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Buddhadharma : Spring 2009
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly SPRING 2 0 09 36 You Mean I’m Going to Die Too? Facing aging and death with an open and fearless mind Introduction by Judy Lief foRum • AjAhn AmAro • jAn Chozen BAys • dzogChen ponlop rinpoChe • FrAnk ostAseski • Judy Lief is the author of Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality. for more than three decades she has led classes and workshops presenting a contemplative approach to facing death and helping the dying. She was a close student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and is a senior teacher, or acharya, in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. Igrew up in a small farming community. Each year ani- mals I had seen grazing in their pastures were slaugh- tered and sent off to the meat packers. One of my neighbors kept a tin cup hanging in his barn that he used to drink blood from the first animal killed each year. My friends in 4-H raised young lambs and calves by hand. They spent hours grooming and pampering them to prepare them to com- pete at the county fair. But after their animals were judged, they too were sent to the slaughterhouse. My friends shed many tears but slowly learned to accept the farming cycle of first nurturing and caring for animals, and in the end, slaugh- tering them for food. Over time, my friends and I became more hardened to the reality of death, at least in regard to farm animals. My father was a hunter. Each year he brought back pheas- ants he had shot, and it was my job to de-feather and clean them. I loved the beautiful tail feathers and saved them to make headdresses. Scooping out the inner organs, it was clear that each bird had been a real living being, not just a piece of meat in the grocery. So I grew up familiar with the reality of death. At the same time, I was shielded from the fact of human death. When somebody died it was all hush-hush, kept from the children, talked about in whispers. If I did ask questions, I was told that when people died they went to heaven. That sounded pretty good to me. So when my aunt died, I was surprised to see my mother and other adults crying and acting so deeply sad. At that moment I realized: They don’t really believe that story! It is all lies! That experience led me to won- der what people actually do know about life and death. And I wondered, what about me? What will happen to me? As I grew up, I realized that although death is something we will all experience, nobody really wants to talk about it. It’s as though talking about death can only result in some kind of morbid obsession or that it is just too depressing. However, it was hard for me to pretend to ignore something so powerful and universal. So when I encountered Buddhism, it was a relief to see that here the issue of impermanence is a central concern. Not only that, but exploring our relationship to impermanence is said to lead not to being depressed or morbid, but to liberation from fear and ignorance. Over the years, I have wrestled with this topic myself and learned from the wisdom of others, especially those facing death and those who work with the dying on a regular basis. I have been exposed to countless theories of dying and the afterlife. But I keep coming back to a point of unknowing, and I try to stay there. And strangely, I have found that to be the best place to connect with others and to be of help. It is a place of openness and tenderness, immediate, and with no agenda whatsoever. From a variety of perspectives, the teachers in this panel express that point of view and give us advice for how to cultivate it in the face of aging, sickness, and dying—both our own and that of others. The denial of impermanence, aging, and death is a big problem. It leads to a fundamental tightness of spirit and a fearful, reactive approach to life. The more we are willing to face that which we usually avoid, and even fear, the more we begin to relax at a fundamental level with ourselves. It is futile to fight with reality. It just doesn’t feel right. What a relief it is to stay with our experience fully, even when it is painful, and in turn be more fully present for others.