Understanding Death

Dialogue Nights Asks What Death Can Teach Us About Life

Group at May 2023 Dialogue Nights

Group activity at May 2023 Dialogue Nights

The most demanding aspect of Daisaku Ikeda’s 1993 Harvard lecture, “Mahayana Buddhism and 21st Century Civilization,” resides at its very heart. “A central and fundamental challenge for the coming century,” said Ikeda, “will be that of establishing a culture—based on an understanding of life and death and of life’s essential eternity—that does not disown death, but directly confronts and correctly positions death within a larger living context.”

The third Dialogue Nights of 2023, held on May 26, endeavored to meet the challenge posed by Mr. Ikeda, structuring the evening around the topic: “What Can Death Teach Us About Life? A Conversation.” And if, going into the evening, event organizers expressed concern that the dialogue might be “morbid” or depressing, the opposite revealed itself to be true. A spirit of unity, affirmation, and optimism filled the room as participants did what is too rarely done: face death head on in a way that neither catastrophized nor diminished the fact of death’s centrality to our existence.

Welcoming the more than 40 Boston-area university students and young professionals in attendance, event moderator Preandra Noel shared that as part of the Center’s 30th yearlong anniversary celebration, each Dialogue Nights in 2023 is focusing on a theme from Mr. Ikeda’s 1993 talk, considered the Center’s founding lecture. One passage in particular she said, provides a revealing “glimpse” into Ikeda’s Buddhist-based perspective on the interrelationship of life and death:

Cycles of life and death can be likened to the alternating periods of sleeping and wakefulness. We can understand death as a state in which, just as sleep prepares us for the next day’s activities, we rest and replenish ourselves for new life. Viewed in this light, death is not to be reviled, but should be acknowledged, with life, as a blessing to be appreciated. The Lotus Sutra, the core of Mahayana Buddhism, states that the purpose of existence—the eternal cycles of life and death—is to be “happy and at ease.”

Reflecting on the implications of Mr. Ikeda’s imagery and words, Preandra said that “this quote makes me think of us as a wave receding into the large expanse of the ocean. Our life is the ebbing and flowing and death is us fusing with the life of the universe so that we can wake up to our precious lives revitalized for the next day.” Then, to set the stage for the evening’s speaker and discussion, participants watched a brief clip from the award-winning animated film Up, showing the beautiful bond forged between a married couple over time, and how the death of one of them gives the other a renewed sense of purpose to fulfill their shared dream.

Sasha Ndam: To Even Be Here Right Now Is So Precious

ICYC member Sasha sharing reflections at Dialogue Nights

The featured speaker for the event was Center youth steering committee member Sasha Ndam, who offered an emotionally open and honest testimonial on the ways that her life has been impacted by death and how she has both coped and grown along the way. Before telling her story, though, she shared some points of inspiration, including Jason Goulah’s thoughts on “death as a source of hope and joy and the means for appreciating and fully living life,” a point of view that Goulah bases on Mr. Ikeda’s conviction that “to learn about death is to learn about life.” As she told her story, her conviction that “the quality of one’s life is much more valuable than which age or which way someone has passed” shone through. As did the fact that her convictions are based on hard experience.

Beginning at the age of 14, when “my best friend’s life was taken,” and continuing through to today, she has experienced the loss of friends and family with tragic regularity, including the death of another friend, the murder of her cousin, the death of her grandmother at age 97, and, just two years ago, the death of her mother at the young age of 69. Noting how the great age span is in these deaths, Sasha offered the keen observation that “young or old it doesn’t really matter the age, we will still long for them and be at loss as to what to do and how to continue on living.” Indeed, there isn’t a “cutoff age” for when a loved one’s death feels “acceptable” to us.

Reflecting on her journey, Sasha explained that the first loss, especially, sent her into a state of depression, including the experience of survivor’s guilt and a sense of doubt “about the purpose or significance of my own existence.” Though she wasn’t conscious of it at the time, she can now see she began “to look for a different way of living,” intuiting that she “wasn’t doing okay” and that “if something didn’t change it could lead to my ruin.” A huge part of her path to health and wholeness was her Buddhist practice, which “helped me to have hope during those tragic times.”

Critically, this was not the hope “that one day [everything] will automatically correct itself” but the “hope that emerged from my deep desire that I could no longer suffer in the way that I was doing any longer.” The hope also was built on a foundation of two acts of courage: first, the “courage to admit that I am not okay” and second, the “courage to reach out to a friend or someone about my condition.” Taking these steps lead to a realization: “Without taking any courageous action towards a different, more expansive perspective of our lives and especially our own darkness,” said Sasha, “we are in fact neglecting our own humanity.” And this understanding, she added, found perfect resonance with Mr. Ikeda’s teaching that “the ultimate tragedy in life is not physical death…. It is the spiritual death of losing hope, giving up on our own possibilities for growth.”

