Recently, a friend asked me the question, “What do you think the Buddha would say about losing someone?” He is really struggling with the loss of someone he is attached to. They haven't died, but they have gone away. Something has changed, and there is a lot of grief. I wanted to think about it for a bit before I answered. And after contemplating the question, this is what came to me:
I don't know what the Buddha would say about basically anything. But I will share what I would say about loss, and losing someone rather than some thing, in particular. Loss, is half of our experience. Gain, the other half. The Buddha talked about this a lot: All things born, are subject to death. It is the ripening of the karmic seed of birth for something to die. This includes everything. Ideas, fantasies, feelings, people, rocks (which seem so permanent, only because they last so incredibly long), dirt, the earth, etc and so forth. This is something we will never accept. Not because we are stubborn, or incapable. We cannot accept this because we ourselves continue to exist out of our own attachment to the permanence of things we want. In fact, the act of wanting, craving, attachment itself cannot be separated from the birth of things, and thus from the death of things. Death would not happen without our attachment. Death does not happen without birth. If we were not attached, there would be nothing to die.
How is this helpful when we lose something, something important to us, something we love? I think that what it tells us is that grief cannot be avoided. In fact, as we age and grow through life, the losses we experience begin to point to something much vaster and deeper than the individual or thing we have lost, or our attachment to them. These losses begin to point to the loss of the dreaming. The dream is what we have been spinning since we knew we existed. In this dream we feel that we are the creator, and that our experiences are the created. This is a mistake, though as long as we enjoy the dream, it is a mistake that we enjoy. As we continue through life to lose more and more things, we start to realize that there is a dream, but we are not the dreamer. There is no dreamer. This is what loss is pointing to. The dream without a dreamer. Without a dreamer there is no way to avoid loss or to bring about gain. We cannot take control of the dream. So in one loss, is all losses. This is how grief expands, grows, and begins to permeate all things, and all experiences. This is the basis of compassion for other people. When we truly see and experience our own pain, it unveils the commonality that we share with other people. It awakens our compassionate heart, our non-judgmental mind, and the love and connection we so crave with other people becomes obvious. So though we are losing something, there is something revealed.
The Dalai Lama:
“To the extent that our experience of suffering reminds us of what everyone else also endures, it serves as a powerful inspiration to practice compassion and avoid causing others pain. And to the extent that suffering awakens our empathy and causes us to connect with others, it serves as the basis of compassion and love.” In this way, our grief becomes a well of compassion that we can draw on.
It is our work to continue to experience things as they are, knowing each time we do, that those experiences will die and more experiences will be born. As we move through these experiences they turn more toward the deeper, more continuous experience of birth and death, and less about the particular birth and death.
But this feeling of attachment is difficult, of course. Imagine a small child, new still to the world, and the way it works. Imagine their surprise and pain at knowing that the people they love will die. How would you treat this child in the face of their grief? We must approach ourselves this same way, with the same kindness. Because until we no longer are born, we are attached to life. This is natural, and so grief is natural.