Death on Death’s Terms

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    A Dharma Glimpse by Dayamay Dunsby

    Interestingly, just as I began working with elderly people and studying ‘end of life care’, I happened upon a spiritual teacher called Stephen Jenkinson. He’s known as a sort of death guru, who attempts to penetrate the wall of denial and avoidance that constitutes what he calls our collective societal ‘death phobia’.

    This pervasive psychosocial phenomena occurs as an accumulated defense strategy that we have honed over hundreds of years in an attempt to exercise a degree of control over the thing that we fear the most – our immutable mortality. We routinely refuse to allow death into our lives and compulsively delay it in ourselves and our loved ones, in order that we can maintain some distance from it. Stephen points out that, such is the fundamental importance of death, that if we do not accept it as thoroughly as we pursue life, we can never really be fully alive.

    Death phobia is ingrained in our language, our mentality and, to some considerable extent, dictates the course of our cultural endeavors.

    One of the most fascinating things about his philosophy is the trouble that the averagely socialized person seems to have relinquishing their highly conditioned defenses to death, in order to understand that death is not something that we handle…death handles us, and that’s exactly as it’s meant to be, that’s just the nature of death!!

    As something that resonates so deeply with me, and that I feel as a profoundly important truth, this brings up many spiritual and, In terms of my work, practical questions. How does it fit with the Bodhisattva model of compassion to not collude with a dying person, who is desperately trying to cling to a hopeless thread of life? How does one lovingly undo generations of the kind of trauma response that deflects death and legitimizes our ‘heroic’ refusals to die on death’s terms, rather than our own?

    As with so many of our current societal misapprehensions, the root is systemic and probably would take hundreds of years to heal – if we had that sort of time. Our whole culture would have to be transformed in line with a completely different attitude towards dying.

    It strikes me that this subject is emerging as part of a conversation that includes the likelihood that, pretty soon, death will be a much closer companion, even here in the west, where it is most successfully dismissed as an inconvenience.

    In Buddhism, the process of dying and what happens afterwards is central to the philosophy that injects meaning into our faith. For a start, there is only so much that we can learn in a single incarnation. Without death the continuity of our transformation would be impossible. And, death IS transformation, probably in its most potent and pure form. And so, the importance of death is emphasized over and over again.

    Death is the yan to life’s ying (or vice versa).

    Pureland Buddhism is very good at helping us align(re-align – religion) with death, in that much of what happens in terms of our ultimate transformation, occurs after the fact of leaving this world and entering into the higher realms. Amida comes to us at the moment of death and guides us safely to Sukhavati, where we continue our journeys towards complete and perfect enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. It feels to me that this sense of continuity is helpful in maintaining the kind of open-mindedness and incentive that will help us to face death in a way that means we will be informed by its influence, rather than in conflict with its inevitability.

    Namo Amida Bu.

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    Dharma Glimpse by Philip Wallbridge

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    I was thinking about location and ‘being’ before a recent trip to the temple for a mindfulness retreat stay. 

    The idea and knowledge of having a planned trip back to the temple always fills me with warmth. To be reconnected with templemates, the Sangha, a sense of action and purpose through the Earth vigils, and a stronger sense of being connected to the Buddha than where I now live up north. But I still find parts of me unsettled by the travelling and change in surroundings.  I asked myself before this recent visit, ‘am I able to be anywhere geographically and locationally, but connected to both myself and something bigger’?

    The answer at the moment feels like it is a ‘no’.  I vaguely remembered a saying along the lines of ‘you are exactly where you are supposed to be’.  I assumed it meant locationally.  I don’t know if it also means cosmically, spiritually and internally.  Maybe it can be any or all of those, acknowledging there is overlap between them. The saying sounds comforting to me in terms of cosmically and locationally.  That sense of fate and/or being guided by something bigger.  But I’m not sure it feels true, or perhaps helpful, to me. 

    Maybe spiritually and internally, being compassionate, it’s the best I can be at this moment.  Maybe that is a truth of sorts.  But it’s not where I want to be.  Brother Graham (Brian) and I used to recount lines from the poem ‘Desiderata’ in the temple kitchen.  One of our shared favourites is ‘You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here’.  Having a right to be here gives me some comfort and compassion.  But, I think, accepting and embracing this right also means accepting the rights of others to be here.  The trees, stars, sentient beings and others struggling, like me, whether consciously or not, with their delusions, ignorance and reckless actions to the earth and all its inhabitants. 

