Death as a mirror of life


The narrow road from Pinkande to Katudampe was shiny black newly tarred, clearly marked on the edges with white unbroken lines.On either side we passed lush green paddy fields, houses surrounded by small garden plots with coconut, mango, banana and fruit trees. A solitary young Buddhist priest walked briskly, the bright orange of his robes, matching the setting sun that burned brightly beyond the fringe of trees. This was quintessentially rural Lanka at its best. We were mostly silent on the way to the Sri Sunandaramaya Temple at Katudampe in Dodanduwa. On the seat with me was a small clay pot with a white cloth over it. This was my mother's ashes — all that remained of a once vibrant, energetic, mother.

The river by the temple was silent. Nothing moved. The silence had an aura of its own as if it paid homage to the nearby temple.

 I stood beside the bamboo grove, and watched the still waters. This was where we would leave my mother’s last remains by the temple she worshiped and also close to the Polgasduwa hermitage where she gave alms annually sometime ago. Returning ashes to a river is not  Buddhist custom. It’s a borrowed ritual from Hinduism. Rivers like the river Ganges is the embodiment of all sacred waters and the Sinhales use of “Ganga” for river probably stems from it. All rivers are supposed to have descended from heaven and the belief is that they are also the vehicle of ascent into heaven.

As I stood crouched near the bamboo grove, my mother’s life passed through my mind. The breeze was gentle, calmed by the peace enveloping the river, I could let my sorrow seep into the water.  I heard a quiet splash in the water near me and turned to see a river snake  slid into the water, less than a foot away from me.

I wondered whether the snake was an omen, a relative of the past, maybe my own mother come as an incarnation but any such thoughts I had were snuffed completely by Rev. Hikkaduwe Tilaka, the chief priest of the temple. The novice priest on the other hand was very excited. He and I looked around for more snakes but there were none.

In my sorrow, I had turned to re-read the The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that had been a gift from my younger son. I was reminded about the central concept of Tibetan Buddhism — of  life and death being seen as one whole, where death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.

In the teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, life and death are presented together as a series of constantly changing transitional realities known as bardos. So from the Tibetan Buddhist point of view and my understanding our entire existence — something like we know as our travels through samsara — is divided into four continually linked realities (1) life, (2) dying and death (3) after death and (4) rebirth. The greatest and most charged of these however, is the moment of death. Scriptures of Theravada Buddhism too, states that your “chethana” loosely translated meaning your mindset at the moment of death is the all important karma that drives your rebirth.


Many of the rituals performed at funerals like the one of pouring water on to a cup, till it overflows is passing on blessings to a dead person to benefit her/his after life.

As water raining on a hill flows down to the valley,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.
As rivers full of water fill the ocean full,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.”


As the evening shadows deepened Matheesha, my brother Prasanna‘s younger son and my mother’s youngest grandson, stood patiently for the signal from the priest. The time had come to let go.

Samsara is your mind, and nirvana is also your mind
All pleasure and pain, and all delusions exist nowhere apart from your mind”


The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche



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