Knowing death is part of life, why do I still get overwhelmed by grief as a Buddhist?

Knowing death is part of life, why do I still get overwhelmed by grief as a Buddhist?

TLDR: What do we do when a loved one passes on? Being in a situation where not everything can be Googled, Fang Huey reflects on her experience as she navigates her way through grief. 

We are all so familiar with birth, ageing, sickness and death. However, when our loved ones pass on, we are often caught off guard and most of us do not know how to handle grief. Is grief really the price we pay for love?

The days leading up to my PoPo’s (Grandma’s) passing were undeniably tough. 

From the day PoPo was warded, many scans and treatments ensued, until she could no longer be treated and was terminally discharged.

“Stage 4 cancer? I do not know how to feel about the possibility of my grandma passing on. How do I prepare myself for death? What do I expect? I do not know.” – 8 February 2021 (An extract from my diary)

It was heartbreaking to witness PoPo’s health deteriorate rapidly within such a short span of time. 

The day I dreaded most arrived. 

The doctor informed us to prepare for the worst while they were carrying out resuscitation efforts.

It was a familiar scene in movies but having to experience that scene myself was hard to process. A sudden realisation hit me that such a close family member would soon be gone permanently from our lives. 

I reached out to my Puja (chanting) book to chant and share merits with PoPo. A few pages later, I couldn’t continue even though I was very familiar with the verses. 

Everything became blurry. I felt lost, uncertain and panicky. 

What should I do? I was helpless.  

Everything happened so quickly and PoPo left us a month after being diagnosed.

Reflecting back on the journey, the following snippets of Dhamma recollection resonated with me. 

Grief hurts

After the funeral, I snapped back to reality and took time to process my emotions. Everything felt just like a dream.

No matter how much I tried to occupy myself with schoolwork and return to ‘normalcy’, I still found myself missing PoPo, spending nights scrolling through photos of her. 

A week after PoPo’s passing, a neighbour asked, “Are you going to PoPo’s house?”

She might just be striking up a casual conversation but I was jolted towards my loss and that I could no longer accompany or chat with PoPo. 

Rings of a bicycle bell would remind me of PoPo coming to my house. I couldn’t help but check the gates during the initial days of grief like responding to Pavlovian conditioning. 

Tears welled up in my eyes when I realised that I would never find PoPo at my gate on her small bike anymore. I felt my heart numb by pain once again. 

There is so much sorrow in knowing that PoPo would not be here with us anymore. The regrets of not spending more time with her surfaced time after time; I only have memories to look back on.

I felt terrible. I turned to Google to search about losing a loved one and whether I would feel better. 

There were sharings from others who have lost their loved ones, but I was unable to find one that satisfied me. On the contrary, reading the articles made me sadder and amplified my loss from resonating with what they have gone through.  

Instead, I had to turn back towards the Dhamma for guidance.

Acknowledging Grief and Suffering Exists

When a loved one passes on, one goes through a period of grieving. During this time, it is easy to lose ourselves and wallow in sadness. This is one of the eight sufferings – the suffering of separating from loved ones.

We are fast to cling to what brings us happiness; we try to get rid of the unpleasant feelings and desire to return to the past when our loved one was still with us. 

By acknowledging that grief exists, without making it personal and accepting suffering as “there is suffering”, instead of “I suffer”, I was able to stop being sucked into the vortex of suffering. I reflected and became more aware of my feelings and thoughts, seeing things as they are. I saw grief as suffering rather than my personal misery. 

“We tend to grasp and identify rather than to observe, witness and understand things as they are.”  – Ajahn Sumedho

Understanding the Reason Behind Sufferings

We suffer due to attachments to our desires. 

I craved PoPo’s presence, company and care for me. But I couldn’t find them back anymore. It is hard to accept the hard truth. 

Her keys, flowers at her windows, soya milk, and many things that I see and hear kept reminding me of her absence. The traces she left behind were everywhere. 

There are many changes I have to deal with. It felt strange; I felt a great loss and a void inside me. 

I wanted PoPo back and for things to be back to normal again, but this wish can never be fulfilled and it causes my suffering.

After recognising and identifying the desire for our loved one to be back with us and for things to go back to normalcy, we can start to let go of the desire. When we no longer grasp and react, but instead lay our desires aside without passing judgement, we start recognising that desire is the cause of suffering. 

Knowing that there is an End to our Suffering

Through investigation and reflection, we see that all conditions are impermanent. All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing. I tried my best to accept PoPo’s passing; I convinced myself that it is actually good that she passed on quickly and was free from physical pain. 

