Life and Death
Life and Death
From BUDDHISM NOW Vol 16, No 2 May 2004
Dr Alexander Burnfield FRCPsych
Trustee, The Golden Buddha Centre
Another sadistic individual cruelly abuses and then kills a little girl. More bombs destroy the lives of people on a train, ruining the security and happiness of those close to them - maybe for always. My blood boils with anger - I want the culprits punished and put away! It is natural for people to feel angry in these circumstances, and we all hear such comments after horrific crimes have taken place. Anger is clearly natural but is it helpful? Helpful to others or ourselves?
Medical research has clearly shown that people who frequently feel angry and behave regularly with hostility are more likely to have irregular heart rhythms and suffer heart attacks. Anger has also been linked to other medical conditions including irritable bowel disease, backache, arthritis and asthma. Neurological tests have shown that angry people respond more strongly to nicotine, and are therefore more likely to become addicted, and the American Heart Association reports that teenagers who can not manage their angry feelings are more likely to become obese.
So why does nature give us the anger response - surely there must be a good scientific reason? In most of the time that human beings have been around - over a million years - we have had to live in a dangerous and violent world where instant responses to danger were life saving, and provided for food and protection for the community. Impulsive anger to a threat was adaptive and essential for the continuance of life, and when the heart speeded up and adrenaline pulsed through the body physical action resulted - either flight or fight - and the lean and hungry human lived another day. So anger at a lion stalking your little children may result in the lion being chased away and the baby being saved. Life was basic - no complex weapons, and only face to face encounters without mass destruction.
How different to the present time when we feel irritated by a TV programme being cancelled, we drive our children to school and one of us can press a button and annihilate a city. Anger now is a much more dangerous emotion and far from being adaptive can hurt ourselves and others if we lack awareness and don't have it under full control - but once out, can anger be controlled? Philosophers and Buddhists alike teach that anger is an unhelpful emotion and should be weeded out through mind training before it gets a grip on us. Buddhist practice aims not just for inner peace and calm but also for a change in our behaviour to others that is less natural and impulsive - and more understanding and compassionate - the fruits of awakening and insight wisdom. But intention is simple, putting these teachings into practice is more difficult - I remember how I laughed when my Buddhist brother, a lawyer, told me about a case in which he was involved; representing a Buddhist monk who had hit a policeman during a peace demo!
Jesus was angry when he saw the moneylenders in the Temple, and he pushed over their tables, we are told. This is cited by Christians as righteous anger, and you sort of know what they mean but how far can you go with this one? Jesus also taught forgiveness, perhaps one of his greatest practices in terms of social progress. We usually think of forgiveness as being something we do for the one forgiven, but the person who really benefits is the forgiver - who lets go of constant anger and hate destructive to themselves physically, psychologically and socially. Aristotle, teaching in ancient Greece, believed that anger could be beneficial if controlled. He was the tutor of Alexander the Great interestingly! But Seneca, Nero's tutor and adviser, believed that once anger emerged it became difficult to control, and so it was best if it's arising could be prevented.
The best course is to reject at once the first incitement to anger, to resist even its small beginnings, and to take pains to avoid falling into anger. For if it begins to lead us astray, the return to the safe path is difficult, since, if once we admit the emotion and by our own free will grant it any authority, reason becomes of no avail; after that it will do, not whatever you let it, but what ever it chooses.
From On Anger by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC - 54 CE)
Out of control
Nero eventually had poor Seneca killed by making him take poison. The issue is an important one - can anger, once it gets a grip, be easily stopped or curbed? I was once on the receiving end of an instance where anger definitely could not be controlled. As a trainee Psychiatrist working in a large Psychiatric Hospital I was checking in new admissions. I got no answers from the large terrified looking man sitting opposite me - instead he jumped up, shouted out Get thee hence Satan and came after me with violent intent. He chased me round a table at least twice before a couple of male nurses burst in, hearing my alarm calls, and gave him a large injection resulting in rapid sedation. This man made a swift recovery from a bout of severe depression and only had a dream like memory of the event afterwards. I declined a polite offer of a haircut from him in the ward, much to his regret. But he had mistaken me for the Devil judging him in Hell for his sins in the delusional depths of his altered mental state. I feared his behaviour might revert if I let him cut my hair with the long evil looking scissors he was holding before him!
