The Urban Dharma Newsletter - August 20, 2008
In This Issue: Buddhism, Grief and Grieving
1. Grief / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
2. A BUDDHISTS PERSPECTIVE ON GRIEVING / Joan Halifax
3. On Grieving / Peter Daishin Renner
4. Grief and the Mindfulness Approach Death, Dying and Bereavement Counselling / Malcolm Huxter
5. The Buddha's Way and Abortion - Loss, Grief and Resolution / by Yvonne Rand
As summer comes to a close, I thought grief and grieving might be a useful topic to explore... Attachment and clinging can come into play as the process of letting go turns into acceptance.
I have been invited to teach another class at LMU... If you live in the Los Angeles area and have some free time, you might consider joining me as I explore:
"Integrating Buddhist Practices Into Everyday Life"
Loyola Marymount University, 1 LMU Drive
Los Angeles, California 90045-2659
Location: University Hall 1866
Thursdays, 7:30 9:30 pm
October 9 November 6, 2008
For more info
1. Grief / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Grief is a multi-faceted response to loss. Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, and philosophical dimensions. Common to human experience is the death of a loved one, whether it be a friend, family, or other close companion, and in fact the word "grief" comes from the same root as "grave." While the terms are often used interchangeably, bereavement often refers to the state of loss, and grief to the reaction to loss. Losses can range from loss of employment, pets, status, a sense of safety, order, or possessions, to the loss of loved ones. Our response to loss is varied and researchers have moved away from conventional views of grief (that is, that people move through an orderly and predictable series of responses to loss) to one that considers the wide variety of responses that are influenced by personality, family, culture, and spiritual and religious beliefs and practices.
Bereavement, while a normal part of life for us all, carries a degree of risk when limited support is available. Severe reactions to loss may carry over into familial relations and cause trauma for children, spouses and any other family members: there is an increased risk of marital breakup following the death of a child, for example. Issues of personal faith and beliefs may also face challenge, as bereaved persons reassess personal definitions in the face of great pain. While many who grieve are able to work through their loss independently, accessing additional support from bereavement professionals may promote the process of healing. Grief counseling, professional support groups or educational classes, and peer-led support groups are primary resources available to the bereaved. In the United States, local hospice agencies may be an important first contact for those seeking bereavement support.
Stage theories and processes
Some researchers such as Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and others have posited sequential stages including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, which are commonly referred to as the "grief cycle". As research progressed over the past 40 years, many who worked with the bereaved found stage models too simplistic and instead began to look at processes, dynamics, and experiences common to all. John Bowlby, a noted psychiatrist, outlined the ebb and flow of processes such as Shock and Numbness, Yearning and Searching, Disorganization and Despair, and Reorganization. Bowlby and Parkes both note psychophysiologic components of grief as well. Included in these processes are:
Shock and denial (disbelief)
Feelings of unreality, depersonalization, withdrawal, and an anesthetizing of affect. The person feels unable to come to terms with what just occurred.
"Whenever one's identity and social order face the possibility of destruction, there is a natural tendency to feel angry, frustrated, helpless, and/or hurt. The volatile reactions of terror, hatred, resentment, and jealousy are often experienced as emotional manifestations of these feelings."
Disorganization and despair
These are the processes commonly associated with bereavement: the mourning and severe pain of being away from the loved person or situation.
Reorganization is the assimilation of the loss of something or someone and redefining of life and meaning without the person that has been lost.
Many studies have looked at the bereaved in terms of increased risks for stress-related illnesses. Colin Murray Parkes in the 1960s and 1970s in England noted increased doctor visits, with symptoms such as abdominal pain, breathing difficulties, and so forth in the first six months following a death. Others have noted increased mortality rates (Ward, A.W. 1976) and Bunch et al found a five times greater risk of suicide in teens following the death of a parent. Grief puts a great stress on the physical body as well as on the psyche, resulting in wear and tear beyond what is normal.
Normal and complicated grief
Complicated grief can be differentiated from normal grief. Normal grief typically involves at least two of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' five grief stages, though not necessarily in any order. While the experience of grief is a very individual process depending on many factors, certain commonalities are often reported. Nightmares, appetite problems, dryness of mouth, shortness of breath, sleep disorders, and repetitive motions to avoid pain are often reported by people experiencing normal grief. Even hallucinatory experiences may be normal early in grief.
Complicated grief typically cycles through these five stages and then some, processing them out of order and often much more rapidly. Examples of complicated grief can often be found in those who have survived a suicide attempt (Hsu, 2002). Complicated grief responses almost always are a function of intensity and timing: a grief that after a year or two begins to worsen, accompanied by unusual behaviors, is a warning sign. Complicated grief is usually grief where the story of the loss is in some ways difficult to tell. Deaths such as suicides, murders, accidents, and other sudden and unexpected deaths can result in complicated grief due to the sudden shock. The surprise makes it difficult to integrate the "story" of the loss, so the person struggles with an initial task of simply believing that the loss has occurred. Variables surrounding the death such as expectedness, naturalness, presence of violence, ambivalence, degree of attachment, and others play into the presence of complicated grief. All too often complicated grief can last for years and most people (friends of the mourner) will recoil when hearing that this sort of grief may still be present after several years.
Additionally, there is a clinical problem of becoming "identified" with the grief. In this situation, mourners are reluctant to release the grief because grieving has been integrated as part of their identity.
Reporting in the journal NeuroImage (May 10, 2008, online), scientists suggest that complicated grief activates neurons in the reward centers of the brain, possibly giving these memories addiction-like properties. The authors found activity in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain most commonly associated with reward and one that has also been shown to play a role in social attachment, such as sibling and maternal affiliation. 
Types of bereavement
Differing bereavements along the life cycle may have different manifestations and problems which are age related, mostly because of cognitive and emotional skills along the way. Children will exhibit their mourning very differently in reaction to the loss of a parent than a widow would to the loss of a spouse. Reactions in one type of bereavement may be perfectly normal, but in another the same reaction could be problematic. The kind of loss must be taken under consideration when determining how to help.
When a parent or caregiver dies or leaves, children may have symptoms of psychopathology, but they are less severe than in children with major depression (Cerel, 2006). The loss of a parent, grandparent or sibling can be very troubling in childhood, but even in childhood there are age differences in relation to the loss. A very young child, under one or two, may be felt to have no reaction if a carer dies, but this is far from the truth. At a time when trust and dependency are formed, a break even of no more than separation can cause problems in wellbeing; this is especially true if the loss is around critical periods such as 8-12 months, when attachment and separation are at their height in formation, and even a brief separation from a parent or other person who cares for the child can cause distress (Ainsworth 1963).
Even as a child grows older, death is still difficult to assimilate and this affects the way a child responds. For example, younger children will find the 'fact' of death a changeable thing: one child believed her deceased mother could be restored with 'band-aids', and children often see death as curable or reversible, more as a separation. Reactions here may manifest themselves in 'acting out' behaviors: a return to earlier behaviors such as sucking thumbs, clinging to a toy or angry behavior: they do not have the maturity to mourn as an adult, but the intensity is there. As children enter pre-teen and teen years, there is a more mature understanding. Adolescents may respond by delinquency, or oppositely become 'over-achievers': repetitive actions are not uncommon such as washing a car repeatedly or taking up repetitive tasks such as sewing, computer games, etc. It is an effort to stay 'above' the grief. Childhood loss as mentioned before can predispose a child not only to physical illness but to emotional problems and an increased risk for suicide, especially in the adolescent period.
