It's easy to die: how to change attitudes towards death

Barry Baskets on how the Buddhist approach makes the experience of dying less painful and intimidating.

Barry Kerzin is a Buddhist monk, MD, treating physician of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has been living in Dharmsala for over 20 years. He teaches Buddhist philosophy, teaches the basics of meditation, retreats silence, and teaches the proper attitude to death and dying. We managed to talk with Barry during his visit to Russia.

Yoga Journal: How did you become interested in Buddhism?
Barry Curzin: When I was about 14 years old, I came across two books on Zen Buddhism. I did not understand anything about them, but they affected me. And at the age of 17, when I was in college, I went to the satsang of the Indian teacher Swami Satchitananda. And then a curious thing happened to me. It seemed to me that someone had dimmed the light in the audience, and she was plunged into darkness, but Swamiji was in a halo of light. I felt my body filled with amazing bliss. A few years later I met one Indian who taught me meditation in the third eye, and I did this for a couple of years. And then he spent almost a year in Asia - India, Nepal, Sri Lanka. In Nepal, I became more closely acquainted with Buddhism - and I had a feeling that my consciousness had turned 180 degrees.

YJ: Why did you go there?
BC: Since childhood, I wanted to go there, because I loved Indian food and loved to eat with my hands. Seriously, I wanted to find myself, to understand who I am and what I do on Earth. All these questions have tormented me since I was six. However, Western academic philosophy could not give me all the answers, and I thought that I might find them in India.

YJ: And how did it happen that you took up medicine?
BC: When I was 11 years old, I was very sick. I had an abscess in my brain, I fell into a coma, and my parents were told that I might not survive. However, I was successfully operated on - now I have a plastic plate in my head. I considered that neurosurgeon who saved my life as a god and wanted to be like him. Therefore, over time, I abandoned philosophy and began to study Western medicine. Soon I became a medical worker, and then I went to India for the second time - I intended to stay there for 6 months, and as a result I have been living in Dharmsal for 23 years. Now I practice mainly Western medicine, but I also prescribe Tibetan drugs.

YJ: How do locals in Dharmsala feel about you? Have you been taken seriously because you are a foreigner?
BC: It happened. Some traditional Tibetan monks are wary and perhaps even suspicious of me. But I just try not to spend a lot of time with such people. My best friends over the years have been Tibetans - both monks and lay people. I was also very fortunate to have a very special relationship with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And this is also a very important part of my life in Dharmsala. So we can say that I was received there surprisingly well, despite the fact that I am a Westerner.

YJ: How did you decide to become a monk?
BC: Monasticism was a natural continuation of my practice. This was not some huge change. Before that I had served a three-year retreat, and although I did not have full dedication, I lived as a monk, kept the basic vows, and I liked it very much. Then, for several years, I asked His Holiness for consecration, and he did not refuse me, but every time I said: "Why don't you do this?" - and recommended something. But once I asked him again, he laughed, said yes three times, and gave me initiation. And it is precisely this advice that I now give to those who ask me for it. When it seems to me that they are in a hurry, I just tell them that it might be better to move slower. If you take a very big step abruptly, you can’t stand it. Some people think that one cannot truly practice Buddhism without taking monastic vows, but this is not so. I know excellent lay practitioners who have reached a very high standard.

YJ: Tell us about your research on the effects of meditation on the mind.
BC: A couple of years ago, I became one of the research participants at Madison University in Wisconsin, as well as at Princeton University in New Jersey. They studied the brain - mine and another ten people. They selected those who had experience at least 10,000 hours of meditation. And for many participants he had much more. Scientists wanted to see if the brain of these people acts differently, whether its structure is different. Studies have revealed clear changes in the cerebral cortex. Scientists did not understand what this means, and put forward various hypotheses. One of them is synchronism, i.e. during meditation, different parts of the brain of experienced meditators communicate with each other and harmonize. The prefrontal cortex of their brain is more developed and active, especially on the left. It is this part of the brain that is responsible for efficiency, decision making and a positive outlook on the world.

YJ: You also do Buddhist meditation retreats yourself ...
BC: Yes, once I spent all my time mostly in silent retreats. This has been so for many years. And then His Holiness asked me to start teaching people. Now I spend 7-8 months a year traveling around the world. I hold meditation retreats, teach about Buddhism, about the mind, about death and dying, about secular (non-religious) ethics. And I also provide medical assistance to His Holiness when he needs it.

YJ: By your seminars on the topic of death and death, are you trying to change your attitude to these topics in the West?
BC: I am talking about the Buddhist approach, which makes the experience of dying less painful, less unknown and easier. First, in Buddhism, we believe in reincarnation. Those who believe that death is the end are scared. And if you know that we have all done this already countless times and just forgot about it, then there is less fear. Secondly, death is a process consisting of 8 stages. And if you get acquainted with them during meditation, then during real death it will not be so scary. Thirdly, from a Buddhist point of view (which is also shared by modern science and quantum physics), everything is changing. Nothing is static. We are as if dying and are born again every moment. Westerners have a lot of concepts associated with death. And we get rid of them, considering death more realistically - as a process of every second changes - and just try to stay in this moment and realize this. So we train our mind, and the fear gradually goes away. As a doctor, I constantly see how people die, and that they are, so to speak, scared to death. They have so many ideas that this is the end of everything. And when you see that these ideas are unrealistic, you can die very relaxed, even joyfully.

YJ: In our culture, they try to protect children from this topic. How to attach them to her and is it necessary?
BC: It is important to talk about it, to be open. For example, if a grandmother dies, then the child may be present. And then talk to him. Say that it is natural that we were all born and all will die, and he will begin to understand that this is part of life. Just a few generations ago, people were dying at home, and the children saw it. Now people more often die in hospitals, children are not taken there, and we have lost touch with this natural process.

YJ: Do you communicate with hospice workers and those who work with dying in hospitals?
BC: Sometimes. Doctors and nurses often ask me: "What should I do when I’m near a dying man?" They have never been taught this! And I often advise them to just give the person five minutes. If he cannot or does not want to talk, then he doesn’t need to. Just sit next to him. He will know that you are there. Hold his hand, if appropriate, or lay a hand on his shoulder. These are very simple things, but sometimes it seems that doctors need permission to do them.

YJ: It is now popular to mix different practices and systems. You yourself practice both Western and Tibetan medicine. Recommend this approach?
BC: I came to live in Dharmsalu, because His Holiness wanted a doctor trained in the West. In his opinion, in each particular case, it is necessary to use what is more effective, whether it is Western or Tibetan medicine, homeopathy or acupuncture. It is not necessary that all these systems be owned by one doctor, but he should be able to say: "My tradition does not help in this case, let's invite another specialist." In the spiritual life, this is not so. If a person starts doing practices from different traditions, this may not be very productive. First you search, choose, and then find one tradition and go deeper.

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