Sunday, June 17, 2012

A wave in the ocean

Every night when I put my daughter to bed, I stay in the room until she falls asleep. Some nights take longer than others, depending on how late I get her in bed and how active she was that day. Most of the time, I bring my laptop to check emails and finish any loose ends on my computer while I wait for her to fall asleep, which can sometimes take up to a half hour.

Last night, I lay on the floor in the semi-darkness of growing twilight, my face lit with the soft glow of my laptop screen, when out of nowhere I heard her cry.

"What's the matter, honey?" I asked. Sometimes she cries because she left her stuffed animal downstairs, so I wasn't too alarmed. But there was a note of urgency in her cries that sounded unusual.

"I don't want to die!" she sobbed. And I mean sobbed. Where the heck was this coming from?

Instantly I snapped my laptop shut and rushed to her side. Lately, she has been asking a lot about death, wondering what happens to us when we die. It's a natural stage that kids go through, I suppose. I don't personally remember the first time I learned about death, or being too worried about it; in fact, I don't remember realizing that I would actually die someday until I was in my twenties. Maybe I'm just slow.

"I don't want to stop doing things," she said as I patted her back. She was probably trying to imagine some form of non-existence and what that must be like, or not be like, I should say. Sheer blankness is inconceivable, the complete erasure of consciousness. It's like trying to imagine what you were like before you were born or where you go during deep, dreamless sleep.

Vividly I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with a Catholic friend of mine. He asked me what I would prefer, hell or nonexistence. He said that he would prefer hell--eternal damnation from a Catholic perspective--to oblivion. Now that's telling, especially coming from a grown man.

Non-existence is one of humans' greatest fears. Grasping at self, the Buddha called it.

So I can relate to my daughter's anxiety; she is, five, after all. Death can be pretty terrifying when you first think about it.

When she's really scared, I offer for her to sleep in "the big bed" with us, her parents. So that's what I did. But it didn't work this time; she was still upset and kept crying. Obviously, telling her that she didn't have to worry about dying or that I didn't know what happened to people when they died wasn't doing the trick. I was going to have to pull out the big guns.

Now I know what you're thinking: You're a Buddhist. Why not explain rebirth? Because I never felt the need to introduce heavy Buddhist teachings like rebirth. She understands impermanence because I think it's helpful for a child to have the skills to let go of situations. But I've never felt the need to delve any deeper than that.

Until now.

"What happens," I asked, "to a drop of water in the bathtub? Does it disappear?"

"No," she said, sniffling and sensing my shift in direction.

"Where does it go?"

"In the water."

"Does it disappear?"

She chewed on that for a bit, then said, "No."

"Right," I beamed. "And we're just like that drop of water. We can't disappear; we just change."

She liked that idea; I could tell by her smile.

"Or like a wave in the ocean," I continued. "A wave comes up and then falls, but it's always a part of the ocean, right?"

"Yes," she said. "It's like when we leave home in the morning and then come home in the morning."

"Right. That's like us. We're like that wave--we're born, we live, and then we go back into the ocean."

I went on to explain how the Buddha taught that we are reborn as people again (I left out the whole other realms explanation) and how, like the Dalai Lama says, we were once everyone's mother and father son and daughter. She really enjoyed that idea--that she was my dad once.

"I like that, thanks," she said, sounding much older than she is. Then she gave me a hug and eventually fell asleep.

Did I do the right thing? Is rebirth real? Are we reborn after we die? Or is that just like so much other Buddhist teaching, upaya or skillful means, spiritual medicine?

I don't know. But it helped, and that's all that mattered at that moment--helping ease another being's suffering.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: ahisgett.


  1. Hi Doshim
    my daughter didn't want to sleep alone either. For almost 9 years I've been doing my evening meditation in her bedroom, while she fell asleep.
    One day she just said she didn't want me to sit and meditate any longer and that was it.
    As for her relationship to death, she was very touched by the death of her grand-grandmother. As you, I didn't want to impose Buddhist theories about rebirth (I don't believe in them either) and I am very skeptical about theories of the absolute (like bubbles, the waves and the ocean).
    So we just stayed with the fact that we are going to die, facing anguish and letting it go while quietly sitting and embracing each other, breathing, in silence.
    Occasionally anguish would come back; and we will repeat the situation: sit together, face impermanence and the fact of death, and contemplate quietly how anguish appear and eventually disappear.

    Just another way of a wave approaching the beach.

    In gassho

  2. Daishin,

    Excellent reply! Death can be very frightening, for anyone, especially for a child. Do we teach Buddhist theories about rebirth? I don't know; like you, I think that's every individual parent's choice. My daughter was very moved my my grandmother's death a few years ago, and often asks, "Where is Mama?"

    And the truth is, I don't know.

    Thanks so much for reading and for commenting.