brushes with death

In medieval Japan one of the main reasons for practicing Pureland Buddhism was to have a good death. When I’m writing leaflets or emails about the Pureland Buddhist group I run here in Malvern I don’t mention death at all. Most of the people who come through the door of the shrine room aren’t looking for a good death; they are looking for other things.

This morning I sent out an email advertising a new set of mindfulness meditation classes. I didn’t mention death there either.

The sales pitch for Buddhism, and for the mindfulness classes I teach, is all about a good life: slow down, create space, and find peace.

I’ve had a few encounters with death recently, one literary, one physical and another via someone else’s grief.

For the past week or so I’ve been reading Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking. It’s a beautiful little book of prose from a poet and funeral director. Some of my great uncles were in the same trade, or at least used to provide a dressed up horse and carriage for the final journey of a number of lifeless Welsh bodies, thirty or so years ago. I have often thought if I wasn’t a Buddhist priest I might have become an undertaker. Lynch writes about taking care of the dead and the grieving with a tenderness that goes beyond the merely professional.  There is something of the Bodhisattva spirit in the attention he gives to the living, in the presence of death. The Undertaking reminds me that at the end of every life comes death, and that how we treat the dead and dying is a good measure of how we treat the living.

I’m not sure we treat the dying and the dead very well at all, these days. This afternoon I watched Big Fish for the first time. At the end of the film (don’t read the next few words if you haven’t seen it yet) the son of a dying man asks his mother, “How long has he got?”

“We don’t talk about that yet.” She tells him.

A couple of days ago someone drove their car into the back of mine. Not so much impact that either of us were hurt, but enough that I suspect their car will be written off.

I was slowing down, the car in front had slowed and stopped and was turning off the road. I glanced in my rear view mirror and could see the car behind was going too fast. My first instinct was to stop braking and create more distance between me and the car behind. My second instinct was to brake again;  I didn’t want to hit the car in front. I tried to brake just enough to stop before hitting the car in front, but not so hard that the impact from behind was made worse. That whole process took less time than it has taken me to write out these few sentences.

My back is still a little sore but it is the reminder of how close death might be that leaves the deeper mark. I have been to plenty of family funerals, sometimes for people who died relativity young (I was going to write, ‘who died too young’, but death’s scythe cares less about age than we do) and as a Buddhist priest I have been called to sit with the dying in Hospital. In all of these previous encounters I never saw my own mortality reflected back at me so clearly as I do now.

Thomas Lynch writes that when he was a young man he wanted to know how long his life would be, and created a formula. If you can recognise the middle of your life, he thought, just double that and you’ll reach the end point. What are the signs of this middle part of life? Being satisfied in where you are, noticing that the mind turns back to the past as often as it turns to the future, and perhaps a new awareness of mortality. I think I can tick the first and third of those boxes at the moment; with a new project on the horizon my mind is still turning more towards the future than the past. Although Lynch’s theory has a certain poetic beauty, I am not sure that death will pay much attention to it at all.

My third recent encounter with death was in Delhi. The son of a friend there was killed recently. I only managed to get a few moments alone with the bereaved father. We hugged and in that communication I understood as much as if we’d talked for hours.

In medieval Japan the point of a good death was to ensure a good rebirth. In a culture where being born into the right family made all the difference, where only men from the right families could become monks (mistakenly thought to be a pre-requisite for enlightenment) I can understand wanting to make sure you end up in the right place next time around.

Most of the people I speak to here in the UK don’t put much stock in the idea of rebirth, but that’s no reason to throw the idea of a good death away too.

Keeping the great leveler in mind can bring a tenderness to all of our interactions. Not only because it reminds us that everyone is carrying their own griefs, but also because it reminds us that time is limited: each moment of this life is unrepeatable.  Most of the beauty we encounter in this life is like the famous cherry blossom in Kyoto: it comes and then it goes.

What lasts beyond death is the spirit of things.  Hundreds of years ago the Japanese believed that the spirit in which you lived your last few moments made a big difference to where you next life would be. Each moment we live is like this. Live well now, live with love, and where you go tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, will be led by love.

Live well now and you will head towards a good death.

I think this is a formula that works both ways. Aim for a good death, and you will live well now.





  1. Thanks for posting your article. I much appreciate all you say.
    For a year or so now I’ve been participating in a ‘Death Cafe’ monthly
    get-together of 30 to 35 folk, to openly share our experiences, feelings,
    concerns and fears if any, and to learn of course.

    1. Thanks. There is a death cafe that runs just around the corner from me, sometimes and I know people there have found the format very helpful. I think its a great idea.

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