In “At Home in the World: Stories and Essential Teachings from a Monk’s Life”, Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that a disciple wanted to build a stupa (containing Thay’s ashes) after his passing. Thay writes:
“He and others want to include a plaque with the words “Here lies my beloved teacher.” I told them not to waste the temple land. “Do not put me in a small pot and put me in there!” I said….It would be better to scatter the ashes outside to help the trees to grow.
I suggested that, if they still insist on building a stupa, they have the plaque say, “I am not in here.” But in case people don’t get it, they could add a second plaque, “I am not out there either.” If people still don’t understand, then you can write on the third and last plaque, “I may be found in your way of breathing and walking.””
The sage then says, “If you think that I am only this body, then you have not truly seen me….Even when the cloud is not there, it continues as snow or rain. It is impossible for a cloud to die.”
To those who mourn his passing, Thay’s voice speaks from a 2021 LionsRoar essay:
“The universe, the sun, and the stars have contributed many elements to the earth….When we look into our own bodily formation, we are made of the same elements as the planet. It has made us. The earth and the universe are inside of us.
The earth gave birth to us and the earth will receive us again. Nothing is lost. Nothing is born. Nothing dies. We don’t need to wait until after our body has disintegrated to go back to Mother Earth. We are going back to Mother Earth at every moment. Whenever we breathe, whenever we step, we are returning to the earth. Even when we scratch ourselves, skin cells will fall and return to the earth.
Earth includes the life sphere and the atmosphere. So you don’t have to wait until you die to go back to Mother Earth, because you are already in Mother Earth…..I know that earth is my home. I don’t need to die in order to go back to Mother Earth. I am in Mother Earth right now, and Mother Earth is in me.”
These words, it seems to me, are less about what Death is — they offer guidance on how to live Life.
In an October 2012 conversation with the Washington Post, the wise poet Mary Oliver (she was about 77 years old then) says: “To tell you the truth, I believe everything — tigers, trees, stones — are sentient in one way or another. You’d never catch me idly kicking a stone, for example.”