January  1993   2536   Number 23 

Living with Dying; Ajahn Munindo
Questions & Answers with Luang Por Chah: II
Dhamma Notes from Thailand; Ajahn Santacitto
A Buddhist Kingdom; Aj Pasanno & Jayasaro
Ten Rains; Sister Candasiri
First Rains; Ven. Sunnato
Wildlife in Hammer Woods; Mike Holmes

Signs of Change:

Living with Dying

Death is one of the four 'heavenly messengers' that life sends along to tell us to practise the Dhamma. For people who really want to get the message, it's not always necessary to wait for the unique experience at the end of one's life, as Ajahn Munindo points out in this talk.

It took me a long time before I could get round to consider the possibility of my own death. I have had a few near-brushes with death - a bout of meningitis, and a motor-bike accident in which I flew through the air for quite a distance without a crash helmet on - but somehow I managed to forget about them quickly. I was only 18 when I had the bike accident, and afterwards still enjoyed all manner of delights.

It is quite amazing that even though we do 'get the message' that death is a reality, we don't pay attention to it very much because we tend to view it negatively. It's an important message, a profound teaching, but we are slow in seeing and understanding it. These messages keep coming to us but we don't want to hear them. One puts a lot of energy into enjoying life, sometimes at the expense of right understanding. We condition ourselves to believe that when life is wonderful, that's all it's ever going to be - but we get these messages, and we know that it cannot always be this way. All sorts of very difficult and painful things happen, and if we're not wise or clear about the reality of death, then it could easily crush us. We've really got to get this message and stop forgetting about it.

Today, I was talking to the parents of a young boy who died of leukaemia, and hearing about the struggle that they've had. They were two doctors doing original research into a particular type of leukaemia - and their only child contracted that very disease. He developed this disease, and had a very long agonising time before dying before their eyes. Such a thing shouldn't happen; it was so painful. A lovely couple dedicated to work on leukaemia and then their only child gets it - that was too much. But they're working with it in a wonderful way, not pretending about anything. They've founded an organisation called 'Leukaemia Busters' and their little boy, Simon, designed the logo for it - a nasty leukaemia bug with a big red cross across it - before he died. They also asked him how he felt about their using his name to do this particular work and to encourage people to be interested in it. He told them that they should use his name and photograph for that purpose.

It was very painful, but I do remember that there was actually something positive about my willingness to surrender to it.
It is very demanding work and they could have turned away from it, preferring to have nothing to do with that painful memory. Instead, they've used the memory to encourage themselves to keep working.

We need to be encouraged, and the Buddha's teaching does encourage us. We have daily reflections in the monastery on ageing, 'We are of the nature to sicken, the nature to grow old and the nature to die'. These are the realities, and it begins to sink in after a while. We have the chronic habit of being life-affirming ... disregarding the message, even when it's coming to us loud and clear - but if we do take on the training that the Lord Buddha gave us and do these reflections, they work.

When I was twenty-four, I was living in N.E. Thailand with a wonderful teacher, Ajahn Chah. I felt so privileged to be living with him, but I was having a lot of trouble with the sticky rice, pickled crickets, fermented rat and so on. Somehow whatever food was offered, I seemed to have trouble with it. It was a beautiful monastery and he was a wonderful teacher, but I was having a terrible time in getting adjusted there. Since I couldn't eat the food, I would make up by having cocoa and sugar drinks in the evening. Sometimes, a few of the monks would get together and make fudge: we'd go into the dying shed and get sugar and cocoa and salt and water - and, if we were really lucky, a bit of butter - and made fudge. I used to indulge in this stuff and make thick cocoa drinks. The night before my birthday, I'd had a lot of this stuff and ... as you know, ants in Thailand are everywhere, and they really love sugar! They must have known I'd had a party because I woke up in the middle of the night with this sensation all over my body. They were stinging me. I lit my torch and everything was black - everything! The whole wall, everything was moving; it was all black, with stinging ants. They'd been looking for a hole to get in and eat the sugar, and when they couldn't find one, they made one. It was horrific. I tried to brush them off, but then of course, I was killing them - I was breaking my precepts, ruining my purity! I already had awful difficulties with my stomach and most of the rest of me, and then to have my sleep ruined by this was truly the end. It was a horrid, absolutely ghastly experience ... and it was my birthday - my 24th birthday, the end of my second 12-year cycle. I thought this must be auspicious, but it certainly didn't feel auspicious. Then it seemed that the best thing for me to do was die.

