World’s Religions on Aging and Dying: Part Two

~ By Robin Avery ~ 

Regardless of one’s faith, death comes to us all. Faith determines how we approach death, suffer and grieve, and what we believe happens after it.

Last month we explored the remarkably similar views on aging and dying of Christianity and Islam, the wisdom traditions for over half the people on the planet. Both religions agree that mortal life is vanity, and that our true home is the heavenly realm beyond death. Followers of the next largest belief systems, Hinduism and Buddhism, comprise just over twenty percent of humanity, and the remaining religions, another ten percent. Fully sixteen percent of the world’s people are agnostic, atheist, secular humanist or profess no religious affiliation, but consider themselves spiritual.

Hinduism: An ancient faith

While Christians believe that death is the beginning of everlasting life and Humanists, including atheists and agnostics, believe that death ends life and consciousness, Hindus believe that death is the end of one life, but the beginning of a new cycle.

As evidenced by ancient scriptures more than 8,000 years old, Hinduism is perhaps the world’s oldest organized religion. Hinduism is unique in that it has no founder, no beginning that we can point to, and no single holy book. The Bhagavad-Gita (Song of God), generally accepted by all Hindus, is the most popular Hindu sacred text.

According to Hinduism Today magazine, there are about 3.3 million Hindus in the United States, including 2.3 million of who are Indian in origin. Every state has at least one Hindu temple; larger metropolitan areas often have many. Therefore it’s important for those of us in healthcare, caregiving and end-of- life professions to have a basic awareness of Hindu beliefs so that if and when we interact with Hindu believers, we are able to act in a culturally sensitive manner and afford individuals proper respect and autonomy. The following real-life example illustrates what I mean.

An 85-year-old Hindu woman with a history of congestive heart failure and hypertension was transported to a hospital emergency room by ambulance. Diagnostic tests and a physical examination revealed symptoms of fluid overload. The patient was given a diuretic, and a urinary catheter was inserted to no avail. The woman went into shock and developed respiratory failure. She was placed on a ventilator.

The physician discussed the seriousness of the condition with family members, who provided no advance directives – Hindus rarely have advance directives because of their belief in karma and reincarnation. After a discussion with the husband and children, the decision was made to give comfort measures only. This decision to shift to palliative care was in line with Hindu beliefs relating to karma. Being kept alive by machine is often viewed by Hindus as interfering with karma and inhibiting the natural course of death. Recognizing and respecting the woman’s beliefs enabled the care team to provide appropriate and optimum care.

Hindus believe that there are certain life lessons to be learned before achieving moksha, or liberation and release from the worldly cycle of birth and death. For them, the goal of a well-lived life is to perform good deeds, to practice devotion to God, and to learn the karmic lessons encountered. A Hindu who is growing older or has a terminal illness will try to fulfill all known responsibilities and tie up loose ends by talking with family and friends to resolve conflicts and apologizing where needed.

Buddhism: Facing death with grace

Buddhists believe, as do many of the world’s wisdom traditions that have been discussed in my columns; that as people face their own mortality this issues of illness, loss and dying are present important opportunities for spiritual growth. Many references in Buddhism literature speak about a recognition, a “knowing” that leads to spiritual growth. In this belief system, the primary vehicle to experience this “knowing” is through meditation, or reflection on the essence of our existence. Here it is believed that how we live our life mirrors how we will die. As I have mentioned earlier, it is that “quality of consciousness” that is important. Buddhists are particularly attuned with consciousness as their practice requires that they watch and experience it honestly and directly. These practitioners aren’t too interested or fixated on promises for the future, but more about the quality of the moment. Many Buddhist hospice practitioners will attest that the room of the dying is one of the most alive places to be, and a gift that serves to focus the attendees in the moment.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet and Zen Buddhist priest. For many years he has taught at the San Francisco Zen Center, the oldest and largest of the new Buddhist organizations in the West, where he served as Co-abbot from 1995-2000. He is presently a Senior Dharma Teacher there as well as the founder and spiritual director of the Everyday Zen Foundation, an organization dedicated to adapting Zen Buddhist teachings to Western culture. He has said, “Dying is a way of living, a meditation practice, the most fundamental and most profound of all meditation practices. I think death is our greatest teacher”.

How do Buddhists prepare for death? They behave in a responsible and positive manner toward themselves and all others. This leads to calmness, happiness, and a controlled mind at the time of death. If they led a responsible and compassionate life and hold no regrets as death approaches, Buddhists are able to surrender with grace and without struggle.

In Buddhist doctrine, the final moment of consciousness is paramount, the most important moment of life. If the ill person is in hospital and the diagnosis is terminal, a Buddhist priest will pray for him or her to be in the right state of mind as they draw their last breath so the departing soul can make its way to a higher state of rebirth.

When a Buddhist dies, it is important that the body is treated gently and with respect. Caregivers should wait three to eight hours before touching the corpse because Buddhists believe the spirit of the person will linger on for some time and be affected for better or for worse by what happens to the corpse. A properly trained Buddhist priest, or Hospice chaplain, can help the spirit of the deceased continue its journey calmly to higher spiritual states and not cause it to becoming angry or confused. It is believed that anger and confusion in the consciousness of the dying will result in a reincarnation into lower realms than would otherwise be possible.

In summary, the four major world wisdom traditions, comprising some three quarters of humanity, have many similarities. Each urges people to shed worldly attachments, concerns, regrets and negativity. The message of all is clear: this life won’t last, so prepare for the next.


Robin Avery is a Gerontologist, Consultant, Developer and Operator of assisted living communities, with a Masters Degree from The Naropa University. He can be reached at ravy2003@msn.com.

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