    For me I think there might be hard, but beautiful, work to do to move forwards spiritually and internally.  Part of that hard work feels like it could be surrendering to, and taking refuge in, Amida Buddha.  The distance to lean in maybe small in many ways, but in others ways it feels to me like one of the furthest and most challenging.  Maybe it is both simultaneously near and far.  But the further I go spiritually, the less distance I have to travel internally to be connected to myself and something bigger.  So that, perhaps, my physical locational becomes much less important to how I think and feel, and what I am able to offer and receive.  So that wherever I am physically, or even internally at times, I am nearly always in the right place in relation to the Buddha. 

    Namo Amida Bu.

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    Dharma Glimpse by Dayamay Dunsby

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    Watching the news recently, the tensions between Russia and the West, the bickering in parliament over corruption and immoral conduct and other equally contentious issues, made me think about how all of these problems that we face originate within us, the human race, in our deeply wounded and fragmented hearts and minds. The television is merely showing us how our traumas, both individual and collective, are playing out in the world. 

    If Buddhist doctrine is to be believed, we have all been traversing the minefield of Samsara for eternity and none of us have escaped unscathed. We carry with us the scars of many battles, great personal loss, failure and violence. This deep karma colours our experience and drives our desires. It is both the fuel for suffering and the seed of enlightenment.

    It occurred to me, as it has many times, that It would be better to occasionally spend 5 minutes noticing what is happening within me, what feelings, fears, hopes and dreams are arising and circulating, than to watch in horror and disbelief at the seeming deterioration of our planet and our species on a TV screen.

    For all I know the fact of taking time to make peace with these internal struggles may well be a contribution towards the counterbalance of peace and sanity in a desperately troubled world.

    Namo Amida Bu  : )

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    Dharma Glimpse: Teachers

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    By Maria Chumak

    The role of a Teacher (with a capital T!) has been celebrated and explored in many Eastern cultures. There is usually an image of a struggling searcher, often suffering and lost within the troubles of their life, and at the point when they are about to lose all hope there appears a person or an image offering a new and better way.

    My search began in a much less dramatic way – although I’ve been known to hit a brick wall more than once since. It began – as did most positive things in my life – with music. When I was just approaching my teens, through my Dad’s music collection I became interested in a British progressive rock band Yes known for their complex, deeply spiritual lyrics. The band’s lead singer Jon Anderson took inspiration in the Buddhist texts and the works of Hermann Hesse, a spiritual search that drove most of his creative career and lifestyle from the 70-s up to the present day. Jon has never tried to fit within one religious confession, his quest has simply been that of seeking the light, inspiration and the truth, deeply rooted in love for the whole of humanity and the Earth.

    So what is the role of a Teacher and who is that person? Is it someone who is the most knowledgeable of the religious texts? Someone who has been living the most ascetic life? Someone who is certain they know best? To me, a Teacher is the one who inspires me to be a better person, who shows me a better way by example and not just through reading a passage in a book. Someone who sees all the beauty in our world and even in us silly humans, who knows everything that’s happening in the world, but still remains optimistic and hopeful for a new era to come. Someone who lives in the Light. Through his music and his energy he is always with me.

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    Dharma Glimpse: One Million Nembutsu

    Categories: buddhism dharma glimpse

    By Daymay Dunsby

    Since the beginning of the year I’ve been engaged in the million nembutsu practice. 2,700 a day for 365 days, recited rapidly over 25 minutes. I’ve found that it has really reignited my love for practice, just for the sake of practice. I didn’t feel lacking in my spiritual life or a particular need for stronger faith. It just felt like a nice thing to do. My memories of the practice from previous years left me with a warm and inspiring feeling that I have felt many times in my spiritual life and I now associate with devotional practices. It feels like my gesture of love for the Buddha is being reciprocated, as the nembutsu acts like a conductor between myself and Amida.

    Practice is inseparable from awakening. The act of practice is imbued with the seed of faith. To take part in spiritual practice is to embody the principles of enlightenment, as demonstrated by Shakyamuni thousands of years ago. We are still benefiting from his vision and his inspiration. But without our participation there would be nothing to enjoy, nothing to pass on. We might exist in very different worlds and lead very different lives, but when we come together we collectively manifest the things that we love. By turning up for and engaging in practice we make the heart of Buddhism beat, we breathe life into our dreams and spiritual aspirations.

    Namo Amida Bu.

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