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Back to listFeb 27, 2008

BRC Public Event Pursues Deeper Understanding of Death, Greater Appreciation for Living

In 1993, at a lecture given at Harvard University, Boston Research Center for the 21st Century (BRC) founder Daisaku Ikeda raised the following questions, based on a philosophy of humanistic Buddhism: "What does it mean for death to be more than 'the absence of life'?" "Is it possible to experience both life and death with 'equal delight'?"

On February 27, 2008, these questions were explored during a public forum held at the BRC in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Professors Nur Yalman,Tu Weiming and Harvard Cox with Mary Catherine Bateson addressing the deeper meaning of life and death

The event, called "Understanding Death, Appreciating Life," featured Harvard professors Harvey Cox, Tu Weiming and Nur Yalman. Celebrated cultural anthropologist and author Mary Catherine Bateson delivered opening remarks. The public dialogue posed the following questions: What has shaped your view of death, including personal experiences? How does your view of death affect the way you live? An overarching theme that surfaced during a discussion among the presenters was that given the right perspective and a willingness to learn, experiencing the dying of those close to us can humanize us. "To be with someone who is dying is a profound way of learning how to love," said Professor Bateson. "Maybe death and love are connected in some ways--part of what makes life so precious and so beautiful."

Professor Cox recollected his time as a young chaplain for the terminally ill and related how the patients seemed so fully alive. "They didn't want to repress things, they didn't want to delay things, and this was a lesson for me with reference to how I would live the rest of my life." He added that all of us are in a "terminal hospital," since we all must eventually face death. So "why do we have to wait until those last moments, or those last weeks," Professor Cox wondered, "to shed those inhibitions, which, having shed them, we wish we had shed earlier?"

Referencing the Confucian tradition, Professor Tu said, "When the question was asked, 'What about death?' Confucius responded, 'We do not know life enough, how can we know death?'" Professor Tu elaborated further, "So there is only life that is being affirmed. It is not a spiritual sanctuary outside of the world that gives us solace."

Professor Yalman commented on the value of structured, religious ritual. "I have found it a great source of peace to be able to allow myself to flow with the organized ritual of traditional form," he said. Remarking that death can produce such tremendous raw emotion, he observed that great comfort can be gained by immersing oneself in a "community of loved ones, all of them participating in the activities that have been hallowed over the centuries."

The presenters' comments, including their personal reflections, sparked a feeling of connection among the attendees, also seeming to demonstrate the humanizing potential of investigating a deeper understanding of death. Adding to this atmosphere was the unexpectedly large turnout for the event, which confirmed for BRC Executive Director Virginia Benson, "that people definitely want to talk about death now."

Upon leaving, an elderly couple remarked that it was rare to engage in a discussion of death outside of a church congregation or similar group already united by previously agreed-upon theological frameworks. They were in a sense confirming the dialogical approach that is central to Mr. Ikeda's vision for the evolution of humanity: When we come together for dialogue without pre-set answers, new possibilities present themselves.

Exploration of the topic will continue in the fall of 2008. In September, the Fifth Annual Ikeda Forum will feature the perspective of hospice care workers and others involved with prolonged experiences of death and dying. The second event, in October, will feature a lecture by Dr. Yoichi Kawada, director of the Tokyo-based Institute of Oriental Philosophy, who will speak further about implications of the view of life and death presented in Mr. Ikeda's 1993 lecture.

[Adapted from a BRC report and an article in the March 5, 2008 issue of the Seikyo Shimbun, Soka Gakkai, Japan; photo courtesy of BRC]