To mark Hallowe’en, Siddhisambhava writes from north Wales about her workshops and retreats on facing death. (Some readers may need to know that Hallowe’en is a festival concerned with ghosts, witches, death and other things we’d rather not think about. Children often mark it by “trick or treating”: going house to house playfully demanding sweets in return for not playing tricks on the owners. Pumpkin lanterns are traditional too.)
“I keep a copy of Sogyal Rinpoche’s Daily Reflections on Living and Dying by my toilet. (As you do.) His entry for 31st October starts: “The teachings show us precisely what will happen if we prepare for death and what will happen if we do not. The choice could not be clearer.” Sounds like a kind of Buddhist trick-or-treat to me.
I started running workshops and retreats on death in 2002 for two reasons. One was that I had multiple bereavements in my 30’s. Dealing with that was a major part of my practice and when I came out the other end of it (and joined the Order, in 2000) I wanted to share the benefits of this kind of work. Secondly, although death awareness is a big part of practice in eastern Buddhism, it’s been largely left out in Buddhism’s transition to the west. I guess the reason for that is simply the west’s general culture of denial about death.
In the Triratna community we mark the Buddha’s ‘death’ with Parinirvana Day (15th February). It’s great we do that and it can be so supportive if death has knocked on your door in the year before. There’s only so much you can do in a day, though, and the year has 364 others!
People come on these workshops and retreats for all sorts of reasons. Often they are in the raw stages of a bereavement, or have an old loss they haven’t really dealt with and whose effects they can still feel. Some come to prepare themselves and/or be better at supporting others through their dying. Others come because they know they just don’t connect with the inevitable reality of death and want to get it into their life and practice somehow. The retreat or workshop title often hooks people: ‘Death and the only beauty that lasts’. It’s from a Rumi poem. There’s no right or wrong reason to come, of course. I welcome everyone who wants to turn towards this.
It’s a huge subject and I come at it from all sorts of angles and in various ways depending on the context and people. We work as a big group, in pairs, alone; in discussions, practical workshops, writing exercises, led reflections, led meditations, ritual and so on. Even when I did a 10-day Order retreat at Vajraloka with Tejananda, it felt like we could have kept going. A month somewhere, anyone?
It just keeps going deeper, a subject like death. The last thing it is is morbid. All sorts of things happen: a good cry, a good laugh, and always, so far, a wonderful depth of communication.
The Buddhist teachings have so much to offer us in relation to death. Look at the revolution that’s happening with mindfulness. If I could help something similar happen in relation to death… well, I’d live and die a happy woman!”