Death of a child
Death of a child can take the form of a loss in infancy such as abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death, SIDS, or the death of an older child. In all cases, parents find the grief almost unbearably devastating, and while persons may rate the death of a spouse as first in traumatic life events, the death of a child is still perhaps one of the most intense forms of grief, holding greater risk factors. This loss also bears a lifelong process: one does not get 'over' the loss but instead must assimilate and live with the death. Intervention and comforting support can make all the difference to the survival of a parent in this type of grief but the risk factors are great and may include family breakup or suicide. Because of the intensity of grief emotions, irrational decisions are often made. In the event of a miscarriage or abortion, it is important for friends and family members to acknowledge the loss of the pregnancy, and not to attempt to minimalize the significance of a pregnancy that did not come to term. Feelings of guilt, whether legitimate or not, are pervasive, and the dependent nature of the relationship disposes parents to a variety of problems as they seek to cope with this great loss. Parents that suffer miscarriage or abortion may experience resentment towards others who experience successful pregnancies.
Death of a spouse
Although the death of a spouse may be an expected change, particularly as we age, it is a particularly powerful loss of a loved-one. A spouse often becomes part of the other in a unique way: many widows and widowers describe losing 'half' of themselves, and after a long marriage, at older ages, the elderly may find it a very difficult assimilation to begin anew. Furthermore, most couples have a division of 'tasks' or 'labor', e.g. the husband mows the yard, the wife pays the bills, etc. which in addition to dealing with great grief and life changes means added responsibilities for the bereaved. Social isolation may also become imminent as many groups composed of couples find it difficult adjust to the new identity of the bereaved. When queried about what in life is most traumatic, most rate death of a spouse first, although the death of a child presents more risk factors.
Death of a parent
As a child, the death of a parent, without support to manage the effect of the grief, may result in long term psychological harm. Therefore, it is important that the emotions the child feels are worked through completely and discussed openly. An adult may be expected to cope with the death of a parent in a less emotional way, however it can still invoke extremely powerful emotions. This is especially true when the death occurs at important or difficult period of life, such as when becoming a parent themselves, graduation or other times of emotional stress. It is important to recognize the effects that the loss of a parent can cause and address these. As an adult, the willingness to be open to grief is often diminished and a failure to accept and deal with loss will only result in further pain and suffering.
Death of a sibling
The loss of a sibling is a devastating event and sibling grief is often a disenfranchised type of grief (especially with regard to adult siblings) in that it is overlooked by society as a whole and people in general, thus negating the depth of love that exists between siblings. Siblings who have been part of each other's lives since birth help form and sustain each other's identities; with the death of one sibling comes the loss of that part of the survivor's identity. The sibling relationship is a unique one as they share a special bond and a common history from birth, have a certain role and place in the family, often complement each other, and share genetic traits; siblings who enjoy a close relationship participate in each other's daily lives and special events, confide in each other, share joys, spend leisure time together (whether they are children or adults), and have a relationship that not only exists in the present but often looks toward a future together (even into retirement). Siblings who play a major part in each other lives are essential to each other; the sibling relationship can be the longest significant relationship of the lifespan and this loss intensifes their grief. Adult siblings eventually expect the loss of aging parents, the only other people who have been an integral part of their lives since birth, but they don't expect to lose their siblings first; as a result, when a sibling dies, the surviving sibling may experience a longer period of shock and disbelief. Overall, with the loss of a sibling, a substantial part of the surviving sibling's past, present, and future is also lost. It should also be noted that if siblings were not on good terms or close with each other, then intense feelings of guilt may ensue on the part of the surviving sibling (guilt may also ensue for: having survived, not being able to prevent the death, having argued with their sibling, etc.). (For further elaboration and information on the preceding information, see "Understanding Sibling Loss" CIGNA, "Sibling Grief" P. Gill White, Ph.D. and "Surviving the Death of a Sibling" T.J. Wray).
Other losses of children
Parents may grieve due to permanent loss of children through means other than death. This loss differs from the death of a child in that the grief process is prolonged or denied because of hope that the relationship will be restored. In this sense, children may be lost due to many different causes:
* loss of custody in divorce proceedings;
* legal termination of parental rights by the government, such as in cases of child abuse;
* through kidnapping;
* because the child voluntarily left home; or
* because an adult child refuses to have contact with the parent.
Many other losses predispose persons to these same experiences, although often not as severely. Loss reactions may occur after the loss of a romantic relationship (i.e. divorce or break up), a vocation, a pet (animal loss), a home, children leaving home (empty nest), a friend, a favored appointment or desire, a faith in one's religion, etc. While the reaction may not be as intense, experiences of loss may still show in these forms of bereavement. Those who have experienced a loss of trust, will also experience some form of grief. For example, people that have been physically or sexually abused as a child may have issues around trust as an adult.
2. A BUDDHISTS PERSPECTIVE ON GRIEVING / Joan Halifax - Head Teacher - Upaya Zen Center
The ultimate relationship we can have is with someone who is dying. Here we are often
brought to grief, whether we know it or not. Grief can seem like an unbearable experience.
But for those of us who have entered the broken world of loss and sorrow, we realize that
in the fractured landscape of grief we can find the pieces of our life that we ourselves have
Grief may push us into the hard question of Why? Why do I have to suffer like this?
Why cant I get over it? Why did this one have to die? Why
In the tangled web of
Why, we cannot find the reasons or words to make sense of our sadness.
Dying people also can grieve before they die. They can grieve in anticipation of their
death for all they will seem to lose and what they have lost by being ill. Caregivers will
grieve before those they care for have died. They are often saddened by the loss of
freedom and options of those that are ill and the knowledge that death will rob them of
one more relationship. Those that have been left behind by the dying are often broken
apart by the knowledge that they cannot bring back that which has been lost. The
irrevocability of it all often leaves them helpless and sad. And then there is the taste of
grief in Western culture which is conditioned to possess and not let go.
We all face loss, and perhaps can accept it as a gift, albeit for most us, a terrible one.
Maybe we can let loss work us. To deny grief is to rob ourselves of the heavy stones that
will eventually be the ballast for the two great accumulations of wisdom and compassion.
Grief is often not addressed in contemporary Buddhism. Perhaps it is looked on as a
weakness of character or as a failure of practice. But from the point of view of this
practitioner, it is a vital part of our very human life, an experience that can open
compassion, and an important phase of maturation, giving our lives and practice depth
To begin, it is important for us to remember that the experience of being with dying for
many does not stop at the moment of death. As a caregiver of a dying person or family
member who has been at the death of a relative, we may attend the body after death and
offer our presence to the community as they and we grieve. When the details of dying and
death are settled, then what arises from the depths of the human heart is the many
expressions of sorrow when the presence of loss is finally give the room to be seen and
Sometimes grieving lasts not for weeks or months but for years. Frequently the reason
why grief is not resolved is that it has not been sufficiently attended to just after the loss
of a loved one. Family and friends of the deceased can become consumed by the busyness
of the business that happens right after someone dies.
