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Archive for the ‘Death’ Category

This may sound morbid, but I’ve been thinking a lot about death recently. There are several reasons for this, chief amongst which is the fact that I’ve been (and technically still am) ill recently. In the last two and a half weeks, I’ve blacked out twice. I don’t know if that’s serious or not, but the fact that the room regularly spins doesn’t help matters. I went to see the Hospital up in London, for a normal, routine check up on my heart (I was born with a congenital heart defect). When I told the Doctor about this, she became concerned. Anyway, they’re running up all sorts of tests on me, and I look forward to the results.
The second reason I’ve been thinking about death recently, is because my wife and I watched a program on the BBC recently all about death, and people’s attitude toward it. I think it’s fair to say that death is somewhat of a taboo in England, if not the western world. People don’t talk about it, and you’re seen as a bit odd if you do. In my line of work, there is always the distinct possibility that I will come up against death, whether it’s my own or someone else’s. Fortunately, I haven’t yet, the closest I have come is a lady in a body bag, but I’ve always wanted to know what my reaction would be should I come across one. It is said that death is the ultimate teacher, the final challenge, or even just the beginning. But people don’t like to think about death in my experience. If people start to talk about death, the subject is often quickly changed.
But is this the right attitude to have? Often, death comes as a bit of a surprise, so to not plan for the death of a loved one, or your own, seems like a bit of a wasted effort. I know that if I was to die tomorrow, my wife would only have a vague idea of what my wishes were. And the same if the opposite happened.
In Buddhism, we are taught that death is not to be feared or ignored, but to be used as motivation to practice. If we were to lead a life of ignorance, where we do not live our lives to our best, it is a waste, and we will be born in samsara (suffering). The following is attributed to the great Tibetan Buddhist Scholar, Je Tsong Khapa:

This life is as impermanent as a water bubble;
Remember how quickly it decays and death comes.
After death, just like a shadow follows the body,
The results of black and white karma ensue.

Finding firm and definite conviction in this,
Please bless me always to be careful
To abandon even the slightest of negativities
And to accomplish only virtuous deeds.

This simple verse, or prayer, highlights the main teachings of Buddhism in 8 lines. Life is short, and death is the only certainty. There is nothing after death but the result of our Karma (actions), good and bad. We should always make the most of this moment. Living our lives as best we can, without performing any negative actions. Obviously, this is a very simplified version, but one I try to keep to at all times.

I must be honest though, up until now, I haven’t been very diligent in my practice. I could blame this on my matt, my back hurting, or even not having enough time, but the simple truth is that I’m just lazy. Although I am young, death is an ever present threat, and my practice could be cut short at any time, with all this negative Karma un-purified. If this ‘scare’ has taught me anything, it’s that I should get my self sorted and sit when I can. The advantage is that concentrating on something has helped me when the room is spinning. If my sergeant will accept this for the reason I’m sitting crossed legged in the middle of the squad room is another matter. Another thing it has taught me is that I need to write out a death plan, detailing what my wishes are after I pass on. It’s a plan that we should all follow, even if it’s just to make us think about our inevitable fate.

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I have recently been watching a couple of programs that have made me think of reincarnation. The first was David Attenborough’s ‘Life in Cold Blood’. He was talking about several species of animals that had been made extinct by humans, such as Dodo’s and Tortoise’s to name but a few. If taking the concept of reincarnation to the fullest sense, it would be logical that we can also be reborn as an animal. This is something I always thought credible when I was younger, as I often wanted to become a bird. The thought of extinction is terrible when we think in human terms, but when we hear that a species of animal is extinct, few people would be traumatised. However, when we take into context that we may once have been one of that species, everything changes. With every species of animal that goes extinct, we loose another from of reincarnation. I appreciate this is taking it to the extreme, but it is worth bearing in mind.
The second program that reminded me of reincarnation was a documentary on the finding of a Peruvian mummy. I was interested as I went to Peru 4 years ago on an expedition, and wondered what the differences between Egyptian Mummies and Peruvian Mummies were. The mummy had been coated in a primitive varnish to help prevent decay. One of the ingredients was tree resin from a tree found in the south Pacific, almost 1000 miles away. Having studied Egyptology and some of the ancient South American civilizations, I couldn’t help but notice certain similarities. There is no known explanation as to how these similarities occurred 1000 miles apart (that I am aware of), but I did come up with one. Taking the concept of reincarnation again, would it not be possible for, let’s say, an Egyptian priest who was well versed to die and be reborn in another part of the world, say Mexico, and (either unconsciously or not) pass on his knowledge to his new village and so on? It’s a hazy theory at best, but fun to mull over in ones head.