These insights have helped her see that each person whose loss has hurt so much actually impacted her life in uniquely positive ways, each “helping me to find a different meaning for my life.” Further, she has chosen to see her own life development as the proper way to honor them. In that spirit she asks herself: What can I still continue on behalf of them? How can I continue the greatness of this person’s life? What actions can I take to discover the greatness in my own life? In this manner, the grieving process becomes connected to her own “growth and healing.” For example, Sasha said she continually strives to live “as my mother would expect, and that is with hope.” Reflecting on everything she has learned about the relationship between life and death, Sasha concluded: “Our lives are so precious. To even be here right now is so precious.”

After her talk, there was time for paired dialogue and a few brief reflections from participants, who touched on topics such as the fear of losing one’s parents, finding the confidence to find one’s “right path in life,” and how life transitions such as break ups can be seen as a form of death. Also sharing was a cousin of Sasha’s. He said that in their family, having endured so much loss, “we take in the moments and we kind of pinch ourselves every now and then and remind ourselves that we’re here, right? And that this is our time, and one day it will be over.” “In hearing you share,” added Preandra, “it just made me think, too, how it’s so rare for us to be here on this planet as human beings experiencing life in the ways that we do.”

Whole Group Discussion: Personal Perspectives on Life and Death

Following Sasha’s moving testimonial, the Center’s Anri Tanabe introduced the topics for the small discussion groups. The first was to discuss the event topic, What can death teach us about life. The second was to reflect on ideas from four incisive quotes on the meaning of life and death. These were:

A human being does not cease to exist at death. It is change, not destruction, which takes place. (Florence Nightingale)

What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. (T. S. Eliot)

It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up—that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had. (Elisabeth Kübler-Ross)

Through struggling to overcome the pain and sadness that accompanies death, we become more aware of the dignity of life and can come to share the sufferings of others as our own. (Daisaku Ikeda)

Participants share reflections during May 2023 Dialogue Nights

Following the small group discussion, there was a brief opportunity for participants to share back some of the ideas from their groups, which are summarized here:

  • One participant spoke of an Alan Watts quote that is like a koan, both mysterious and thought provoking: “Death is going to sleep without waking up in some way,” said the participant.  “And if we think about birth or life, it’s waking up never having gone to sleep.”
  • Referencing the Kübler-Ross quote, the next speaker spoke about how facing death is crucial to being able to “live without fear or not let fear rule your life.” This insight reminded her of the song “Let Love In,” which says, “The end of fear is where we begin,” resonating nicely with the overall feeling of the event.
  • Another participant spoke to the T. S. Eliot quote, saying how he was raised to see life and death as going “hand in hand.” And picking up on the earlier reference to breaking up as a sort of death, he noted that the recent school graduations also function as “the death of something” and the start of something new.
  • Having had a near death experience, said another, really made him internalize the truth that it is quality of time and not quantity of time that matters most, echoing one of Sasha’s key points. Also referencing Sasha’s talk, he said his group really liked her emphasis on the “really good, quality moments” we share with others. Speaking personally, he added that facing death’s inevitability felt “liberatory to him,” and had the added benefit of helping him make better choices in his use of time.
  • The next participant spoke of all the questions that are raised in our contemplation of death. There is the question of how tightly or loosely to hold death in your mind. There is the question of how to deal with the totality that death represents. This is why dialogues like tonight’s are so important, he said. Picking up on this theme, another participant said that, like dialogue, rituals can help us make sense of this immense but mysterious reality.
  • The last person to share offered two analogies to shed light on the experience of anticipating death. First, sometimes when we know we are moving out of an apartment, suddenly we begin to appreciate it more, a phenomenon also true of life. Second, we know that when we procrastinate, things get difficult when the due date arrives. “But if you pace your work from the very beginning, if you really are looking towards the end that whole time, you come out with a much more fulfilling product and one that doesn’t stress you out in the end.”

Conclusion: Transformed Understandings

“I love Dialogue Nights and the space we create together,” said Preandra as she thanked Anri for leading such a rich group discussion. The evening’s final activity, she said invites everyone to share “brief reflections of what your impression of death was before you came here and how it is now after sharing this time together.” The activity was simple. Each person received an index card on which they would complete the statements: “Death was …” and “Now death is …” Then each would anonymously place their card in a basket. Once collected, the basket went around the room and each participant read from a card. (View the whole list here) These reflections provided an intimate way to end the evening. Some highlights: Death was that which is gone. Now death is that which was and can become again. Death was a void that I feared. Now death is an experience that binds us all and encourages us to find beauty in the unknown. Death was a reminder that our time is limited. Now death is a reminder to live life to the fullest. Death was just something inevitable, something that’s as natural as blinking. Now, death is like a brief pause, a journey of eternity.