A discussion with Marilyn Warlick, leader of FCM’s program on Death and Dying, touches on the topics of death and life and the no-separation between the two.
When you attend a meeting of Death Café, are you attending a discussion about death, or about life?
When you spend time talking to Marilyn Warlick, leader of FCM’s Death and Dying Program, about this subject, you’ll quickly learn that a discussion about death is really a discussion about how to live a life and that death is not separate from life.
By figuratively taking us by the collar and shaking us to remind us of death, Buddhism reminds us to really live in the present moment, fully and deeply and with all the love for others that we can muster.
Buddhism also brings us face-to-face with death to prepare us – to open us to accepting it as a universal aspect of the human experience, Marilyn tells us, bringing us out of the avoidance of the subject that leaves Westerners so tragically unprepared. It is with this mind at ease that we want to greet death as an experience of life.
And so, if you join a discussion at a Death Café, you’ll find nothing morbid there. The sharing is deep and full of life and the fruits of rich and wise practice. Real life issues are raised and heard with loving attention. When death is discussed, we remind ourselves to live fully in the present moment.
The meetings offer an opportunity to find stillness and stability in practice that is precious in a time that can overwhelm us, given the pandemic, earth calamity, racial injustice, and our and other governments and countries in turmoil. Marilyn reminds us there is peace in simply letting go and finding a place to rest.
The words of Simon and Garfunkel’s landmark song come to mind: “When you’re weary, feeling small… Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down…”
As aspiring bodhisattvas, we are taught by Buddhism to help each other to learn to lay down preoccupation with life’s burdens and fears, which is really a preoccupation with the “self,” and to open to a mind of peace and ease. “I will lay me down” and be a bridge over troubled waters -- for others.
It’s about finding our “true home” in the midst of external turmoil. It comes back to mindfulness.
Marilyn recalled a passage by Thich Nhat Hanh in his book, At Home in the World. He was in Baltimore in 1966 when he learned that the Vietnamese government had revoked his passport and denied him re-entry to his homeland. His exile from his beloved country would last more than 40 years.
A now-homeless monk barely in his 40s, Thay wrote that he at that time still had not developed his practice to the point at which he had fully arrived at his "true home." He had been suffering from a recurring dream of being at his root temple in Vietnam and waking up to find himself in exile, and now it had happened. He took up residence in France because he could still travel in Europe on his expired passport.
All he could do during the first two difficult years was play with German and French children, connect with leaders of other religions to urge the end of the war in Vietnam, and do the inner work of practicing mindfulness to heal.
When we lose everything, that’s when we find our true home, when we lose our fear of death, he wrote.
“It was thanks to this practice (of mindfulness) that I survived,” Thay wrote. “The practice brought me back to my true home in the here and now. Eventually, I stopped suffering and I was in my true home in the here and now. When I returned (to Vietnam, many years later), it was a joy. But when it was time to leave my native country again, I did not suffer. ‘I have arrived, I am home’ is the essence of my practice. Since finding my true home, I no longer suffer. It was precisely because I didn’t have a country of my own that I was able to find my true home. I was able to break through and find my true home.”