This is one of the great problems that we face in the Western way of dying, that business
is so much a part of the experience of dying and death. Survivors often face a complex
situation on the material level in the after-death phase. They find themselves looking for a
funeral home, letting friends and family know that a death has happened, and creating a
funeral service. Unraveling health insurance, taxes, and the last will and testament also
take time and energy at this stage. Later there is cleaning up, dividing and giving away the
deceaseds property, and other seemingly endless chores of closure. Resorting to the
business of death can be a way for survivors to avoid the depth of their own loss.
Like dying, grieving has its phases, and it is important to pass through them.
Similar to the phases of dying, grief can be characterized by numbness and denial, anger,
great sorrow, depression, despair and confusion. Finally, there can be acceptance and even
transcendence as sorrow has opened the door of appreciation and compassion. These
phases are similar to those experienced in a rite of passage: separation, transition, return.
Grief can also arise as a person is dying. Family and friends as well as the one who is
dying can experience what is called anticipatory grief, the bones of loss already
showing. Working with that grief is an important part of what one can do in the care of
the dying. In fact, most caregivers have to cross and recross this territory of grief in being
with living and dying many times in the course of just one person dying.
When my mother died, I received one of the best teachings of my life on grief. I realized
that I only had one chance to grieve her. As a Buddhist, I felt I had a kind of choice. On
the one hand, I could be a so-called good Buddhist and accept death and let go of my
mother with great dignity. The other alternative was to scour my heart out with sorrow.
I chose to scour. Shortly after her death, I went to the desert with photos of her
and several letters she had written my father after I was born. Settling under a rocky
ledge, I sunk back into shadows of sorrow. When your mother dies, so does the womb
that gave birth to you. I felt that my back was uncovered as I pressed it into cold rock.
Later, I was to walk the Himalayas with a friend who had recently lost his mother. The
fall rains washed down the mountains and down are wet faces. In Kathmandu, lamas
offered a Tibetan Xithro ceremony for her. They instructed me not to cry but to let her be
undisturbed by grief. By this time, I was ready to hear their words. The experience was
humbling for me. And when I finally got to the bottom of it, I found that my mother had
become an ancestor. As I let her go, she became a healthy part of me.
C.S. Lewis in his A Grief Observed reveals that No one ever told me that grief was so
much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in
the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. Grief can call us
into an experience of raw immediacy that is often devastating. Grieving, we can learn that
suffering is not transformed by someone telling us how to do it. We have to do the work
ourselves. Yet a friend can bear witness and shine light into the darkness of our suffering
and in this way help us to learn to swim in the waters of sorrow.
Ubbiri, one of the first women Buddhists, was drowning in grief as a result of the death of
her daughter. Through the help of the Buddha, she discovered truth from within the
experience of her own suffering.
Ubbiri came from a high family in Savatthi. She was beautiful as a child, and when she
grew up, was given to the court of King Pasenadi of Kosala. One day she became
pregnant by the King and gave birth to a daughter whom she named Jiva, which means
Shortly after being born, her daughter Jiva died. Ubbiri, terribly wounded by grief, went
every day to the cremation ground and mourned her daughter. One day, when she arrived
at the cremation ground, she discovered that a great crowd had gathered. The Buddha was
travelling through the region, and he had paused to give teachings to local people. Ubbiri
stopped for a little while to listen to the Buddha but soon left to go to the riverside and
weep with despair.
The Buddha, hearing her pain-filled keening, sought her out and asked why she was
weeping. In agony she cried out that her daughter was dead. He then pointed to one place
and another where the dead had been laid, and he said to her:
Mother, you cry out O Jiva in the woods.
Come to yourself, Ubbiri.
Eighty-four thousand daughters
All with the name Jiva
Have burned in the funeral fire.
For which one do you grieve?
The sorrow of great and small losses is a river that runs in the underground of all of our
lives. When it breaks to the surface, we might feel as though only I know this pain. Yet
grief is a universal experience, touching caregivers, dying people and, if we look deeply, all
When grief overwhelms us, whether we are anticipating the loss of our own life or living
with the loss of another, we can pass through the dark realms of the five elements of
earth, water, fire, air, and space. We may feel forsaken as Christ was. Fearful, our body is
empty and haunted, walled off from all that we have ever cared about. We can be plunged
into numbness, with the very life squeezed out of us. We can drown in the cold and
churning waters of sorrow or be blown like hot dry dust in a desolate landscape of
depression. We can inhabit the hot exhausting dullness of mind and heart of a world
without meaning, a life without purpose. We can try the patience of friends and be an
embarrassment to others with our maudlin repetitiveness and self-pity. We can feel heavy
with guilt or contracted in shame. We can resent the shallow and defensive reassurances
that this too will pass or that there is no death.
Grieving is a landscape that is so varied and so vast that it can only be discovered through
our own most intimate experience. It touches the one who is dying, those around a dying
person, and those who survive. No one escapes her touch nor in the end should we. The
river of grief might pulse deep inside us, hidden from our view, but its presence informs
our lives at every turn. It can drive us into the numbing habits of escape from suffering or
bring us face to face with our own humanity. This is the very heart of Buddhism.
When the 18th century Japanese Haiku master Issa lost his baby daughter, he wrote:
The dewdrop world
is the dewdrop world
and yet and yet.
Issa has not yet been released by the anguish of grief. But the hand is beginning to open.
And like the transiency of his precious daughters life, we hope this his grief also passed.
The Zen nun Rengetsu expresses the poignancy of loss and impermanence in this way:
The impermanence of this floating world
I feel over and over
It is hardest to be the one left behind.
Grief can ruin or mature us. Like the mother who bathed her dead baby in her breast milk,
grief can remind us not to hold on too tightly as she teaches us tenderness and patience
with our own suffering.
An old woman once told me that wisdom and compassion are not given to us; they can
only be discovered. The experience of discovery means letting go of what we know. When
we move through the terrible transformation of the elements of loss and grief, we may
discover the truth of the impermanence of everything in our life, and of course, of this
very life itself. This is one of the most profound discoveries to be made as we engage in
Buddhist practice. In this way, grief and sorrow may teach us gratitude for what we have
been given, even the gift of suffering. From her we learn to swim in the stream of universal
sorrow. And in that stream, we may even find joy. For this Buddhist, this is the essence
of a liberative practice.
