Understanding Death

Cynthia Dillard Indigo Talk on Hope and Joy in Life and Death

| Mitch Bogen
Photo of Dr. Cynthia Dillard

In his Harvard lecture of 1993, “Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-first Century Civilization,” Daisaku Ikeda challenged those of us in modern society to reject our ingrained fear and denial of death, urging us instead to realize that “death is not to be reviled, but should be acknowledged, with life, as a blessing to be appreciated.” The featured speaker of the Center’s November 17, 2023, Indigo Talk, Cynthia Dillard, embraced this challenge with courage and deep feeling.

More than 200 people from 15 countries gathered online to hear Dr. Dillard’s lecture, which was called “Towards Hope and Joy in Life and Death: New Visions.” In her welcoming remarks, Center Program Manager Lillian Koizumi shared founder Daisaku Ikeda’s vision of the Center as a spiritual sanctuary where people “can come to heal the wounds of the alienated lesser self and open pathways to their true self, the greater self.” She added that his “tireless commitment to peace inspires and informs all of our programs and publications.”  

Koizumi also shared highlights from Dr. Dillard’s career as a scholar of education. Now Dean of the College of Education at Seattle University, she previously served as the Mary Frances Early Professor of Teacher Education in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at The University of Georgia (UGA). Two of her books were selected as Critics’ Choice Book Award winners by the American Educational Studies Association (AESA), including 2012’s Learning to (Re)member the Things We’ve Learned to Forget: Endarkened Feminisms, Spirituality and the Sacred Nature of Research. She also founded and directs a preschool and elementary school with her husband in Mpeasem in the Central Region of Ghana. There, she also holds the distinct honor of being enstooled as Queen Mother of Development for the village, an esteemed lifetime position of leadership within the community. Beyond her many accomplishments, said Koizumi, “what has stood out to me most in all of our interactions with Dr. Dillard is who she is as a human being. When you are with her, she gives you her full attention and makes you feel so treasured as an individual, no matter who you are.” With that, she handed the floor over to Dr. Dillard for the second and final Indigo Talk of 2023, which engaged with reflections on life and death found in Daisaku Ikeda’s Harvard lecture of 1993, “Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-first Century Civilization.”

“Towards Hope and Joy in Life and Death: New Visions”

Dr. Dillard opened her talk with expressions of gratitude – to her Creator, to her mother, to the Ikeda Center, and “to all of you who are joining both near and far.” Then, as a grounding perspective, she shared a short poem from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower: “All that you touch You Change. / All that you Change Changes you. / The only lasting truth Is Change.” These words, she said, exhibited “profound resonance” with thoughts that Mr. Ikeda offered at the start of his lecture. We must understand, he said, that: “All things are in flux and that change is the essential nature of reality. Indeed, everything, whether in the realm of natural phenomena or of human affairs, changes continuously, moment to moment. Nothing maintains the exact same state for even the briefest instant.” With Butler’s and Ikeda’s words as a guide, Dillard then asked two questions: How do we live within the moment-to-moment existence to inspire a deeper experience of our lives? What is possible when hope and joy are at the center of both life and death? 

In addition to considering these questions, Dillard said her talk would explore two essential points from Ikeda’s lecture: First, an acknowledgment of life and death as an inseparable whole in our cycle of formation as spiritual beings and second, his call for our existence as humans to be guided by deep appreciation for both joy and hope as central visions of a more essential and spiritual whole. For her talk, Dillard shared three stories from her own life, one encompassing the vastness, tragedy, and triumph of history; one offering an intimate portrayal of two deaths in her immediate family; and the third sharing thoughts on how to contextualize all that she has experienced. In these she hoped to reveal “the intimate symbiotic and spiritual nature of life and death as an essential whole in human experience, one that I am still learning to embrace, even in its mystery.” More than that, she said, “I hope that in this sharing that you will be moved to share and (re)member yourselves as well.”

Story 1: We ARE Your Greatest Dreams – And We Are Still Here

Dr. Dillard opened with what is one of hardest stories of all: that of the transatlantic slave trade and its implications for the African diaspora. The thoughts she shared were the result of her many trips to Ghana and Western Africa. There she visited some of the slave dungeons, where, all told, more than 2 million captives passed over the course of centuries – “about one third of whom did not survive the inhuman conditions.” To “really (re)member this number,” she said, hurts to the soul even now as we write and remember again.” Yet, as her story unfolded, it ultimately was one of hope, embracing the joy that can emerge from the worst deaths imaginable. First though, she spoke of how she wrestled with “fundamental questions of what it means to be human,” questions that “turn a gaze inward, both to the spirit, but also to the inner workings of the spirit of human slavery that are deeply fragmented and vaguely understood, maybe incomprehensible, as we ponder today the notions of hope and joy in life and death.”

