Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1992

Committed to Freedom; Ajahn Thanavaro
Crossing the Green Divide; Sister Candasiri
One Day of Practice; Venerable Varado
The Life of a Forest Monk: Pt II; Luang Por Jun
Greetings from Switzerland; Venerable Jayamano
Responding to the Sick and Dying; Barry Durrant
A Light in Confinement; prison letters

Editorial; Aj. Sucitto
Down Lay-life Way; B. Jackson
Caring for the Earth; Aj. Sucitto
View from the Hill; Ven. Vipassi


Responding to the Sick and Dying

Barry Durrant - who lives near Chithurst - reports on dialogues on helping the sick and the dying that have been taking place in the monastery.

Byadhi-dhammomhi byadhim anatito,
I am of the nature to sicken,
I have not gone beyond sickening.
maranam anatito,
I am of the nature to die,
I have not gone beyond dying.*

*These lines are part of the Sangha's daily morning chanting.

To many of us, this timely warning is all too apparent and needs little emphasis! Furthermore, at this time of the year, the beautiful colours of the autumn leaves add an additional reminder of the omnipresence of change and the inevitable end for all conditioned things.

Perhaps it was such subliminal impressions exerting their subtle influences which gave rise, one morning, to a discussion with some bhikkhus on the topic of lay Buddhists visiting those who are sick and/or dying.

The idea not only brings one's own mortality into sharp focus, but raises doubts and fears in the mind as to one's suitability or preparedness for the task.

It was agreed that, however slowly, the climate of opinion in society is changing. People have become more open to the topic of death - be it that inescapable experience which awaits us all, or the misery and stresses of personal bereavement.

Until relatively recently death has been 'shunned', disguised and detached from the living process. Now, however, the especial problems, and conflicts it can occasion through taboo and misconceptions (whether in the dying or their relatives), and the particular needs of all those involved in this quintessential aspect of life are all becoming increasingly recognised.

The Hospice Movement has flourished and prospered in the twin roles of specialist care and education. There are counselling services for the bereaved. Seminars on death and dying are organised, and many books on the subject have been written (for an excellent reading list, see Raft [No. 3], the journal of Buddhist Hospice Trust). Societies such as The Natural Death Centre have been launched, and the hitherto unchallenged procedures and practices of the funeral business are being scrutinised and questioned.

Following these exploratory chats, it was decided to contact all members of those Buddhist groups which looked to Chithurst Monastery for spiritual guidance, and to seek their views and opinions about such visiting. In addition, as some lay Buddhists looking to Amaravati had already had experience in this work, they too were contacted and their views ascertained.

Inevitably, (unless members were already engaged in such social action), the initial reaction tended to be one of caution, anxiety and perhaps rejection. The idea not only brings one's own mortality into sharp focus, but raises doubts and fears in the mind as to one's suitability or preparedness for the task. What could one say? What should one say? Would one's reactions be helpful and appropriate, or would the situation ruthlessly expose one's own vulnerability, insecurity and confusion?

In point of fact, the responses were divisible into two schools of thought. Some members felt the need for specific training in preparation for such an encounter; maybe a guided exploration of this threat to their equipoise and comfort. Others felt that such a situation demanded a spontaneous and intuitive response from a heart unencumbered by outworn views and predetermined expectations; through silent acceptance, allowing the response to another being to come naturally.

The necessary motivation and commitment was seen to be not only supportive to the patient, but also invaluable as a practice for the individual. The Buddha after all had declared, 'If you will not take care of each other, who else, I ask, will do so? Brothers, he who would wait on me, let him wait on the sick.' (Vinaya Pitaka).

o o o 0 o o o

Having learned of these conflicting views, it seemed to be important to offer an opportunity to share and discuss such thoughts, so a meeting was arranged at Chithurst to which all interested parties were invited. Ajahn Anando kindly agreed to take the chair and to offer the necessary spiritual guidance and direction to the debate, which took place on October 26th, and was attended by nineteen members.

The discussion ranged widely and embraced such topics as: 'living wills'; the clinical ethos found in hospices and intensive care units; the need to develop an acute awareness to the needs of the patient, and to avoid the imposition upon them of one's own views and opinions; the value of physical contact as an expression of caring and concern; the evolving attitudes in society towards a greater participation in the daily nursing care, the laying out of the body, and even organising the funeral and disposal of remains.

Ajahn Anando reported the opinion of one doctor who was working in the hospice movement, which was that Buddhists would bring their own particular qualities of serenity and quietude. He also commented that in his view, if someone felt the need for guidance and 'training', then that need should be met, while those without such reservations would be able to enter the relationship spontaneously anyway.

All those present felt the meeting to have been most useful and the likely forerunner in a series devoted to various themes relating to death, dying and bereavement. All interested in these topics are welcome to contact the monastery for information on the times and themes of the discussions.

Readers wishing to obtain further in- formation can write to the following addresses:

  • The Buddhist Hospice Trust, P.O. Box 51, Herne Bay, Kent CT6 6TP
  • The Natural Death Centre, 20 Heber Road, Cricklewood, London NW2 6AA
  • 'Funerals and How to Improve Them', by Dr Tony Walter. Hodder and Stoughton, (58.99)
  • The Ananda Network (no relation to Ajahn Anando!); a nationwide network of volunteers who have expressed a willingness to visit and offer companionship to those who are dying or bereaved - particularly, but not exclusively, Buddhists. Networkers are kept in touch with each other through local meetings and the occasional publications, "Ananda Network News" and "Open Heart Communication". Contact: Ananda Network Facilitator, Ray Wills, 5 Grayswood Point, Norley Vale, Roehampton, London SW15 4BT.