3. On Grieving / Sunday, 1 June 2008 peter - © 2008 Peter Daishin Renner
To guide us toward the love we most desire, we must be taken where we could not and would not go on our own. St. John of the Cross, Spanish mystic, 1542 1591
Essay #1: Learning to grieve
Turn inward to make anguish bite more deep. (Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy)
Along with changewhether we choose it or it chooses uscomes the experience of loss. Each loss, in turn, causes us to grieve. Losses occur across the spectrum of our experience: the death of a loved one, illness or accident, end of an intimate relationship, shifts at home or work, crisis of faith or beliefs; the list goes on. One moment of grief, says Ezra Bayda, often taps into layers of unresolved pain ¡- such as fears of separation, abandonment, and insecurity. Grief makes us feel heavy and weary, empty or incomplete, terrified, despairing, or groundless (At home in muddy water, 2004).
Darkness within darkness, the gateway to all understanding. (Tao te ching)
Popular culture tells us to move on, to get over it, and that time heals all wounds. Sharing grief with others can be problematic. At times we can't bear to talk to anyone as pain expands in the telling and then there are moments when we long for the comfort of being heard. In the presence of our grief, some friends head for the hills while others stand by us. But ultimately were on our ownthe ground opens and we slip backwards into a chasm. I remember days and nights of disorientation and sadness, marked by chest pain, stomach cramps, sleeplessness, depression, nightmares, weight loss (bonus), and buckets of tears. My jaws hurt so badly that I saw a dentist fearing a cracked molar; my throat ached as if I was being choked; my heart space felt hollow with a steel plate for armour. My Zen teacher called my nightmares wake-up calls, but I wasnt ready for such insight. Every time I thought the worst was over, another wave of darkness sucked me under. I recall standing on the deck of the Mayne Queen as she rounded Helen Point, staring over the gunwales and begging to die. Why are you doing this to me? I cried heavenwards, Why give a gift and then take it away? What is your point?
The desert will lead you to your heart, where I will speak. (Hosea 2:14)
Then one day, about eight weeks into the ordeal, a voice spoke from deep inside. There is a purpose to this suffering, it said, stop trying to figure this out in your head. Sit still. Return to your body, it knows! Observe your breath; an ocean in constant flux. When your mind wanders into the past or future, gently escort attention back to the breath, to this moment ¡- and this ¡- and this. Do this patiently and lovingly. Try not to change the grief or make it go away. Instead, investigate and get to know it. The Buddha taught that spiritual awakening requires confrontation with the inevitable suffering of being human. Suffering arises when what we want obscures that which is. Losses are not obstacles on the path, they are the path.
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek. (Joseph Campbell)
Grieving rarely proceeds in a linear manner; there is no natural or normal order. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross found terminally ill patients reacting to their impending death with shock, denial, anger, bargaining, testing, and acceptance (On grief and grieving, 2005). Immersed in grief, we too shift from feeling stunned, embellishing what was and denying what is, feeling betrayed and abandoned, scheming for ways to end the pain, to (eventually) surrendering to the unknown. The sequencing of stages varies as we combine, skip, and shift between them. People whove gone before tell us that grieving takes as long as it takesweeks, months, perhaps a lifetime. We are challenged to learn new ways of feeling, behaving, thinking, expecting, and hoping, writes Tom Attig (How to grieve: relearning the world, 1996). Again and again were called to turn and face the pain, to learn not to resist but to dwell in it, and to let ourselves be transformed by it. In the words of David Whyte:
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear
(Where many rivers meet, 1990).
Essay #2: Learning from deep within
Loss of a loved person is one of the most intensely painful experience any human being can suffer writes John Bowlby in his classic survey of loss-related research. And so it is with all personal losses. When that which defines who we are and where we belong falls apart, we collapse into an abyss of disbelief, rage, and sadness. And yet
there is hope and there is recovery. Experience teaches that the self refuses to be destroyed. Sooner or later it turns toward hope, discovers openings, and seeks fresh ways of being. As Leonard Cohen writes:
Ring the bells than still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
Thats how the light gets in.
In the midst of grieving, it seems implausible that a crack in our emotional bell could be of any benefit. It can take weeks and months for the ego to venture out of dark; there is, after all, an element of safety in grieving. The good news is that we dont have to choose between dark and light! The Buddha advocated the Middle Way as an alternative to viewing things as either/or.
It invites us to hold them as dynamic parts of one whole. Love and Anger, Sadness and Joy, Loss and Gain, for instance, are no longer at odds when viewed as part of a bigger picture. We may rail against the person or circumstance which caused our pain; we even turn against ourselves for not having seen it coming, for being stupid, gullible, vulnerable, and even too loving. Tempted by the pressure to Get Over It and Move On we may fall back into the dark discouraged by our apparent failure to cope. The cup is already broken goes a Zen saying along Leonard Cohens lines.
Everything, be it person, thing, or condition, comes with a built-in guarantee of its eventual demise. Every newborn creature is destined to die, mornings grow into night, fruit ripens and rots. Blaming the loved one, our perceived circumstances, or God is a natural if futile attempt to lighten our burdenbut it signals that were still alive! Our ego resists change, be it good, bad, or otherwise. It puts up a fuss to guard the status quo, refuses to see beyond the loss, and even draws comfort from sadness.
Recovery requires some hard work: ask anyone who ever tried to change any deep-seated habit or point of view. A good measure of self-caring plus one or two kind souls to keep an eye on us are a godsend. Immersed in my chaotic soup of physical, emotional, and spiritual pain I could neither see nor imagine a return to any form of happiness. But then, mysteriously, something deep inside began to point the way
inner wisdom, ancient knowledge, divine guidancewho knows?
Brought to my knees to face things as they were (not as I had hoped, wished, been promised, or felt entitled to) pointed me towards dawn. I was called more viscerally than intellectuallyto face and embrace that which I feared most. At the same time I was assured that the answer to my tearful prayers resided at the centre of my heart, at a place of not-knowing. Like a blind man he must lean on dark faith, accept it for his guide and light, and rest on nothing of what he understands, tastes, feels, or imagines, wrote St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic who gave us the expression dark night of the soul in describing his own odyssey into spiritual wilderness. Now on the road towards awakening I am grateful to whatever pushed me into the abyss.
Last week a friend remarked that perhaps you needed this experience to stay alive
Yes, I feel as if Ive awoken from a dull slumber. Something has definitely shifted within. As I observe myself in the presence of dying patients I feel gentler somehow, less self-conscious and more authentic. Paradoxically, my heart is becoming softer AND stronger.
In closing, this dedication: With all who have ever mourned and wept, let us bow in gratitude to our teachers, parents, loved onesand especially to those who taught our hearts to break open so deeply.
Essay #3: Learning to forgive
Losses occur across the spectrum of our experience: the death of a loved one, illness or accident, end of an intimate relationship, shifts at home or work, crisis of faith or beliefs; the list goes on. Each loss, in turn, causes us to grieve. Grief can tap into layers of unresolved pain, separation, abandonment, and insecurity, leading to disorganization, depression, and despair. Eventuallyand rarely in a straight time linewe find a way out of the pain. In the process we may turn to external guides (such as God, teacher, guru, friend, therapist, inspirational book, support group) to help ameliorate this bottomless pain. For me, an inner voice directed me towards my innate goodness, a birthright to be whole, an immense capacity to learn and to grow. Then, from His place of ambush, God leapt out writes the poet Rilke.
