Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Girl with the Skull Earring

In a dream I had recently, I was sitting in a restaurant next to a girl who was wearing a beautiful outfit, with one dangling skull earring. Some of the dream details are fuzzy, but I think I was dressed in my old monk's robes, because I was somehow singled out as being very distinctly and visibly "Buddhist." At any rate, the whole atmosphere of the dream seemed charged with Buddhist spirituality, because His Holiness the 17th Karmapa was teaching nearby. When I have dreams with a teacher like the Karmapa in them, I tend to pay attention and look for messages. And boy, did I get one this time.

Two waitresses approached the girl and told her how nice her outfit was, but gently reprimanded her for wearing the skull earring. They said the skull was a morbid symbol of death and that one shouldn't wear such symbols because they attract evil spirits, or bad luck, or something equally superstitious. At that point in the dream, I chimed in, and delivered a speech that went like this (paraphrased from memory):

"Actually, the Buddhist view would be quite the opposite. In Buddhism we are encouraged to deeply contemplate death and impermanence, and Buddhist iconography often features skulls and corpses and other stark reminders that death is woven into the fabric of life itself. Most of the time we don't think about death, and so we go around acting like we have all the time in the world. But the reality is that our bodies are impermanent, and we are subject to old age, sickness and death. In fact, we might never even make it to old age. We might become gravely ill next year or get hit by a bus today after we leave this restaurant. Death is really the only thing in life that is absolutely inevitable, and it can strike at any time, without warning — so it's best if we keep that always in mind. It not only helps us be better prepared when it's our time to go, but also helps us put our life in better perspective. A lot of the things that we ordinarily think are very important in life, mundane things that we devote so much of our time to pursuing, appear insignificant when we remember that our time in this life is short and that death could come at any moment."

That was it. I woke up from the dream as soon as this monologue had ended, and I reflected on it for a while. In my waking state, I was as surprised by the profound dream speech that had come out of my mouth as those women in the dream were. Sometimes dreams can seem like utter nonsense, and other times they can seem like vehicles for the transmission of a kind of wisdom that is almost shocking in its clarity. I call these "teaching dreams." Anyone can have them. The question is whether we pay attention to them, remember them, and properly interpret the messages they deliver from the unconscious mind.

In modern Western society we have lost our natural relationship to death and dying, just as we've lost our natural relationship to food, to the environment, even to our own minds. Food is something that comes in boxes and cans and shrink-wrapped packages at the store; most people have never seen a farm or a slaughterhouse, and can't imagine what goes on there. Our minds are endlessly drawn outward into a ceaseless bombardment of often irrelevant and trivial information and stories and sales pitches; most people never take even 10 minutes to sit down and be quiet and look inside, and if they do they tend to run away frightened by what they encounter. And death, too, has become something most people prefer not to see or think about, until it happens unexpectedly to them or to someone they love, and they can't avoid it any longer. Even to talk about death is considered "morbid" and "depressing." (Be honest: Are you having just a little bit of that reaction right now, reading this article?)

We avert our eyes from death, like the proverbial ostrich hiding its head in the ground. We push dying people off into clinical settings, nursing homes and hospitals. Minutes after dying, their bodies are whisked away to be handled by professionals, never to be seen again unless it's all prettied up in a satin-lined coffin, dressed in their Sunday best and painstakingly manipulated and made-up by technicians to look as beautiful and lifelike as possible, and often pumped full of toxic chemicals to stave off the natural process of decomposition. Our modern relationship to death — just like our modern relationship to food, the environment, and our own minds — is one of denial and pretense, a stance that is deeply unrealistic and infantile.

"In horror of death I took to the mountains. Again and again I meditated on the uncertainty of the hour of death, capturing the fortress of the deathless unending nature of mind. Now all fear of death is over and done."
– Milarepa

It was not always so. In ancient India and Tibet, in the time of the Buddha and Milarepa, death was not so easy to hide. Corpses were often left to decompose or be eaten by prey animals in horrific, open cemeteries called charnel grounds. There were actual meditation practices that involved going to these places, sometimes even at night (which made the experience even more scary and unsettling), in order to contemplate death and the impermanence of the body not in some abstract, cozy way, like we modern people do, but to look without a filter at the gruesome reality of death and let the full truth of it really sink in.

This is the destiny of every living being. This is what's going to happen to your body. Why are you so attached to this bag of bones, destined for the charnel ground? If you moved into a hotel room and knew you would only be there for a short stay, would you spend all your time in the hotel room, painstakingly redecorating the walls and rearranging the furniture? How much time do you have left in this human body? What's the most important thing for you to focus on, in whatever time you do have left? If you meditate honestly and fearlessly on death, it leads you to ask yourself the $64,000 questions:

Who are you?

 What are you doing with your life?

"Of all footprints
That of the elephant is supreme.
Of all mindfulness meditations
That on death is supreme."
– The Buddha

I'm grateful to the girl with the skull earring for the reminder.


Read my account of the transformational experience of being with a great Buddhist nun, Ani Palmo, at the time of her death.

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