October - dharma arts round-up

Autumn and death
Everything I kept I wish I had given away, everything I’ve given away I wish I’d kept.
— Louise Brooks epitaph 
The Venerable Sangharakshita with pants. The sublime and the ridiculous!

The Venerable Sangharakshita with pants. The sublime and the ridiculous!

It’s the end of October, the time of year where the veil between life and death is at its thinest. I spent the early hours of this morning writing this. Normally my dharma arts round-up doesn’t have a theme, it’s more of a mishmash. But this morning it was all death, and more specifically, what and when is this ‘moment’ of death?

By lunch time I’d found out that my Buddhist Teacher, Sangharakshita, had died.

This photo of him has always made me laugh, I call it ‘portrait with pants’. I guess the person taking it didn’t see the pants? I think that was the effect he had on people, his being was so vivid that everything else faded into the background.

He was my doorway to many wonderful dharma teachings, not least of which, the understanding that there’s no need to be afraid of death.

I’m grateful for all teachings that help me turn towards the reality of death and many of them come from the art world.
Here are some artists who are facing death and finding meaning -

Listening to Alan watts

“There really isn’t anything radically wrong with being sick or with dying.”   

I love Alan Watts, he has this way of being brutally honest and at the same time full of compassion. Sometimes the compassionate thing is absolute honesty. Especially at the time of death. 

“We live in a culture where it has been rubbed into us, in every conceivable way, that to die is a terrible thing. We notice it in the way that death is swept under the carpet.”,

Here’s Alan lifting the carpet.

Documenting death

Steven Eastwood has made a documentary in which he films the moment of someone’s death. Its being talked of as ‘Taboo Breaking’, but Cath Clarke, writing in The Guardian , says, “What’s so dramatic about Alan’s death is how undramatic it is. 

“What’s interesting is there isn’t an image. You can’t see the dying. I think that’s fascinating, because to talk about how the film show’s you the moment of death, I don’t know when that moment is. I’ve watched it over and over. I still find myself thinking is he going to breath again?”
Steven Eastwood in The Guardian.

The film Island is out now.

meaningful death rituals

In ‘Rites of Passage’, on Channel 4, Grayson Perry helps people to create meaningful rituals around significant life events; death, marriage, birth and coming of age.

I love how fully, and openheartedly, he enters into people’s lives. He’s curious about what is meaningful to them, be it religion or cricket. Once he knows their story he makes a piece of art that weaves together all the threads. Then, using the artwork, helps them to create a significant ritual for themselves.

At the beginning of each episode he visits other cultures to see what rituals they have to mark these passages in life. In Indonesia he films the ritual of ‘putting the child on the ground,’ which happens when the child is three months old. Up until that point the child has been continually held. This holding is something the whole village does, the child being passed from person to person all day, every day. It’s as if, after 9 months in the mother’s womb, there’s a further 3 months in this collective ‘outer womb’, before the child is finally set down on the hard earth.

I find even the idea of it very moving.

In the episode on death he’s again in Indonesia. The dying person in cared for in their home, life not only goes on around them but includes them. When this person ‘dies’, nothing really changes, they continue to be cared for at home. Traditionally the body would be embalmed with tea and herbs, so that there was no unpleasant smell and the person continues to ‘exist’ in the midst of their life.

The funeral happens only when the family feel they are ready for it, usually after a year or more. It is not until the funeral that a person is considered dead. Until then, they are referred to as to’makula – a sick person.

I find all of this fascinating.
Compared to our on/off, binary switch, idea of life and death, this seems so much closer to the truth. When is the moment of birth? When is the moment of death? Can I find either? 

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Wishing you all love and courage in the face of life and of death,

Rachel aka Vajradarshini