The classical Heros Journey has the protagonist driven by unsettling events, leaving home, encountering demons, finding inner wisdom to face obstacles, and returning home transformed. Examples in the literature include Parsifal and the Holy Grail, the travels of Odysseus, the dragon-slaying of Siegfried, the quest of Siddhartha, and the passion of Jesus. C.G. Jung named it individuation, this process by which we become ever more conscious of, and fully open to, all that we are, be it good or bad, so as to become increasingly whole. This is a path that values our individual qualities and potential, along with all our human frailty and fallibility (Rob Reece, The Wisdom of Imperfection, 2006).
One of the obstacles, so I found, is that of Blamingourselves, others (especially the one we want to hold responsible for causing all this), life in general, even God and the Universe. A close cousin to anger and denial, blaming is an expected and understandable attempt to avoid pain. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross placed it in the middle of the process of coming to terms with terminal illness and bereavement, somewhere between shock & denial and bargaining & acceptance. Unfortunately, blaming rarely brings relief: in fact, it delays healing and burdens us with guilt.
My first such encounter occurred when my father died. Wed been living oceans apart and hearing of his death made me howl in disbelief and anger: How dare you leave me! We were supposed to make up and be friends! What am I to do now, without a mother and a father? You abandoned me (again)! You %$#*@!
During my recent loss of similar magnitude I eventually arrived at blaming as a possible means to making the pain go away. After weeks of protecting the sweet memories, there it was: Hey, this isnt my fault, someone else caused this mess! Just up and left me, reneged on promises made, broke our covenant. I was truthful and committed, did my best. I dont deserve this! Always the pained ego: me, me, me. Fortunately, the slide down that slope was short-lived. I turned to the practice of forgiveness by gently investigating my aching heart. What made me want to blame? What wound sought my attention? What was I afraid of? How could I apply the Buddhas teachings? Genuine forgiveness entails experiencing our own pain and then the pain of the person to be forgiven. This experience can help dissolve the illusion of separation between ourselves and others writes Ezra Bayda (At Home in the Muddy Water, 2003) and offers a three-stage forgiveness practice.
First stage: the simple acknowledgment of the wish to blame and reluctance to forgive. We do this by bringing non-judging attention to resentment, bitterness, anger, even the wish to bring suffering on the other. We do this to see clearly, not to feel guilty but to see feelings for what they are. Staying with the physical experience of resistance allows a sense of spaciousness to gradually develop, within which the tight fist of our resentment can be loosened (Bayda).
Second stage: bringing awareness to our reactivity, seeing it as separate from the other, as an emotional reaction from within. I remember doing this over and over (and still return to it when the desire to blame arises), holding before me the question What is this? Sensations of accumulated anger, of a life filled with losses, my abandonment as an infant, the absence of a healthy family in my childhood, the shame in realizing that Id caused harm by abandoning others, the fear to never find love again, the sheer grief over loosing something extraordinary. What is this? Whatever arises in response, so the Buddha taught, is mere sensation, nothing more than feelings and thoughts. Its impermanentit comes and it goes, rises and falls like clouds in the sky.
Third stage: saying words of forgiveness. Such words, Bayda cautions, are not about condoning the others actions, of judging the rightness or wrongness of their actions. Instead its about forgiving the person, not what they did. It means seeing that the action came from the others own pain. And the way we do this isnt by looking for the others pain, but by attending to our own. As instructed, I sit in a quiet place, facing the other, saying the words: I forgive you. I forgive you for whatever you may have done which made me feel pain. I forgive you because I know that what you did you did for your own protection, from your own pain, your own conditioning, based on your own beliefs of what was right and necessary. Each time I say the words, my heart softens, the wish to blame dissolves. Tears well up and love arises. Love towards self and all beings seeking happiness and relief from suffering. I am filled with gratitudefor being alive, for experiencing pain and joy, for being able to sit here and have this momentary insight. As Rumi says:
Out of gratitude you gave away
some possessions and some vanity.
Now give away everything
Become gratitude itself, become gratitude itself.
4. Grief and the Mindfulness Approach Death, Dying and Bereavement Counselling / Malcolm Huxter
If attachment is 'natural' then grief is a 'natural' emotion that is experienced when one is parted from what is dear. If grief is dealt with effectively it can initiate insight. However, if it is dealt with unskilfully, complications may arise. The normal grief reaction may manifest physically, emotionally, cognitively and/or behaviourally. Grief may have phases. However, some health workers encourage a task oriented approach to more actively enable a bereaved person to process and resolve the grief reaction. One way of effectively dealing with grief is that of the Theravadin Buddhists' practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness means staying aware of mind and body conditions in a present moment context. The task oriented approach can utilize mindfulness, and mindfulness may also be evident in many modern psychotherapies. Traditional mind-tools to encourage mindfulness may be used in collaboration with a counsellor/therapist as well as in solitary practice. With mindfulness a bereaved person can more effectively acknowledge the reality of loss and allow the pain of grief to manifest without further complication. If the pain is experienced without undue reaction, the undermining effect and manifestation of grief can be resolved and the bereaved person can function relatively free from impediment. Grief is a common emotion that human beings experience when they are parted from that to which they are attached. Its effect can be painful and debilitating. Probably the most debilitating type of grief occurs when a loved one dies. If the grief is not dealt with effectively the grief can become pathological and create a situation where the bereaved person is unable to function in the world adequately. Bowlby (according to Worden, 1982) argues that attachment is developed in animals (humans included) because it has a survival value. If attachment is natural, then it is also 'natural' to grieve. "The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment" (Parkes according to Kalish, 1985, p182). The resolution of grief can be accomplished by developing mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness (also called satipatthana) emphasises being aware and surrendering to the natural and present moment conditions of mind and body. This is primarily a Theravadin Buddhist approach. However, elements of its practice can be found within common task oriented and supportive grief counselling techniques as well as some modern psychotherapies.
If grief is dealt with effectively it can become a tool for the development of great insight. If on the other hand it is dealt with unskilfully it could initiate a whole chain of chronic dysfunction, confusion, depression, avoidance behaviours and general unhappiness. The complications of the grief reaction are many. However in the manifestation of a normal grief there are many common types of reaction (Worden, 1982). There can be feelings such as sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, shock, yearning, numbness, helplessness etc; physical sensations which include fatigue, tightness in the chest, a dry mouth, a hollow feeling in the stomach, tightness in the throat and more; various thoughts that can lead to depression, obsessions, confusion or even hallucinations; and behaviours such as disturbed sleep, social withdrawal, crying, neurotic responses to old possessions and memories, absent-mindedness, searching and calling out, restless overactivity and so on.
Parkes (according to Kalish, 1985) suggests four stages of grief: numbness, pining, depression and recovery, while Averill (according to Kalish, 1985) three: shock, despair and recovery. Worden (1982) on the other hand, encourages a more active approach by specifying various tasks that must be accomplished before grief can be resolved. The four tasks that Worden (1982) claims are necessary are: Task 1: Accept the reality of the loss; Task 2: Experience the pain of the grief; Task 3: Adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing; Task 4: Withdraw emotional energy from the deceased and reinvest it in other social activity without uncertainty or guilt. The goal of the counsellor/therapist is to encourage the completion of these tasks. Neither the phase nor the task models should be considered as invariable patterns. They are, however, useful guidelines that may be used when appropriate.
