I have been thinking further after yesterday's post about the premature death of our friend and neighbor...
I recall a conversation with him quite a while ago, before he was diagnosed with the affliction that would take his life--and long before he could imagine he would die so young. I was expressing my familiar doubts, I think, about life after death, and about the whole notion that this human life on earth is but a step along a much longer path, the cycle of life, death and rebirth that is central to the teachings of the dharma. Our friend, on the other hand, entertained no such doubts. He was clear in his mind that life in some form persists beyond death and that it is surely, as he put it, "in a better place."
The clarity of this belief gave him a cheerful, optimistic perspective on his life here on earth, and it leads me to wonder whether he is not now in that better place. I hope so, for his sake. After a long period of depression as his health declined, I heard that he spent the last day of his life expressing the gratitude and love he felt for his wife; and that he returned, on that day, to the state of serenity his affliction had denied him. The thinking behind karma, insofar as I understand it, is that choices are made at the moment of death which define the nature of one's future incarnation--choices that also determined the current form of our existence at the end of our previous incarnation. It is important, then, to be prepared to die with ease and grace.
I have also been thinking about another aspect of choice in the moment of one's death: the choice to leave this world. I remember my conviction, now nearly two years ago, when my sister died, that she had in fact chosen to cross the threshold into what she called, fearlessly, "the next great adventure." I am tempted to believe that our friend also made that choice. It was clear that his mind was deteriorating, along with his physical health, and the path ahead promised little but further confusion and pain, both physical and emotional, for himself and those who loved him. In such a circumstance, the choice to step out into that great "before-yond" might be a clear and comforting one.
These are mysteries, of course, that we are not given to understand. When I have expressed my doubts to one much wiser and much further along the Buddhist path than I could ever hope to be, the answer has always been a simple one: it profits us little to spend time worrying about a question to which we know we'll never have an answer. Better to devote your energies to leading a good life here and now, he tells me. And be prepared in mind and body to make wise choices at the moment of your death.