From December 9th I am planning another three month retreat. Before that will be a run-up of several weeklong retreats. For those I only have one title so far: “the dharma of dying and death” starting on 27th August. For the rest, I’m still looking for dharma themes. I want to find the things we will need on the long retreat, so it’ll all contribute to our practice over the next half year.
I say ‘our ‘ and we’ but frankly, I’m looking out for me. It needs to engage me or I can’t teach around it, but also these days it seems I can trust that what comes up for me will also strike a chord in others.
And what’s coming up for me currently are the three sights – old age, disease, and death. Plus, my need to transition to the fourth, and pretty swiftish. The fourth sight, of course, is the mendicant, the practitioner, the living symbol of life transformed by the dharma.
Others will I hope relate to death and dying without feeling that it applies quite so immediately and urgently. It’s very possible. Death is eminently relatable for us Buddhists who have taken our lives on. It is a crucially important element in life, something always hanging around as a potential, rather like awakening is — and all kinds of connections can be made between the two.
The initial point (and crisis, and tussle) of insight, which we relate to breaking the first three fetters, is known to be a death: the death of an assumption we never previously realised we had. It is the assumption about experience which we usually describe as our ‘self’ though any way of describing a delusion will inevitably mislead us. And the prospect of letting that go can feel, beforehand, as destabilising as death. It is a death. Death in a way is simply the unknown, unrealised next initiation that the dharma has in store for us.
Bodily death (and the inner crisis it represents), too, is a situation ripe with awakening potential. At the moment of death, ‘may I be undistracted in the space of the bright enlightening teachings.’
I wonder if there could be any other dharma themes as helpful when we go into deep silence over the winter.