[Blog] Buddhist Doctrines Concerning Human Interactions with Death

This is part of the Doing Buddhism at Brandon University series. Read the series introduction here.

By Bethany Leslie, Brandon University

The study and practice of Buddhism requires one to exit the comfort of shallow everyday thinking patterns and face life’s deeper existential questions. Among these questions include the reason for the presence of suffering, why we have an inclination for attachment as humans, the existence and nature of the afterlife, and how to make sense of all of these things in a way that brings us comfort. After analyzing Buddhist reactions to decay and death, I noticed that the doctrines duhkha (suffering), samsara (the realm of rebirth), and nirvana (the unconditioned realm of bliss)  reflect the natural tendency of all living things to reach towards comfort and light. This sparked an idea for a painting.

Photo by Bethany Leslie

I took inspiration from mandalic Buddhist artwork for my creation, taking note of its striking symmetry and proficiency in expressing repeated patterns cyclically on canvas using acrylic, gauche, and iridescent gold watercolor paints. Six circles outlined in gold surround a central eight petalled lotus placed on a lotus leaf in a geometric manner. Each small peripheral circle contains a representation of the lotus flower’s phase of life. Golden rays surround the cyclic image and a gold border encloses the painting’s focus which is cast onto an inky black background.

The colours I selected for this painting were chosen to add depth to the symbolism. The black background represents the void and death as darkness is a universal metaphor for that which is often feared. Darkness is also an accurate descriptor for death because of its mystery. As humans, we are collectively uncertain about what is beyond the threshold of death. The other side of the boundary is not available for us to see. The colourful detail of the lotus overlaid on this darkness represents life, the other half of existence of which we are aware and can perceive with our human senses. Light and dark colours demonstrate the contrast between life and death as two necessary opposites. The colour black is a reference to the dark mud from which the lotus grows. In other words, the void is the misunderstood fertile soil in which beautiful expressions of life flourish. The iridescent gold borders framing the focus of the painting encompass what is considered to be sacred–the continuous cycle of death and rebirth and the innate potential within humans for enlightenment.

In my experience as a painter, making art takes a lot from the artist. What I consider to be effective art requires the medium of ideas to bare their soul (although in Buddhism this soul does not exist) to the world in order for something of potency and authenticity to come to fruition. It is a labour that requires plenty of vulnerability and openness to what many artists throughout the ages have hinted to be to be a different, more subtle realm. Some even refer to it as spiritual. This means that painting can be an embodied practice if the artist intends and allows for it. Like a dancer or musician pulls through their experience of spirit and allows it to flow from the body into a manifestation detectable by the human senses, a painter can retrieve images from the spiritual realm and record them on a canvas. Throughout the process, the creator develops a certain closeness with the creation, so much so that it feels as though it resembles a portion of their inner being. One develops an attachment to the art as it unfolds from within them. This is the type of attachment that, according to Buddhist doctrine, fosters duhkha.

Buddhism’s attitude towards suffering and death is that they are to be accepted and embraced fully. These painful but inevitable facets of the human experience are approached without flinching away from the universal truth of decay. Part of being alive in a human body is to learn how to cope with the suffering caused by loss. Buddhism offers the solution of non-attachment to the problem of duhkha. As I paint I often reflect on the Buddhist practice in which monks spend days creating an elaborate mandala out of colored sand, intended to be a symbolic representation of the universe, and then promptly destroy it upon completion. By doing this they experience the artist’s process that I outlined. They channel the creative force of the so imagined Holy Other through them to make something steeped in their inner being, and then put the doctrine of non-attachment into practice. On a small scale, they are practicing for the loss of that which is loved in recognition that nothing is permanent. To do so builds strength and resilience so as to be prepared to witness the sickness, decay, and death like Siddhartha did prior to his spiritual journey. In my reflections on this practice during my process of painting, I imagined how it would feel to destroy this creation in which I’ve invested so much time, energy, and devotion.

The goal of an artist influenced by Buddhist ideology, then, is to learn how to exist in the world fully and create beautiful things while refraining from grasping to them. An artist must marvel at the world’s beauty and be fully present in joy and sorrow. They must experience each facet of human life in their entirety so as to be able to record it in their medium of affinity. One must somehow do this while simultaneously accepting that all of these things must come to an end. The poet Mary Oliver articulates this well in the following lines of her poem “In Blackwater Woods”,

“To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

To let it go.” (Oliver 2017, 390)

Repeated cycles of death and rebirth in Samsara are depicted in this painting as the stages of life in a lotus shifting from a seed in the mud to a sprout, growing upward and forming leaves, producing buds and then blossoms, and then decaying into a seed pod which releases the seed back into the mud for the cycle to repeat indefinitely. This pattern in nature is evident everywhere. To name a few examples, it is displayed in the life cycle of the plant kingdom, the shifting of the seasons, the sun rising and setting to create day and night, and the decaying matter of the dead nourishing what will become new life. What becomes apparent when reflecting on these examples is that the cessation of things, like death, is necessary for beginnings to exist. Buddhist doctrines concerning the nature of life, death and the afterlife express no exception to this natural law of cyclicity. Samsara holds beings entrapped in its ever turning wheel to revolve around the seasons of life and death in the six realms of existence. These six realms are represented in my painting as the six outer circles containing the phases of lotus life. Held in contrast to numerous other religions that view life in a linear sense, birth being the very beginning and death or rebirth at the very end, the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth in Samsara is more compatible with the laws of nature.

Release from the cycle of life, suffering, and death in Samsara is only permitted to those who attain nirvana or parinirvana. I chose to portray this doctrine as the eight petalled lotus containing a golden jewel in full bloom at the centre of the painting. The lotus is thought of as being at its full potential when in bloom just as humans are thought to have reached their full potential upon fully realizing the dharma. The jewel in the lotus that I’ve painted suggests that there is a jewel in each lotus in the cycle of birth and death surrounding the center circle. This reflects the idea that the potential for enlightenment lies in the core of each human being held in samsara. Through the chiseling of the eightfold Path, represented by the eight petals, the precious jewel of nirvana can be uncovered from within an individual. Nirvana is reached through persistence of disciplining the body and resisting what is thought to be the lower forms of the human experience like temptation and attachment. The Bodhisattva has fumbled through the human experience filled with hardships and suffering and emerged as an awakened being. This process brings to mind how, through immense pressure, precious jewels are formed. The creation of precious stones is a metaphor for the process of becoming a Bodhisattva. In mahāyāna tradition once one is awakened they make the conscious decision to remain on Earth motivated by their deep sense of love and compassion for humanity. They remain earthbound so as to be a beacon of light guiding those who are plagued by suffering towards the freedom of enlightenment. I chose to paint the lotus a pink colour as this is often used as a symbolic colour of the compassionate heart.

In many ways Buddhist doctrine surrounding death echoes the naturalistic truths of the world, but the ultimate goal of parinirvana speaks to a fantasy that human beings have to escape the dark discomfort of samsara and duhkha indefinitely. Even the concept of rebirth points to a desire for immortality to refrain from facing the dark uncertainty of death. One can’t blame them, as both suffering and uncertainty are unbearable. Nonetheless, Buddhism  provides insight into the tendency of the human mind to strive towards the symbolic light of what is comforting and pleasant. Just like a lotus, humans have an innate desire to grow upward towards the light from their muddy foundations.

Works Cited

Oliver, Mary. Devotions. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017.

Bethany Leslie is an undergraduate student at Brandon University double majoring in Psychology and Religion Studies. Post-graduation, she plans on pursuing her MA in Jungian Psychotherapy.

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