Counselling can be used for the 'natural' grieving process. However when the resolution of the grieving process becomes complicated, Worden (1982) recommends grief therapy. Grief therapy is used when the grief is excessively prolonged, exaggerated, creating somatic reactions or in some other way influencing a subconscious or even conscious impediment in an individual's normal functioning. Though the initial effects of a death or other shock may in many cases pass in a few days, the 'pangs' of grief may continue for many months or even indefinitely. "Even if your loved ones are still alive, there is a place within of disappointment and loss because we live in a world where everything changes....Whatever you want, the more you want it, the more there is a kind of grief, a sickness, a hollowness in the pit of the stomach.....Grief comes from trying to protect anything from being what it is. From trying to stop the change." (Levine, 1982 p97.) It seems then that most people are candidates for both grief counselling and grief therapy. If one considers Worden's (1982) tasks various themes become evident. Within these themes there are elements of the necessity to acknowledge the loss, be honest, aware, "let go" and function adequately on all levels of personal care and social interaction. Whether one is assisted by a therapist, clergy, family or other, eventually the onus must come back to the individual, as another person can only act as a catalyst to awaken a subjective awareness and resolution to whatever dilemma may exist.
2500 years ago the Buddha (according to De Silva, 1984), used a performance-based technique to help a bereaved woman accept the reality of her child's death. The woman's child died not long after it could walk, and in a distressed state the woman wandered the streets for days with the child in her arms asking everyone for a medicine to save her child. The Buddha seeing her behaviour told her that he knew of a medicine to help her but first she had to collect a handful of mustard seeds, each one from a house that had not seen death. As she went from house to house unable to collect the seeds she realized that death, in general and the death of her child in particular, was a reality. Through insight she discarded her irrational behaviour. De Silva (1984) compared this technique to Ellis's rational-emotive therapy. A common performance based technique used to help the bereaved accept the reality of a loved one's death is that of encouraging the survivor to see the body. Barbara Walsh (1987) claimed that research has shown that when a body is viewed it assists the bereaved to deal with the reality. Barbara Walsh pointed out though that one should be sensitive to the way that this is done. One should not for example say, "Would you like to see the body?" but instead say something like "I think it would help if you said goodbye to ...".
Other techniques can be less performance based and more introspective, as it is the eventual 'internal' resolutions that will heal external manifestations and behaviours. One such technique or therapy could be that of mindfulness or 'satipatthana' which has been used in the Theravadin Buddhist tradition. 'Sati' means awareness and 'patthana' means keeping present. The Buddha claimed (according to Nyanaponika Thera, 1962) that there was only one way to overcome grief, and that was with mindfulness. To one who knows nothing of 'satipatthana' this could seem like a sweeping statement. However if one investigates the dynamics of this therapy-practice, one may begin to see how most aspects of modern psychotherapy and counselling incorporate aspects of mindfulness, and how Worden's four tasks can be accomplished using mindfulness. There are four foundations of mindfulness. These are body, feelings, mind states and mind objects (according to Nyanaponika, 1962).
The goal is to clearly perceive and pay attention to, in an objective manner, the arising and passing away of all conditions of mind and body. Eventually insight into their transient and insubstantial nature arises and one is no longer at conflict with their changing nature. Mindfulness of body includes amongst other aspects, being aware of postures, somatic sensations and the breath. Mindfulness of feelings is not regarded as mindfulness of the emotions as such but more being attentive to the qualities of pleasantness, unpleasantness or neutrality that arises in the mind in relationship to physical sensations or mental processes. Mindfulness of mind states refers to being aware of the states of mind that may colour the mind, such as a distracted mind, a happy mind, an angry mind, a guilty mind and so on. Mindfulness of mental objects refers to being aware of the content of mind such as thoughts, and being aware of how they condition both physical and mental processes. The theme behind mindfulness is to honestly relate with whatever arises as it arises. The aim to perceive and acknowledge the reality of any situation in a present moment context. The benefits of 'satipatthana' are based on the development of insight.
Traditionally a practitioner of 'satipatthana' decides upon an object of meditation or mindfulness and when the mind becomes distracted from that object the distraction is acknowledged and the person returns to the original object. If the distraction becomes overwhelming the distraction then becomes the object of meditation and non-intellectual investigation. During life one's mind and body undergoes continual change. Mindfulness can be facilitated with the manifestation of both the acute reactions of what Worden (1982) called normal grieving as well as dealing with complicated grieving reactions that may seem pathological. There are many mind tools that can be used to develop mindfulness.
One tool is that of labelling the object of mindfulness with a name. This serves to concentrate the mind as well as clarify and objectify the condition. The rising and falling of the abdomen is usually labelled "rising, falling", thoughts of the past "remembering", the future "planning". Other simple tendencies are labelled accordingly such as "anger", "worrying", "sadness", "brushing" for brushing one's teeth and so on. Another such tool is developing what Deatherage (1982) called "the watcher self". "The watcher self can see the remembering of some painful event and label it objectively without becoming involved in its melodrama. The watcher can therefore put psychological distance between the "me" who experiences the painful event and the "me" who is presently remembering it." (Deatherage, 1982, p22). The aim of the watcher self is not to strengthen the ego but "The watcher self is used only as a tool for grounding some of the patient's mental energies in the present, providing a temporary, psychological stable centre for them to operate from and providing a perspective from which their own psychological functioning can be objectively observed." (Deatherage, 1982, p25) As aspects of the physical, cognitive and behavioural manifestations of depression, anxiety and obsessive behaviour are similar to the normal and abnormal grieving processes, successful techniques applied to the former could also be applied to the latter. Deatherage (1982) has cited how the 'satipatthana' method has been successfully applied in a clinical setting. In one case a divorced woman would have bouts of depression and anxiety when she remembered her ex-husbands bizarre sexual demands. She was trained to label her thoughts as "remembering, remembering", and within a few days she could see the causal relationship between the thoughts and the anxiety and depression. Another woman who was hospitalised for manic-depression and schizophrenia, was instructed to watch the second hand of a clock and when her mind went off the clock to name the distraction. Soon she realized that most of her distractions were related to the past. She was then instructed to label them as "remembering, remembering". With this technique "she learned to identify herself with the objective watcher of her disturbing thoughts instead of the depressed thinker." (Deatherage, 1982, p24). Soon she began to gain insight into the nature of her illness and was released from hospital. Another woman who was hospitalised for anxiety, depression and inability to function adequately, rebelled against any suggestion of introspection, and as she was a Mormon the word 'Buddhist' or 'meditation' was not mentioned. As the therapist interacted with her it became evident that much of her day was spent fantasizing and imagining to avoid the anxiety of her life. The habit of fantasizing was discussed with her, and then she was asked to undertake a "psychological procedure". To her surprise she was asked to bake a cake. However, she had to do it extremely mindfully with minute attention to detail. When the persistent fantasies would arise she was instructed to just observe them. After a while she found that she could intentionally return to the present moment and so function more adequately. She also began to gain insight into the nature of her anxiety and depression. Mindfulness training therefore develops a space between life's events and the ego's reaction to those events. Eventually tools such as the labelling or the "watcher self" can be discarded and it is possible to totally immerse oneself in whatever one is doing, whether it is observing the breath, washing the dishes or solving an occupational problem.
