Mountain of Echoing Halls – Xiangtangshan

What a huge tragedy!

Once home to a magnificent array of sculptures, the limestone caves were severely damaged in the early twentieth century when much of their contents were chiseled away and offered for sale on the international art market. In 2003, the Xiangtangshan research team of the Center for the Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago began an intensive documentation project on the caves and their removed sculptures. Like the exhibition Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan, on view at the Sackler Gallery from February 26–July 31, 2011, and a publication with the same title, this Explore and Learn feature shares the results of that research. Using 3-D imaging, the team was able to digitally match fragments to their original locations, making it possible to envision some of the caves as they appeared before their tragic despoliation. Read and see more here

What a wonderful and creative way for us to visit these caves now.

A death in a certain kind of way.

Life Before Death

After our last head of the order died, back in 2003, I drank in every bit of information about hospice care. He spent the last two weeks of his life in hospital being treated intensively for cancer. In the end we brought him back to Shasta and he died there within hours of arriving. That’s where he wanted to be.

What about the quality of life as one approaches death? Now there’s a question. There is a huge amount written on this subject, in books and on the Internet too of course. Read breath taking accounts of people struggling to live in the face of overwhelming odds, and who survive. What I read, back in 2003, comforted me. Now what do I think? Well, I have to say that the quality of life, of living, during the period before death is probably most strongly conditioned by the way life has been lived to that point. Yes, having ones nearest and dearest around to attend, at home, is good. To be kept out of pain, be physically secure, and to be loved by ones family and friends, is good too. What might get lost sight of, in the push to care and to comfort, is the deeper aspect of what’s going on. What ever else is happening bodies simply wear out, and stop. Of course some want to, WANT TO, die and don’t. That’s not necessarily despair either, yet can be.

This period, longer or shorter depending on circumstances, may be an intense time on all levels. People will cast back and forth; regrets and sorrows abound, unfulfilled longings, undone deeds remembered and now not able to do, deeds done which can’t be undone. And there can be pre-death visions too, both waking visions and ones that come in sleep. My mother, reportedly, had visions in her sleep a week before she died. She referred to them as revelations. They brought her measures of peace, and faith enough to keep going while I flew back from America to be with her. And some people simply drop down dead in the garden or fall asleep in their arm chair. Sometimes it is helpful to remember that death is not a mistake. Or a failure of medical science. I’m sure doctors find death really hard.

See: The Quality of Death: Ranking end-of-life care across the world. Thanks to Walter for bringing my attention to this survey. Britain comes out top!

First Death

The ceremonial around death which we have in our tradition was written down following the death of my ordination *sister in 1985. This was the first time I witnessed somebody breathing their last. It was not at all like I’d thought it would be. Not an instant shutting down, a light going out as depicted in films. It was more a gradual closing down of the systems that kept her alive, a fading out. We tolled the big bell to announce her passing, it was early morning. We may also have struck the drum too, like a heart beat. Soon after the death Cora the cat who lived in our house shot out of the door and ran about wildly for awhile. I remember that very clearly.

My teacher Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett presided over every detail following the death. She said Goso leads the way. Meaning she was the first of the monks to die in the monastery. Rev. Master personally took the community step by step through what we needed to do next. It was an amazing time, tender and compassionate while at the same time, practical. Non of us had done this before and Rev. Master had learned all about doing funerals when training in Japan. Firstly we moved the body to the ceremony hall and placed it in the middle of the hall where the bowing mat is usually. Tall candles were placed around her and we all just sat and meditated. We sat vigil. It seemed like we were there for hours. Rev. Master was with us.

In the morning Goso was loaded up into monasteries large estate car, called Wilfreda, and driven down to Redding crematorium. We processed up the cloister after her (I can’t imagine there was a coffin at that point but perhaps we had one in anticipation of death). When the car was on the road outside of the main gate we all followed the car with Goso in it for twelve steps. These represented the twelve steps of dependent origination. We were all very tired at this point.

It has taken me some time to get started on talking about the ceremonial and practicalities around death. In the end I just have to write about what I remember of my personal experiences. I don’t want to encourage ghoulishness though. That would be the last thing I’d want.

*I was ordained with three others on the same day, we referred to each other as ordination brother or sister.

Sitting Sculpture – Full Of Empty Spaces

Sukhi’s sculptures are intended to bridge the cultures of East and West. Embodying the peace and compositional balance of ancient devotional art, they represent complex philosophical ideas with a simplicity and clarity that renders them accessible to the Western viewer. Exploring themes of hidden potentials, and the transcendence of our limiting view of a solid reality, her work often represents the negative space as being as important as the material itself, implying the dance of form and spirit, a constant state of transformation. See and read more.

See also Sukhi Barber’s website.

Thanks to Julius for the link to these amazing and provocative images of meditating figures, full of empty spaces.

Home After-death Care

I’ve attended on a number of people who have been close to death or who have died and for whom I’ve cared for. Cared for their bodies and supported their friends and relatives. Grieving along with them. I’ve recited comforting words and performed ceremonies. There have been memorials, private and public funerals, ceremonies at a crematorium, the scattering and interment of ashes. There’s no claim here to being an expert though, I don’t feel like I’m a professional doing a job. No, each time I’ve attended or been involved around a death, as now, Zen Master Dogen’s words which come at the beginning of the Shushogi are with me. We sometimes read this paragraph at the start of a memorial. It points to faith, to practice and to sitting still in the midst of impermanence.

The most important question for all Buddhists is how to understand birth and death completely for then, should you be able to find the Buddha within birth and death, they both vanish. All you have to do is realise that birth and death, as such, should not be avoided and they will cease to exist for then, if you can understand that birth and death are Nirvana itself, there is not only no necessity to avoid them but also nothing to search for that is called Nirvana.

I buried both of my parents. The practicalities around the time of their death were different however when ever I could I tried to deal with everything personally rather than relying on the service of a funeral director. They both rode up the M6 to Throssel in the back of the monastery Volvo for example. In a coffin of course.

There is a movement towards home after-death care in America where people deal with their own dead. This article speaks of this. The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral – Smithsonian Magazine, March 2009.

While writing this post I remembered the following which brought on a smile: Once, early in my twenties, I remember racing around a P. & O. Liner grabbing bunches of flowers from public spaces. As the ship passed through Sydney Harbour Heads my employer threw the flowers overboard! (We were ships crew employed as photographers, but that’s another story). Ashes had been scattered at the ‘Heads’ on a previous voyage, the flowers were an act of remembrance. Obviously repeated at opportune times.

As Adrienne P. says at the end of her lovely piece of writing in the comment section of this post: …..lets live, lets remember, lets laugh, lets cry, lets enjoy the view from the rooftops.

Many thanks to Rebecca for the hint on the new approach to after-death care and to Adrienne and her comment