Having understood this body to be [vulnerable] like a clay pot,
Having settled into this heart as if it were a citadel,
attack the King of Death with the sword of wisdom,
and protect what has been conquered by clinging to nothing.
– Dhammapada, verse 40.
Wisdom in our sorrowing world is urgently needed. How come we aren’t talking to each other about what it might be, and how it might be nurtured species-wide? Let’s entertain the possibility that wisdom is far more accessible than previous cultures have led us to believe. What if we discovered in this inquiry that every human body is wisdom?
Wisdom regarding death and dying can transform humanity’s unexplored anguish, which discharges itself in destructive emotions. The tensions wrought by unresolved core questions – those that every child encounters, and puts out of sight – make their way into our behaviour.
How come we aren’t asking, while we still have enough ‘nous’ to nurture the inquiry: “What kind of experience does the word ‘death’ point to? Can we have a taste of the view of death from the inside? What’s death going to be like, anyhow?” Mary Oliver asks this, in her poem When Death Comes: “(W)hat is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”
Most adults have seen what it’s like from the ‘outside.’ A verse from the early Buddhist teachings puts it this way:
All too soon will this body will lie in the funeral home:
useless, without mind, like a meaningless stick of wood.
– Dhammapada, verse 41.
We see this fact, with the bodily eye; but the heart’s eye – longing for depth, not surfaces – intuits the possibility of insight into death, and the ending of anguish. Zen teacher Aitken Roshi used to speak of ‘dukkha’ (a name for the most fundamental human suffering) as ‘anguish.’
This Dhammapada ‘stick of wood’ verse, by the way, is even more stark in its literal rendering: “This body will lie on the ground,” it says. In the Buddha’s time, the body might simply be taken to a charnel yard, and be left to rot and disintegrate out in the open. ‘Discarded,’ the original verse says. I changed the context to reflect a common process in Western countries – funeral homes and crematoriums – but, to be matter-of-fact about it: at some stage, our bodies, too, are discarded – understandably.
It’s interesting, also, to reflect that ‘charnel’ means ‘flesh’ (carnal). Charnel grounds and houses are (or were) about the meaty side of death. There certainly is this side of things – the surface layers of human life. It would appear that there are few ‘flesh grounds’ these days; but, even so: this body is still (in some respects, at least) “like a clay pot.” It’s fragile. It’s breakable. It’s vulnerable to all kinds of misadventure. That is not fresh news, of course; but, how little – oh, how little in our entertainment-obsessed world – have we penetrated to the true significance of this, all the way to the heart of birth and death!?
So, how come we aren’t wondering more openly, together, “Who or what in us dies?” (Who Dies? by the way, is a title of another of Stephen Levine’s books.) We can’t lose, by this inquiry.
Who has done her own work –
Being endowed with virtue and insight,
firm in the Dhamma and a speaker of truth –
people hold such a one dear.
– Dhammapada, verse 217.
Well… that is: can’t lose anything but our fictions; which I acknowledge we mightily cling to, as to a damn good novel plot. However, do allow, please, the possibility of not clinging, realizing your true nature, and “settling into this heart as it were a citadel.” Entertain the possibility of being thereby being better equipped for the meaty dénouement on the final page. If you have experienced the citadel aspect of awareness, you’ll know that it is rock-solid – wondrously, beautifully immovable. And, it’s unconditional. It is beyond corruption.
Insight into death can not only penetrate to the heart of birth and death, but can establish the citadel, and secure the heart’s gains, because:
For one whose heart is without affliction and perplexity,
who has abandoned good and bad, who is awake, there is no fear.
– Dhammapada, verse 39.
I’m working in this project at unpacking – in contemporary terms – a remarkable possibility present in all of us: that when we meet the essence of death we find a jewel – one aspect of which is the citadel.
(All translations from the Dhammapada are translated from Pāli by Christopher J. Ash, unless otherwise attributed.)
My first audiodharma teaching from any Buddhist teacher at all was from a workshop of Stephen’s. I heard it forty years ago on a set of cassette tapes. Stephen was supporting people who were confronting death, and people suffering grief and loss.
There were people who were living with terminal diagnoses; and, people grieving the loss of loved ones. There were people supporting those who had such a diagnoses; or who were in pain about their loved one’s diagnosis.
I could hear his compassion and his courage. His solicitous voice is still in my memory. His teachings penetrated my armour. He brought me to tears. Even though I wasn’t faced, at that time, with a life-threatening situation, even so, he brought me home to my own battered heart.
I, too, was one intensely in need of healing – of wounds of which I was at this stage barely aware. So, Stephen’s voice on those tapes held me, too. Even the silent, witnessing presence in those workshops of his wife Ondrea was a support.
On those tapes I heard him supporting people to stay for ‘what is’; to stay for their pain – their physical, mental, emotional distress. It was a revelation to me, to think that turning toward such unbearable pain, would be freeing.
He encouraged us to have faith in the more that we are, to have faith in what holds us from within; even as we hold others in the human pains of sickness, mental affliction, old age and death. Over the years thereafter I used his meditations (published in several books) for my own contemplation, and to guide others in theirs.
(Also, I credit the wisdom which I manage to bring to my marriage to the fact that I read his Embracing the Beloved. I believe it contributed to my finally being able to turn toward the suffering of intimate relationship, to stay and learn the lessons which marriage can teach; particularly, to embrace meeting my narcissism. “Narcissus,” he wrote, “is the perfect analogy for the imagined self that each brings painfully to relationship.”)
Decades later I still regularly “soften the belly,” as he used to advise. There’s hardly a month go by, without I encourage another to invite “a soft belly.” I still touch “a heart big enough to hold it all,” in the ways he taught.
Then, in 1999, I began using his book A Year to Live. So, a practice of getting ready for the inevitable. The book gives us guidelines for a year-long practice of bringing death into our lives – of squarely facing mortality, of taking it to heart.
I did my first ‘Year to Live’ throughout 1999, and ‘died’ as the year 2000 rang in. Allowing for a ‘’year off’ here and there (as if one could have a year off from death!) I’ve practiced it for at least twelve of the last eighteen years.
Stephen Levine, teacher, visionary and healer, died, with family around him, in his home in New Mexico, U.S.A, on 17th January, 2016. Thank you, Stephen. May all the Stephen elements in the universe, and those elements in all of us, flourish in wisdom and love.