Sickness and Death: Perspectives from Fo Guang Shan

Nothing is more important for Buddhists than to recognize the reality of sickness and death and to draw insights from those realities. The Venerable Master Hsing Yun states “Death is not to be feared It is simply a migration.” In his work A Moment: A Lifetime, he writes: “Talking about death has always been taboo. There is a day when we are born and there will be a day when we die. After death we will be reborn. Birth and death, living, and dying, have no beginning and no end. Like the hand of a clock going around the face over and over. Birth and death are gates.” These are traditional Buddhist words.

Different Venerables amplify Master Hsing Yun’s words. The Vice-Abbott Venerable Hui Lun talks about the twofold face of death. On the one hand, we find that death has implications for the present. “We live often based on our senses. We should take control of our lives. If we do, then we have something beter here. It brings happiness in the present life.” On the other hand, we find that death does lead us to think about a future life. “In Buddhism, we believe that we can achieve the 8 Heavens.” The Venerable Hui Cheng says: “Life is transient. Death is continuous with life.” Venerable Maiolung exclaims: “You are using this body but it will wear out. Students need to learn this.” Hung Wen talked about the actual process of facing death. While not using the Tibetan Buddhist term “bardo” which refers to that liminal period of transition being life and death, Hung Wen discussed those moments. “It is better to let the person simply say whatever they want to say. Simply listen to their words.” He explains a basic view of this moment of dying as well as practical aids for the dying person. “It is better to help that person not cling to her life, even as she fearfully faces an uncertain future. To aid in that non-clinging, sometimes monks and nuns will surround the dying person with chanting.” Those individuals I interviewed have thought long and hard about sickness and death.

Fo Guang Shan recognizes sickness and death. In a building previously used by the high school, Fo Guang Shan has an equivalent of a nursing home. In one area, there are several rooms which serve as a hospice for those with a terminal condition. Beyond Fo Guang Shan, a medical team travels to various villages in south Taiwan offering basic medical check-ups and care. On a very practical level then, Fo Guang Shan does not avoid helping people in the various stages of their physical life; instead, the organization tries to address in a multi-faceted manner these different stages. Furthermore, whether monastic or laity, there are stupas which hold urns below the Standing Buddha where a person’s  cremated ashes may be deposited.

As much as Fo Guang Shan’s Venerables recognize and address the reality of sickness and death,  Fo Guang Shan distances itself from previous forms of traditional Taiwanese Buddhism. Many years ago the Master judged that older forms of Buddhism overly emphasized the reality of death. On a perspectival level, this form of Buddhism failed to address how to show Buddhism’s relevance for the living. On a practical level, the monks and nuns supported themselves primarily by carrying out funerary rituals. Monks and nuns dealing only with death became the public face of Taiwanese Buddhism, and probably Buddhism in other southeast and east Asian societies.

While Master Hsing Yun and Fo Guang Shan doesn’t abandon traditional notions and practices associated with death, Fo Guang Shan does supplement that message with other messages and other practices. For example, there is a serious commitment to education. Whether in the high schools or the various universities, Fo Guang Shan wants to help young people live a good life in this life. The educational aims are simple. Fo Guang Shan teaches various secular topics which will help provide skills for students’ future lives. This education though does include material which reinforces basic Buddhist perspectives. Part of those Buddhist perspectives is simply to realize that sickness and suffering and death are all part of life and that there are better ways to face those realities calmly and at peace.

 

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