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Who is really suffering?  Me, or some one with a excruciating terminal illness?My work allows my colleague and I to ponder on many things.  Most nights it will be whether we think so and so will manage to arrest such and such, or if a certain youth is going to become trouble or not, and more often than not gasp at the incredible stupidity of some human behaviour.  But every now and again, our topic of conversation turns a little more intellectual.  Such as the other night.
Whilst patrolling some of our quieter streets, we were talking about the incredible capacity of some of our animal companions, in this particular case, dogs.  I was explaining how one of my dogs had become a veritable Lassie and helped a couple of parents find a lost child, without any particular training.  This reminded my colleague of one of her dogs, who alerted someone that one of the horses had collapsed (and sadly, died).  It then came to my attention that the topic had changed to terminally ill animals, and had me wondering: if some one (or some animal) is terminally ill, and in extreme pain, would it be right to end their suffering?
I posed my colleague this moral dilemma: if a loved one (human or animal) was terminally ill/injured/crippled to the point where their life would be terrible suffering, would she consider euthanasia?  Her answer was simple, if it was a dog (or any kind of animal/pet) she would, if it were a loved one (mother, daughter, son) she wouldn’t.  Her reason?  It’s easier to be unattached to an animal/pet.  A living person is harder because the attachment is stronger.  I think it would be safe to assume that this is a view shared by many.  Pets and animals are loved, but not in the same way as a child or parent.  Because they are not blood related, it is easier to detach ourselves when the time comes.  Another consideration is the responsibility we have over our pets.  Most owners have a feeling of responsibility toward their animal charges for everything from health care to lodging (I am not counting people who abuse their pets because they are “dumb animals” of course).  This sense of care for the animals’ well-being is exhibited if we have to make tough decisions on their behalf.  This responsibility is taken away, however,  with a human because they have the ability to make their own decisions (most of the time), and therefore our responsibility for their care is diminished (but not gone).
From a Buddhist point of view, this discussion is finished before it even started.  Killing of any kind is undesirable, what ever the motivation.  If our reason for killing someone was to “put them out of their misery”, it would be a misguided motivation.  The Buddha’s first teaching was that of the Four Noble Truths.  In this, he explained that all life is suffering.  In a sense, I am suffering now, writing this (although I do enjoy writing for you, dear reader).  Therefore, if I was to kill some one because I believed it would alleviate their suffering, I would, with this reasoning, have to kill myself because we are all suffering.  One kind of suffering is no different from any other, except for the manner in which we suffer.  Our lives are propelled by Karma, good and bad, which determines our current and future lives.  We will all be suffering until we reach nirvana.  This is the reason we try and escapeSamsara, by attaining enlightenment.Please understand, I am neither for or against euthanasia, and I am not judging anyone who does, as it is not an easy decision to come to.  These are only by personal opinions from what I believe would be a Buddhist perspective.

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Yesterday was a strange day…  Full of coincidences.  First of all, I received a newsletter from Jamyang, the Buddhist center in London that I try to attend whenever I can.  One of the articles was from the residential teacher, Lama Soepa (who I have talked about previously).  His article was a preview of his new book, The Precious Tree of Cures.  In the excerpt, Geshe-la was talking about the killing of animals (for food).  He said it was best not too, because no more animals would be killed, which means that we wouldn’t be gaining any negative Karma.  This is an obvious thing to come from a Buddhist monk, but the coincidence comes in here:  latter that evening, my wife and I watched “Jamie’s Fowl Dinners”, a program explaining where our eggs come from, and what happens to the chickens after they are past “laying” age.  Being Jamie Oliver, it wasn’t sugar coated, and rather graphic.

To start with, his unsuspecting audience were asked to separate a batch of baby chicks into males and females and were shown what happens to them if they were in the egg industry.  The males were put into a gas chamber and killed.  It was sad to see these very cute chicks suffocate to death and then be fed to a python.  The females on the other hand, were sent off into their egg laying life.  If they were battery hens, they would live in small cages in groups of up to six, fed by a conveyor belt and lay a minimum of one egg a day.  Most of the time, they were scrawny looking, missing feathers and often sitting in their own feces.  Barn hens were kept in huge groups of 1600, but in relatively better conditions.  Finally, free range egg chickens were kept in wide open spaces, with a nice warm barn to sleep in.  It easy to see what chickens are better looked after (not saying that battery hens are badly looked after, but I know which I’d rather be). 

