Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1990

Sangha & the Basis of Community; Ajahn Santacitto
Accepting the Way Things Are; Sister Thanissara
Declan's Gift; Venerable Kovido
In the Footsteps of the Wise; Ajahn Liam
Question Time; Than Ajahn Sumedho
The Dhamma of Relationship; Ajahn Sucitto

Three Poems:


Declan's Gift

Venerable Kovido offers some reflections on the events following thedeath of Declan Griffin, who was taken ill during the Family Camp School. He died in hospital of a brain tumour on the last evening of the camp, and his parents brought his body back to the monastery.

At about 8.40 A.M., I put on my outer robes and walked over to the Dhamma Hall. When I entered, I was struck by the beauty of the scene before me. Declan had been placed on a small bier, at the base of the large Buddha-rupa with flowers all around. As I went closer to offer a plant, I saw that he was dressed in a simple white gown, with his hands by his sides. His skin had a golden hue about it and he looked like a beautiful doll. Altogether it seemed very peaceful.

After offering the flowers, I went to the back of the hall. There were quite a few people there, either sitting or talking quietly. Someone was bringing in cushions, and Pam was talking to the nuns. Ges came in. He seemed beside himself with grief and shock. One realised that words were of no value and I just wanted to touch him.

However, at that moment Ajahn Jun* came in, so I had to move with the events. Gradually all the people came in. The monks sat to the left of the Buddha Rupa, the nuns to the right and the lay people - who included about thirty children and parents - sat in a large semi-circle. In the middle, between Declan and the lay people, sat Pam and Ges.

(Ajahn Jun is the senior Thai disciple of Ajahn Chah, ad was stayig at Amaravati for Vassa (summer 'Rains' Retreat)

It was obvious that for the children, 'Declan's dead' did not have any real unpleasant connotation.

So we began to chant the funeral chanting, the sonorous, even sounds filling the room and calming the mind. After this, Ajahn Jun suggested that we each offer a stick of incense for Declan. The monks went up first, and then the nuns, followed by Pam and Ges. It was quite a long process, and during the nuns' offering my mind went quiet, and I felt the silence of the place. Into that space came the sound of birds singing in the sunshine.

During the whole ceremony, Ajahn Jun would direct the events in a natural way. I heard later that he had spent some time with Pam and Ges before the ceremony. Earlier on they had just been distraught, reminiscent of Kisa Gotami(#) not really knowing where they were or what they were doing. However, Ajah Jun just sat stroking the baby and gently closing its eyes, while talking in a calming and soothing way to Pam and Ges.

(#) Kisa Gotami was a young mother who, beside herself with grief over the death of her child, was taken to the Buddha. He was able to help her by pointing out that death is atural and inevitable; every household at some time suffers the loss of loved ones.

Then Sister Abhassara led us in chanting the English version of the Metta Sutta (The Discourse on Loving-Kindness). She had been practising it daily with the families, so we had a lovely rendition. And somehow, having Declan there gave it more meaning. I had been watching the children quite carefully - 'even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child.' I guess there were about fifteen children around the age of eight. Although a few of the nuns were a bit weepy, it was obvious that for the children 'Declan's dead' did not have any real unpleasant connotation.

Then Pam and Ges made a traditional offering of candles, incense and flowers to Ajahn Jun, together with a big bowl of golden-wrapped chocolates. I noticed that whenever it was their turn to do something they had to be guided like little children, as they were still in shock. However, the ceremony and the peaceful presence of all those people seemed to have a calming effect on them, easing their condition.

Ajahn Jun suggested that the children give out all the chocolates, and placed his own at Declan's head. So the children went around distributing the chocolates, which the people proceeded to eat.

Then we did some more chanting: 'Anicca vata sankhara...' three times. The last line is translated as 'and when things pass away there is peace'. Certainly this was how it felt.

Later that day, when nobody was about, I went to sit with Declan for a while. Again, the feeling of peace and beauty was intensified by the candlelight. I noticed in my mind a slight fear of touching him, but leant forward and touched his hand and his head. It just felt cool, that's all. So I lit two big candles and some incense, and sat down. To begin with, I was a bit restless, but after a while settled down. I noticed how there was a slight expectation that this should be a special occasion - dead body, night-time, being alone - however, once these thoughts had dissipated, I was able to relax and experiece a sense of peace and love. There was a realisation that you didn't have to worry about Declan anymore; he didn't need to be fed, or wrapped up, or whatever. And I was with a dead baby; all the stuff happening had to be happening in my own mind, which was a bit revealing!

The next day, somebody said they felt sad at the unfulfilled potential - Declan having been only fourteen months old. It was strange, but I did not feel that way at all. I think I would have done, some time ago, but now I had the feeling that he had fulfilled his role perfectly. Looked at from outside, it would seem like just a chapter in an unfinished book, but to me it seemed that although the book was short, it was complete.

Over the next few days Pam and Ges had the opportunity to be with Declan, sometimes alone, sometimes with others, some times weeping or touching him, sometimes sitting silently. And gradually one could see the assimilation of the facts by their bodies and minds, so that by the day before the funeral their eyes were clear and steady, their manner composed and their speech quite joyful and lighthearted. In fact, people who came only for the funeral, and had missed the proceding events, understandably thought that the fact of Declan's death had not sunk in, and that the grieving process had yet to begin.

One evening I went there after watching a beautiful red sunset. The candles were lit and it had the feeling of a fairy tale, or the Crib. I lit some incense and just looked around. There were a number of cards from people, drawings and poems. There were also a few more flowers and some of his toys and a teddy. Also there were some lovely photos of him - a very happy child, smiling and contented.

I saw what a gift Declan had given us, because now, for the seventy-odd people at this service, death - rather than being morbid or something to be feared - could be something endowed with great beauty and peace. Although he had only lived a short while, this teaching was probably far greater that anything we would be able to say, even if we live to be a hundred.

Thank you, Declan, and thank you, too, Pam and Ges, for bringing him back to Amaravati and allowing us to be present in your time of grieving.

May all beings be well.