Tarka #04: On Death

In this issue of Tarka, On Death, we explore the topic of death from the perspective of contemplative traditions – including various ways of understanding  and relating to the dying process, consecrating grief and loss, and practices designed to alleviate the suffering generally associated with death.

Tarka Issue #4

On Death

  • Historical, Polemical, and Experimental Essays
  • Introductory Articles on Key Topics
  • Interviews with Vineet Chander, Isa Gucciardi, and Andrew Holecek
  • Three Book Reviews
  • Articles on Practice and Translation

Articles from this Issue

What is Saṃsāra?

Saṃsāra refers to the cycle of death and rebirth. It is the natural cycle of creation, maintenance, and dissolution that all material things undergo. 

For nearly all philosophical systems stemming from the Indian subcontinent, the true self is viewed as pure awareness. It  is eternal and categorically different from all material things, although in each cycle of saṃsāra, it inhabits a material body and appears within one of the various species of life, including aquatics, plants, insects, reptiles, birds, mammals, and humans. According to the dharmic traditions, the type of material body the self experiences is due to karma, which is the concept that one’s birth, life experiences, and life span are the result of deeds previously performed.

Because the true self is eternal, the “natural” cycle of saṃsāra is viewed as wholly unnatural

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Kaṭha Upaniṣad: The Secret Teachings of Death

“The great message of the universe is not that you survive. It is that you are awakened into a process in which nothing ultimately survives. Everything ultimately changes. Everything that rises also falls…the Law [is to become] a sacrifice, to yield one’s independent position.”

— Easy Death, Da Free John

The Wise Child

There’s something that you will never forget in your life. I know I haven’t. It’s the first time you see a dead body—the first time you meet Death. 

I was 12 when it happened to me. Our eighth grade had just returned from the annual class trip. We’d taken a luxury coach to Washington, D.C. and I sat next to a guy I knew from science class—Andy whom we all called “Sharky.” We spent the whole way chatting, mun

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Beyond Living and Dying

Death plays a pivotal role in the history of yoga—the original objective of practice was ending rebirth. At some point between the earliest Vedas and the time of the Buddha a thousand years later, the doctrine of karma changed people’s priorities. Whatever one did produced karmic results, leaving mental impressions that led to more actions. Since this cycle spanned lifetimes, one was destined to suffer through an infinite process of reincarnation. The ultimate goal was to set oneself free, using spiritual wisdom to sever the chain of karmic consequences. 

Yoga developed as one such approach. Practitioners traded ideas, from ascetic extremes of self-mortification to subtler techniques based on meditative insight. Most of these methods yielded shifts in perception. If one ceased to identify oneself as an individual person—and instead saw the self as unfiltered consciousness—one might be libera

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Conquering Death

Haṭha yoga texts, such as the Haṭhapradīpikā, often talk about gaining control over or  conquering death. One of the best means recommended for doing this is to control the breath through prāṇāyāma practice, since prāṇa is also the life force. The main words for death derive from the verb mṛ, to die, which gives mṛta and mṛtyu. This is the opposite of amṛta, literally not  dead, or immortal. It is also suggested that other methods, such as viparīta-karaṇī, an upside-down mudrā akin to shoulderstand or headstand can help to prolong life by stopping the loss of bindu or amṛta, the life force or nectar of immortality. One of the other main words for death is kāla, also meaning “time,” so conquering death is beating time as well. Doing this is often linked to the  ultimate goal of attaining oneness wit

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At a Planetary Crossroads: Contemplative Wisdom of Black Geographies

This article is from Embodied Philosophy’s MindBody Studies Track.

I gather cornmeal. Without fresh rose petals, dried ones from last week’s bouquet will do. A small bowl holds water laced with a few drops of orange oil. Sweetened for the sit. Slowly, slowly, I draw the cornmeal in a vertical line, and then one horizontally, across. The cornmeal forms a crossroads. With each line, I trace lineage. I remember African-American ancestors and their use of cornmeal for cooking and spiritual work. I recall Xicana/Mexican ancestors from whom corn has long been sacred. Now, to let the rose petals fall, fall, wherever they may. And then for a moment, I sit. Sit with the crossroads. Sit with my eyes closed. Sit until I am no longer focused on this line or that line, but am drawn to the center…

Last year, the world faced a crossroads. We remain a

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From Faculty & Friends: Andrew Holecek

What is death from the perspective of your tradition?

As with many questions about death and dying from the Buddhist tradition, this question is addressed from the absolute and relative levels. From an absolute perspective, death is an illusion. The great contribution of Tibetan thanatology is the death of death. Death only occurs in the realm of form. If one can discover the formless dimensions of being, of who we truly are, “Nothing happens” at the moment of death, as His Holiness the 16th Karmapa proclaimed a few days before he died. Formless means deathless. The goal of the bardo teachings (the Tibetan approach that deals with death) is this: to discover that which cannot die because it was never born. In this regard, death is a homecoming, a return to the unborn and undying source. 

What is death from the perspective of your tradition?

It is important to note that when we speak about a ‘shamanic worldview’ we are talking about the relationship to reality shared by cultures across the world. It is important to remember that because I am speaking so broadly, my statements may apply to one tradition more than another. Shamanism is the oldest form of spirituality. Shamanic traditions, in one form or another, are the centerpiece of the majority of cultures that have ever existed.

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An Interview about Death with Vineet Chander

What is death from the perspective of your tradition?

I belong to a Vaiṣṇava, Hindu tradition that is situated in Vedānta, so our view of death is colored by this “dual” influence. 

On the one hand, like other Vedāntic traditions, we see death—and re-birth (and re-death)—as part of the cycle known as samsara. The true self (ātman) is, by its very nature, deathless; by over-identifying with the body and mind

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From the Introduction

Often aligned with evil, death appears as the grim reaper, the nefarious gambler, in scary movies, and in ghost stories, yet death is an intimate part of life. For many, death marks the end of existence and is therefore often treated as a kind of ultimate foe or failure. Disease commonly invokes a “battle,” where triumph is the end of illness and a prolonged life, and death is “defeat.” That an individual might heroically endure cancer treatment, and potentially face a myriad of challenges and transformations that come with a terminal diagnosis, only to “succumb” to the disease, highlights the deprivation in our language and attitude towards death. The battle and defeat dialectic lacks nuance and seemingly turns all involved (which is everyone) away from the main event – the great and inevitable cycle of birth and death.

Stephanie Corigliano, TARKA Journal Managing Editor

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On Death

In this issue of Tarka, On Death, we explore the topic of death from the perspective of contemplative traditions – including various ways of understanding and relating to the dying process, consecrating grief and loss, and practices designed to alleviate the suffering generally associated with death.
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