That was the first time I remember having a positive attitude towards death. I thought, 'I'll just go away and die.' I went off to the Sala, not really expecting to die, but in a terrible state of distress. These awful creatures were eating me - just gobbling me up - me, and my dwelling place too; my home! I knew I wasn't supposed to have such thoughts, but I did. When I returned to the kuti in the morning the walls were just as black; the ants had left stains everywhere. From that time onward, whenever I'd go to sleep at night, I'd dread waking up to find the same thing had happened again.

It was very painful, but I do remember that there was actually something positive about my willingness to surrender to it. I was beginning to get the message. There was dawning in me a willingness to surrender, which, in a way, is like dying. When life is not as I want it, that's when I'm faced with death: 'I' can't get my way. When I can't get my way, I might struggle to get it, which is like struggling to live - struggling to be what I want to be. Then, when we can't struggle any more, we die, and we need to be able to accept that.

Although I was never so happy in my life as when I meditated, when I became a monk - a member of the Noble Sangha with my teacher a truly beautiful being - I was completely miserable, and it was really getting me down. One night, we were on retreat and there was no escape from the misery, no way of being able to go anywhere. It just went on and on and on. On returning to my kuti, I washed my face and went to dry it on a towel. But the towel was covered with stinging ants and I got them all over my face ... I didn't know what to do; I couldn't even complain to anybody - they didn't speak English. It was night-time and I just went up to my room. All I did was bow. I wanted to cry, but I don't think I could. So all I did was bow in front of the shrine.

Bowing also is a kind of dying, and when one becomes comfortable with this gesture, it is a way to lay down this rather arrogant unjustified stance of 'me' - of, 'I can handle it.' Some situations are so impossible that we are driven to a point of utter despair, and we have no option other than to bow. If we're able to make that gesture with the right attitude, we can learn from it. It's difficult to know exactly how this works, but there is a strength which comes from reaching that point. It's a soft gentle strength that comes from knowing that you don't have to pretend you can handle everything. You don't have to pretend that you're going to sort it all out. You know you can't, and there's the willingness to admit this with the humble gesture of bowing in front of the Buddha, the very symbol of Perfection - the Perfect Freedom from the false confidence and arrogance of Self.

I died once more on my birthday in Thailand. In the early days of Wat Pah Nanachat, one would occasionally get something special - like a banana or fried fish - and be infinitely happy about it, even though it wasn't very much. Another treat was to receive little peanut toffee slabs - boiled sugar with roasted peanuts. They were really delicious, one of the few treats in those days in the monastery cuisine. On one's birthday, the monks were really kind. They'd start at the top and bottom of the line, with one of those chipped enamel plates, and each monk would take a little something from his bowl, put it on the plate, and pass it along to the next monk, so whoever was having a birthday would get two of these plates full of everybody's goodies!

On my birthday these peanut toffees were the only decent treat, so I got two plates absolutely full of peanut toffee, and ate them all! They were the only thing vaguely interesting in the bowl that day. Everybody gave me the peanut toffee slab. I think I received 13 or 14 - and eaten 12 before I realised how far I'd gone. Anyway, then I thought, 'I'll leave one for the sake of restraint, for practice!' So I had one more, without difficulty, but then I just could not resist the temptation. I picked up the last one and ate it - and at that moment my top denture plate slipped and broke right down the middle. Oh, the shame - I died! I never had the guts to tell anyone about it, and I had to go into Bangkok and wait about three months for new dentures.

This opportunity to 'die' happens all the time. Sometimes we make mistakes - like, say, making a goof during the chanting in front of everybody. I've been a monk for 15 years and still I get my lines wrong! We can feel embarrassed during these little moments of losing face and making mistakes. But if we have some skill in dying with dignity we can grow strong, because of these 'death' situations, rather than in spite of them. The trick is to be able to practise with death without being destroyed by it. We can very easily get destroyed by these situations; we can spend ages feeling acutely miserable about things we've done wrong in our lives. Or instead, we can just open up and say, 'Oh, I really blew it!' - and allow ourselves to die.

I've had this 'death' dozens of times, but it takes a long time before the meaning really sinks in. We need to find ways of encouraging ourselves to make this conscious; we can use this training, the contemplations and the formal meditations. In our mindfulness of breathing, we can build up skill in allowing the breathing to teach us the lesson of birth and death, arising and ceasing, the way of Saddhamma, the Way It Is. We allow the body to receive the breath, and we let go of it. We breath in, and we breathe out. We breathe in, and we're born; we breath out, and we die. Every time we breathe out, we die. This is absolutely normal.

I'm not saying that we should never make an effort to save ourselves, but if it really is our time to die, then to be able to die with dignity is to acknowledge and accept this. Then we can get the message - and when it's really our time we can be right there with it.