Probably the most simplistic statement on death, needing no elaboration, would be that “each and every being has to die” sooner or later. For a common Hyolmo individual, these words extend themselves from being a mere statement to something carrying a deeper message. This message serves as a reason for, or rather a reminder of, the importance of becoming a good human being in this life as a step towards securing a good rebirth in the next life. This notion, which forms the very basis of the Buddhist principle of impermanence and karmic interdependence, finds root in Hyolmo lives as a natural component. Although death occurs at the end of a life, it is actually not that isolated; its dimensions and implications are far-reaching in a person’s everyday events, in his or her relation to others, and in one’s cultural and social engagements throughout life.
Subject to Death is Robert Desjarlais’s close observation of the organic relation of living and dying present in the Hyolmo society. The stories and conversations in which he engages converge around Hyolmo ideas of living a meaningful life, carrying out good moral deeds, hoping for a peaceful good ending when it happens, and wishing for a good rebirth in the next life (or lives). Bob’s discussion in the Prelude, under the section “Poiesis in Life and Death,” strikes me as the gist of the subject. Hyolmo life, at least in terms of aspirations, is so much about creating desirable conditions to affect the relation between life and death.
For a western reader, Subject to Death is an anthropologist’s informed narration and discussion of a possibly striking foreign culture. For those like me, from within the Hyolmo community, it is a sophisticated perspective on our lives, from an angle different from our own.
During the course of his prolonged work on this book, Bob mentions feeling tensely at one point that he was having too many thoughts about death; he longed to be soon done with the work. As a western anthropologist who had not been involved so closely with the subject, trying to get into it as deeply as he did, this sentiment may well be natural. The experience of seeing a corpse being cremated on wooden pyre, observing people in the sheer distress of mourning, witnessing the extensive funeral rites, interviewing so many people, and then eventually trying to piece together all of those foreign experiences in a larger picture – this understandably should be no fun, if not daunting.
From an early age, I have witnessed many deaths and have taken part in funerals and cremation rites – as have others of my age in our community. Time and again, we have listened to Lamas (teachers) teach about impermanence, karma, rebirth, compassion and so forth. For us, then, death is a familiar subject since childhood. It is nothing to shy away from. Death is woven into the cultural fabric of life. When you look at a death singularly, in an isolated manner, it will seem to cause immense distress, grief and a sense of loss for anyone. However, when you see it in this larger fabric it indeed serves as a “mirror of life,” as teachers put it. It offers a point to reflect on our life and karma, our actions that will influence our future.
The devastating earthquake last year in Nepal that Bob mentions at the end of the book badly hit the entire Hyolmo region. Although there were only a few human casualties in Hyolmo, so many lives were lost in other parts of the country. This is an important reminder to the impermanent and unpredictable nature of life. The help and support that poured in from around the world in the aftermath of the earthquake shows humanity unfolding with love and compassion in times of such tragedy. From a Hyolmo Buddhist perspective, this implies a great karma of those involved, with or without any conscious association with the notion. Karma offers so much hope for the future!
Karma Gyaltsen Lama is an artist from Hyolmo.