I must have awakened on the contrarian side of my bed this morning, because before long I had a new theory for the origin of religion. Drum-roll, please. Religion was invented shortly after language because homo sapiens hated saying the word “dead.” They invented religion to create euphemisms for “dead.”
For most of my life, it seems to me that roughly half of my friends and relatives used “passed away” and roughly half were braver souls and said that dreaded word. But in the last decade or two, we tell-it-like-it-is souls have become as rare, and as shocking, as atheists at a Southern Baptist convention. At the same time, more and more people have been using their own religious variant of “dead.”
Maybe, as the world has become more technologically advanced and dying has become more sterile, we fear it more. We’re willing to face death in video games but not in hospitals.
Some of my Christian friends simply say that Grandma “passed,” and they’re not talking about gas. Other say that Grandma is “with God,” on “in Heaven.” On very rare occasions, I might hear of a dear departed who “got what he deserved in Hell,” but never that he simply died.
I respect what I’d call the basics of Buddhism, and I’ve come to believe in some sort of life after death, but I’m agnostic on its exact form. There are almost as many explanations for karma, reincarnation and the Pure Land as there are Buddhists. My own explanation is vague and doesn’t fit nicely into any pattern.
If I were more ambitious, I’d work out the kinks in my concept of life after death, look for disciple or two, and form my own Buddhist sect. But if I did that, I’d probably have to attend a meeting, and I’m allergic to meetings. I’ll let it be and continue on my contrarian Buddhist path. The Buddha taught us all to test every concept through our own experience.
Getting back to my theme for today, Buddhists also use a number of euphemisms for death. The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, didn’t die. He “passed into Parinirvana,” the final state of Nirvana. Tibetan Buddhists go to the Bardo, an intermediate state of existence without a physical body.
I don’t know enough Shin and other Pure Land Buddhists to know what terms they may use for the moment of dying, but they believe in the compassion of the Amida Buddha (the essence of Buddha-hood) to bring those who honestly seek redemption to the Pure Land. Perhaps my wise and eloquent blogging friend Peace Paul would like to correct or expand what I’ve said here.
OK, I’m not really as grumpy as I seem. Sometimes, I use the “grump” technique to make my posts more fun to read. My Dzogchen practice reminds me that it’s all perfect just as it is. I respect your right to express death as is comfortable to you. But, I also suggest that we might all consider doing what we can to counteract the growing remoteness of the act of physical death.
Whatever our beliefs about an afterlife, speaking more plainly about the body’s physical death might be a step toward overcoming that void.
— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)
Some metaphors for death can indeed be beautiful, such as Etta James singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine
3 Comments Add yours
I think for me, what determines whether I say “passed away” or “died” is how close I am to the person. I’m more likely to use “passed away” if it’s someone I’m close to, probably because I don’t have the courage to say the other. Good post.
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Another wonderful post! Very thought provoking. I certainly can’t say anything authoritative about what orthodox pureland Buddhists say to refer to the moment of death. Like you, I am a convert and bit of a contrarian.
However, based on many years of religious practice, it is my experience that their is continuation after the death of the body. Our language, therefore, needs to reflect that we are more than just these bodies and personalities. It is very important to recognize that our time in this life is limited. So, in this sense, it is important to drive home the fact that we will all die. Death is very real and now is the time for religious practice. Who knows what will follow the death of this body. We don’t even know what will unfold from day to day.
Normally, when a person dies, someone we cared about, out thoughts and emotions are very self-involved. We are sad and think about all of the things we have lost. While this is natural and to be expected, as practitioners who have taken Bodhisattva vows our concern should actually be for the other. The person who has just died, has left their body – the thing they identified with most. If they did not do any religious practice during life they may be confused and lost. Our practice should be to think about their well being and to try and help them gain happiness and peace.
For ourselves, we should prepare every day for death. The work that we do in this world, practicing love and compassion in response to greed, hatred, and ignorance, is a multi-lifetime goal. As Pureland Buddhists our goal is to transform this world into a Pureland, or rather to create the conditions necessary so that everyone can awaken to the reality of the already existent Pureland. Amida Buddha’s presence is accessible in each and every moment. However, often it is only with freeing of the consciousness from the body – death – that we can be born in and live continually in Amida’s Realm of awakening. Great practitioners slip easily from this realm into the next. Those of us who are more pedestrian partitioners must rely of the unconditional compassion of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Teachers and fellow practitioners to help us as we leave this body behind.
Death is real. Rebirth is real. Compassion and Skillful means must be our guide when comforting those who have just died and those who are left behind to mourn.
Namo Amida Bu!
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Thank you, Paul, Beautifully said.