Our family tried to fill the gaps that PoPo left behind. 

We took on chores that she had been doing all these years and appreciated her even more. 

PoPo’s demise actually brought us closer. As days went by, we adjusted better and better to our new lives. 

By being patient and observing grief, I realised that emotions would cease, and we need not run away from these negative feelings each time it arises. By allowing these conditions and feelings to cease naturally, we experience cessation and non-attachment; we are left with peace. 

Reflections

Author with her PoPo

Although it has been over half a year since PoPo passed, grief and sadness still arise at times.

With time, I learnt how to cope with these feelings betters, by understanding suffering and attachment. I also allow these feelings to exist and naturally fade away with time. 

Over time, we also started realising and appreciating the good PoPo has done more and more. I remember PoPo for the generosity and kindness that she has for people around her. I aspire to be as giving and understanding as her, by incorporating these little acts of kindness into my life. 

Looking back, I am glad that I turned back to the Dhamma as it gave me peace and relief, helping me to understand grief and cope with my feelings better.  


Wise Steps: 

  • When we experience suffering, slow down to observe and witness the suffering without judgment. 
  • In life, we face many obstacles and unpleasant situations. Be kind and gentle towards yourself; give yourself time. 

Chanting Is Not Boring. It Is Crazy Helpful.

Chanting Is Not Boring. It Is Crazy Helpful.

TLDR: Chanting keeps the mind afloat on the choppy waves of suffering. Connecting you to others across time and space, the ritual of chanting creates a refuge from pain. The healing device of chanting is anything but boring!

Yeap, you read it right. Chanting is crazy helpful. Especially when the mind goes crazy. To a non-believer, chanting can be an unfathomable activity – boring, even superstitious. To a practitioner, chanting cleanses the mind.

Let us understand what chanting is and how it heals.

Chanting Tickles Your Right-Brain

Relying on synchronised tunes and steady rhythms, chanting vocalises the Buddha’s teachings, recollections and praises for the Triple Gem. 

Chanting is the ‘feeling’ and ‘healing’ part of a logical and pragmatic religion-philosophy. Done with full intent and focus, chanting soothes the heart like a balm. Cooling and stilling afflictions. Warming and uplifting the mind.

Short of comparing chanting to singing your favourite soundtrack mindfully in full earnest, the voicing of “lyrics” falls within a short range of inflecting tones without musical accompaniment. Chanting with the right understanding of familiar verses leads to joy and peace. Sometimes, tears. On auspicious occasions, goosebumps. 

The volitional act of voicing out the Buddha’s teachings, never mind the tune, pledges one’s faith that the Dhamma leads beings out of suffering. This verbal allegiance is not for show but to remind ourselves of the Truth time and again.

Because we forget. In this way, chanting instils a sense of belonging – to the Triple Gem, to a wholesome way of life, to a practice of training towards the human fullest potential, to kindness. To hope.

Knowing how to chant, one plugs into a common Buddhist ritual that binds all differences – nationality, language, race, class, culture, those suffering and those enlightened. Cutting across space and time, in your home, at any temple, in a forest, on mountain tops or at the Buddist holy sites in India — wherever, whenever, chanting connects you to a community of practitioners since Lord Gotama Buddha’s time. 

The key to a spiritually satisfying chanting session is then learning how to chant and what to chant, in which language.

The Ritual of Chanting

Typically, chanting is part of a practitioner’s morning and evening routines. Depending on the Buddhist tradition, chanting involves varying extents of ritual, usually set in front of an altar, where possible. Due to my upbringing, I have the fortune of learning how to chant in both the Mahayana (Chinese) and Theravadin (Thai Forest) traditions. Having experienced both, I feel more connected to the latter, which I will give a little exposé below.

Simple in tones and expressions, without instrumental accompaniment, Theravadin chanting is mainly in the Pāli language, an ancient vernacular during Lord Buddha’s time. Disciples of the Thai Forest Tradition alternate between Pāli and translations in their first languages, such as Thai, English, German, and Chinese etc.

From experience, searching up the translated meaning of Pāli verses before chanting helps to quell the critical mind.

After offering incense or candlelight or flowers and paying respects to the Triple Gem by bowing, you put your palms together in añjali, kneeling or sitting with your knees folded away from the altar. If you have learnt the words by heart, close your eyes. If not, set out a chanting book with translation nearby. Gather awareness on your breathing. Ready the mind for spiritual connection. 