Later on working with children and families I came across the frequent belief of parents and teachers that children having a temper tantrum were totally unable to control themselves. But research with donuts has clearly demonstrated the opposite - such children when offered a large tasty donut by a research worker were able to stop their tempers instantly despite appearances to the contrary! The myth that people cannot control their behaviour when severely angry is false - they can, unless there is a neurological or psychiatric disorder - but as Seneca pointed out, it becomes more difficult once the temper itself is given free rein, and in fact is counter productive:
In the case of Gladiators skill is their protection, anger their undoing
Seneca ( ibid)
Not being ruled by anger
Philosophers and psychologists teach the importance of not being ruled by our passions but by reason. Gotama Buddha has showed us a simple but powerful way of transforming our negative emotions into compassionate ones though the discipline of mind training (mindfulness practices, insight meditation). Buddhist practice is geared to being awake to conditioned responses as they arise and enables us to weed them out over time and replace them with understanding, love and tolerance. Unlike medical and psychological treatments our practice is a long term preventative one - a gradual learning and maturational process makes it easier to recognise anger as it arises and let it change into something more constructive and positive, for us as individuals, and for those we relate to.
The truest form of wisdom is to make a wide and long inspection, to put self in subjection, and then to move forward slowly and in a set direction.
Let a man overcome hatred by kindness, evil by goodness, greed by generosity and lies by telling the truth.
The Dhammapada verse 223
But a soft answer does not always turn away wrath - sometimes a great deal of patience and persistence is needed. Once a man and his friend commuted to work regularly on the train. Each morning the man bought a paper from a rude and abusive newspaper seller at the station, and despite regular taunts and swearing always quietly and politely thanked the newspaper seller as he paid him and got his paper. But his friend became angrier and angrier each day, and interrupting the man reading his paper on the train he finally burst out How can you do that? Every morning that disgusting and very rude man abuses you terribly, and every day you thank him politely and buy a paper from him. Are you completely mad? Why do you do that - it is driving me round the bend Our man quietly put down his paper, smiled and said Why should I let a man like that dictate how I behave? Whatever he says or does, I and only I, am responsible for what I say or do.
The Buddha's observations
Gotama Buddha would have recognised that man as the sort of person that writes on the water
There are three types of people in the world. What three? One who is like carving on a rock, one who is like scratching on the ground and one who is like writing on the water. What sort of person is like carving on the rock? Imagine a certain person who is always getting angry and his anger lasts long, just as carving on a rock is not soon worn off by wind, water or lapse of time. What sort of person is like scratching on the ground? Imagine a certain person who is always getting angry but his anger does not last long, just as scratching on the ground is soon worn off by wind, water and lapse of time. And what sort of person is like writing on the water? Imagine a certain person who, even though spoken to harshly, sharply, roughly, is easily reconciled and becomes agreeable and friendly, just as writing on the water soon disappears.
Anguttara Nikaya I/283
Buddhists understand that anger originates in the mind and gives rise to hate and revenge. Anger is a natural emotion that frequently leads to unskilled actions destructive to ourselves and others (Karma). For Buddhists concepts like righteous anger or justifiable anger are not helpful. Since anger originates in the mind it can be removed from the mind by many training practices and their modern psychological equivalents such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. Like Buddhist practice but more focussed and problem orientated CBT is geared to helping a person develop new ways of believing and thinking that are realistic and lead to more adaptive and effective behaviour. This may come too late for many who have become mentally or physically ill, or involved in violent relationships with themselves and others, but a basic training in Buddhist philosophy coupled with Buddhist techniques will help us be in a better position to recognise anger as it arises and transform it into a method of insight and compassion. And if we have to deal with violent situations, Buddhist practice and martial arts teach us the skills necessary to use minimal force without anger.
