“None of us is getting out of here alive…"
Loss shoves its way uninvited in to every life sooner or later and was the sharply personal trigger for this book. My partner Rob had just died from hereditary dementia: a traumatic unexpected diagnosis was followed a few years later by a cruel and relentless decline. The illness was cast to him at conception, the enzyme that breaks down toxic proteins missing because of a centuries old genetic error passed into history by an unknown ancestor. Rob himself had no idea he was carrying that genetic time bomb until revealed by a blood test in his late fifties. A happy life in the country surrounded by dogs and horses became brutally unravelled over the next couple of years as the illness robbed him of balance, motor skills and speech, followed by cognitive and personality changes. By the age of sixty-one he was reduced to recognizing no-one in the months preceding his death. His loss knocked me sideways and little guidance was offered by my own society increasingly silent as to the meaning of life or death, the latter vaguely unmentionable despite hovering in the wings of every life. I was growing older with no faith to offer solace, like so many millions of others. As Michael Pollan commented in How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics “Carl Jung once wrote that it is not the young but people in middle age who need to have an ‘experience of the numinous’ to help them negotiate the second half of their lives.”[i] That insight is valuable but for many at my stage of life, from my kind of culture, experiences of the numinous are thin on the ground and organized religion offers little or no help.
Life brings unforeseen joys and sorrows to everyone and forces and events beyond our control push their way in be they earthquake, illness, accident or school shooting. Meaning is easy to find in the people we love and what brings us joy in the brief time we inhabit this planet, it’s the painful things that are so hard to make sense of. Getting older, as friends began to die and others sicken with terminal illnesses, death and dying were no longer over an invisible horizon but present and insistent. As an agnostic of no particular belief in an increasingly secular materialistic society I had no idea how to deal with the brutal realities of loss and mortality inevitable whatever one’s circumstances, beliefs, or lack of them. As eleventh century Tibetan Buddhist poet, teacher and mystic Milarepa bluntly put it: “All worldly pursuits have but one unavoidable and inevitable end, which is sorrow: acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings in destruction; meetings in separation; births in death. Knowing this, one should from the very first renounce acquisition and heaping up …and set about realizing the Truth …Life is short, and the time of death is uncertain…”[ii] Rob’s illness and death forced me to confront the bitter truth of that and the absence of a path to navigate it.
So my journey was born, a search to discover if there were spiritual ideas that could shed light on not just Rob’s illness and death, but the suffering and death that comes to everyone. It was simultaneously an internal journey and an exploration of ideas about life, suffering, death and the possibilities of rebirth held by cultures different from my own. It then became a physical journey through Nepal, Bali, Cambodia and India where those ideas comprise the framework of every day life. I began my journey perched on the agnostic fence, unable to choose between an empty accidental universe without purpose or meaning on one side, and competing religious explanations all claiming to be right and riddled with cultural baggage on the other. It felt like an impossible choice but one I could no longer wash my hands of. Rob’s suffering and death could not be theorized from a distance. They were lived realities and so must understanding of them be. Death and suffering will not go away by ignoring them and come to all regardless of creed, culture and circumstances, our existence on this small fragile planet remaining as mysterious as it has always been. Those are the matters with which spirituality deals so perhaps that could still have meaning in the world of today, even if separating the proverbial sheep of what is worth keeping from the goats of that which is best discarded is a seemingly impossible task.
I found myself drawn to ideas discovered in an earlier part of my life, the spiritual traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism born in India. They became a catalyst to immerse myself in cultures where it is taken for granted that the material world is a stage for our lives in a cycle of repeated lives, deaths and rebirths known as samsara in Sanskrit, the ancient sacred language of India. Could those ideas be of any relevance to someone like me, an agnostic non-believer? Could they offer meaningful understanding of birth, suffering and death to people neither Hindu nor Buddhist? At the very least the ideas of samsara seemed worth investigating. That inevitably led to broader questions. Could spirituality be embraced without taking on religion? Is there any evidence for spiritual dimensions and the continuation of consciousness after death from sources outside religion, such as science, parapsychology, mysticism or psychedelic experiences? What is the nature of consciousness? Does spirituality of any kind have value in a twenty-first century world and what role might it play?
Rob’s memorial gathering celebrated the life of a much loved man. He was atheist, or at least strongly agnostic, so it was secular. A kind Christian chaplain co-ordinated the gathering but she didn’t say much. Love is the great blessing life offers in the midst of the sorrows of impermanence and death, and the great healer of the awful grief those bring, so we tried to focus on that. Religions frequently describe God as love but it is not easy to reconcile a God of love with the seemingly random suffering life deals out to good people as it did to Rob from an arbitrary throw of the genetic dice, a couple of faulty letters of DNA code dealing him a cruel fate. Buddhism dispenses with God altogether being non-theistic, but death and suffering remain equally puzzling and painful. Without any framework of faith it was hard to know how to farewell him but to make no reference to a spiritual dimension felt something vital was missing, so reading from the Upanishads, ancient Hindu texts composed between approximately 800 to 500 BCE, was a response to that. We had shared those together and been greatly moved despite lacking religious belief. They are surprisingly clear of doctrinal or ritual clutter and state that clinging to the outward forms of religion does not provide a solution to being awash on the “sea of samsara.” In the words of the Mundaka Upanishad:
“… rituals are unsafe rafts for crossing
The sea of samsara of birth and death.
Doomed to shipwreck are those who try to cross
The sea of samsara on these poor rafts.”
My grown up children from an earlier marriage looked at me earnestly while I read from the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, their love a beacon of comfort for deep grief not just for Rob’s passing but for the way death came to him.
“The world is the wheel of God, turning round
And round with all living creatures upon its rim
The world is the river of God
Flowing from him and flowing back to him.
