On Death And Dana

Yesterday, Ajahn told me about J, a Frenchman who came to see him because he had lost his young daughter to a brain disease. He was devastated, and he also blamed himself. “He was grief-stricken. He said all he could do was go to the cemetery every day and cry. I tried to think of what would bring a bit of joy back into his heart. In Thailand, when someone dies, the loved ones practise dana (generosity) intensively. This is because nothing gladdens the heart more than giving. And it is the best antidote to clinging and attachment.”


I thought for a second and said: “I think we don’t really have this custom in the West. Maybe some people do this, but it’s not a common thing. We used to have God, but he died a couple of hundred years ago. Now we just try to push death away, like it will never happen. And when it does, some of us are just crushed, like your friend J.” He knew exactly what I was talking about: “In the old days in the West, people would turn to God for support. But industrialization has made life so comfortable for you that you thought you no longer needed him. And then the family also got more fragile. This means people are left alone to face what life throws at them. God and family have been replaced by psychotherapists and antidepressants.”


As usual, I was amazed at how well he knew the Western mind and its predicament. And I felt a little scared and vulnerable. “Were you able to help him?,” I asked. “Well, he didn’t stay very long, but I did recommend he practice dana, and I set something up for him. I took him to an orphanage in a tribal village, and he was able to give toys to the children. It was a small gesture, but powerful and beautiful, and it moved him deeply. I recommended he keep up the practice in his daily life, but I’m not sure that he did. This has to be cultivated in order to become a habit.”


I thought of the lady in the village who died a few weeks ago of kidney cancer. For days after her passing, the family and their neighbours had joined their front yards and transformed them into a giant reception area where food and music were offered all day long. The coffin was on display in a small custom-made house with her picture in front. Every morning during alms round, the widowed husband would give generously to Ajahn and ask for the monk’s blessing. And the funeral, which I attended a few days later, was also a grand reunion. There was sadness in the air, but there was also life. Perhaps a sense of acceptance, a cultural knowing that death is part of life and not its end, and that we are together facing this great mystery.


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