Grief in Buddhism: What are the teachings about it, and how are we supposed to practice with it? It’s often easy to suppress or bypass our grief. This may leave us stuck in one of the early stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, or depression), or unable to face reality or live with a fully open heart. Unfortunately, some Buddhist teachings may seem to suggest it’s better if we don’t feel grief. I explore the question of grief and how we can practice with it in Buddhism in a fruitful and beneficial way.
This episode and the next are about grief in Buddhism: What are the teachings about it, and how are we supposed to practice with it? Today I’ll start by discussing our complicated relationship with grief, and why it’s an important topic. I’ll go on to talk about a few Buddhist teachings dealing specifically with grief, the messages they convey, and the risks of spiritual bypassing if we misinterpret the teachings. In the next episode, I’ll discuss what it we’re aiming for in “facing” or “dealing with” our grief, and cover a number of Buddhist practices we can use to help us face grief and facilitate the natural grief process.
Our Complicated Relationship with Grief
First, though, a little about grief in general.
If ask you whether you’re feeling grief right now, you may say yes because you’ve recently lost a loved one, or something important in your life. You may say no, because you haven’t recently suffered any dramatic losses. However, one of the points I want to make today is that I think we’re all feeling grief right now, whether we realize it or not.
Grief is love in the face of loss, and because of the Covid-19 pandemic we have recently lost many things. Those of us fortunate enough to enjoy relatively comfortable lives have lost some of our faith that our lives are going to continue more or less unchanged. If we had it previously, we’ve lost a sense of security that we and our loved ones will be safe from sudden and possibly fatal illness, and that we will have access to the health care we need if we do get sick. Many of us have lost opportunities to be with loved ones as they face health challenges, or even die. Precious time we could have spent with aging friends and family who live in long-term care facilities, which are in complete lockdown, is gone, never to return. Celebrations and culturally regenerative activities have been cancelled.
Acknowledging and experiencing our grief is very important, but there are many reasons we try to avoid facing it. Grief hurts. At times, grief can feel overwhelming, as if we’re dipping our toe into an ocean of pain, and if we lean in too far we may fall in and drown. If we do let ourselves experience grief, we usually do so only briefly, in a restrained and cautious way, and then try to “get over it” as quickly as possible. At other times, the suggestion that we should work with and “process” our grief suggests that we’re aiming to get to a place where we don’t feel it anymore. If what we have lost is someone or something we really loved, this can seem like betrayal, or denying something essential to our humanity.
The thing is, if we try to control our grief – by ignoring, denying, suppressing, restraining, or holding on to it – we get emotionally stuck. To some extent we’re refusing to face reality, because grief is a part of our reality. And refusing to face reality is pretty much exactly counter to Buddhist practice. In addition, we’ll probably get stuck in one of the earlier stages of grief as defined by Elisabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler,[i] which are denial, anger, bargaining, and depression (the fifth is acceptance, and in a new book Kessler suggests a sixth, finding meaning[ii]).
The results of an inability or unwillingness to face our grief can be quite damaging to ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, and our planet. For example, it’s becoming obvious to climate activists that we need to encourage and help people face their grief about the state of our natural world, and the impact that climate and ecological breakdown is having on their lives. It’s kind of a surprising thing to find yourself doing if your original intention is just to get people to take action. However, this is serious business; there’s actually a term, Solastalgia, for the “emotional and existential distress caused by climate and ecological change.”[iii] Solastalgia is experienced by many people in the world right now who see their whole communities, livelihoods, and ways of life disintegrating due to environmental changes.
Unfortunately, it’s not at all uncommon for people on the frontlines of the negative impacts of climate breakdown to be in denial about the emergency of human-caused of global heating. This might seem strange, but you could also look at this as natural, considering that the first stage of grief is often denial. Others of us find ourselves unable to respond to the breakdown of earth’s natural life-support systems in a way we feel is appropriate or effective, because we’re stuck in the other early stages of grief: Anger (at the people who are to blame, perhaps including ourselves), bargaining (maybe if we recycle and conserve electricity the problem will go away), or depression (the situation is so bleak and hopeless we lose all motivation).
If we don’t help people face their feelings, they may never get to the final stage of grief, acceptance, where they’ll be better able to respond to our planetary emergency. How fascinating, and strangely appropriate, that climate activism has led me to a more careful and respectful exploration of grief.
Teachings on Grief in Early Buddhism
If we want to face our grief and let the grief process unfold without getting stuck, how are we supposed to go about it, particularly in the context of Buddhist practice? Let’s start with a couple specific references to grief in early Buddhism (there are only a few), as conveyed in the Pali Canon.
