Death as a mirror of life


The narrow road from Pinkande to Katudampe was shiny black newly tarred, clearly marked on the edges with white unbroken lines.On either side we passed lush green paddy fields, houses surrounded by small garden plots with coconut, mango, banana and fruit trees. A solitary young Buddhist priest walked briskly, the bright orange of his robes, matching the setting sun that burned brightly beyond the fringe of trees. This was quintessentially rural Lanka at its best. We were mostly silent on the way to the Sri Sunandaramaya Temple at Katudampe in Dodanduwa.  On the seat with me was a small clay pot with a white cloth over it. This was my mother’s ashes — all that remained of a once vibrant, energetic, mother.

The river by the temple was silent. Nothing moved. The silence had an aura of its own as if it paid homage to the nearby temple.

The river by the Sri Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa. 8 Feb.2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

The river by the Sri Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa. 8 Feb.2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

I stood beside the bamboo grove, and watched the still waters. This was where we would leave my mother’s last remains by the temple she worshiped and also close to the Polgasduwa hermitage where she gave alms annually sometime ago. Returning ashes to a river is not  Buddhist custom. It’s a borrowed ritual from Hinduism. Rivers like the river Ganges is the embodiment of all sacred waters and the Sinhales use of “Ganga” for river probably stems from it. All rivers are supposed to have descended from heaven and the belief is that they are also the vehicle of ascent into heaven.

The bamboo grove by the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The bamboo grove by the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

As I stood crouched near the bamboo grove, my mother’s life passed through my mind. The breeze was gentle, calmed by the peace enveloping the river, I could let my sorrow seep into the water.  I heard a quiet splash in the water near me and turned to see a river snake  slid into the water, less than a foot away from me.

A river snake slides into the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

A river snake slides into the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

I wondered whether the snake was an omen, a relative of the past, maybe my own mother come as an incarnation but any such thoughts I had were snuffed completely by Rev. Hikkaduwe Tilaka, the chief priest of the temple. The novice priest on the other hand was very excited. He and I looked around for more snakes but there were none.

Looking for water snakes in the river by the Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa with the Podi Hamuduruwo. 8 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Looking for water snakes in the river by the Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa with the Podi Hamuduruwo. 8 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

In my sorrow, I had turned to re-read the The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that had been a gift from my younger son. I was reminded about the central concept of Tibetan Buddhism — of  life and death being seen as one whole, where death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.

In the teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, life and death are presented together as a series of constantly changing transitional realities known as bardos. So from the Tibetan Buddhist point of view and my understanding our entire existence — something like we know as our travels through samsara — is divided into four continually linked realities (1) life, (2) dying and death (3) after death and (4) rebirth. The greatest and most charged of these however, is the moment of death. Scriptures of Theravada Buddhism too, states that your “chethana” loosely translated meaning your mindset at the moment of death is the all important karma that drives your rebirth.

Many of the rituals performed at funerals like the one of pouring water on to a cup, till it overflows is passing on blessings to a dead person to benefit her/his after life

As water raining on a hill flows down to the valley,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.
As rivers full of water fill the ocean full,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.”

7th day almsging in remembrance of my mother. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 24 Jan. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

7th day almsgiving in remembrance of my mother. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 24 Jan. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

As the evening shadows deepened Matheesha, my brother Prasanna‘s younger son and my mother’s youngest grandson, stood patiently for the signal from the priest. The time had come to let go.

Samsara is your mind, and nirvana is also your mind
All pleasure and pain, and all delusions exist nowhere apart from your mind”

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

Matheesha holds the ashes in a pot with a bag of white flowers as the river waits silently. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Matheesha holds the ashes in a pot with a bag of white flowers to be sprinkled on to the river that waits silently. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

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9 thoughts on “Death as a mirror of life

  1. I don’t know you. I never met your mother. My tears here in the snow of Scotland are flowing through the rivers and oceans to you. My tears also flow to my father who is old and who thinks each day of dying, to my mother who remains determinedly energetic but who is nonetheless growing old. I love Sri Lanka and I love the pictures you have here. This is how I love Sri Lanka, although I was born into this life far from the colours of your island. But I send love – to you, to your family and to your beautiful country. I will return to Sri Lanka soon. I’l meet my family members from Australia at this perfect half-way point and I’ll think of you. I’ll pick up my sporadic learning of spoken Sinhala and remember why I love lassana Lanka.

    much love, Cathy Low

  2. Even though I never met your mother, from your rememberances and this posting, it is evident she deserves the respect and high esteem she received from you, her family, friends, and community.

  3. So very moving, Chulie! You have expressed your feelings so beautifully. If only I knew how to vote, I would give 10 stars – I am clueless as to how to do it! May your Amma rest in peace.
    Much love, Rohini

  4. Found this on Dinali Fernando’s wall on FB and I wrote this in sharing:

    Because of a quarter century of racial/religious strife i’ve pretty much written off the religion that acted as a kind of framework to my life. I only occasionally look askance at it. But my visits to the south of my father’s family, Telwatte, Balapitiya were places that anchored me in childhood and buddhist ritual was a huge aspect of it. I’d forgotten how gentle and sweet and grounding they were. At the time the people practising these rituals truly meant it. This blog by Chulie de Silva (stolen from Dinali Fernando’s wall) is a loud reminder of that truth. Especially at the time of death. Its import is made evident the few times I’ve observed the ritual of pouring water into a bowl until it overflows. Pansakula is the pali term. Sacred. It is a moment filled with things unknown, the death, the afterlife, the heft and triviality of a life lived or mis-lived. Last experienced when my father passed and fortunately I was there at the time.

    “Samsara is your mind, and nirvana is also your mind
    All pleasure and pain, and all delusions exist nowhere apart from your mind”
    – From The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

    and Chulie writes –

    “Scriptures of Theravada Buddhism too, states that your “chethana” loosely translated meaning your mindset at the moment of death is the all important karma that drives your rebirth.

    Many of the rituals performed at funerals like the one of pouring water on to a cup, till it overflows is passing on blessings to a dead person to benefit her/his after life

    As water raining on a hill flows down to the valley,
    even so does what is given here
    benefit the dead.
    As rivers full of water fill the ocean full,
    even so does what is given here
    benefit the dead.”

    7th day almsging in remembrance of my mother. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 24 Jan. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

    ps. May be this speaks even more to me because this place is not too far from my father’s birth place and my favourite aunt’s which is in Telwatte. She married a de Silva. So we may be connected through family. May Chulie’s mother attain eternal peace and nibbana.

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