Her reflections began to move toward gratitude when she realized how visiting these slave ports made concrete her connection with all others in the Diaspora. For African Americans, the “thread” of African heritage can feel “mysterious and fuzzy,” she said. Yet, there in Ghana, she realized that “we are part of the African body throughout the world.” Then, in a beautiful image, she spoke of what she and her companions actualized during their visits:

Our spirits reoriented themselves to the world, metaphorically turned those slave ships around. Walking through the door of no return, and then turning around to walk back through the same door was symbolic of a return that generations after slavery was not supposed to happen.

To sum up, she turned to poetry, perhaps the only medium capable of capturing the paradox of the gratitude that she describes in this excerpted passage written by her and her companions:

to be educated,
to be able to work,
for the very things that were taken from you.
We render ourselves humble
for your lives,
and we recommit ourselves
to the hard work
Of justice
Of freedom
Of the human right
to become more fully human.
We are reminded today
of our privilege, Dear Ones,
received only through your
to survive.

Concluding her poem she said: “We pledge to our Creator today / and to you, our Dear Guides, to continue Your work Our work, / With renewed vigor, With wonder and awe, With a joyful heart. Ayeeko! / Amen.”

Life and death are one continuous and eternal moment.

Cynthia Dillard

Story 2: Life And Death As One Eternal Moment: Full Circle Into the Nature of Things

In the second portion of her talk, Dr. Dillard spoke of how two deaths in her immediate family offered insight into “the idea that Ikeda raised: That life and death are one continuous and eternal moment, ripe with the possibilities of awareness of the essential knowledge, of those things we desire to bring into being.” This idea, she said, resonates with the words of Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan, whose conviction that “what we usually call death is only part of life” has long inspired her. Another core framing insight was drawn from her own book of 2021, The Spirit of our Work: Black Women Teachers (Re)member — “that what we see and experience as suffering always come with the invitation to an awareness of life and ultimately to our own and others’ eventual death.” Speaking of her own profession of education she offered her third framing point: that we do well to avoid deficit thinking when considering communities that are fraught with struggle and death. “Too seldom do we honor, through our study, the endless and incredible and resilient possibilities of life and work of people within these communities, brave men, women and children who have not only reframed or even conquered their fear of death, but can bear witness to such transformation through great acts of hope, joy, faith, courage, and spirit.” 

With these thoughts, she turned to the intimate story of losing first her father, and then her older sister, in quick succession. With moving detail, she described her last moments with her Dad, 

I realized that, as a family, what we really wanted was for him to stay with us, to never leave us. But he’d lived a full and happy life, “raised up” and provided a solid foundation for each of his now grown children, and left my Mom well taken care of. His work on earth was finished. Spiritually, it was time for him to return to the Creator. And in the silence of that moment, I was given the courage to release him. To let him go, knowing that the physical body was no longer useful for his work. “Daddy, I know you are tired of the trials and tribulations of this body,” I said. “And when you are ready to go, you just go. We will all be fine.” And my Dad looked at me, rather nonchalantly and spoke:  “Oh, Cynthia. I know. I’m just so tired. When I’m ready to go, I’ll make that decision. And there’s nothing that anyone can do to change my mind.” I marveled at his clarity, which brought me so much comfort and joy that holiday season: His spirit seemed truly at peace. I kissed his cheek and told him I loved him. Smiling brightly, he said in the dry manner that characterized my Dad’s personality: “I know. You take care now.” The lump in my throat finally gave way to a stream of tears as I walked out of the building.  And five days later, my Dad died.

Yet, all the equanimity she had gained in coming to terms with her father’s death was challenged seven days later. 

Most children take for granted — and even expect — that we will experience the death of our parents. It seems an almost unspoken rule of the universe.  But, just one week after my Dad’s death, I received a call that not only broke that rule, but my heart as well: My 46-year-old elder sister, Octavia — the one who had sat next to me on the church pew just one week prior at Daddy’s memorial service — was found dead in her apartment from obstructive lung disease, a serious condition that was not known to the family and maybe not even to her. 

Having delivered the eulogy at her father’s funeral, which had seemed appropriate, she was now asked to deliver Octavia’s, which felt “unnatural, even unimaginable.” Yet, as she went within herself to compose the eulogy, and, then, as time went by, she found that “when we choose to share the contributions and stories of the human journey of those who have died, we usher in a sacred space of relationship with them that recognizes both their life and death as part of the same joyful event.” In short, we can “begin to see the divine order of life and death.” Here, she felt a connection with Ikeda’s observation from the Harvard lecture: “Just as sleep prepares us for the next day’s activities, we rest and replenish ourselves for new life [each day].” And she also experienced the truth of his conviction that “sustained faith and practice (in my case, being open and able to eulogize two family members in a row) enables us to know a deep and abiding joy in death as well as life, to be equally happy and at ease with them both.” Indeed, concluded Dillard: “(Re)membering my Dad and my sister is truly the greatest of all joys for me.”

