Is life only for the living?

by Mukul Sharma, Economic Times, July 24, 2007

New Delhi, India -- Death happens to us from everywhere, not just from inside our bodies when we die. That’s because if there’s one certainty which is at least numerically more significant than the loss of our own selves it’s the demise of others around us all the time. Also, the closer they are to us emotionally, the more significance they garner.

Yet the only thing we end up doing about them is mourn, and that too after the event because even though such things are bound to take place we go through our lives believing they wouldn’t happen in a hurry — not to us at any rate. Which is why the lamenting and grief which comes later finds such stunning ways to sadden and sometimes diminish us.

Obvious common sense would seem to dictate, therefore, that we prepare both ourselves and others for such a great leave-taking. In Japan and elsewhere where a form of Mahayana Buddhism called Zen is practiced, Zen masters sometimes know when they are going to die.

For example, once master Hofaku called his monks together and said, “This last week my energy has been draining, but there’s no cause for worry; it’s just that death is near.”

A monk asked, “You are about to die! What does it mean? We will go on living. And what does that mean?” “They are both the way of things,” the master replied. “But how can I understand two such different states?” To this, Hofaku answered, “when it rains it pours,” and then calmly died.

Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying, talked somewhat along the same lines when she said, “For those who seek to understand it, death is a highly creative force. The highest spiritual values of life can originate from the thought and study of death.”

Thus to be preoccupied with death is not that morbid a condition as it appears or is sometimes made out to be. At best, it’s just as pathological as to being constantly preoccupied with life which we all are and which passes all tests of normalcy till one is suddenly confronted with its opposite — either personally or in relation to others.

Actually “preoccupation” is perhaps not the right word here; “awareness” is more like it. Master Hofaku it turns out was as aware of his living as he was of his dying and could comfortably and continuously exist in both worlds.

It would be a good idea if every one of us had a talking alarm clock which woke us in the morning each day saying, “Get up, this could be the first day of your death.” The last day of our lives would then proceed far more significantly.