This February is changeable. In our front yard, the furry catkins of the magnolia are daring themselves to burst open. The peach and cherry trees both seem worse for wear, but their reddish buds show promising fuzz, a hint that life will continue past the frigid lows, the snows, the unreasonable and unseasonable sputters of warmth, to burst forth flowers in late spring and then an abundance of sweet summer fruit.
In 1962, while he was at Princeton, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) wrote in his journals that in autumn, as he looked at the bare trees, tenderness filled his heart because he saw so clearly that trees are living beings that transform to prepare themselves for the future challenges that will meet them. “When icy winter comes, it is unforgiving to all things young, tender, and insecure,” he wrote. “One must grow beyond youthful uncertainty to survive. Maturity and determination are necessary.”
Last month Thay died at 95. As I wrote that sentence, I struggled with what word to use. Passed away? If he passed, then to where? Gone, no longer with us? He would have laughed had I written that. “I am a continuation, like the rain is a continuation of the cloud,” he wrote. His students carry seeds of him all over the world, finding fertile ground in which to blossom. His ideas and teachings and example of deeply peaceful presence are planted within thousands.
His community of monks and nuns and lay followers streamed his funeral to us who wished to witness this part of Thay’s journey. I almost wrote “final” journey, but again he would have laughed. “Birth and death, same and different, coming and going. These are all images in our consciousness,” he wrote in 1963.
His coffin was adorned with chrysanthemums, and many men shouldered its weight and carried it respectfully through the grounds of Hue Temple and past the crowds gathered in the surrounding streets. More waited beside the long road that the funeral cortege drove to the cremation grounds.
This world embraces so many different ideas about death — what it means, how to mark it, what follows it. Years ago, when I was in graduate school, a teacher insisted that only love and death are worth writing about. At the time, I thought of those as very different concepts. Now, I am not sure how to separate them. How many fear death, try to forestall it, because of their deep love for life and for all those from whom they don’t want to be parted? How many hate death as deeply if it were a person, blaming it for robbing them of loved ones?
Because of love, perhaps, we contemplate what comes next. But the “then what,” religions and cultures all over the world have different ideas about that. Some, like Buddhism, believe there is no soul. Many other religions believe there is a soul. But what is a soul? Daoists believe that the soul is composed of seven different parts. Hindus believe that the soul, the atman, must reincarnate in an ongoing cycle of rebirth and death until it achieves liberation. Jains believe that the soul becomes weighted down by physical particles of karma, making it very difficult for the soul to achieve liberation. In fact, Jainism allows its followers who are very elderly or who have developed a terminal disease to undertake santhara, a ritualized starving to death in the company of monastics, to help purify the soul and achieve liberation. Most Christians believe the soul will go on to a conscious afterlife of punishment or reward. On the other hand, some movements such as Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in an immortal soul. For them, death is the end.
Because of love we create ritual for our human dead, but those practices differ as much as our beliefs do. The Toraja people in Indonesia keep their dead with them for years looking after the bodies with kindness until the time comes for an elaborate funeral. Some cultures, such as the Yanomami and Guayaki, ceremonially consume their dead in respect. Some Tibetan Buddhist still perform “sky burials,” in which the body is dismembered and fed to vultures. We bury, we cremate, we used to mummify. We turn ashes into “death beads.”
Monks lit Thay’s cremation pyre in Vietnam with blazing torches. As hours passed, smoke billowed into the air. His ashes will be spread on the grass to nourish the earth. In late February, I watch logs burn in our woodstove. The potential energy of the wood transformed into thermal energy. I think about the tree’s former lives and spread their ashes among those that wait to unfurl their leaves in spring.