The classic Buddhist view of grief can be found in the story of Kisagotami and the mustard seed.[iv] Kisagotami was a young woman who was apparently not very physically attractive; “kisa” meant “haggard,” so she was called “haggard Gotami.” In any case, she despaired of finding a husband but finally did, and he was very loving and able to see her inner beauty. However, her husband’s family was very hard on Kisagotami, as she was from a poor family and not beautiful. When the young woman gave birth to a son, however, her status with her in-laws improved considerably. Kisagotami loved her son deeply and was very happy.
Unfortunately, the son died suddenly. His mother suffered not only his loss, but the loss of her whole social status as a woman who had proved her worth through the birth of a son. Kisagotami was utterly devastated, driven mad with grief. She refused to believe her son was dead, and carried his body around with her, knocking on people’s doors and begging them for medicine to cure him. Finally, someone told her to go visit the Buddha, the best of physicians.
When Kisagotami asked the Buddha if he would give her medicine to heal her son, he said yes. All she had to do was get a few mustard seeds, which were incredibly easy to come by. However, the Buddha said, they had to come from a household in which no one had died. Kisagotami, excited for a cure, starting knocking on doors again. However, at house after house they were happy to give her mustard seeds, but when she asked about death, they always told her stories about various family members they had lost. Some of them had even lost children.
Gradually, Kisagotami comes to her senses, buries her son, and goes to the Buddha and asks to become a nun. Eventually she attains arhatship, or complete liberation, and addresses the following verses to Mara, the “tempter:”
“Passed is the time of my child’s death
and I have fully done with men;
I do not grieve, nor do I weep,
and I’m not afraid of you, friend.
Sensual delight in every way is dead,
for the mass of darkness is destroyed.
Defeating the soldiery of death,
I live free from every taint.”[v]
The message in Kisagotami’s story, pretty clearly, is that we grieve because of our desires and delusions, and once we’re enlightened, we don’t grieve.
This same message is conveyed in one of the other stories about grief from the Pali Canon. The Mahaparinibbana Sutta describes the scene of the Buddha’s death, and says that, once the Buddha had finally passed away:
“…some of the monks present who were not without passion wept, uplifting their arms. As if their feet were cut out from under them, they fell down and rolled back & forth, crying, ‘All too soon is the Blessed One totally unbound [that is, passed permanently out of the world, having attained Nibbana]!’”[vi]
“Enough, friends. Don’t grieve. Don’t lament. Hasn’t the Blessed One already taught the state of growing indifferent with regard to all things dear & appealing, the state of becoming separate, the state of becoming otherwise? What else is there to expect? It’s impossible that one could forbid anything born, existent, fabricated, & subject to disintegration from disintegrating.”[vii]
These early Buddhist teachings seem to suggest that the goal of our practice is a state where we wouldn’t grieve, because we’ve completely accepted the impermanence of things and beings and become indifferent to them. At a certain level, of course, this goal is appealing: Surely, it’s better to feel equanimity than it is to be mad with grief like Kisagotami was after the death of her son? Grief is one of the most painful emotions, perhaps the most painful; I don’t think it’s surprising that some of us cherish the hope that spiritual development and insight might free us from feeling it
The Danger of Spiritual Bypassing
However, if you don’t take Buddhist teachings with a grain of salt, some of them can really twist you up inside. Or, maybe instead of saying “take them with a grain of salt,” as if they might be untrue or inaccurate, I should say it’s good to remember that each Buddhist teaching has a context and a purpose. Sometimes it is appropriate to accept everything is impermanent, buck up, and get on with things. After all, the admonitions in the Pali Canon about not grieving are being given to people who are carrying around dead bodies, and rolling back and forth on the ground! The Canon doesn’t include what the Buddha might have said to another student who was emotionally repressed.
Still, it’s pretty fair to say most of Buddhism, including Zen, can easily give you the impression that emotions are thought of as inherently delusional or invalid. There’s more than a suggestion that if you’re enlightened – if you’ve really woken up to reality and accepted impermanence, if you’re spiritually advanced – you don’t even experience grief. Looking at things this way invites spiritual bypassing, which John Welwood describes as, “a common tendency… among Western spiritual seekers to use spiritual ideas and practices to avoid dealing with their emotional unfinished business.”[viii]
Unfortunately, unless you’ve experienced a dramatic loss and happen to be someone who is willing and able to feel your grief intensely, it’s usually pretty easy to bypass grief, even without using spiritual methods to do it. Grief often seems willing to linger below the surface of our everyday lives, like a dark, underground cistern. Most of the time we can ignore it completely in favor of spiritual work that’s less daunting, or addresses more obvious issues. We can dismiss suggestions that we ought to pay attention to our grief, because that seems to entail dredging it up unnecessarily, and enlightened people don’t feel it anyway. Aren’t we at least slightly more enlightened when we’re able to go about our lives with joy or equanimity, despite that fact that we could get all sad if we really tried?