The second side of the ‘industry’, is the chicken side that we eat for our roast dinner.  There are two different kinds, so called ‘Frankenstien’ chickens (who grow to full size in 38 days) and ‘normal’ chicken (who take longer to grow).  The fast growing chickens are used for things such as fast food, cheap microwave meals and some of the cheap complete chickens you can buy in the shops (the 2 for £5 kind).  The ‘normal’ chickens are also used for roasts, but obviously cost a little more.

To finish off the program, the innovative chef showed how some chickens are killed.  I’m glad to say that the method shown was relatively painless, but still tear jerking.  The whole point of the programme was to show where our chickens come from, and campaign for a better life for them. 

A final thought: Is the eating of meat right or wrong?  Well, at the end of the day, I think this is a personal issue.  Personally, if I’m going to eat an animal, I’d like to know it was treated well before death, and if I can’t know, I pray that the animal has a good rebirth.  After all, even His Holiness the Dalai Lama eats meat, but only when his diet requires it. 

One of my wifes’ friends said “If it’s going to be slaughtered, why bother giving it a good life, surely it’s just false hope”.  A good argument.  Here is my counter argument:

Every sentient being (including humans) are going to die some day.  With the above reasoning, if we’re going to die, why bother making any effort at all in life, surely it’s all a waste of time?  Personally, I completely disagree on both these comments.  Chickens are sentient beings too, and who knows, we may have been a chicken in a past life (or it may have been our mother!).  With this in mind, were we a chicken, would we want a rough life, no matter how short, or a nice life?  Same with being in a human body.  Should we waste our life doing nothing, or make the most of it while we can?  You decide…

If you’d like to learn more about Jamie Oliver’s campaign for animal welfare, or to find out more about the chickens and eggs we eat, visit Jamie Oliver’s website here

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This is the title of one of my favourite songs sung by Colin Hay.  I like it so much in fact, I’m going to have it played at my funeral.  I believe this song is about death, and waiting for our next life (or hopefully, enlightenment) to begin.  The chorus are the most poignant lines in the song:

“Be still my love, Open up your Heart, Let the light shine in.  Don’t you understand? I already have a plan.  I’m waiting for my real life to begin.”

I believe it could be interpreted as a message from the deceased to their loved ones, telling them to rejoice, as they are no longer suffering, and that they will see each other in another life time.As a member of the emergency services, you get to hear about and see death on a regular basis.  Some can find it hard to deal with, others don’t.  Personally, I’ve never seen death as an end.  Sure I was scared, and still am, but ever since I was a young child, I never really saw it as a problem.When I was around 6-7 years old, my maternal grandfather became ill and died.  I’m not sure if I was too young to comprehend, or if it was something else, but I never felt like he was gone.  I remember when we were driving back from the hospital after he had died.  The mood in the car was very sombre; except for mine.  I even asked my mother if I could take his place at the head of the table at meal times.  Some psychologists may say I was in denial, but I hardly knew the man well enough to be in denial about his death.  He was a person bought up in the era when children were seen and not heard (or at least, that’s the impression I got).  Not that I didn’t mourn his death, but I always had the lingering feeling we’d meet again.  A similar conversation arose between a friend and I, when we talked about how children take funerals.  They mentioned it was hard to tell them and explain, however I think children are a little more clued up than we think.From a Buddhist perspective and reincarnation, we do all meet up later on.  Tibetans believe that every person was once our mother and vi-ca versa, and therefore is worthy of our respect.  This is why Buddhism preaches non violence, as you would be assaulting a being that may at one time been, or may still be, your mother.  Unfortunately, not everyone is so inclined to agree.  Which leads on to deeper trouble…

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Karma has been bought back to the fore front today when I found out that a couple of people that we know at work were involved in a car crash and are still in Hospital.  Although these people were a handful, it doesn’t make it any nicer to contemplate.  It even made one of my colleagues a little pale just to tell me about it.

All this just goes to show that karma IS a universal constant.  Some people call it fate, others call it an act of god.  I think that Karma is the most likely explanation, cause and effect.  I pray for all those that were involved in that crash, and hope they have a speedy recovery.

On a brighter note, I’d like to make any reader aware of the Relics tour that will be coming to London this week end at the Jamyang Buddhist Center.  I will be going, and will update soon.

Namaste

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With the recent and continuing unrest in Burma, I would like to state my support for my fellow Humans, Buddhists and revered Monks leading what started as a peacefull protest in the face of historic violance and death.  I pray that no more are killed, and that a peacefull solution can be bought about for all.

Om Mani Peme Hum

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