During a recent teaching on Impermanence I was asked by one of the attendees what Buddhism had to offer in terms of comfort for those in mourning - especially for the death of a loved one. He had recently attended a Christian funeral for a friend who had died unexpectedly and was impressed by the focus of the service on comforting those who had known the deceased and felt that this emphasis was lacking in Buddhist services and in Buddhist teaching in general since we don’t teach of an afterlife or an eternal soul. In the teaching I responded that while we didn’t teach an afterlife or eternal soul we also don’t teach their non-existence - we follow the path of the Buddha who said that such concerns were not important to the core of his teaching - dukkha and its cessation. So we must continue on with the realization that we simply don’t know what happens after death; but that dealing with that loss is part and parcel of dealing with dukkha.
Honestly, I felt unsatisfied with my own answer so I started meditating on the question. It so happened that during this time of meditation Eubanks sensei gave me my Dharma Name - Ge Jie, or ‘he who is connected to all things’ - and with that it clicked in my mind. Our comfort in times of loss is in the teaching of interconnection and dependent origination. When we begin thinking about these two teachings we realize that these very pragmatic teachings offer a beautiful hope and comfort not found in other religions. So what is this hope and comfort?
First let’s look at the teaching of dependent origination. The Buddha taught that, “If this occurs, that arises. Without this occurring, that does not arise.” What this means is that every compound thing - in the Mahayana tradition everything outside of the grounding Emptiness - comes into being because of a specific set of causal influences. This is a very pragmatic concept and one that stands at the core of modern science as well. Everything about us and our own situation has arisen because of specific people and events in the past - going all the way back to the beginning of time.
Neal DeGrasse Tyson has said:
Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.
This refers to the physical manifestation of dependent origination, but it also affects our mental, emotional and spiritual being as well. Not only we, but all the things around us that are important in our lives are the result of those who have gone before us….of who they were and what they did. This interconnection doesn’t disappear when they die but continues to live on in us and in our lives.
Anyone who was important enough in our lives for us to mourn their passing will have had an effect on our lives and on who we are - and continue to be. Their influence on us and on others who share our lives will continue to be seen as long as we open our eyes and look for it. We don’t have to hope for an eventual - an unknowable - reunion in an afterlife to see this person again; we can see them every time we look in the mirror. Every time we smile or laugh. Every time we offer an act of compassion…and yes, every time we cry and mourn as well. There is no greater comfort than to honor our predecessors and to see them again through every act of our lives.
It is indeed more true in Buddhism than in any other religions that those who die are here with us always; because they are truly here with us, in us and around us. Not in any corporeal - or non-corporeal - form but in their influences, the causal formations that continue to affect our lives as long as we live. In the same way we will continue on in the causal influences we have had and will have on others; and this is another reason for us to practice compassion and altruism - so that those influences are to the benefit of those we leave behind, not to their detriment.
I want to close with one stanza from a poem by Uchiyama Roshi:
Life is not born because a person is born.
The life of the Universe has been ladled into the hardened idea of “I”.
Life does not disappear because a person dies;
Simply the life of the Universe has been poured out of this hardened idea of “I” back into the Universe.