Everyone is different and so have different physical and psychological manifestations while grieving or suffering the effect of an unresolved grieving process. If one is aware, grief can become a tool for an awakening to greater understanding and insight into the truth of life. Levine (1982) claims that when someone we love dies it is almost like an initiation into insight. As one experiences the intensity of physical and emotional anguish, it becomes so intense that there is no way to avoid the raw experience of human pain. Levine (1982) related a story of a woman who lost her 3 year old child in a surfing accident. Three days after the child went missing the woman was contacted to identify the half-eaten washed-up body. The identification, said the mother, was the most profound and enlightening experience of her life, as intense pain and love were felt simultaneously.
It seems that the more one can remain 'open' and mindfully experience the pain of grief (Worden's 2nd task), the greater possibility of effectively processing and overcoming its effects. If one has previously practised satipatthana, it can be extremely useful at the time of bereavement. If one is mindful there is less tendency to delay the inevitable task of accepting the reality of a death (Worden's 1st task), and experiencing its pain (Worden's 2nd task). The more one avoids these tasks, the greater is the tendency to experience disturbing emotions, thoughts, physical sensations and develop avoidance behaviour. If one has accomplished Worden's (1982) first two tasks, the last two are a natural progression as the manifestation of grief do not overly influence and undermine an appropriate and normal relationship with life, and the person is (relatively) free.
The 'satipatthana' technique is a client-centred approach and so gives the bereaved the freedom and dignity to work by themselves without being overly influenced by a counsellor/therapist's expectations or preordained pattern of what 'should' happen. 'Satipatthana', however, is not always suitable for everyone, nor is its solitary introspection techniques appropriate at all times. The grieving process can be extremely overwhelming or complicated. There are times of course when a bereaved person needs close contact and support of a counsellor/therapist. The support person could act as a source of strength, compassion, insight or merely help reflect the bereaved's situation, and so even when the awareness seems to be externalised the process of 'satipatthana' can be utilised.
Rogerian techniques incorporate 'empathetic listening' and non-judgemental reflection, and so the acceptance, recognition and clarification of mind-body conditions have a healing effect. Worden (1982) claims that repeated verbalisation about the event helps bring home the reality of the situation. Whilst Kollar (according to Kalish, 1984) says that 3 out of 16 important points to follow in helping the bereaved are to "14 listen, 15 listen" and "16 listen" (Kalish, 1984 p271). In accordance with the 'satipatthana' approach and the completion of Worden's tasks, Gestalt therapy (Davison and Neale, 1974) encourages: being concerned with the present rather than the past or the future, dealing with what appears rather than what is absent, experiencing things rather than imagining them, feeling rather than thinking, expressing feelings rather than justifying or explaining them, being aware of pain as well as pleasure and surrendering to the kind of person one is.
With bereavement counselling Worden (1982) praises the use of the 'open chair' technique of Gestalt therapy, and the role playing technique of psychodrama to resolve unfinished business that may cause various undermining effects such as guilt or anger. Even body therapies can be useful. A simple massage can trigger off many unresolved feelings or unacknowledged emotions. Levine (1982) has written a guided grief meditation-massage used to become aware and surrender to the physical and emotional pain that may be felt in the area of the heart. (refer to Appendix 1).
Traditionally, when using a 'satipatthana' technique a teacher often encourages a student to centre their awareness on bodily sensations as this is a more tangible and less confusing object of awareness. When one is experiencing the overwhelming effect of bereavement, in addition to the multitude of thoughts and mental states, strong physical sensations also appear (according to Lindemann in Kalish, 1985) and seem to be a reflection of and synonymous with mental counterparts. Worden's (1982) second task is to feel the pain of loss. When a bereaved person is undergoing a difficult time he/she could be encouraged to pay more attention to what it feels like as opposed to just being aware of cognitions or theoretical solutions to the situation. A person may for example have memories of his/her loved one, which creates sadness and tight feelings in their chest. Firstly they could label "remembering", then "sadness", then "tightness" and pay full attention to the physical sensations while allowing the corresponding mental melodrama to run its course. If one opens up to the physical sensations the non-intellectual awareness/investigation often serves as a means to process the present mental and physical dilemma, as well as a means to pry open suppressed pain and conflict from the past. Often what may start as a minor sensation can be like the tip of an iceberg which eventually becomes exposed. Often a therapist can assist the bereaved by actively asking her/him to describe the sensations, its dimensions, where it is, its shape or quality, whether it changes and so on. With the passive support of the therapist a bereaved person is often able to go right to the centre of the pain. If one is encouraged to experience the pain she/he begins to gain a different perspective about it. The pain is accepted and eventually passes, and likewise the conflict with it and its mental and behavioural counterparts. Grief is a natural reaction to loss. Its effect can be painful and debilitating. If one is to overcome the effects of grief one must accept the reality of the situation and experience whatever pain may arise. If one delays the inevitable necessities of the 'natural' grieving process, one merely prolongs the suffering and one's open relationship with life is undermined. If one is aware (mindful) the natural process of grief can be facilitated and if complications arise they can be dealt with in an efficient manner. Awareness can be facilitated by performing various learning tasks, introspection or expression. As this is done it eventually becomes evident that the subjective experience of grief cannot be resolved by anyone other than the experiencer. The resolution comes from both an active attention-investigation and a passive surrender.
Davison, G.C. and Neale, J.M., Abnormal Psychology, John Wiley and Sons, 1982.
De Silva, P., Buddhism and Behavioural Modification, Behav. Res. Ther., Vol 22, No 6, pp661-678, 1984.
Kalish, R.A., Death, Grief and Caring Relationships, 2nd Ed, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1985.
Levine, S., Who Dies? An investigation of conscious living and conscious dying, Anchor Books, 1982.
Nyanaponika Thera, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, Rider and Company, 1962.
Walsh, B., from Community Health Care, Tamworth, NSW, Bereavement Counselling, a talk, New England and District Hospital, 19th August, 1987.
Worden, W.J., Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy, Tavistock publications Ltd, 1983.
Deatherage, O.G., Buddhism in Psychotherapy, The Wheel Publications 290/291, Buddhist Publication Society, 1982
5. The Buddha's Way and Abortion - Loss, Grief and Resolution / Buddhism A lecture by Yvonne Rand, a Zen Buddhist priest and meditation teacher in the San Francisco Bay area. / Copyright © Yvonne Rand, California, USA.
