Death, Impermanence and Knowing that You are not Alone

Though one should live a hundred years
not seeing the Deathless State,
yet better is life for a single day
seeing Deathlessness.

Dhammapada, Verse 114 – Kisagotami Vatthu

Long time ago, there was a lady. She had had a happy life. She grew up as daughter of a rich man and eventually married to a rich young man. She lived happily with her husband and bore him a son.

Then the other side of life caught up with her.  Her only son died. He was only a toddler. The lady was overcome with grief.  Carrying the little dead body of her son, she went everywhere, asking everyone she met for medicine that would restore her son to life. Of course, no one could help her and people began to think that the poor woman had gone mad. But one wise man thought that he should be of some help to her. So, he said to her, “The Buddha is the person you should approach, he has the medicine you want; go to him.” Thus, she went to the Buddha, told him her story and asked him to give her the medicine that would restore her dead son to life. The Buddha listened compassionately to her story. He then said to her, “lady, go and ask for five mustard seed from a house which has never experienced death.”

Feeling hope for the first time, still carrying her dead child,  she went from house to house, asking if perhaps the house is free from death and they could spare five mustard seeds for her. Although everyone was willing to help her and readily provided her with five mustard seeds from their house, she could not find a single family that has not experienced death.

Then, as she went from house to house with her dead son refusing to give up her quest, she started to realise that hers was not the only family that had faced death. As she continued her search, she felt the grip of pain in her heart and her attachment to her son’s body loosened.

At last, she was ready to let go. She understood what the Buddha had wanted her to find out for herself — that suffering is a part of life, and death comes to us all. Once she accepted the fact that death is inevitable, she could stop her grieving. She left her son’s body in the jungle and returned to the Buddha to pay her respect. She reported that she could find no house where death had not occurred. Then the Buddha said, “death comes to all beings; before their desires are satiated death takes them away.” On hearing this, she fully realised the impermanence of life.

Later, she became a bhikkhuni. One day, early in the morning, she put on her robes and, taking her bowl & outer robe, went into the city for alms. When she returned from her alms round she went to the Grove of the Blind and sat down at the foot of a tree for the day’s meditation.

Then Mara the Evil One, a demon, wanting to arouse fear and terror in Kisagotami to ruin her concentration, approached her and addressed her in verse:

          Why,

with your sons killed,

do you sit all alone,

          your face in tears?

          All alone,

immersed in the midst of the forest,

          are you looking

          for a man?

Kindly, she replied to him in verses:

I’ve gotten past

          the killing of sons,

have made that the end

to [my search for] men.

I don’t grieve,

I don’t weep —

          and I’m not afraid of you,

          my friend.

It’s everywhere destroyed — delight.

The mass of darkness is shattered.

Having defeated the army of death,

                    free

          of fermentations

                    I dwell.

Sad and dejected, Mara the Evil One vanished, and she was free to continue her quest for enlightenment.

The Therigatha (or “Verses of the Elder Nuns”) in the Pali Canon recounts a version of the story. The Therigatha is  a collection of short poems of early women who were elder nuns. The poems date from a three hundred year period, with some dated as early as the late 6th century BCE.

“A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament“: The Death and Re-branding of Ancient Celebrations

THE great power which the Druids exercised over their people interfered with the Roman rule of Britain. Converts were being made at Rome when emperor Augustus forbade Romans to become initiated, Tiberius banished the priestly clan and their adherents from Gaul, and Claudius utterly stamped out the belief there and put to death a Roman knight for wearing the serpent’s-egg badge to win a lawsuit – a serpent’s-egg badge was an item of identification for an ancient Gaelic order of priests and sorcerers. Forbidden to practice their rites in Britain, the Druids fled to the isle of Mona, near the coast of Wales. The Romans pursued and slaughtered them in 61 AD. Not stopping there, the Romans proceeded to cut down the oak groves. During the next three centuries the cult was stifled to death to be substituted by the Christian religion.

“The lonely mountains o’er

And the resounding shore

A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament.

From haunted spring and dale,

Edged with poplar pale,

The parting genius is with sighing sent.

With flower-inwoven tresses torn

The nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.”

“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”, John Milton (1608 – 1674)

The miraculous power that the druids seemed to possess was rebranded as “black magic.”

cemetery-577226_1920.jpgIt was a long, hard effort to make people see that their gods had all the time been wrong, and harder still to root out the centuries old rite and symbol. Therefore, the old religions were never completely eradicated – they were rebranded and given new names. Midsummer was dedicated to the birth of Saint John and Lugnasad, the feast of the marriage of the ancient god Lugus, became Lammas. Although the fires belonging to these times of year were retained, their old significance was  reconsecrated or forgotten completely. The rowan, or mountain ash, whose berries had been the food of the Tuatha, now exorcised those very beings. The fires which had been built to propitiate the god and consume his sacrifices to induce him to protect them were now lighted to protect the people from the same god, declared to be an evil mischief maker. In time, the autumn festival of the Druids became the vigil of All Hallows or All Saints’ Day.

All Saints’ was first suggested in the fourth century in memory of all the saints, since there were too many of them for each to have a special day on the church calendar. A day in May was chosen by Pope Boniface IV in 610 for consecrating the Pantheon, the old Roman temple of all the gods, to the Virgin and all the saints and martyrs. Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s to the same, and that day was made compulsory in 835 by Pope Gregory IV, as All Saints’. The day was changed from May to November so that the crowds that thronged to Rome for the services might be fed from the harvest bounty.

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In the tenth century, St. Odilo, Bishop of Cluny, instituted a day of prayer and special masses for the souls of the dead. He had been told that a hermit dwelling near a cave

“heard the voices and howlings of devils, which

complained strongly because that the souls of

them that were dead were taken away from

their hands by alms and by prayers.”

“Golden Legend”, Jacobus da Varagine, (1230 – 1299)

This day became All Souls’. It is appropriate that the Celtic festival when the spirits of the dead and the supernatural powers held a carnival of triumph over the god of light, should be followed by All Saints’ and All Souls’. The church holy-days were celebrated by bonfires to light souls through Purgatory to Paradise, as they had lighted the sun to his death on Samhain. On both occasions there were Prayers – the pagan prayed to the lord of death for a pleasant dwelling-place for the souls of departed friends, and the Christian prayed for their speedy deliverance from torture. They both celebrated death – death of the sun, of mortals, of harvest, of crops, of sacred memories.

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