I have no castle - I make immovable mind my castle
I have no sword - I make absence of self my sword
From: A Samurai Warrior's Creed (Anonymous, 14th century)
Mixing Metaphors on Maturation and Meaning
"Man with his burning soul
Has but an hour of breath
To build a ship of truth
In which his soul may sail -
Sail on the sea of death
For death takes toll
Of beauty, courage, youth,
Of all but truth ..."
John Masefield, 1914
The Buddha's main message seems to have been that suffering is caused by wanting what we can not have, and not wanting what we have got to have. The Buddha's teachings are about how we can develop a frame of mind geared to accepting what we cannot change but empowering us to take actions that are either helpful to our well-being or to the well-being of others. These ideas became very interesting to me once I had discovered that my body was dying slowly in different places and that my mind too was up for grabs by an incurable illness. As a twenty year old medical student in London I first experienced the decay of part of one of my optic nerves leading to blurring of vision and pain in that eye. I was not sure then how long the illness would last, or how long I would live.
Man with his burning soul
I have lived over thirty years since that time of fear and sadness and have been able to observe the results of little bits of my brain and spinal cord ceasing to function. My vision is impaired in both eyes, and my legs are weak so that I use a cane to help me walk. My bladder does not work properly and I lack adequate sensation in parts of my body causing poor muscular co-ordination and loss of balance. I get tired quickly, especially in the heat, and my concentration wanders. I sometimes use the wrong words and may speak a form of nonsense. My wife Penny laughs when my mind/brain substitutes a forgotten word with a meaningless one - often "apricot" or "dustbin-lid".
But it could have been very different; about one in twenty of those who have this condition are dead within five years, and others develop severe disability with tremors, spasms, speech impairment and loss of sight. People with this disease can have memory and thinking problems and even dementia. Some become dependent on others and have to be looked after by relatives or in residential care. Over the last few years people diagnosed with this disease have come to see me to talk about the implications. A few, who were comparatively well and did not appear disabled when I first met them, have now died. Some after a fairly short period of rapidly disabling illness, but others more slowly over a period of twenty years or more.
I have often questioned why some of us with this disease go on for a long time with fairly limited disability while others become severely disabled early in life when they may only have just begun their families and careers. The answer is "genes" or the luck of the draw - it has nothing to do with virtuous living or the benign indulgence of a very selective "God". Nor has it got anything to do with will power or meditation.
This is what life is like, not just for people with my disease, but for every being in one way or another. I have come to understand that the afflictions which affect us are entirely at random - and in no way reflect our individuality or position in life. This is true for the parents who have to look after a daughter with Down's Syndrome, as it is true for the young wife who is bereaved suddenly and unexpectedly. It is true for the husband that has to live with his wife's rapidly progressing and incurable ovarian cancer as it is for the teenager slowly developing a malignant brain tumour - or for the parents who learn that their son has been killed in a road accident. It also holds true for thousands who die in famines or as a result of earthquakes, cholera - and war. Choices may be involved in some of these situations but not necessarily by the people that suffer most. The random actions of the cosmos are innumerable and ultimately we will all become ill in some way, or old, or demented, or disabled - and die.
Has but an hour of breath
Most people do not wish to think about the "meaning of life" when they are growing up, healthy and having fun. Younger adults are naturally more interested in finding sexual partners, making money, and being successful in their jobs - nature has made this one of it's imperatives. As life progresses, sooner or later, random experiences of a distressing nature build up - and it becomes more and more difficult to ignore or deny them. We do have to face up to the fact that we are not very long for this world - that our bodies and our minds will degenerate and eventually disappear altogether.
For me, my slowly dying body/mind manifested its changes at an early time in my life - I had to look at these issues when I was young. As a result I have needed to find explanations and meanings - to find ways of coping with the death of bits of my body and my mind so that I can make sense of life. I had to find ways of coping with the unfairness of life's afflictions - Why me? Why him? Why her? Why now?
