. They rented lovely white linen tablecloths, they baked small square tea cakes and thin butter cookies. They served tea from beautiful rented silver tea servers. They wanted people to feel the elegance of Zen. They wanted the guests to like them.

Prestigious people came: lawyers, university administrators, a journalist, even the owner of a downtown department store. There were about 30 people in all. After a time of tea and cookies, cordial conversation, they asked Roshi (a nickname for a Zen master) to come down and give them a lovely talk -- maybe he would talk about generosity, about being in the moment, or something Americans are wild about from the movies: the samurai. Roshi was ideal for a fund-raiser. With his erect posture, his beaming, alive face, he was just what you would envision a Zen master should look like.

Roshi came down the stairs in his black robes, stood in front of the group seated at the tables, bowed, smiled, nodded, and then began,

"You know, all of you are going to die someday."

No, Roshi, no, they thought, and the visitors drinking their tea out of lovely white cups stopped their cups in midair, before they got to their mouths, the steam from the hot water covering their faces.

And at the end, as you might have expected, they did not find a dime in the donation box! The roshi often said to his students, "I'm sorry for you. I do not give you a piece of candy. I do not give you what you'd like, what would please you, but would not be true. I do not feed your illusions."

State of denial

This illustrates how we, "modern people," are secretly in a state of denial of our imminent death. Death is nemesis, because many of us believe that time is linear: we believe in a beginning and an end. Though many of us are conditioned to believe in some kind of hereafter, deep down we still think that death is the end of our being: the "I" simply vanishes and that is the last thing we want to happen to us since the "I" is the only surest thing we can hang on to, or so we think. And the fact that we do not even own our "self" really gives us the creeps, doesn't it?

Sogyal Rinpoche, the bestseller author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, expresses his shock when he first came to the West by the contrast between the attitudes to death he had been brought up with, and those he then found. In his eyes, for all its technological achievements, modern Western society has no real understanding of death or what happens in death or after death. He learned that people today are taught to deny death, and taught that it means nothing but annihilation and loss. That means that most of the world lives either in denial of death or in terror of it. Even talking about death is considered morbid, and many people believe that simply mentioning death is to risk wishing it upon ourselves.

And others look on death with a naive, thoughtless cheerfulness, thinking that for some unknown reason death will work out right for them, and that it is nothing to worry about. We rarely give it much thought until someone close to us passes away, when we become more philosophical for a period of time before the routines and pressing deadlines of our mundane daily lives bring us back to our normal self again. One Tibetan master says: "People often make the mistake of being frivolous about death and think, 'Oh well, death happens to everybody. It's not a big deal, it's natural. I'll be fine.' That's a nice theory until one is dying."

The Tibetan art of dying is to die peacefully, without grasping, yearning, and attachment. And we can all prepare for it, now, so when our time comes, which really will not be too far off if we are really honest about it, there will be no fear and mental anguish. It sounds unreal, but why cannot we look forward to our death rather than living with a heavy foreboding of it?

The author is Director of the Satori Foundation, a center for study and development of human excellence through mind programming and meditation techniques, e-mail: