In the Buddhist tradition we are trained to contemplate, rather than ignore, the reality and the meaning of death.
It is considered a certainty that all of us will die one day and that we do not know the time or place of that occurrence. When we come to understand that everybody is going to die including ourselves, that realization can linger in the background of our mind as the mother of all fears, or it can become the ground for developing greater wisdom and compassion. The choice is up to us.
As the recent shooting in Arizona once again demonstrated, "death comes without warning, this body will be a corpse" (one of the "Four Reminders" that many Buddhists chant daily).
Death is always a challenging situation. We may have our ideas about it and we may have some experience with it, but I think most of us would agree (Buddhist or not) that we're not really completely sure what it actually is and what happens to us when we die.
Even when death comes gradually, there is so much shock and disappointment. We adjust our expectations gradually, saying goodbye to our loved ones and gradually loosening our grip on the things of this world to which we have become attached.
Our friends and loved ones are also given time to adjust and to loosen their attachment to us, finally letting us go and then gradually dissolving their sense of our presence into the new experience of our absence.
From a Buddhist point of view, sudden death can be particularly difficult, both for the person dying and for their loved ones. The contrast between the sense of presence and the sense of absence is so sharp and shocking. We have no time to process the transition from having our familiar friend in that familiar body, to not really having a clue what happened to them and where, if anywhere, they might be.
Especially in the case of the violent murder of someone like 9 year old Christina Taylor Green and the other victims in Arizona, there is the extra added horror of wondering how any of us (meaning the murderer) could get so far removed from love, from sympathy, from compassion, from basic common sense and decency that they could coldly and mechanically take life from other people in such a callous, unconscious and destructive way.
As we express our love and sympathy for the people who have lost their lives and for their friends and loved ones, we also might look deeply at the causes and conditions that create so much hatred and aggression. The Buddhist view of interdependence would encourage us to examine all the factors that came together to create this situation, both individually and at the more encompassing societal level.
For the individual who loses their life (gradually or suddenly), most Buddhists (as well as some other traditions) would say that certain aspects of the mind stream (consciousness) of that person continue after the death of the physical body.
There are many teachings about the nature of this transition, some in the public domain and some considered more appropriate for experienced meditators. I think this part of the discussion goes beyond the limitations of this particular blog post, but there are certainly many excellent readings out there for anybody curious to find out more about the Buddhist teachings on karma and rebirth.
No matter what we believe, it is a time for all of us to stand (sit) together, contemplate the meaning of life and death, arouse our love, compassion and sympathy and send it to the beings who departed, to their loved ones and friends who are suffering, and even to the killer himself.
Please join in this conversation and share your thoughts here if you like.
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more