Attitudes about abortion have given birth to heartbreaking polarization and violence. The need for a safe and respectful meeting ground for everyone concerned now overrides the issues themselves. My own view on the issues may appear inconsistent on the surface, for I am anti-abortion and pro-choice, but what concerns me these days is the intolerance and intemperance which prevent any harmony between the contending camps. I see remarkable grief in people as an aftermath to abortions and miscarriages and no container in which to heal that grief.
The perspective on abortion I present here has developed through my experiences as a practicing Buddhist and as a Zen priest. In conducting memorial ceremonies under the benevolent auspices of Jizo Bodhisattva, I have come to appreciate the capacity the Buddha Dharma gives us to accept what is painful and difficult. In Japan, Jizo is the much loved form of the Bodhisattva of the underworld; he is the emanation of compassion which guides and protects transmigrators into and out of life.
My first encounter with Jizo happened in 1969 after a dear friend of mine died in a train accident in Japan. Several years earlier, my friend had gone on a search for himself which ended at a Zen monastery. His sudden death was a blow and I grieved his passing deeply. Later that year I found myself driving Suzuki Roshi to Tassajara Zen Mountain Centre from San Francisco. When I told him that I had been taking care of a footlocker holding my friend's precious belongings (music, a flute, essays, books drawings), Suzuki Roshi suggested that we burn the belongings in the stone garden near his cabin at Tassajara. After a proper funeral and fire ceremony, we buried the ashes in the rock garden, and marked the spot with a small stone figure of Jizo.
This, my first meeting with Jizo, affected me deeply. For some years afterwards, I could not explain my pull to the figure of this sweet-faced monk with hands in the mudra of prayer and greeting.
Several years after this funeral ceremony, I terminated an unexpected pregnancy by having an abortion. I suffered after the abortion, but it was not until some years had passed that I came to fully understand my grieving and/or the resolution to which I eventually came.
Subsequently, I began spending time in Japan and became reacquainted with Jizo. Figures of Jizo are everywhere there. I saw firsthand that Jizo ritual and ceremony involved not just graveyards and death in general, but particularly the deaths of infants and foetuses through abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth. Back home, during the 1970's and 1980's, women had begun coming to me and asking if I could help them with their difficulties in the aftermath of an abortion or a miscarriage. In consequence I began doing a simple memorial service for groups of people who had experienced the deaths of foetuses and babies. After many years of counselling both men and women I decided, three years ago, to spend several months in Japan doing a focused study of the Jizo practices.
Initially, I did the ceremony only with women. But now I include men and children as well. The participants are neither all pro-choice nor all pro-life in their politics; a full spectrum of opinion and belief is represented in the circle we make. Many of the people who come are not Buddhists. Yet somehow this old Buddhist way seems to absorb whoever does come.
What the ceremony accomplishes is to provide a means for people to be with what is so, no matter how painful that may be. Being fundamentally awake to what is so is a great path, open to us all. The path means awakening to what is truly and specifically so, rather than remaining narcotized or habitually preoccupied by our fears and desires, our loves and hates. Ignorance and unconciousness make us lose our way and cause great suffering to ourselves and others. Sex, as we know, can lead to pregnancy. Failure to consider the gestative potential of sexuality can result in suffering for the lifetime of many lives over multiple generations. Women who have had abortions are sometimes haunted for decades afterwards.
Each of those who attend our ceremonies has suffered the death of one or more small beings. Strangers assemble with their grief and unresolved dismay. Over time I have been struck by how successfully the ceremony has provided a container for the process of acknowledging what is so, for encompassing what is difficult, and for bringing about resolution and healing. When I initially performed the Buddhist Memorial Ceremony, I followed a quite traditional form. Slowly I have modified and added to it in a way that seems to work better for Americans.
The ceremony is as follows: we sit in silence, sewing a bib or hat for one of the compassion figures on the altar. The figures are from different cultures: Jizo, Mary with Jesus, "Spirit entering and leaving" from the Eskimo people, or a mother and child. Our commitment is to listen to those who wish to talk without attempting to give advice or comfort. Some of know from twelve-step meetings of the important practice of simply listening.
The principle of "no crosstalk'' provides safety from uninvited comforting and solicitude, and many find it to be the most healing of possible attentions. After this, we walk to the garden, form a circle, and go through a simple ceremony of acknowledging a particular life and death. One by one, each person says whatever is in his or her heart while offering incense, placing the sewn garments on one of the altar figures and bowing. We then chant the Heart Sutra, give the unborn beings Dharma names and say goodbye to them. Prayer sticks are made and inscribed with prayers for forgiveness and for the wellbeing of those who have died. No names are signed. The prayers are hung from the bushes and trees in the meditation garden, thus committing our messages to the wind and the rains. Afterwards we have a cup of tea, walk in the garden, and go home with a quieter heart.
Over the years, I continue to learn from the people who participate. About seven or eight years ago, at a conference for Women in Buddhism, I led the Jizo ceremony for a large group of conference participants. At the end of the ceremony a woman spoke about her own experience. She described herself as a nurse midwife who did a lot of abortion counselling. After undergoing an abortion herself, she had begun to ask women who came to her for help to first go home and talk to the foetus they were carrying. She encouraged each woman to tell the baby all the reasons for her inner conflict about the pregnancy. She reported that the number of spontaneous miscarriages that occured was remarkable.
After hearing this woman's story, I began to hear about a similar practice of speaking to the foetus in other cultures: in Cambodia, in the Netherlands, and among native peoples in America, to name a few. I find great sense in this practice. Speaking to the foetal baby is a way to recognise and acknowledge that the being in utero also is a presence, also has a voice, also has some concern for the outcome. I continue to be struck by the deep rightness of such an attitude in the midst of the suffering that comes with conflict over a pregnancy.
I have added modern touches to the ceremony. Yet the wisdom it embraces comes from traditional Buddhist teachings which, although steeped in history, nevertheless offer profound guidance for the current conflict over abortion. For me, the Buddha's first grave precept - not to kill intentionally - cannot be denied, much less minimized. Since I am convinced that the teaching embodied in the precept is correct, both conventionally and ultimately; and since adherence to it is a necessary step on the path that leads away from suffering, I feel compelled to take a stand against abortion.
At the same time, I can readily and willingly keep someone company when abortion is the choice she has arrived at. I am strongly in favour of the freedom of each individual to chose what to do for herself regarding a conflicted pregnancy. I could not and would not advocate a return to the years when the government controlled the woman's decision. In 1955 when abortion was illegal, almost one out of four American women had an abortion by the age of forty-five, and some perished in the process.
What, then, is the solution? My experiences as a Buddhist priest continues to teach me that looking into a situation in detail, without glossing over what is unpleasant or difficult, is what helps us to stay present and clear and break through ignorance. This is certainly true in the potent realms of sexuality, fertility and gestation. The premise of restraint, which underlies all the Buddha's precepts and is fundamental in the practice of compassion, is also of critical importance in how we lead our sexual lives. Through the precepts and through the practice of awareness of what is so, we can understand our previous actions and make wise decisions about future actions. By contrast, action which is based on unexamined and habitual thought patterns - implanted in childhood and reinforced by the generalities, platitudes and superficialities of the common culture perpetuates ignorance and sentences us to ever-renewing suffering.
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