Then, the chanting begins.

Regardless of chanting in private or in public, alone or in a group, a keen sense of ego arouses when projecting the voice initially.

To avoid suffering, you can set aside that notion of “me/mine/myself” for clear awareness to arise. As the Dhamma rings in your ears and through your body, the vocal cords sync with a sincere heart.

The mind arrives at each articulated word to soak in its meaning.

Peace ensues. Chanting creates a refuge for the moment amidst chaos.

What chants can I turn to?

There is a chant for any time and occasion to counter greed, hatred and delusion, which reside in our hearts since the beginning of time.

Some recollections are snippets of the Buddha’s exhortations; others are full discourses considered as protective chants. Some typical chants a lay practitioner has in his/her spiritual toolkit help uplift the mind into wholesome vibes.

For monastics, cardinal sermons are chanted to maintain the oral tradition of preserving the Buddha’s discourses. Particular recollections pertain to arousing dispassion towards worldly attachments and urgency for practising the Holy life. A set of chants reserved for funerals; another set for blessings. 

On every Full Moon and New Moon of the lunar calendar (Uposatha Lunar Observance Days), monks gather together to chant the Vinaya Patimokkha, which is the Code of Discipline Lord Gotama Buddha set down for monastics to uphold and honour. Similarly, to upkeep their virtues, the laity would undertake the Five Precepts or Eight Precepts by chanting them on Lunar Observance Days.

Chanting plays important roles in our practice: it teaches us what is skillful and remind us to counter the stubborn poisons within our hearts.

Dr. Buddha, can you prescribe some chanting for my troubled heart?

For practitioners encountering intense emotions such as anger, sorrow, fear, anxiety or grief, listening to chanting is a helpful relief from recurring and distressing thoughts. The act of chanting brings an even greater autonomy over processing negative feelings. An effective spiritual ParacetamolTM that soothes sharp, crippling pains from my personal experience. You will always find an emergency playlist of my favourite chants in my phone on standby for breakdowns. 

If you wake up grumpy, listless or sian, what better way to pick yourself up than a cup of warm water and a morning chanting? 

For the past year, I made it a point to begin my day with morning chanting, regardless of how much time I have or how long the chanting is. On good days, morning chanting uplifts my mind for a quiet sit. On bad days, chanting seems to be the only wholesome thing I can cling on to for my life. Chanting has since become my anchor in the tumultuous waves of negative emotions. 

Without chanting, I am pretty sure I would not have made it through difficult times to be here and write. Crazy helpful, I’d say. 

I have listed a couple of resources to support your journey with chanting in the Theravadin Thai Forest Tradition below. Hope you will find a chant that resonates.

Chanting Books with translation:

Wat Marp Jan

Wat Pah Nanachat

Amaravati Monastery: Chanting Vol 1; Chanting Vol 2 – Parittas and Suttas

A Chanting Guide: Pāli Passages with English Translations, by The Dhammayut Order in the United States of America

Chanting Audio Recordings:

Wat Marp Jan

Wat Pah Nanachat

Amaravati Monastery

Metta Forest Monastery

PeaceBeyondSuffering

Spiritual Toolkit:

ChantFunction

Supreme Qualities of the Triple Gems

Refuge in Triple Gem
Arouses faith in the Buddha’s Dispensation
Buddha’s Words On Loving-kindness
Counters anger and ill-will

Reflection on Universal Well-Being
Generates goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity

Five Subjects For Frequent Recollection
Provokes reflection on impermanence of life and the law of kamma (causation and effect)

Reflection on Thirty-two Parts
Arouses dispassion toward sensuality and the body. Curbs greed and corrects distorted perception of the body’s reality

Verses of Sharing and Aspiration
Cultivates gratitude and stirs resolution to practice. Shares merits with all beings

The Highest Blessings
Cultivates gratitude. Acts as protective chant

The Turning of Dhamma-Wheel Discourse Dhammacakkapavathana Sutta
One of the cardinal discourses. Instils understanding of core teachings. Corrects delusion
For more chants, please refer to the list of chanting books and resources above.


Wise Steps:

  • Pick up a chanting book and learn a few chants in Pāli and English, although no one is stopping you from learning Thai.

  • Listen to some of the chants to learn the tunes and intonation.

  • Commit to a short session of morning or evening chanting. No need to paiseh. An altar is good to have but not necessary.

  • Save a list of your favourite crazy helpful chants for emergencies.

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