Now when a man is truly wise,
His constant task will surely be,
This recollection about death,
Blessed with such mighty potency.¹
from the Visudimagga
“[W]hen one is actually dying it is a bit late to begin thinking seriously about death. We should familiarize ourselves with the thought long before we hope it will happen! And besides, even for the young and strong, it can still come with unexpected suddenness. Mors certa — hora incerta, ‘Death is certain — the hour is uncertain.’ To bear this in mind is for the Buddhist an important aspect of Right Understanding. And therefore the Buddhist practice of Meditation on Death — not very popular in the West — should be encouraged.”²
Death is on the mind. It surrounds me. Something shifted. Before, there was a sense of detachment. I thought it was due to equanimity. Now, when I look into the face of my patient and see her life retreating, I see my own face. I cannot help but identify with this body that is so soon going to be a corpse. When the woman who talks like a machine gun, nonsensically, shuffles her wheel chair towards me, I cannot help but face my own confusion, the busyness of my mind. When the woman with no short-term memory grabs me and asks me to help her because no one there knows who she is, I face my own feelings of worthlessness and groundlessness. When I stroke the hair of my 98 year-old uncle, who lies in the hospital bed, victimized by pneumonia, and hear his sighs of pleasure in between coughing bouts, I melt; reminded just how important it is to touch and be touched, how we need each other.
The nursing home and its residents are my teachers. They provide an active reflection on what it means to live and die. I cannot do anything but face my fear in this environment. This is my charnel ground.
1. “Buddhist Reflections on Death”, by V.F. Gunaratna. Access to Insight, June 7, 2010.
2. “Buddhism and Death”, by M. O’C. Walshe. Access to Insight, June 7, 2010.
“In the Dead of Night” a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Chah
Death & Dying at DharmaNet International Learning Center