The Anatomy of Grayness: A Buddhist take on mourning

Vincent Thibault
Oct 7 · 6 min read
“If we can realize this, we can be ever so grateful to our deceased friend.” A couple walking in the rain. Source: Pixabay
“If we can realize this, we can be ever so grateful to our deceased friend.” A couple walking in the rain. Source: Pixabay
“If we can realize this, then we can be ever so grateful to our deceased friend.” (Photo credit: Pixabay)

To some extent, most of us seem to be addicted to drama.

We crystallize outer and inner phenomena — a building, a feeling, a breakup, a geopolitical situation — thinking of them as permanent, independent, autonomous entities. As if it were not enough, we somehow rely on stories, and so we tend to pile things up, or to amplify the perceived importance of seemingly isolated events, in an attempt to keep our bearings.

It follows that, generally speaking, and perhaps especially in the West, we have an unpredictable and rather unhealthy relationship with impermanence and uncertainty. Things falling apart seems unnatural and unfair. And in particular, death makes us really uncomfortable.

In some cultures, we manage to share a good laugh at the bedside of the dying; in others, we hire mourners. Some look away; some live in the moment; some prefer to intensify things. There is certainly such a thing as a middle way in this matter: a way that is as far from denial and indifference as it is from dramatic overreactions based on attachment and delusion.

The idea, however, is not to brutally rationalize our way to some sort of intellectual, so-called “middle way.” We do need gentleness and compassion, and it is perfectly normal to feel sadness when a loved one departs. For one thing, I know that the spiritual path I’ve chosen, Buddhism, is not about repressing one’s emotions. Somehow, we need to appreciate the fact that various energies unfold in various ways — and that some textures are rougher than others.

***

My beloved grandmother passed away recently. She was a tender and generous person, and unfortunately she did suffer a lot in the end.

The next day, while dressing up, I realized that I had unknowingly picked all gray clothes. Not black — charcoal. My mind was quite relaxed and not so lethargic at that point, and so there was some clarity to this: it felt that gray was a perfect color for mourning.

Typically, in many North American cultures, we associate grief with black clothes. If your family happens to be very strict in that regard, and if you go to a funeral, do not upset others — choose whatever seems to be the most natural clothes for the context.

But I’ve discovered something truly interesting about the color gray.

Oftentimes, in mourning, we go to some dark place; we dress in black, put on a veil, and keep on crying. According to the Tibetan teachings on the bardo, however, it would make sense to help the travelers with a bit of light. While time is presumably all relative in the “intermediate state,” manifesting some peaceful, positive energy in the days that follow a loved one’s passing can’t do harm.

Wearing gray is a reminder — at least for oneself — that even the darkest hours harbor some light within. That’s what gray is: some black and some white put together. It’s a matter of perception. Buddha’s path is about adjusting our view, so to speak, and currently it is askew. You can find non-naïve and highly practical advice on seeing seemingly painful experiences as positive throughout the different vehicles, including the Mahayana teachings on lojong (“mind training”) and the Vajrayana teachings on pure perception.

Gray clothes are also very plain, unassuming — almost boring. Humility is precious at this time: we could learn so much — while pride makes us impervious to the nectar-like words of the sages. In any case, it is not just about us. We have no idea what type of hellish experiences our deceased friend is going through at the moment, and it is good to pray very humbly, for Buddhas (or sublime beings that you appreciate in your own tradition) to guide them and all other beings lost in the bardo or anywhere, for that matter.

But the plainness of the gray color is also about simplicity: it reminds us that death is, in fact, incredibly simple. One moment we breathe, the next, we don’t. Of course, there is some level of complexity to it: there is the dissolution of the elements, and there is a whole, fascinating science to it. Plus nowadays, there are so many things that we need to take care of that we don’t even know where to start: there are people to call, forms to fill, places to go to. But just as we are addicted to drama, we tend to have a love-hate relationship with complexity. At this time when clarity and insight are much needed, we could relax and remind ourselves that a peaceful, simple mind can always deal with complexity, while a complicated mind inevitably destroys tranquility. Allow, then expand, then relax: love is simple.

Plain gray or charcoal also serves as a reminder of the impermanence of our own body. Though confusion, egotism, anger and childish thoughts may be part of the process — one that calls for loving-kindness for oneself and others — grieving should not be about “me, me, me.” That being said, it is a beautiful opportunity to remind ourselves that our body also will be turned to ashes, or dust. The Buddha said:

The three worlds are impermanent, like the clouds of autumn.
The births and deaths of beings are like watching a dance.
The speed of human lives is like lightning in the sky;
It passes swiftly as a stream down a steep mountain.

If the oceans and mountains, and in fact the whole universe, are bound to change, then there is no doubt about it: we will shrink, we will lose our solidity, and at some point we will disintegrate. So while it is necessary to bid farewell when a friend departs, there is also a major opportunity to reflect on our precious human life, and an opportunity that’s not to be missed.

That’s another reason for the gray color: in addition to impermanence, it evokes a rock, something solid and earthy. Not permanent or inherently constricted, just practical. We don’t take refuge in eternalistic views and materialistic symbols; we just appreciate the means aspect of the path. As Shantideva said:

It is increasingly difficult to obtain a human life
With so many freedoms and endowments.
When I have got the chance to fulfill the aim of humanity,
If I do not take advantage of it — how can I get this opportunity afterwards?

The freedoms and endowments are described at length in treatises from different traditions and lineages — Patrul Rinpoche’s Words of My Perfect Teacher and Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo are just two examples. Here, in essence, one should recall that witnessing death can be a formidable, powerful, and even joyful call-to-action: our body is transitory, and while it lasts, it can be the support for countless meritorious actions. From the Bodhicharyavatara:

We should think of our bodies as boats,
As simple vehicles for coming and going,
And transform them into wish-fulfilling gems
For the benefit of others.

We could reach enlightenment, or at the very least help a few people, or at the very very least not add to their suffering and confusion. If recent events helped us realize this, then we can be ever so grateful to our deceased friend.

***

For some odd reason, I felt compelled to write this nonsense. It is nonsense as far as insisting on any particular color is concerned. You could wear pink respectfully, or black shamefully. It’s a matter of circumstances, personality and perception. Yellow, green, blue — all colors have their qualities. In any case, we should know that utterly simple things, such as clothing and so on, can remind us of both the defects of a life based on self-aggrandizement and the necessity for loving-kindness and understanding. Undoubtedly, mature spiritual practitioners, such as the senior students of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, know that the energies of all Buddha families manifest in the simplest things, too — colors and textures can carry power, if we don’t stubbornly cling to them.

Thus, without obsessing over meaning and symbols; without being attached to a specific set of crystallized rules; without relegating feelings and the simplicity of an open heart to a position of secondary importance after reason and verbiage; and until the stage of no more learning — we’re likely to need tools to help others skillfully, and we’re likely to need rituals and reminders of how precious and fruitful this human life can be.

Vincent Thibault
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