Living with Mortality: How Our Experiences with Death Change Us

By Mitch Bogen

View a photo gallery of the event here.

The Fifth Annual Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue took a new look at the cycles of life and death. Held at the Center’s conference space in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Sept. 20, 2008, the Forum investigated the “deeper continuity of life and death that we experience as individuals and express as culture,” a concept put forward by founder Daisaku Ikeda in his 1993 Harvard University lecture, “Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-first Century Civilization.”

In that lecture he also issued a challenge to “establish a culture based on an understanding of the relationship of life and death and of life’s essential eternity.” The immensity of this challenge became apparent during the day’s wide ranging dialogue, which was organized under the theme “Living With Mortality: How Our Experiences With Death Change Us.” The potential benefits of fearlessly “facing death,” both personally and socially, became clear as well.

The Forum was divided into two distinct sections. The morning was designed to elicit individual, transformative experiences with death and dying. The afternoon featured a diverse panel — hospice physician Pam Kircher, educational philosopher Megan Laverty, psychologist Anthony Marsella, and social historian Vincent Harding — exploring the cultural changes that might accompany our increasing acknowledgement of death as something natural and awe-inspiring rather than strange and threatening.

Panel at 2008 Ikeda Forum

After welcoming remarks from Center Executive Director Virginia Benson and Center President Masao Yokota, the more than 100 attendees engaged in a series of small group dialogues facilitated by Kircher. Dialogues were structured around two core directives/questions: “Share one experience with death that changed you.” “As you have had other experiences with death, how have your own views toward life and death changed?”

As participants engaged in deep sharing and deep listening with one another, diverse truths and lessons learned emerged. “Share the ‘essence’ of who you are with your loved ones,” said one participant. “Be sensitive to the sorrow of those who have suffered/experienced loss of a loved one,” said another, adding, “They may not even know what they need.” And: “Your words and actions can be a gift for another person’s life.” Through the multitude of observations, perhaps one core truth was confirmed: There is no experience more humanizing than death – both for those who face it and for those who are with them as they do.

The afternoon session, called “Possibilities for Cultural Change,” began with Kircher sharing how medical treatment in the United States, as well as the experience of dying itself, has been humanized considerably since the advent of hospice care in the 1970s. In essence, our conception of life is shifting from an emphasis on quantity to an emphasis on quality. More than anything, said Kircher, our more open and humanistic approach to death and dying is helping Americans discover that it is our relationships that matter above all, “more than our accomplishments and financial acquisitions.” (Read a transcript of Kircher's talk.)

Next, Anthony Marsella, president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, referencing Ikeda’s lecture, suggested that the truest mystery is not found in either life or death alone but in the fact that “they cannot be separated.” Our task, he added, is not only to identify with all our fellow humans but with life itself, with all the implications for human and planetary health and well being that such identification would entail.

Megan Laverty, of Teachers College, Columbia University, followed with a talk proposing that death reveals to us that we love one another from a position of “radical powerlessness.” Citing philosopher John Dewey, Laverty urged the gathering to grow into a new, childlike state. Extrapolating from her personal and instructional experience, she urged us, like children she has known and worked with, to become innocent, even at ease, in the presence of death. (Read a transcript of Laverty's talk.)

Finally, Vincent Harding, professor emeritus, Iliff School of Theology, chose to explore the possibilities for cultural change from a broad social and historical perspective. He wondered aloud what might have to die in American culture as a whole for a new society to be born, one finally embodying the values and vision of his friend, Martin Luther King Jr. Harding challenged the gathering to become “hospice attendants,” easing the death of the America that has become complacent in its state of denial, fear, and isolation, and, at the same time, “midwives” facilitating the birth of a society more hopeful, healthy and just. The midwife’s core message, he said, is a simple one: “You can do it.” (Read a transcript of Harding's talk.)

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