By Kellie Schorr
The unexpected is always uncomfortable.
Imagine walking barefoot across a beach on a sunlit day. The soft sand compresses beneath your feet and squeezes up between your toes, leaving just a dusting of presence on the top of your foot. The world is loose, easy, and relaxing. Suddenly you feel something sharp, hard and penetrating pierce your tender skin. Ouch!
Frantically, after checking your foot for a cut, you dig through the sand wondering if it was the top of a soda can, a lost key, a needle, or a lens from someone’s busted eyeglasses. Your hand circles around this wrong, uncomfortable invader and as you lift it from the sand you discover it’s a diamond. What a joy. What a treasure. What the heck is it doing here?
That’s what it’s like reading Living is Dying.
It’s uncomfortable and brings up moments that will make you pause and check to see if it cut you, then you will feel relief and even joy at what this book filled with practices and perspectives about death will give you.
What a treasure, indeed.
If you’ve read any of his other works, particularly What Makes You Not a Buddhist or The Guru Drinks Bourbon? you know Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse is not a day at the beach. His books aren’t for causal learners or Monday morning cushion crashers who walk past hungry people while wearing hundred-dollar yoga pants. He will call that out, pointing to privilege, delusion and projection along the way. This work does the same. In the sharpness of his clarity, however, are all elements of compassion, instruction and peace.
The book features Buddhist teachings on dying, death, after-death (that’s a thing), grief, and most importantly, how to be prepared for all of that. The early chapters contain a blueprint for creating a personal Buddhist practice including a DIY ceremony for taking refuge vows. After that, it’s straight to the end-of-life journey.
A large portion of the content is based on questions the author collected from a diverse group of people about death. They range from, “How do I tell someone they are dying?” to “What should I say to a Christian person who believes they are bad will end up in hell?” Probably the most profound question I found in the book was “What is the most skillful way of dealing with an older person who expresses a wish to die on a daily basis?”
The book takes particular effort to offer answers and ideas whether someone is Buddhist or Non-Buddhist, and even gives particular instructions for schools and lineages including speaking directly to those who practice Pure Land, Theravada, or Tantrikas. In the back are a series of practices to engage in through the entire death process. It is a comprehensive, authoritative guide through this most important and unavoidable journey.
That’s where I encountered my discomfort.
I’ve always accepted a certain amount of shifting sand in my understanding of death. Buddhism finds its solid ground in experience, and this part of the journey is not an event I remember. I have been born and died thousands of times, but I have no access to that memory from one journey to another. So, I’m pretty happy with a groundless approach that says, “I don’t know what happens, but this is what I think…”
What does the mind go through during death? What is the first day of being without body like? Can you talk to and guide a dead person through the bardo? Will you see your loved ones again? These are questions I’ve always enjoyed as an exercise in cloud watching. For this book, the answers given with the absoluteness of a stone table. I found myself repeatedly thinking, “how do you know this for sure?”
That’s the point, and challenge, of this book. You may live in the shape-shifting sand your whole life, but the one thing we do know for sure is that we will die. This book helps us enjoy life by concretizing and providing a step by step map to death.
Why do we need that? Because the unexpected is always uncomfortable.
Photo: Shambhala Publications
Editor: Dana Gornall
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