Life's passing.


Although the sound of the engine is obtrusive and cuts out much of what can be heard from the shore, the fact that we are in the middle of the Ganges moving steadily towards the city of Varanasi brings intense joy and wonder.  Ahead is the vast iron bridge supporting both the passage of road and rail traffic.  Some years ago we had crossed the river on the bridge a man and his young daughter with us in the carriage; as we passed above the sacred water they swiftly and unobtrusively closed their palms together and, pressing their fingers to their foreheads, said a prayer to the river.  It is a revered being.

Along the banks of the wide stretch of water there is much life, cows are wallowing knee deep in the mud, children playing on the shore and dogs picking through the rubbish washing up on the sands.  A little way from our boat floats a blackened shape, on top sits a large crow staring defiantly out as if to challenge anyone to take its prize.  After some moments gazing at this spectacle, which I take as a large log floating along borne by the current, I realise that it is in fact a corpse blackened and misshapen from being partially burnt, undoubtedly further downstream on the steps of the city’s burning ghats.  And that the fierce bird is not defending its means of travel, but its potential food.  Here is the death of a human being in its throwaway form; the family of the dead may not have been able to afford enough wood, or, once the family have left the burning pyre the body may have been thrown into the river.  For the poor human life is cheap wherever you are and even death has little dignity.  

We travel along the edge of the ancient city, its tightly packed buildings appearing to tumble towards the water.  By the edge are piles of wood waiting to be used and next to them the smouldering fires of  the dead whose ashes will soon be consigned to the slow moving river.  Nearby people are immersing themselves, washing away the past in rituals of purification.

Impermanence is death: the dying of the leaves, the plants and all that is living.  Impermanence is also rebirth: new shoots, young life, the newborn.  We may strenuously try to deny this circle, to prolong existence, to worship youth, fearful of the changes that we see before us.  But we are also blind to the beauty of life’s passing, to the wisdom of age and to the acceptance of our own mortality.  The sweet sounds of melancholy fill much great music and poetry acknowledging the passage of earthly time and our fleeting existence, as well as sharpening our awareness of the temporary suffering that we all must feel.  For sorrow itself is also impermanent.

How can we come to terms with this?  How do we engage and learn about impermanence?  It seems to me that the observation and connection with nature is key this understanding.  Many small children will see a dead animal or bird and  respond to it; questioning its passing and relating that to their own existence.  Watching the seasons change, connecting with all ages and being aware of the constant movement of life without succumbing to the illusion that we can control our existence teaches us to maintain balance and experience the joy of living; even if we live in the city.

As human beings we are strange in our approach to death.  Our militaristic societies that are always prepared for or involved in war spending vast amounts on creating and devising more and more efficient ways of killing.  Political ends seem to justify wholesale slaughter of people we will never see and do not understand.  We glorify killing and raise as heroes the killers as long as their cause is our cause.  But I wonder how many mothers bring their children into the world, care for them and love them so that these children will be blown apart  or will destroy the lives of others.  Whilst some scientists are working tirelessly for the alleviation of the suffering of humanity, many others are putting similar energy into methods of untold destruction; ensuring that we are quite capable of destroying all human life.

So I want to end this with the questions of the relationship between death and violence, and death and peace.  Do we consider the importance of living peacefully?  If so how does this impact on the way we educate each other, as friends, parents, students and teachers?

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