From Death to Deathlessness
An Easter Contemplation on Anastasia by Ayya Tathaaloka
Warm Easter-season tidings, dear friends in Dhamma,
Born in America but not raised Christian, i grew up with Easter as a rite of spring, with Easter bunnies and baskets, egg hunts and candy in pastel colors. I learned that the cracking open of the egg and the blossoming of the flowers were Life and cause for rejoicing.
Later i learned of the ancient Eostre goddess, worshiped with the coming of the early light of spring morning during this month, in this spring season. Her name from aush -- to shine -- like the ancient Vedic goddess of the dawn Usha (sometimes portrayed like a saffron-robed woman renunciate :) is also related to other ancients: Ishtar and the Buddhist Tara as well as the Roman goddess of dawn Aurora - all in the great turning of things.
Usha, Vedic Goddess of the Dawn
Like the rise and fall of dawn and darkness, I learned to appreciate these cycles -- the cycle of the seasons and of the nature of this cycle -- new life arising out of what has died, and the co-dependent nature of life and death. What is born must die, and death is necessary for rebirth. It is only from darkness that dawn arises, and only from death new life.
This was strangely and ritually embodied in early forms of religious sacrifice.
In the Buddha's life he saw the great Brahmanical sacrifices of animal life, and sacrifices of fire - our primary solar life energy. If we believe the stories, seeing how untouched the realities of sickness, aging and death seem to be by such sacrifices, he left to seek another way -- intent upon the deathless, amrita, aka the mythical elixir of immortality -- through patipada, the path of contemplative, meditative practice, and ascetic renunciation in polar opposition to the extreme hedonism of full on sensual indulgence. In the balance of mindful awareness, in the middle, he found his way, discovering on this path both death (Mara) and the Deathless he was looking for. He found the "end of the world" in this fathom long body.
In these years of middle-age now, in monastic inter-religious dialog with Christian contemplatives, i've learned a little something of the cycles of the Christian year and of its images and stories. And something of the meaning these stories point to through the year, and in this season. It is this contemplation that i write today.
This morning, i was looking at the word anastasia, which we translate as resurrection, so fundamental in the Christian meaning of Easter. Stasis is akin to death; contrary to the nature of life, the staticity that leads to death. Sta is a holding hard and fast; a stand, inflexible. But ana is exactly not that -- the opposite -- it is light, and uplifts. It is like Eostre's rising of the light that brings new life to the world.
In Buddhism, ignorance is the worst kind of darkness. When the Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese, 無明, "the absence of brightness," was chosen to translate avijja - ignorance. The darkness of unknowing, of blindness, confusion and misunderstanding that is at the root of all forms of mutable suffering. A deathlike slumber. Mara -- the force of Death -- is personified as the Evil One. And holding tight, or clinging attachment -- when unwise -- is the cause of all our bondage and degradation. It is the hardness and tightness that we feel as tension and stress in our bodies and minds that is dukkha, the absence of an open, bright and uplifting freeflowingness when the heart unbinds in freedom.
So for our anastasia, we begin to bring life and growth -- bhavana -- to the light of our awareness, and clear knowing of all things. We see impermanence and know the untruthfulness and illusory nature of death. And we practice relaxing, releasing and letting go with everything of body and heart-mind, internally, externally. We see the arising of the world in this fathom-long body of five senses and the process of creation in the sixth sense, the mind.
As we see creation, with awareness and letting go, the light of the heart-mind gathers in itself and becomes stronger and brighter. We know this as the core and essence of our being -- the pabhasara citta -- the essential pure radiance of the heart-mind, burning through and burning off all defilements and bondages, like the coming of the pure spring sun rising to its zenith.
There is a death in this. A death in the sense of the dying of tied and bound ego-attachment to all of the external things it has clung to to fabricate our narrow and limited world views. A death to the tied and bound egoic attachment to possession of the forms of earthly elements. A death to egoic clinging to all of our narrow hard and fast notions of ourselves, and the binding of the fascia-like web of our histories, fantasies, views and opinions. Like the death of clinging mist under this morning spring sunshine -- that is no death but a very natural transfiguration -- with the fading of darkness, there is a great clearing and brightening; and with the lightening, the unburdening of the heart, and a great sense of upliftment.
Life is new. Every moment is new. Things that were done in darkness and drudgery are now light, clear, fresh, easy and free. There is freedom in the world.
Only few who have eyes to see, can see and know this transformation, or sense it a little. Only those with clear eyes and hearts can see what has happened and share in the freshness of this joy. Flowing freely, unhindered. The Buddha called it the stream of Dhamma.
So subtle and mysterious, we may call it the spirit.
As the Buddha taught, as a path of practice, this is a gradual path; for all who practice it with regular and diligent effort, a gradual anastasis, quietly and gently. Or it may happen suddenly, in great reformative surges -- literal resurrection -- forever sweeping the slate clean, and everything transformed.
Whether gradually and gently, or suddenly and swiftly; in the seasons of our days and our lives, this is having passed through the great nights of winter and come into the dawns of spring, with a breaking through and opening, a light and blossoming, that when established, never fades in freshness, or becomes stale or static, but is just the freeflowingness of nature, unbound.
With thoughts of Easter and anastasia's blessings to all,
in loving kindness,
Ayya Tathaaloka Theri
a day of life
a single day lived
with full awareness in profound effort
than a hundred years lived in static lethargy.
a single day lived
with full awareness of rising and passing
than a hundred year lived unaware of rise and fall.
a single day lived
awake to the Undying State
than a hundred years unseeing and unknowing Deathlessness.
a single day lived
Awake to profound truth
than a hundred years of life in unawareness.
-- The Buddha, Dhammapada 112-115