Who is dragging this corpse around?
This hau tou, similar to a koan, was popularized by Hsu Yun, famous Chan Buddhist master of the late 19th/early 20th century. The riddle gets to the heart of the dichotomy of life and death. Vajrayana Buddhism describes us as living corpses; the saying goes that the leading cause of death is birth! Preparing for death, we consider three aspects: ordinary practical details, such as one’s estate, concerns related to the body, and the mind. For Buddhists, the last is most important, being the only facet of our human existence to go with us. Except will we be any longer, an us, the treasured me we presently think ourselves to be? This is what drove me repeatedly to tearful panic as a young child, to discover Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in high school and ultimately, to Vajrayana meditation practice. If mind creates everything and all is a reflection or refraction of mind, then what is there to worry about? In brief, karma and forgetting; two major problems. The antidote to ignorance is awareness, being awake. As my teacher described it, back mind watches front mind. This witness lends space to perceive the illusory nature of all things, ourselves included.
Mirrors and Maps
When we die, we slough off the shell of selfness, our body, personal history and identity. What remains is the mind stream. Only fully experienced after death, the compassionate lineage masters provide us a clear road map, to both avoid treacherous pitfalls and recognize vital signposts. The key point is being prepared to navigate the bardo, the between-state, after death, rather than be blown about helplessly on karmic winds. Having not studied the map, what use would it be to simply unfurl it at the moment of death? Imagine attempting extreme skiing for the very first time in the Olympics, with no prior experience! So, we familiarize with path, map and symbols through meditation. Vajrayana Buddhism is thorough, compassionate and grounded. The Great Liberation Through Hearing text has three sections to be spoken into the ear of the dying, to liberate beings of the highest, middle and lowest capacities of awareness. The overall instructions for all three begin with:
Every experience in this world is Mara’s dream-like illusion.
Everything is impermanent, everyone is subject to death.
Noble one, turn away from further painful states.
The text goes on to describe what the dying may likely perceive and gives specific guidance for each phase of the senses’ dissolution, tailored for one’s level of capacity.
Buddhism is brilliantly well-researched, scientific in nature and based on personal experimentation, rather than blind trust or fable. The Buddha admonished, “Do not accept what I teach just out of faith or respect for me, but investigate for yourself as if buying gold.”
The key is meditation, guided by a genuine teacher, wherein a seeker gains experience, proficiency and confidence in letting go, over and over, practicing for death. In this way, life and death are two sides of a gold coin. Rather than being a cliché, this is very much a literal truth. “Death is a brilliant mirror that offers us discernment about life’s priorities and a deep appreciation of the power of mind.” For the dying process to not be painful and confusing, there must be preparation. Though we apply this common sense in most every area, death must be approached as natural, not eschewed as distasteful taboo. Masters of meditation experience death’s transition as a mere change of clothes, and have described it as best they can, motivated by great compassion. Yet crossing over is a solo journey, one we must each traverse alone.
Grappling with the hua tou enigma is meant to be carried out by laypeople immersed in ordinary activity. Contemplating death regularly, we celebrate and fully embody life while we still breathe. This cultivates presence, gratitude and authentic connection with oneself, others, the natural world and all her creatures, be they spiders, birds, fungi, cows or unseen beings. It is often remarked that advanced spiritual practitioners die professionally. What does this mean? It can entail remaining seated serenely in meditation posture with all worldly affairs settled, often on a day they pre-appoint, having left instructions for followers. Inwardly, one remains in equipoise without fear, distraction or regret, but with deep knowing that only the venue has shifted; there is no drop into voidness. An ordinary person when dying seeks love, peace, reconciliation, forgiveness. The extraordinary seek to offer these qualities to all sentient beings. To leave this plane and/or to return, to benefit beings, is their sole purpose. Awakening to nirvana, enlightenment or perfect peace is for all beings, since there is no distinct self to ultimately covet such attainment.
Laurie Anderson’s unique film Heart of a Dog expresses the permeability between life and death in an organic montage of sound, images, animation, family video footage and voiceover – an impressionistic view of the continual bardo overlap of living and dying. She deftly weaves past, present and fantasy future into a quirky patchwork quilt, woven through with humor and music. Indeed, where would we be as a species without humor and music? We need only gaze at the natural world to see the continual birthing and dying of all things, all the more poignant in this era of climate change and uncertainty. Seen partially from a dog’s-eye view, the film has no linear sense of time, but overlays memories and perceptions in watery dreamscape. Equal emphasis is given to humans, animals, weather, sounds, scenery and emotion, appearing in overlay, similar to the description of bardo beings’ experience.
