Sangharakshita on the death of his mother and sister
Bhante Sangharakshita discusses how he responded to the deaths of his mother, sister, other family and friends…
Here is an extract from a conversation with Ratnachuda – also available to download.
Sangharakshita: I was in contact with my mother quite regularly, especially during the last years of her life. I visited her regularly. She came up to Padmaloka more than once. She visited me at Sukhavati. She was very struck by the image in the shrine room. Very struck. I remember that very well. Her death didn’t come as a great surprise. She was 92.
Ratnachuda: So, you have inherited the genetics of longevity!
Sangharakshita: Who knows?! My mother’s two youngest brothers, they lived into their nineties. Anyway, concerning my mother, there’s a little story I will tell you. She was in hospital, suffering from old age. She had had a fall, two years earlier, when she had broken her arm. I was due to see her in two weeks’ time, again.
One morning at breakfast I suddenly felt, ‘I’ve got to go and see my mother. I can’t wait for two weeks. I’ve got to go and see her.’ Very strong. So I said to Paramartha, who was with me, “Let’s go and see my mother.”
So we went to the hospital, and saw the nurse, and she asked me who I was, and I said I wanted to see Mrs Wiltshire, and that I was her son. She said, “I’m sorry to have to tell you, she died at two o’clock in the morning.”
Ratnachuda: That was the first you heard?
Sangharakshita: That was the first I’d heard, yes. I can’t quite remember, I think they may have phoned my nephew, because he lived around the corner from my mother, and he and his wife quite regularly looked after her and visited her. Of course the hospital didn’t have my phone number. They would have had my nephew’s number.
So that was a bit of a shock, because even though my mother was so old, and I wasn’t expecting her to live much longer, it comes as a bit of a shock. So the nurse made me a cup of tea, and I asked if I could see the body, and she said she’d arrange it. After half an hour, we went to the Chapel of Rest. I just sat with my mother’s body for half an hour and we chanted the Vajrasattva mantra and of course I went to the funeral. Straight from the hospital I went to my nephew’s place and saw him and his wife. However, I didn’t feel any real sorrow till about three days later.
Ratnachuda: Was there a trigger for that sorrow three days later?
Sangharakshita: I don’t think there was. Of course I had the same experience when I heard of the death of Dhardo Rimpoche. I didn’t feel it emotionally, at the time; it didn’t register emotionally until three days later. ‘It,’ as it were, hit me.
Ratnachuda: There is something – and you can put me right as you are often misquoted, however I can’t find a reference – I’m told that in a seminar before your mother died, you were asked whether you would feel grief, and your response at the time was “not grief, but sadness”. I don’t know if that’s correct or not, but that seems to have accorded with your experience of sorrow.
Sangharakshita: Yes. I can’t remember saying that. However, I certainly wasn’t grief stricken.
Ratnachuda: So what you’re saying is that Buddhist practice allows one to be like that?
Sangharakshita: When I hear of people being almost immobilized, unable to do anything, for a whole year, because they are so grief stricken, to me this really seems extraordinary.
Ratnachuda: In the Mahaparinibbana sutta, in the description of the Buddha’s passing, the villagers were ‘tearing their hair out, and the Arhats were sitting, unmoved by grief’. So it seems to me there is a spectrum of grief in the human condition. Is grief the right translation of the Pali here?
Sangharakshita: Yes, (soka), it is grief. That reminds me of something else, because I think in our family we were emotionally self-controlled, because a couple of years before my mother died I took her to see her best friend, who was in hospital. That best friend was someone my mother had known since my birth. This friend had had a daughter about the same time that my mother had me, and they’d been companions ever since, on and off, and been in contact right down to the present.
So I took my mother to see this friend, Margaret, in hospital. She was dying of cancer. I think she was 92, then. I took my mother to see her, and it was a goodbye visit really. She knew she was going to die. My mother was affected by that. She was very quiet, and she shed a few tears; however, there was no excessive grief. She was still quite self-controlled – she didn’t break down or anything like that. So that seems to have been the family style.
Sangharakshita: It seems to me – for Buddhists have an opportunity at Buddhist funeral when rejoicing in the merits of the deceased – it is an opportunity to say something quite Dharmic, maybe even about the gift of the death as a reminder of our impermanence?
In India, especially, I’ve always thought at funerals, it’s an extremely appropriate situation, with a deeply receptive audience. I spoke at my mother’s funeral, rather to the surprise of the clergyman! I didn’t express any grief. I simply spoke of some of my mother’s positive qualities and left it at that. Of course, I hadn’t much time, anyway; however, I certainly didn’t feel like expressing any grief. Well, I didn’t feel it in that sort of way. The funeral took place a week after my mother’s death.
One thing I’ve also noticed, as I’ve officiated at and attended quite a few funerals, in this country, I’ve noticed that the point at which people’s emotions are sparked off is when the coffin disappears in the crematorium, behind the curtain. Then sometimes people break down.
For the full conversation, download the booklet Urgyen Sangharakshita ‘in conversation’ with Ratnachuda about Death and Grief.