I looked to nature and observed that, in the words of Tennyson, it was 'red in tooth and claw'. There was plenty of suffering in nature and the only meaning seemed to come from the constant thrust of life to continue in whatever forms possible. Suffering is a means to this end; death produces life. Rotting flesh produces maggots that become flies; flowers die and become fruit; fruit rots and leaves seeds to form more flowers and so more seeds.
To build a ship of truth
I observed that decay and maturation were synonymous. Take a maturing fruit, like a plum. The flower withers to give place first to the immature, bitter product and then the mature, fleshy red fruit; this is eaten and so destroyed. The very destruction reveals the stone - the seed. The mature plum is both the end result of a developing process and the means to an end, the end being to provide more plums! But how did this apply to people? Was there a maturity of the inner self to be found through the life, experience and decay of the outer self?
Life can be seen as a series of cycles of loss, associated with changes, learning and gains through adaptation. The loss of childhood, the loss of innocence, the loss of youth, the loss of our parents, the loss of our children through growing up and leaving home, the loss of our freedom and power through old age and through illness - and eventually the loss of life itself.
Clearly a process of change and development, but what is it's significance for those of us going through it, faced with unbearable pain, humiliating illness, physical distress and suffering? People differ in how they cope with suffering and loss. Some people give up, became bitter, are unable or unwilling to cope. But others manage to adapt and find new and unexpected meaning in their lives. These people find doors to open that they had not noticed were there before. Like the words of William Blake: "The Tree which moveth some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which standeth in the way... as a man is, so he sees."
What makes one person see things one way and another a different way? Can we change the way we see things? Can the man who sees the tree as in the way and needing to be cut down come to see the same tree as something with a positive value, to give shade, to provide beauty? Can people with illness, disability or other losses and afflictions learn to see their lives in a different context?
The Jewish psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, was an inmate in a wartime concentration camp. Miraculously he managed to survive the experience and to write about what had happened to him. He was stripped of all his clothes and a research thesis that he was writing was taken away. His young wife was killed. His home was taken from him and he had nothing but the basics of life for some years in the camps. Victor Frankl observed others as well as himself. As a psychiatrist he hoped one day to put his experiences to some use, to create some meaning out of what had happened, however unrealistic this seemed at the time: - he only had a slim chance of survival. His experience appeared unfair, meaningless, humiliating and seemingly destructive.
The death-camp experience was also unfair and meaningless to the inmates around him, most of whom died in a short time. He discovered that the prisoners and guards were not clearly divided into two differing groups, because from each there were people who tried to maintain their inner life and personal integrity, despite the injury inflicted by one group on the other. It was more difficult for the prisoners. Many of them withdrew, went along with the system, exploited others, became bitter, gave up, became ill or died - but he noticed that a few were able to keep something inside them from being polluted by what was happening to them. He decided that something inside himself could not be destroyed or taken away by his experience. This was his ability to respond, to make decisions about what was happening to him, even if he could not act upon them - to have an opinion, to agree or to disagree, to love to forgive, to accept or to reject. He managed to hold on to this inner truth whatever happened to his body and to those around him. Victor Frankl survived the death-camp experience and went on to become Professor of Psychiatry in Vienna where he was able to put his experiences to use in the field of psychotherapy.
In which the soul may sail -
The religions of the west, despite their emphasis on sin and miracles, pointed me in some useful directions, and indicated ways of coping with the random afflictions of the cosmos - which according to Carl Jung, makes no mistakes. I found the teachings of St. Anthony of Egypt and the Desert Fathers practical and the life of St. Francis inspiring. The teachings of Meister Eckhart were also intellectually honest and challenging. But mostly I found the usual church expression of Christianity simplistic, patronising, exploitative or just plain scientifically illiterate. I have gained much from the Jewish Hasidic insights and from the poetic mysticism of the Hindu Upanishads. These writings were old scriptures for Guatama Buddha and the Lord Mahavira to reform and clarify, and later the roots of Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent action.
