This is a little more oriented to the Triratna Buddhist Community than my usual blogs. Please feel free to contact me with questions if you’d like to.
Sitting is always sitting. And then something so big happens that the psyche can’t quite take it in. Life. Serious illness. And the most likely candidate: death. 7 weeks ago my Buddhist teacher (Bhante Sangharakshita), and that of tens of thousands of others, died peacefully at the age of 93. Because of his age it was not unexpected and yet death always feels unexpected and a significant change.
When my mother died, almost 20 years ago, even though she was desperately ill and not expected to live more than a few weeks, her death was still a gut wrenching shock. The shift that happened between life and death was unquantifiable but a gaping chasm. ‘Near’ death is still alive and felt completely different to dead, or not alive.
Bhante’s death felt different and complete in some way. He’d lived out his full span and more, something my mother didn’t get to do. It was a ‘good’ death as he died comfortably and surrounded by close friends. He left behind his life’s work feeling it was in good hands.
In our local Buddhist Centre we arranged a three day vigil of sitting meditation. We chanted the mantras Bhante had requested we chant, and as part of every hour of practice we had a period to sit quietly and drink tea and be with each other.
It turned out that those minutes of quiet conversation were crucial to sitting vigil. People who had never met Bhante in person came because he had made such a difference to the lives of their own teachers whom they loved and respected. They came to share their own responses, to weep a little, and to learn more about the death of someone of deep significance. To learn more about the death of a spiritual teacher.
Between Bhante’s death and his funeral I had 2 more opportunities to encounter him and sit vigil in different circumstances. On the first occasion I sat, with a dozen others around his body. On the second – the day of the funeral – I sat, walked and chanted with 1200 others as our teacher was put into the ground.
Sitting with his body, dressed in blue robes, I was struck by how alive he still looked. He had the relaxedness of sleep but with complete stillness and poise. The air around him was soft and vivid. The step between life and death, in his case, seemed negligible. He was clearly not in his body any more but there was nothing absent or missing, rather a space of fullness and grace.
I was intrigued by both this sense of presence and the feeling of life and death sitting right next to each other, or even, not apart from each other. I reflected upon my experience back at home and consciously connected back to the subtly joyful quality of it. Can we feel another’s consciousness? It’s very clear when someone is alive and their anger or sadness can be felt in the atmosphere, but when they are dead?
This quality only grew on the day of the funeral itself and was like an ethereal and invisible smoke permeating everything and everyone. On one level perhaps it was simply the presence of so many committed practitioners coming together to say goodbye, full of gratitude and appreciation. And yet something else was happening. I felt his mind was free from his aged, frail and restricted body and able to blaze forth unlimited. In the same way through our shared purpose and inspiration we are all living out expressions of Bhante’s vision of the 1000 Armed Avalokitesvara*, that day we were all tuned into and part of a greater consciousness.
The challenge now is to keep letting that consciousness live within us.
* a personification of compassion.