Why talk about death?
The latest monthly Death Conversation Cafe at WLBC is coming up this Sunday, 10 February, 2-4pm, and Parinirvana Day, the festival commemorating the Buddha’s passing away, is coming up on Sunday 17 February. Padmamati, who facilitates the Death Conversation Cafe, reflects on the place of death in Buddhism and in contemporary Western culture, and on the value of talking about death (with or without tea and cake).
In Battersea Park there is a peace pagoda. On three of its sides are images of the Buddha standing, teaching and meditating. On the fourth side there is an image of him dying. I’m always struck by this image because some of the figures next to him are weeping, grief stricken by his passing. It is said in some versions of his story that Ananda, his closest companion, was one of those weeping. Sometimes the implication is almost that this was a sign of weakness, of a lack of Insight. (It is said that Ananda did not become enlightened until after the Buddha had died, despite having had very close access to the master over many years.) Perhaps he was surprised that the Buddha had died at all. Perhaps he had expected the Buddha to be immortal. But there is something very mortal, very human, about the image of the weeping friend. To me this is not a sign of lack of Insight, but a sign of a very natural, beautiful emotion in response to the death of a beloved.
Buddhism does not shy away from the subject of death. Death is written in at the top, right there in the Four Noble Truths. But it is not really possible to say what Buddhists believe about death. The Buddha himself, even if he knew, said that it was impossible to teach or understand what would happen to an enlightened one after death. Traditionally, Buddhists believe in a form of reincarnation call rebirth. Most famously this is described in detail in the Bardo Thodol – the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead. But the Tibetan depiction differs quite markedly from that proposed by other Buddhist schools such as the Theravada. Who is right? Does it matter?
Like many religions, Buddhist myths of the afterlife seem intended to have a moral implication for this life. There is the idea that our next life and its qualities, opportunities, advantages or disadvantages, are conditioned by the way we behave in our present life. Not behaving skilfully now will cause an unfavourable rebirth in the future. But how can we know if this is true? It is largely a matter of faith. Sure, there are tales of people recalling past lives, Tibetan Tulkus being identified as re-incarnated Lamas and so on, but they are few and far between and anyway what do they mean for us? If there is no continuity of identity, of that sense of ‘me’-ness from one life to another, it takes a great leap of faith and imagination, and very great compassion indeed, to act now for the sake of the being I will become if that being will not even remember me. It takes much more imagination than it does to see the implications of our actions in this life, to see the chain of cause and effect arising and passing within this life. Death remains a mystery but we still have to live.
There are various Buddhist practices which involve contemplating one’s own death and dissolution – even ones which involve meditating in graveyards whilst looking at decaying bodies. These practices seem intended to wake us up right here, right now, to confront us with reality and spur us to act upon what that means in this very life, rather than some possible afterlife. They are probably not appropriate or even possible practices for us here in London the 21st century. But we can face death imaginatively in other ways. Most months at West London Buddhist Centre we hold a Death Conversation Cafe. People – Buddhists, non-Buddhists, friends, strangers – come together to talk about death, to talk about our own deaths. The only qualification for attending is to be mortal.
Death Cafes were set up to address the situation in contemporary culture where death is kept very much off the menu. There are no doubt lots of reasons for that, but we seem to have become diminished as a result. Whether we have been bereaved, are wondering about our own mortality, or just curious, not being able to talk about death has become a problem of life. And anything to do with death is on the menu at the cafe. That includes The Afterlife, although I have found we discuss that subject only rarely. We do discuss funerals, wills, grief, suicide, cremation, death tattoos, old-age, euthanasia, our fears and hopes and all sorts of other things. There is often laughter. For it may sound morbid to spend an afternoon talking about such subjects, but it isn’t. It is rare for me to leave without a slight spring in my step, without being moved by some of the stories I have heard, without being reminded to make better decisions, without valuing my friends and loved ones more. I know that means I shall weep if I see them they die, just as Ananda wept, and I’m glad about that.
So maybe this is the purpose of talking about death – simply to remind us to try to make life more meaningful.
Death Conversation Cafe
Sunday 10 February 2-4pm
Led by Padmamati
A group directed discussion of death to help us make the most of life
All welcome. By donation.
Sunday 17 February 10.30am-5.30pm
All welcome. By donation.