Two ways of understanding and living life have especially helped me on my journey and I constantly return to them for support, guidance and wisdom. The first of these is the early expression of Taoism manifested by the Tao Te Ching and the writings of Chuang Tzu. This simple and natural wisdom restores my batteries and makes me chuckle with delight and understanding. The second is the Buddhist tradition which has shown me a sensible and practical philosophy of life. I have come to understand that death is of no particular importance in the scheme of things except as a process of re-cycling, as natural and necessary as birth. Pagan tradition says "Every Shaman knows that only through death can life come into being." I have discovered how to understand that death and suffering are natural, just as the withering flower is natural; but I ask - is it possible that something about my own life can become a fruit after the flower has withered? That this might play some part in the future of nature's wider creative process? Perhaps produce a soul/seed? I suppose this is like the oriental (and pagan) concept of Karma. One particular Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, has said that all we really possess are our actions. Life for me is about what I say or do, not about what my body looks like or how my mind functions. What I do is the seed of my life, the real truth of my existence.
Zen master Bankei has helped me to understand that I can "Abide in the unborn Buddha mind" to live the person I really am. This has made it easier for me to develop a lifestyle which I hope minimises my own egocentric perception and maximises the fact that I am part of a greater whole, with a role to play in the overall creative process. All I can do is to live in the present in my own space-time, in my own body and with the mind that operates as part of this "me". To regret and feel guilty about the past or to anticipate the future with fear, anxiety or an over-controlling zeal is not living in the present.
For death takes toll of beauty, courage, youth
My life is a small temporary blip in space-time and the significance of my existence in the long term is not something that I can ever know, and it is not really helpful for me to strive to know it. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" as Jesus said. I regard the changes that have occurred in my body, in my mind and in those around me as signposts and pathways. They help me to see the greater whole in a clearer perspective. I am not good at conventional "Buddhist" meditation - this does help some people but is not, I think, essential. I enjoy reading about wisdom ideas and try to put them into action in some way. I do not believe that there are any "great" people and certainly I am under no illusion that I can aspire in that direction! Progress seems an illusion in terms of humanity generally, but perhaps individuals have a potential for progress in a lifetime. I know that I have no separate self and that we are all part of a greater whole, working towards an increasing awareness of our joint potential in the creative process - wonderful, mysterious, cruel, enabling of loving choices, often joyous and laugh making!
Of all but Truth
Perhaps there is only one reason for being here in this space-time and in this body/mind - and that is to try to leave the world and the universe in which we exist a better place for beings to grow in than it was before we came along. Like Victor Frankl, we can make choices about how we respond, even when we are badly disabled or about to die - if only about how much we agree or disagree with something. We can have an opinion, hold views and take responsibility for our thoughts, decisions and actions. This is to become mature. 'Letting go' need not mean failure but strength in accord with the Taoist view: "Yield and overcome! The reed bends in the wind and springs back because it is flexible. It survives. But the rigid and heavy oak will be destroyed."
Maturity does not mean self-sufficient independence but being "interdependent" - to choose to give what we can give, but also to receive what others can give us when we are dependent. We will not find answers to "Why me?" because there are none, but we can let go of our suffering experience by answering the questions that life is asking us, by responding and making new choices, by adapting to new situations. In this way we shall be able to create meaning and truth inwardly while our outer selves - our bodies and mind/brains - go through the stages of maturation, first like the flower to bloom and wither, then like the fruit, to set, grow and rot - leaving behind a seed/soul. If there is a useful concept of soul it is a seed for further creation rather than the fixed final product of traditional theistic religions.
From raft, (The Journal of the Buddhist Hospice Trust) no.15 - April 1999
The greatest illusion is that there is only one reality
That we are separate from Self is the greatest delusion
The greatest fear is the fear of being loved
The greatest courage is the courage to be happy
The conquest of self is the greatest battle
To refrain from imitation is the greatest revenge
The greatest force is patience
Adversity is our greatest teacher
Greatness is beyond both victory and defeat
The greatest gift is to receive
Watchfulness is our greatest treasure