The Next Life
Before my uncle passed away he said to me, “Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely.” This saying has stuck with me through these months that have passed since he left this life, to fulfill the next. I have had some in-depth conversations with colleagues, ritualists and my fellow neighbours about this saying and what the core meaning is.
We’ve discovered an explanation in a sutra. Apparently one who is subject to death is not afraid of death because he does not worry about the possessions and pleasures that will be taken away from him. He simply accepts his death, and does not grieve himself. There is someone else who is ready to be taken from the body he is in. Those that are not afraid of death and their next life because they have lived a good life and did good things, which will be rewarded to them in their next life — through karma. Lastly, there is the one who has arrived at certainty with regard to the True Dhamma. These four types of people are brahman, who are not afraid of death.
One my way to work, I picked up the local newspaper, flipped through the articles, and ended up on the obituaries page. Everyone on the page had a decent length obituary. But there was one man who had about only three sentences to his. He was a hermit who lived in a cage near the village and was known as Crazy Uncle. He had no family, no friends, so it was strange that he was even put in the paper as it was. It mentioned that they assumed he must have been a tantric practitioner, but no one really knows because he was very closed off from society and anti-social.
Most hermits that live in complete solitude are usually well practiced in the Dharma, enabling them to be able to practice better in a solitary environment. Monks sometimes reach a point where all they can do is wander off into the woods, into solidarity, to reach some deep contemplation for days at a time. Many people do not know much about him, and if they do their stories vary. This is probably because hermit monks learn that you must not rely on anyone else to achieve enlightenment and liberation from samsara, therefore cutting off all ties with your neighbours is necessary. It may be that he was close to enlightenment and that was the next step he needed to take to achieve it.
I believe that Crazy Uncle’s death was a result of the natural end of one’s life, and he is to move onto his next life, or perhaps he achieved enlightenment. He was perhaps one of the majority of hermits who practice the Dharma, so he must have received merit and been able to deceive death in a way.
No one knows how he died or when he died, but I wonder if the ritualists or other specialists would be able to calculate it backwards by using the sun and the seasons, like they do to calculate when one may pass away.
I mentioned before the four ways to not be afraid of death, in other words I could have said ways to cheat death. Another way to put it is to practice how to cheat death through veneration of Amrtakundlin. I would think that Crazy Uncle already conquered death because he was in deep meditation for many, many years, in the form of Heruka… hopefully. Heruka is a form of meditation that helps yogins and frightens away evil spirits.
It is not clear what we villagers should do with his body after his passing and what kind of ritual would be appropriate, because we are not quite sure what kind of person he was and what level of enlightenment he might have achieved. In early Buddhism, the Buddha’s body was cremated. Monks would come to one’s home where death occurred and chant verses to them. An exert out of one of the chants would go: “Even the gorgeous royal chariots wear out; and indeed this body too wears out. But the teaching of goodness does not age; and so Goodness makes that known to the good ones.” This chant was used to comfort the family after a death or even a dying person at home. The monks would continue to chant while preparing the body for cremation so that the good energies would be released from the body and soul. Gifts are given to the monks, which in turn results in goodwill that helps the spirit of the dead person.
Before the cremation, however, the body should be bathed by the family and friends. However, all of Crazy Uncle’s family was gone… Perhaps his old friends could perform this rite.
During traditional Buddhist funerals, the community would recite the Triple Refuge and the Five Precepts. The cremation is usually lit by the eldest son.
The village will have to gather and make a decision on what we should do with his body. I do believe we should follow our tradition as precisely as possible — however the ritualists probably know better. Although we are not sure about what level of enlightenment he achieved, if he achieved any at all, I think it is safe to say that he dedicated himself very much to the hermit way of life of living in completely solitude, and for that he should be rewarded with a specialized funeral ritual.