My Father and the Beauty of Birth and Death

My father died last Thursday. He was 93. He lived a good, full life and although mentally he was as sharp as he ever was, his body was failing and it was time for him to go. I sensed this a few days beforehand. I had an opportunity to talk to him Wednesday on the phone and tell him that I loved him. I think we both knew we were saying goodbye.

For most of us, the word ‘death’ is ugly. We fear death and when death comes to those we love, it causes us to suffer. But the person who has passed away is not suffering. When death is peaceful, like my father’s, then death has mercy. Death can have beauty. To fear death and to experience great sadness when a loved one dies is natural, but it is also a bit irrational.

Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, “When you use the word ‘death’, dying, it means that you have also lived. The two cannot be separated.”

To understand the inseparability of life and death is one way to conquer our fear of it. It is also a way in which we can see the beauty of death.

Some people focus on what happens after death, a thing no one knows. They believe in an afterlife because they think they will find immortality. They believe they will go to a heaven or a pure Buddha land, or they will achieve nirvana – their reward for the sufferings they experienced in this life.

I don’t know if the theory of rebirth was originally a part of the Buddha’s teachings or whether it was something added later. But I do know that Mahayana Buddhism teaches that suffering is nirvana. This saha (mundane) world is itself heaven. Or, as Dogen said, our life right now is the life of the Buddha.

My father was a Christian man. An honest, moral, upright man, respected by all who knew him. I feel that his integrity transcended religion. It was a quality he possessed naturally. It was just the way he was.

While my grief is immense, I can see the beauty of my father’s death. More importantly, I can see the beauty of his life.

This present birth and death itself is the life of the Buddha. If you attempt to reject it with distaste, you are losing thereby the life of the Buddha.”

– Dogen


4 thoughts on “My Father and the Beauty of Birth and Death

  1. My dad died a few years ago, after a very brief illness; and I remember noticing how similar intense grief felt to fear. My visceral response “felt” very “fear-like”, though I wasn’t actually afraid of anything, per se… irrational and maybe also natural, as you suggest.

    Unsettling time for me (my first loss of a parent, whom one always imagines will “always” be there…). Thanks for the very personal piece, David. And I’m sorry for your loss and sadness.

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