Story 3: New Questions of Life and Death

In the third part of her talk, Dr. Dillard shared some of the thoughts and questions she has been entertaining on this topic of joy in life and joy in death. The first was that “no amount of ‘rational’ thought, intellectualizing, data analysis, or study” could help her make sense of the deaths of her father and sister. But when they died, she said, they “helped me to understand that life is energy, changing places and forms all the time. It is when people die that we so powerfully see that life as we experience it right now is happening on a spiritual level.” Put another way, she understood “that every one of us is born at the perfect time and we each will die at the perfect time, to fulfill our appointed work on this earthly journey.” Taking this cosmic perspective, Dr. Dillard said she could see that the deaths of her father and sister have served as “a catalyst for an intensely intimate emotional storm that allowed and still allows me to access the inner wisdom needed to guide me through the vacuum their deaths have created.” And in this space of inner wisdom, she felt she had experienced the “Eternal One,” the Emerson phrase that Ikeda spoke of, “the essential and spiritual whole that is you, the greater self.”

Then, as she neared the conclusion of her talk, she recalled the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard’s advice to “write as if you were dying.” In this spirit, she again spoke to her colleagues in education: 

As teachers and researchers, ought we not be researching, teaching and writing “as if we were dying?” Such a standard of rigor would require that we be ever vigilant in examining and tending to our body, mind and spirit everyday — and that we be absolutely cognizant of our own short time on this planet. That we walk softly on the earth, including in the communities in which we do our work. That we embrace death, not as a sign of morbidity or pessimism, but as a portal through which we all will pass. That we conduct ourselves in such a way as to leave our students and others as though we may never meet again, so carpe diem!   

Finally, she chose “to end where I started,” with words of Octavia Butler, from Parable of the Sower, with “one small addendum” as the last sentence:

All that you touch You Change.
All that you Change Changes you.
The only lasting truth Is Change.
Life and death are merely Change.

Q & A, Takeaways, and Final Words

“Thank you for your vulnerability and for showing us what true strength looks like,” said Koizumi upon the conclusion of Dr. Dillard’s talk. “I felt like your Dad and sister were with us today,” she continued, “so I want to acknowledge them and thank them for allowing us to understand more deeply the oneness of life and death.” Noting that there would only be time for one question from attendees, Koizumi chose this one from those submitted to Dr. Dillard: “Early in your talk you asked what is possible when hope and joy are at the center of both life and death. So I am curious to hear your thoughts on how we can hold both grief and joy at the same time.” The first thing that occurs, said Dillard, is that we need to try to not “push one away and hold [the other] one up.” In truth, she said, “we tend to want to hold life up as something special and desired, and death as something that is not. And it’s only when you can kind of live in that space where you can hold both of them, as Ikeda says with delight, that we are able to sort of walk with some sort of peace.” Two other things also occurred, she said. The first is that, as she shared earlier, we really benefit when we see change as the essence of existence, and that death can be understood as “a change in form.” And though the loss we feel when people die is real, we nevertheless still have access “to the spirit of those that left us.” And this brought Dr. Dillard to her final point, which is understanding “that you will be someone’s ancestor someday,” and because of that truth, “living the life” that will inspire them “to want to call you back.” This “feels like an important disposition to cultivate” as we walk through this part of existence called life, she concluded.

Following Dr. Dillard’s reflections, Koizumi facilitated a “takeaways” activity in which attendees were invited to go to the online platform Mentimeter to share key insights and reflections that arose for them over the course of the evening. Here are some representative contributions:

  • The importance of sharing grief and supporting each other
  • Remembering that my grandmother is still with me
  • Holding both life and death with delight!
  • My friends who have died are still with me in life. And from this authentic talk by Dr. Dillard, I can encourage my friend who is going through this now with a loved one
  • The importance of cherishing the life before you in this very moment
  • Live in a way that will make my loved ones want to invite me back
  • I love reflecting on the oneness of life and death as I’m mourning the passing of a loved one right now

Executive Director Kevin Maher began his closing remarks by thanking Dr. Dillard “for your deeply insightful, inspiring, and connecting talk this evening.” He also thanked the participants attending from around the world, saying, “we’re thrilled that you joined us for this event and are grateful for your thoughtful questions and reflections on the theme of hope and joy in life and death.” Among the many insights from Dr. Dillard’s talk that Maher cited was her recommendation “that we be absolutely cognizant of our own short time on this planet. That we walk softly on the earth, including in the communities in which we do our work. That we embrace death, not as a sign of morbidity or pessimism, but as a portal through which we all will pass.” In this, Maher found connection with one of Mr. Ikeda’s thoughts on death in his co-authored work The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra. “Upon reflection,” writes Ikeda, “whether death awaits in three days, three years, or three decades, the reality is essentially the same. That’s why it is so important to live fully right now, so that we will have no regret if we die at any moment.” And “for me,” Maher said, “that is a transformative takeaway from this evening. To challenge ourselves to live each day, in fact each moment, with this awareness of the preciousness of life. Not in a fearful, resigned way, but rather filled with gratitude, awareness, hope, and joy!“

Read about a Dr. Dillard’s dialogue with members of the Ikeda Center’s network of young scholars held the afternoon of the Indigo Talk. 

Cynthia Dillard (top, middle) with the Ikeda Center Indigo Talk planning team
Dr. Dillard on Zoom with Ikeda Center staff