By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
*This is the fifth and final installment of the series “Freedom from Fear” written exclusively for The Tattooed Buddha.
Mark Twain called it “The wanton insult of old age.”
And Buddhism sure doesn’t offer much comfort for it. Even metaphysically, where believers in the creator God and a huge number of “Pure Land” Buddhists believe that death brings eternity in paradise, the traditional Buddhist believers in samsara feel they are destined for re-birth into another cycle of suffering.
I don’t care for either of those options—they both suck. If I go to heaven, will I be there as the 19 year old Marine who ran mini-marathons under 40 pounds of battle gear, or the decrepit old geezer I am well on my way to becoming? Will I be reborn as a hot blonde researcher who cures diabetes?
Such is delusion. Reality checks are a bitch. Some Tibetan lamas say that you can have fun with your own demise, and among the few cultures who have a healthy, realistic attitude toward death are the Bhutanese. Bhutan is the only country in the world whose official religion is Buddhism. Also, the mountainsides of Bhutan are covered over with ganja.
A big part of the suffering that is inherent of life is growing old, getting sick and dying in pain and misery.
As a Hosparus volunteer I see dying people all the time. At the end, their suffering is ameliorated with morphine, flirting on the edges of unconsciousness, diapered and catheterized, their breaths growing shallow, more ragged, or there are longer and longer pauses between times when Grandma is breathing, and isn’t.
Nobody believes in the sanctity of life more than Buddhists. But one would hope that being Buddhist provides a certain insight about life that makes reality more bearable. A practitioner develops growing equanimity through life experience and the muscularization of the mind through devoted meditation practice.
Everyone I meet who dies with courage (there is no dignity to it) are not Buddhist. They are, rather, thoughtful human beings who didn’t need the Dharma’s guidance to reach that goal of fearlessness-unto-death.
Dying of something that causes dementia is a horrible notion to people. In reality, the horror is felt by the people who will have to care for—or pay for the care for—people who have dementia. It is sad and frustrating to see loved ones slip away into infancy, forgetting the names of husbands and wives whom the patients may have been bonded to for decades. They forget their children, and their friends, forget how to talk, to walk and to control their bowels. How tragic is that? It is tragic for the people who know and love and are attached to those patients. But could dementia, the ultimate loss of ego, actually relieve the suffering of the patients? I suspect so.
The options are to die quickly, to lose your mind, to die rigid with fear, or to face reality and muster enough courage to stick the landing.
Buddhist practice has no lock on preparing yourself for a good death. But it offers a very good way to prepare yourself for death.
I really don’t give a rat’s ass about life after death. Like everyone else alive and who has lived, I’ll just have to take whatever the end of life dishes out. Speculating about such nonsense is a waste of time and intellect.
Life’s rewards are now. You can enjoy them by being a nice person, keeping it in your pants and making kindness your religion.
*Watch this column for a series of articles about compassion.
Editor: Dana Gornall