Life abounds with endings besides the deaths of loved ones and familiars. We experience the slow or sudden decay of our health and faculties, friends and lovers move on to other relationships, loss of opportunities and dissolution of all kinds abound. Grief itself is a fertile journey. It happens to us, and like the infliction and healing of a physical wound, it has its own process and timeline, quite beyond our control. As a creative journey, we forge a new relationship to that which is lost, develop modes of coping and re-create ourselves in the process. Our capacity to grieve is as deep as our power to savor life. We relish, cherish and treasure life’s joy and connection just as we shun, dread and repress grief. But the only way out is through, and those who have grieved terrible losses know this to be true. Deep grief tattoos our heart-mind, yet it’s an earned mark, enabling us to be a resource for others and for our own death transition. The intense poignancy of impermanence challenges us to savor life’s beauty and goodness while we can, and to offer to those less fortunate in any way possible.
Feeling the keen sorrow of loss, it is imperative to outwardly express, to prevent anguish from turning inward as depression or disease. Keening, a vocal tradition in Ireland and Scotland, had women wailing at funerals in praise and lament of the dead, releasing the intensity of bereavement and uniting mourners. Similarly, a close friend of mine described the intense vocalizations she needed to sound in order to withstand the pains of naturally home-birthing her first child. Activation of this primal expression of pain and praise is a deep human instinct for midwifing both birth and death. We literally call beings into or out of this earthly realm. Our soulful voice is the bridge between body and heart-mind.
Self-Care and Expression
In modulating the intensity of life’s joys and sorrows, there are many ways to express our full range of experience. There are myriad modes of engaging in self-care reflection, whether to complement meditation, to aid the dying or to nourish ourselves as caregivers. Yoga, breathing, laughter, qigong, calming techniques for anxiety are all activities to care for our multifaceted human nature. The arts, including painting, sculpting, movement and dance, drama, drumming, music, writing and gardening provide outlet for emotion, inspiration and sensation so in need of meaningful expression. Bodywork, herbal remedies and immersion in water are invaluable supports. An acupuncturist once gave me a potent Qigong exercise to perform nightly at bedtime to relieve the anxiety and panic associated with grief and uncertainty. Sitting on the edge of the bed, one imagines that the lower legs and feet are immersed in a gently flowing river. Invoking the sound, feel and movement of the water, all worries flow away with the current. By massaging oil or lotion into the lower legs and feet, tension and apprehension flow down and out and are released to invite restful sleep. I have often found this technique to be soothing, as is playing an audio recording of soft ocean waves.
Offering and Praise
Meditation enriches our experience of life, and helps guide ourselves and others through the natural process of dying. If it’s new territory, Pema Chödrön’s books are an excellent starting point, with her clear and earthy style. Caring for ourselves and others through expressive means is an act of great compassion, honoring and acknowledging the fullness of our human complexity and intuitive wisdom. In the 2008 Japanese film Departures, main character Daigo takes the job of Nōkanshi—traditional Japanese ritual mortician, who sends off the dead by preparing the body with utmost care and respect. The ritual itself is a meditation on death and an offering for loved ones left behind. In this tradition, death is neither abhorred nor glorified, but simply honored as a natural passage:
He brings dignity and beauty to these intimate moments. Every gesture in the ritual washing, dressing, grooming, and putting on of make-up is performed with the kind of presence and attention we would associate with the Japanese tea ceremony. Not a movement is wasted in this art which moves slowly and demonstrates that touch is the most exquisite of our senses.
In hatha yoga, each session ends with shavasana, the corpse pose. This harmonizes and releases all postures which have come before, and once completed, the yogin turns onto the right side in fetal position, rising up again to sit in meditation posture, to bow in praise. A perfect microcosm of the cycle of life-death-rebirth. May we have the grace to accept the fleeting nature of all experience, and to fully savor the gift of this precious human life through meditation, offering and full creative expression. Share this Post
Featured image: Journey to Center, Ankhor Wat © Sarah C. Beasley 2015
Photos provided by © Sarah C. Beasley (Sera Kunzang Lhamo) 2017. All rights Reserved. Please contact to use all or part.
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