As most of you probably know, Gina’s husband John Fowle passed away recently and I have been asked to write a few columns to give her some time off to deal with the transition she is facing. I am happy to do so, and it gives me an opportunity to reflect on something we often do not face up to—death.
Shortly before the Buddha passed away, in his final moments, his cousin and life-long companion Ananda was overcome with grief. The Buddha addressed him with these poignant words:
Enough, Ananda. Do not weep and lament. Have I not already explained this to you? Everything whatsoever, even what is dear and beloved to us, changes, disappears, and becomes other than it is.What is it you hope for here? That something which has been born, has become, is compounded and is of the nature to break down—this body of the Tathagata: “May that not break down!” This is just not possible.
Buddhism is unique, I think, in its willingness to tell the truth about death. It is part of the human condition, and even rebirth is seen more as an affliction than a reward, since we must face the death of loved ones again and again. The Buddha teaches us, not how to escape our troubles, but how to be well and deeply healthy even in the presence of aging, illness and death. It is only attachment that causes suffering, and even these most primal of existential challenges can be faced with non-attachment and a buoyant mind.
Andrew Olendzki, PhD, is a Buddhist scholar, teacher, and writer living in Amherst, MA. He spent 25 years in Barre, Massachusetts, at both the Insight Meditation Society and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.