Wednesday, February 26, 2020

A Buddhist Monk on Death

George Yancy interviews Geshe Dadul Namgyal, a Tibetan monk and Buddhist theologian who also holds an MA in English:
Namgyal: We can reflect on and contemplate the inevitability of death, and learn to accept it as a part of the gift of life. If we learn to celebrate life for its ephemeral beauty, its coming and going, appearance and disappearance, we can come to terms with and make peace with it. We will then appreciate its message of being in a constant process of renewal and regeneration without holding back, like everything and with everything, including the mountains, stars, and even the universe itself undergoing continual change and renewal. This points to the possibility of being at ease with and accepting the fact of constant change, while at the same time making the most sensible and selfless use of the present moment.

Yancy: That is a beautiful description. Can you say more about how we achieve a peaceful mind?

Namgyal: Try first to gain an unmistaken recognition of what disturbs your mental stability, how those elements of disturbance operate and what fuels them. Then, wonder if something can be done to address them. If the answer to this is no, then what other option do you have than to endure this with acceptance? There is no use for worrying. If, on the other hand, the answer is yes, you may seek those methods and apply them. Again, there is no need for worry.

Obviously, some ways to calm and quiet the mind at the outset will come in handy. Based on that stability or calmness, above all, deepen the insight into the ways things are connected and mutually affect one another, both in negative and positive senses, and integrate them accordingly into your life. We should recognize the destructive elements within us — our afflictive emotions and distorted perspectives — and understand them thoroughly. When do they arise? What measures would counteract them? We should also understand the constructive elements or their potentials within us and strive to learn ways to tap them and enhance them.

Yancy: What do you think that we lose when we fail to look at death for what it is?

Namgyal: When we fail to look at death for what it is — as an inseparable part of life — and do not live our lives accordingly, our thoughts and actions become disconnected from reality and full of conflicting elements, which create unnecessary friction in their wake. We could mess up this wondrous gift or else settle for very shortsighted goals and trivial purposes, which would ultimately mean nothing to us. Eventually we would meet death as though we have never lived in the first place, with no clue as to what life is and how to deal with it.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Part of me appreciates the wisdom of contemplating on and accepting death, but at the same time an equal part of me appreciates our cultural disposition to defy it.

We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: 'We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight!' - Independence Day (1996)

“Keeping Away Death”, Julian Hoke Harris

There is a balance to be struck. A lot of grief and suffering can be avoided by coming to terms with death in advance of it happening. But at the same time, being complacent about death means not striving for new and better ways to prevent it, and being too accepting of it makes you more susceptible to ennui and suicidal thoughts.

Part of my problem with Buddhism is that it is so wrapped up with detachment from worldly things and acceptance of the universe as it exists, that it is willing to tolerate all sorts of injustices that might otherwise be prevented.

Buddhism preaches empathy for the sufferings of the world, but it doesn't make the leap to championing fighting against those sufferings. Quite the opposite, in fact - it sees those sufferings as inevitable, and best handled by simply acclimating people to lives of misery and getting them to accept their lot in life. Don't rise up in anger to protest your life of drudgery and toil as a peasant - instead accept your fate as inevitable, and just find beauty in being the best peasant you can be.

That's a pretty convenient stance to take when you're part of the social heirarchy that lords over the peasantry, tithing them, wielding judicial authority over them, and cooperating closely with the feudal lords who tax, conscript, and lord over them, isn't it?

Buddhism is like any other religion - it has some aspects of it that are good and noble, but ultimately they are twisted into service of repression and status quo. Even the more radical Buddhist sects, like the Ikko Ikki of Japan who sought to overthrow the feudal system of the Shogunate and the Daimyos, were ultimately still seeking to place themselves above others at the top of society in the end - they ultimately sought to trade a feudal oligarchy for a theocracy.