I just returned from six weeks in Thailand where I encounter a lot of Buddhists. The more I talked with them and read books by them, the more I became convinced that they would be all in favor of the day when Christian clergy make the sign of the cross with ashes on the foreheads of participants at the service while saying to the recipient, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Buddhist monks are all for facing death – regularly. I picked up a book by W. Vajiramedhi (pseudonym for Phra Maha Wudhijaya Vajiramedhi) entitled Looking Death in the Eye in which he declares, “We should talk about death every day and find an occasion to remind each other frequently to be aware -that today we may possibly die.”
The monk goes on to explain, “One of the arts of living well is to contemplate death, so that when one is often being reminded of death, one may live carefully, mindfully, without losing oneself in pleasures of different guises and forgetting that death can come to one at any moment.”
In fact, I’ve heard that many monks occasionally do their daily meditation while sitting in their temple’s crematorium. The idea is to keep the fact of their mortality front and center in their consciousness.
Vajiramedhi, in fact, advises, “You should contemplate death before bedtime. Before going to bed, you must recite “Die we shall. Die we shall.”
These monks are far from morbid. Many enjoy life and have a great sense of humor. The reason that they contemplate death daily is that once people have come to terms with the fact of their mortality and accepted the fact that they will die, they are free to live.
Vajiramedhi wrote that two of the goals of contemplating death are “to live your life in the most worthwhile way, to use your time wisely and not in vain.”
That, in my understanding, is the reason the Christian Church has smudged the foreheads of the faithful with ashes and reminded them that one day they would die. A testimony given by many heart attack victims in our country is that the experience was the best thing that ever happened to them. The best thing in the sense that they learned to appreciate each day as it unfolded.
I talked to a guy who had suffered a heart attack when he was fifty. When I asked him what effect it had on him, he replied, “After that I never lost a night’s sleep worry about work again.”
Critics have long lamented the fact that we Westerners are in denial of death and do ourselves much mental/emotional harm by running away from our mortality. Maybe that’s why attendance at Ash Wednesday services seems to declining.
Vajiramedhi contended, “It is only a western idea to console oneself that one is still young. Those who say so are romantic escapists. They try to run away from the truth of life.”
My own dad would preface any talk about his own death to me with the words, “If something should happen to me. . . .” Not only was he unable to say the word “die” in talking to someone he loved, but he also used the word “if” as if the alternative was a real possibility.
My own experience is that having a disabling neurological disorder has had the paradoxical – to Westerners the counter-intuitive – effect of making me happier. At first I thought I had Lou Gehrig’s Disease and would be dead in three to five years. Being forced to “look death in the eye” has gone a long way in freeing me to live.
Ash Wednesday. It’s a good chance to face a fear that enslaves us and become a little more free.
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Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.