Dying well: why Australians are turning to ‘Buddhish’ deaths

Sometimes the mere presence of her maroon and saffron robes allows people to speak honestly about death with Venerable Tsultrim. She suspects the robes have a “calming influence” and signal something of her willingness, as a Buddhist nun, to discuss topics like suffering and impermanence.

Tsultrim offers support for dying people, families and medical staff through Karuna Hospice Services, an in-home palliative and spiritual care provider in Queensland. It is one of a small number of hospice services across Australia affiliated with Buddhist organisations.

Buddhist-inspired practices, including mindfulness and compassion training, are part of Australia’s flourishing wellness industry and, for many Australians, Buddhists and Buddhism have come to play a role in not just living well but dying well, also.

As yet there are no comprehensive statistics on the scale of Buddhist influence within Australia’s end-of-life care system, or individual people’s dying journey. This is why we have set out to study this emerging phenomenon in the Dying “Buddhish” in Australia project.

The project has identified more than 40 Australian service providers offering “Buddhist-inspired” end-of-life care or deathcare, and close to 50 practitioners using meditation, mindfulness or compassion cultivation in their professional practice in hospitals, hospices and funeral homes. There are likely to be many more people working in these fields, or themselves facing death, who may not explicitly identify with Buddhism but use its teachings.

Hospices such as Karuna welcome people of all faiths and those of none. Most people Tsultrim works with are not Buddhist, nor does she try to make them so. What she does offer is calm conversation, a moment of mindfulness and reflection on love and kindness.

Buddhism and nature

Throughout her life, Helena* never much liked organised religion. She preferred bushwalks, yoga and spending time with family. So, after a terminal cancer diagnosis, Helena didn’t want a priest or a counsellor. Instead (somewhat to her family’s surprise), she wanted to call a Buddhist. “I just thought they might be a good person to talk to,” she said.

Helena did not claim to be a Buddhist. She did not regularly meditate or attend a temple. She might have been more comfortable with the label Buddhish – a dabbler in Buddhist things, alongside other spiritual traditions. She is what the religious studies scholar Thomas A Tweed once called a “night-stand Buddhist”, given the stack of popular Buddhist texts beside the bed.

These texts, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, have become sources of comfort and strength to many Australians, like Helena, who face their own or their loved one’s mortality.

‘My church is out on the bay, in a tinny with a fishing line.’ Photograph: Lianne B Loach/Getty Images

Helena’s experience is not uncommon. The percentage of Christians in Australia is falling, while the number of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs is growing. There has also been a dramatic rise, particularly among younger people, in the number of Australians who identify as having “no religion”. Among them are people who are “spiritual but not religious”.

Many young Australians also have a strong and sacred connection to nature, similar in ways to the “reverential naturalism” observed in the Pacific north-west: an appreciation and awe that is consistent with both scientific knowledge and spirituality.

Nature is often evoked in discussions of meaning at the end of life. Or, as one elderly man told his palliative care doctor: “My church is out on the bay, in a tinny with a fishing line.”

Symbols of nature – lotus flowers, bamboo and water lilies – feature prominently in marketing for Buddhish deathcare.

Meaningful, spiritually diverse end-of-life care and deathcare are possible. But they are not always easy to access. End-of-life care and deathcare institutions in Australia operate within a largely secular framework which recognises religious diversity but not necessarily spirituality.

As Australia’s population ages and becomes more spiritually diverse, more people will need access to support that reflects their worldviews. This includes support for people who want “nothing to do with religion” as well as those who might enjoy a conversation with Christian priest, a Buddhist nun or another spiritual teacher.

A different perspective

In addition to respect for nature, our research identifies several Buddhist teachings and practices that providers suggest particularly appeal to the Australian public.

The first is Buddhism’s honest confrontation with the impermanence of life and the inevitability of death. In the face of euphemisms, “thoughts and prayers” or visions of an eternal afterlife, Buddhism’s acknowledgment that death will come to all is praised. Death is often accompanied by much suffering but in many Buddhist traditions it is also framed as an opportunity for growth.

Buddhist teachers are more circumspect when it comes to mindfulness practices. While being mindful of pleasant food aromas or natural vistas, for example, may comfort the dying, focusing on a suffering body might only increase one’s pain. Buddhist teachers therefore encourage the dying to engage with meaningful sensory experiences, particularly music.

Finally, healthcare workers in particular suggest compassion as a key Buddhist tool that assists with delivering end-of-life care. Compassion can help palliative care staff respond to suffering and difficult family dynamics with kindness, while not taking on this pain themselves.

Memorials with meaning

Buddhism can be a source of inspiration for funerals and memorials too.

Kimba Griffith, co-founder of The Last Hurrah Funeral Home in Melbourne, regularly creates services that incorporate the different facets of somebody’s life story, including their spirituality.

When Kristian, beloved son of Gill and Jim and partner to Martha, died suddenly during their honeymoon in Singapore in 2022, the family were devastated. But rather than fall back on what they call the “Christian mainstream model”, they worked with Last Hurrah to craft a memorial that was meaningful to who Kristian was – honest, fiercely just and deeply kind.

Kristian with his guide while hiking the Himalayas as a child

After Kristian’s initial funeral service in Melbourne, the family chose to hold a ceremony 49 days after he died, at a pub in their home town of Bendigo. In many Buddhist traditions, 49 days is the length of time it takes for somebody to pass through the bardo (the liminal space between life and death).

At nine years old, Kristian accompanied his father on a trek through the Himalayas. One evening they came across a raucous dance around a bonfire. They were shocked to learn that this was a 49-day memorial service. Their Tibetan guide said the ceremony was a way for the living to show the dead that they had recovered from the heartbreak, letting them move on in peace to their next rebirth.

The altar at Kristian’s 49-day service, with offerings, incense and candles placed alongside his personal items. Photograph: Last Hurrah

To honour Kristian, the family decided to adopt this ceremony. It was an occasion filled with laughter and tears and it became a meaningful rite for Kristian’s community.

Kristian’s ceremony, Helena’s experience and the care offered by Karuna show that many Australians already find solace in Buddhist teachings and rituals but they need systems that support them and their families in living and dying well.

Or as Tsultrim puts it: “I am here to try and serve you in whatever way you believe is best for you. I’m really conscious that people are experts in their own lives.”

* A pseudonym

Title: Dying well: why Australians are turning to ‘Buddhish’ deaths
URL: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2024/feb/08/dying-well-why-australians-are-turning-to-buddhish-deaths
Source: World news: Religion | guardian.co.uk
Source URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/religion
Date: February 7, 2024 at 03:06PM
Feedly Board(s): Religion