On this ever-revolving wheel of being
The individual self goes round and round
Through life after life, believing itself
To be a separate creature, until
It sees its identity with the Lord of Love.
And attains immortality in the indivisible whole.”
Much of the travels that were to come over the following year retraced paths taken at an earlier time with Rob or from a previous part of his life. As his daughter discussed his cremation she quietly asked if some of his ashes could be scattered in Nepal, my first destination. It was a fitting idea. Rob loved the country taking many beautiful photographs there when young, beautiful and free, no shadows of what was to come in a new century in Australia, a long way from his English youth. As Milarepa asks “Strong and healthy, who thinks of sickness until it strikes like lightning? Preoccupied with the world, who thinks of death, until it arrives like thunder?” Those questions certainly applied to me: I had done exactly as Milarepa described and buried my head in the sands of denial and preoccupation. Facing death and illness are extraordinarily difficult until they actually arrive and then of course there is no escaping them. The office worker at the funeral home passed over all that was left of Rob’s physical form, fine grey ash neatly labelled in plastic boxes carefully placed in an attractively decorated paper bag. I mumbled “dust to dust ashes to ashes” while carrying the bag towards the door. She replied ‘yes, that’s right’ and how much it scared her as she followed me through the foyer and out in to the weak late winter sunshine.
We stood next to the building in which the trade of death takes place hidden deep inside, obscured by attractive office spaces and public gathering places designed to make death neat, organized, and as remote and unthreatening as possible. The inside walls were adorned with paintings of idyllic rural scenes and gentle sounds of rainforest birds and tinkling waterfalls looped endlessly from small speakers on the ceiling. Soft lighting, computers humming and artificial flowers created an air of efficient politeness, rendering what happens there strangely surreal. The kind office worker asked why I required a small separate container of ashes. I explained they were going to Nepal so she produced an official letter overcoming prohibitions on carrying human remains, a shocking reminder of the reality that the neat little box and its contents somehow drew a veil over. We talked for a while and she asked if sky burials, where scavenger birds consume the flesh and ground up bones of a corpse, are practiced in Nepal. I confirmed yes, that continues in Himalayan areas bordering Tibet. Despite her job working in a funeral home she was as puzzled by mortality as anyone else.
Modern secular cultures such as Australia have little to say about death which is hidden and sanitized, impermanence and aging denied, the cult of youth, consumption and materialist explanations for the world all reigning supreme. Australia is ordered and prosperous, in many respects ‘the lucky country’ as sometimes described. Dogs are confined in their back yards away from streets patrolled by council funded officers, no sacred cows wander the streets, almost no garbage is strewn in the gutters, the sight of a begging child, or a mange ridden, starving, street dog covered in weeping sores, unthinkable. Perhaps it is partly the relative order and prosperity of secular Western societies that obscures frames of reference outside of material reality thus rendering those societies increasingly silent in the face of death. European colonialism, with its values of conquest, materialism, private property, competition, individualism and Christianity, shattered apart the indigenous cultures it arrived in and gave birth to societies like mine, rich in material blessings but sterile in dimensions of the spirit. Australia rose like a phoenix from the squalor and misery of industrial Britain where those convicted of crimes mostly driven by poverty, or political offenses, were shipped off to an isolated continent “discovered” by Europeans. British colonization was a tale of dispossession and tragedy for Australia’s indigenous people who for more than 50,000 years were its sole possessors. Aboriginal spirituality is a profound and ancient tradition premised on non-duality, not separating the natural world from the human world, the sacred from the secular, the body from the spirit, and non-aboriginal Australians such as me have much to learn from it.
My strong desire to be somewhere else following Rob’s death was not because somewhere else was better but because it was different. I longed too for a distraction that might offer some escape from the corrosive grief of his loss. And travel is a powerful distraction even if the emotional baggage of our lives comes along for the ride. Rob’s illness and dying had been like peering into an abyss of suffering to which my own culture was ill equipped to offer any meaningful response. Asia, with its cocktail of the confronting, inspiring and fascinating along with a rich spirituality, displays the raw truths of life and death, not hidden, not sanitized, not denied as they are where I come from. Perhaps it would be there that the abyss of suffering could find some comprehension. Asia increasingly defies easy conclusions and is changing fast: the subways or huge office towers of Bangkok, the super clean, ordered sterility of Singapore, or high tech communities of Bangalore, are different worlds from the other Asia, and not where I sought to be. Nepal, then Bali, Cambodia and India, each in turn revealed that other Asia where the numinous, suffering and death are present and obvious rather than veiled as they so often are in the comfortable blandness of the modern West. They are all predominantly Hindu or Buddhist, or in the case of Nepal both, so would reveal those spiritual traditions as they are lived and practiced. Perhaps they might offer clues to the questions that many of us in the West have forgotten how to ask. What is this life, and the death that will inevitably follow for all of us, about? Samsara is one response to those questions and is taken for granted by just about everyone in the cultures we visited, offering a startling contrast of perspective to that of my own world.
Travelling alone was a daunting prospect so I was fortunate that a friend Marck was keen to accompany me. He was already in Asia and agreed we would meet in Kathmandu later in the year. Despite the endless variety of cultures and circumstances all people are united in experiencing impermanence, suffering and death. My explorations of samsara, religion and spirituality, and the experiences offered by the rich cultures we visited, became a journey in to a rabbit hole of astounding possibilities bringing many more questions than answers and deepening awareness what incredible mysteries our world, our life, and our consciousness of those, are.
[i] Michael Pollan How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, Penguin Books, 2019
[ii] Milarepa quoted in WY Evans-Wentz Tibet’s Great Yogi: Milarepa, Oxford University Press, 1951