Stream of Consciousness

Facing Death - Part I

Facing Death - Part II

Passive Resistance - Part I

Passive Resistance - Part II

Workshop Reports - August 2004

Facing Death, Part I

Published in Body Dialogue #3, 1994

I have been asked several times to perform a ceremony for people who are about to die of AIDS. Also, I recently taught a Shintaido healing and meditation workshop for people with HIV in Boston, Quebec, and San Francisco. These experiences made me think about how we face death.

In Japan, when someone dies the family members are responsible for cleaning the body, putting cotton into the orifices, and dressing and preparing it for the funeral ceremony. Even if the person dies in a hospital, the body is brought back to the home and the body usually stays in the home at least overnight before it is brought to the temple for the funeral ceremony. Handling the body provides the family with direct contact and experience of the death and can be a spiritual and healing transition for them.

In the U.S. this would be considered unhygienic, so this kind of work is done by professional specialists. Because a body is handled by these specialists after death, if we want to change our way of dealing with death, we will probably have to think about how we relate to the person just before they die.

For instance, if the dying person is a gay man, sometimes as the time of death approaches, he may experience a kind of identity crisis because of a belief conflict with his family. His lover may have no legal right to make the funeral arrangements, which will be handled by the parents or family. If the family comes from a conventional religious background, there may be many conflicts of belief between the dying person and the family. The dying person wants to affirm what he did during his life, but when family members and priests who do not accept his way of life come to visit him on his deathbed, often he will feel that what he has done was wrong or that he must deny who he is.

Gay people are not accepted in our society, which still bases much of its morality on a Judeo-Christian foundation. Because of the moral and religious strictures against sexual pleasure-seeking, and sexual diseases such as venereal disease, gay people were driven underground. Those having these diseases were stigmatized as having broken the taboos. They were judged from a moralistic standpoint and shunned by the rest of society.

A gay person may feel he is being judged from a biblical point of view. Also, if he is without a commonly accepted belief system about what happens after death, he may have many doubts and questions: Where will I go after I die? Will I go to heaven or hell? If I confess to the "sin" of being gay, will my family and the priest say I will go to heaven?

Before the actual transition of death, the traditional values of the family and religion sometimes destroy a gay person's determination to live on in the face of death. If their choice is either to maintain their identity and risk isolation from their family and maybe eternal damnation, or at the last minute before death deny the life they have led, it is very confusing. Some people, arriving at this crossroads, may give up – they may lose their will to live and their determination to die with dignity. For them, it is natural to be the way they are, so it is not fair to judge them from a biblical point of view.

Because of the misunderstanding of biblical philosophy and the way western medicine is often practiced, we have misplaced our idea of paradise. We have put it all into the material container of the 'American Dream'. We postpone facing death as much as possible. The time has come for our whole society to recognize and accept that death is a part of life. Dying of AIDS is not a death sentence. Being infected with HIV is not a personal failure. We have to change our sense of judgment.

If we study what is happening within the HIV-positive community, we can learn a lot about what our whole society should be doing. The HIV-positive community is facing death, while most other people avoid thinking about it. People with HIV have developed a strong support system. The sense of sharing and community is more advanced than that of society in general. Because of their situation, their determination of how to live is based on facing death.

If you have some common medical problem such as food poisoning, you would go to the doctor right away, which makes it more likely that you will be cured. But if you have a disease which carries a moral stigma, a disease which has been driven underground, you will tend to postpone admitting the problem and seeking treatment. Of course, if the disease is communicable, the longer people wait before seeking help, the more the disease will spread. So in some sense, we can say that the spread of diseases such as gonorrhea, syphilis, or AIDS are partly caused by a judgmental social climate – they are caused by a combination of extreme pleasure seeking, jealously, and religious or moral judgment.

This makes me think that even if we find a technical solution to the problem of AIDS, if we don't change our mentality, another similar problem will occur soon. But beyond that, even if we learn to control almost any disease, I believe that death is part of our fate and part of our life.

In the East, death is thought of as a type of Buddha-hood; in fact, the corpse is somewhat affectionately known by the nickname ' the body of Buddha'. But, aside from a Judeo-Christian idea of judgment or the materialistic point of view that after death we completely cease to exist, there are not many alternative ways to think about death in western culture.

To briefly review the course of a human life, when we are born, we come from nothing. When we die, we cannot take what we accomplish in this life with us. If our sense of value is focused on our present existence in this world, we will always want more – our worldly desire has no limits. But in the East, there is an implicit understanding that our life is given to us as an opportunity to train ourselves to discover the true meaning of our existence.

If we understand that we come from mu (nothingness) and return to mu, then it is much easier to help, support, and love each other along the way. It seems that what is happening in the gay community as a result of the AIDS epidemic is often a spontaneous re-discovery of this philosophy. Jesus said that, "The stone that the mason throws away can become the foundation of a new temple". I wonder if the people that society has tried to push aside and ignore have ended up re-inventing a philosophy which our whole society desperately needs to heal itself.

Maybe Communism is not finished after all. Maybe a new kind of 'communism', not based or Marxism, but on hope, faith, and love, is beginning.

Consider the question of whether the cup is half empty or half full: a man dying of AIDS doesn't want to lose his chance to keep enjoying life, he wants to have the same happiness that others had a chance to have. But perhaps he should consider what he can do with the rest of his life, rather than dwelling on how much he has to lose. What exists in this life is opportunity: opportunity to share, to love, to learn. In this sense, the situation of the dying person is no different from any of us.

How does all this relate to Shintaido? Remember the Japanese expression that has been adopted by Shintaido: 'One life, one chance'. This does not mean that we have only one life, and one chance to get everything right. It means one chance in this life. It means we should approach every situation as though this were our only chance to do the right thing, this one time, because we may die before we get another chance. We finish each keiko with a bow. Our next keiko actually begins right then, not when we enter the dojo and bow at the beginning or the next keiko, but at the end of the last keiko, with our final bow.

Sogyal Rinpoche said, in the "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying":

Our state of mind at death is all-important. If we die in a positive frame of mind, we can improve our next birth, despite our negative karma. The last thought and emotion that we have before we die has an extremely powerful determining effect on our immediate future.

In the future, I hope that we will change our sense of values so that we will be judged by our answer to these questions:

How much did I share?

How much did I support others?

How well did I take care of the world?