Then there’s the fact that mindfulness and meditation are excellent tools for settling you down in the middle of an emotional storm. If you should start feeling a lot of grief for some reason, all you have to do is become aware of your body and follow your breath, and often the intensity of the emotion will subside. With practice, we become adept at redirecting our minds. This is awesome when we’re redirecting our mind from dwelling on ill-will, or getting ourselves unstuck from endless thought loops of anxiety. It’s also possible, however, to redirect our mind from something like grief, because it’s painful and we don’t know how to deal with it. This is spiritual bypassing.
Evolution in Buddhist Thoughts on Grief
Fortunately, Buddhism is a living tradition. It keeps changing over time as human beings learn and our societies evolve. One of the great additions to human life in the 19th and 20th centuries was the science of psychology, which explored our emotional lives in a new way. Over time, psychologists came to appreciate how easy it is to suppress emotions in a way that’s profoundly unhelpful. In other words, the ability to stop feeling an emotion is not at all the same thing as having reached your peace with what is behind that emotion. You could look like a really spiritually advanced Buddhist, delivering wise words about detachment while other people writhe in grief, but in fact you might have simple compartmentalized or cut off part of your own reality. If grief is love in the face of loss, you might have overcome the pain and embarrassment of your grief by shutting down your love.
An 18th century story about Satsujo, a student of the famous Rinzai master Hakuin, offers us a very different Buddhist message about grief (this is from the book The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women):
“When Satsujo, a great disciple of Hakuin, was old, she lost her granddaughter, which grieved her very much. An old man from the neighborhood came and admonished her: ‘Why are you wailing so much? If people hear this, they’ll all say, “the old lady once studied with Hakuin and was enlightened, so now why is she mourning her granddaughter so much?” You ought to lighten up a bit.’
“Satsujo glared at her neighbor and scolded him: ‘You baldheaded fool, what do you know? My tears and weeping are better for my granddaughter than incense, flower, and lamps!’
“The old man left without a word.”[ix]
I’m picturing Satsujo weeping openly, throwing herself across her granddaughter’s casket at the funeral. I’m picturing people coming to visit her, but she refuses their visits, saying she’s still too sad to interact with people. I’m imagining Satsujo making daily trips to her granddaughter’s grave, bringing flowers and lingering there, tears streaming down her face.
Is there a difference between Satsujo’s grief, and the grief that troubles us so much – the grief that we want to deny, or get over as soon as possible – the grief that tears and twists us up inside? Yes and no. No, there’s no difference in the essence of the emotion, or in the pain. And yet, in a subtle way, I think there is a difference between Satsujo’s grief and what many of us struggle with. I think Satsujo understands herself, and experiences her grief wholeheartedly. She’s not worried about what it says about her spiritual practice, or what other people think. I also think Satsujo has a larger sense of reality, the fruit of her practice, which gives her the courage and strength to face her grief without fear of drowning.
In the next episode I’ll discuss what it means to “practice with” or “process” or “deal with” our grief. Are we hoping for it to go away? I’ll also talk about Buddhist practices that can help us integrate grief into a healthy, open-hearted, and sustainable life, including deliberate mindfulness of our grief, letting go of attachment, ritual, and appreciation for the absolute aspect of reality.
I’ll also propose the radical idea that grief could be considered a Sublime Social Attitude, or Brahmavihara, along with love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Compassion is how love manifests when we see the beings we love suffer, and sympathetic joy is how love manifests when we see the beings we love happy. Might grief be how love manifests when we lose the beings (or things) we love?
We’re encouraged to cultivate the Brahmaviharas as a firm basis for our relationships and practice, not just because they feel good. Compassion, for example, requires empathy, and means “suffering with.” So just because grief hurts doesn’t mean it’s not a Brahmavihara. Maybe it’s not actually unreasonable to talk about cultivating grief – building up our capacity for it. This doesn’t mean manufacturing grief, but neither to we have to manufacture compassion. There will always be suffering to arouse our compassion, and there will always be loss to arouse our grief. Our ability to feel grief is a measure of our open-heartedness and freedom from self-concern, just like feeling the other Brahmaviharas.
[ii] Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. https://smile.amazon.com/dp/B07P5GCND6/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_6-0TEb8MVG9Y7
[iii] Climate Grief: Is It Real? Solastalgia and mourning the loss of the environment. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-grief/201912/climate-grief-is-it-real
[iv] Kisagotami, the Mother With the Dead Child, https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/hecker/wheel292.html#kisa
[vi] “Maha-parinibbana Sutta: The Great Discourse on the Total Unbinding” (DN 16), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.16.5-6.than.html .
[viii] Welwood, John. Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. 2002.
[ix] Caplow, Florence, and Susan Moon (editors). The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications. 2013. Page 179