By Mitch Bogen
This article reports on “Enjoying the Rhythm of Birth and Death: A Buddhist Perspective,” a public dialogue event held at the Center on October 18, 2008. The event featured a lecture by Yoichi Kawada with a response by Mary Catherine Bateson.
On a quintessentially crisp October afternoon in New England, an overflow crowd gathered at the Center to hear Dr. Yoichi Kawada and Dr. Mary Catherine Bateson share insights on the topic “Enjoying the Rhythm of Birth and Death: A Buddhist Perspective.” The event was the last in a series of three seminars investigating the topic “Understanding Death, Appreciating Life,” a focus inspired by a lecture Center founder Daisaku Ikeda gave at Harvard in 1993. In it, he posed a challenge for us in the twenty-first century: to establish a culture that affirms “the deeper continuity of life and death.”
Dr. Kawada is director of the Tokyo-based Institute of Oriental Philosophy, as well as a trained immunologist. He opened the day with a lecture on how living in accord with the core Buddhist principle of dependent origination (Jpn engi) — the interdependence of all things — can prepare a person to meet death in the most positive manner possible. “In order to confront death and greet death with a sense of security and even joy,” said Kawada, “we need to strengthen the bodhisattva tendencies in our own lives,” bringing out “those compassionate, caring, connected qualities with people,” right up to our final breath.
During her response, Dr. Bateson, a cultural anthropologist and best-selling author, explored how birth and death are both perceived as forms of separation. If the parent’s task after birth is “to take that moment of separation as a challenge for building a new integration, a new connection … through which both will grow in love,” the same might be said of death. So when Dr. Kawada speaks of the bodhisattva character in this context, explained Bateson, “he is raising the question of dying as an affirmation of connection.” The inescapable fact of death, she said, gives us reason to live a more connected and altruistic life.
In our American culture of “extreme individualism,” she added, we would do well to look for comparable ideas to Buddhism’s dependent origination in our various traditions. For example, some of us could revisit and refresh our understanding of Christian love with a sense of how it suggests a pervasive, all-encompassing sense of connectedness.
The plenary Q & A session delved deeper into that theme, with the very first questioner from the audience wondering: How do we reconcile the call for greater commitment to others — and to life as a whole — with the need to honor, develop, and promote the individuality of all humans? In his response, Kawada said that, in Buddhism, when “each unique existence comes to full fruition,” it is then able to contribute to the whole through positive and creative interactions with others. Bateson added that, from a biological perspective, it is the simplified ecosystems that are, in fact, most vulnerable. “Diversity and life,” she said, “are fundamentally connected.”
Read an Ikeda Center interview with Mary Catherine Bateson from 2006 called "Composing a Conversation."