If everyone around you is going to die, how can you protect yourself from being without your loved ones? If you assume that your death is still years away, how do you ensure that there will be mourners when it’s your funeral? Perhaps having a large family or friend group is the answer?
As my parents aged and I wondered and worried about what might happen to them, I began to tell my friends that I wanted to surround them with bubble wrap. And after my father died and my mother started driving again, I wanted to surround her and her car with bubble wrap. And one day, while listening to my mother and her friends talking about their concerns for their children and grandchildren, I realized that they, too, probably wanted guarantees that nothing would happen to their loved ones.
We know there are no guarantees. If I had successfully wrapped anyone in bubble wrap, it would have been suffocating. I would be causing the loss. All of this clinging to our loved ones and aversion to loss is difficult. In this passage from the Visākhā Sutta (Udana 8.8), we encounter a common reaction to the loss of family.
“I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Sāvatthī at the Eastern Monastery, the palace of Migāra’s mother. And on that occasion, a dear and beloved grandson of Visākhā, Migāra’s mother, had died. So Visākhā, Migāra’s mother—her clothes wet, her hair wet—went to the Blessed One in the middle of the day, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As she was sitting there, the Blessed One said to her: “Why have you come here, Visākhā—your clothes wet, your hair wet—in the middle of the day?”
When this was said, she said to the Blessed One, “My dear and beloved grandson has died. This is why I have come here—my clothes wet, my hair wet—in the middle of the day.”
The Buddha does not offer to bring her grandson back to life. He suggests that perhaps she would like to have a larger family. Now, there is an interesting solution. If I had an entire city’s worth of friends and family, wouldn’t I always have someone? The Buddha specifically names Sāvatthī. During his time, Sāvatthī was a large trade center. Possibly the sixth-largest city in India.
“Yes, lord, I would like to have as many children & grandchildren as people in Sāvatthī.”
Visākhā thinks that a large family, a family with as many people as those who live in Sāvatthī, is an excellent idea. Maybe it is inconceivable for her to think that death could come for many people. If she has more people, then when one dies, she still has another. She has lost this one grandson; she must know she can lose more. A bigger collection of children and grandchildren might be a good idea. But the Buddha will not give her a family the size of a large city. He is going to give her an understanding of death and of attachment. He will help her understand her wish for such a large family. He asks her about the death rate in Sāvatthī.
“Sometimes ten people die in Sāvatthī in a day, sometimes nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… Sometimes one person dies in Sāvatthī in the course of a day. Sāvatthī is never free from people dying.”
“So, what do you think, Visākhā? Would you ever be free of wet clothes & wet hair?”
“No, lord. Enough of my having so many children & grandchildren.”
And there it is. Not only will a family the size of a city not solve the problem. In some ways, it will make Visākhā’slife much more difficult. She will always be losing someone. This is not a commentary on family planning. It is not meant to tell you to shy away from others. Do not go out and end your loving relationships. If you do, you are still going to experience suffering. By cutting someone off by ending the relationship, you will still experience grief and miss out on enjoying your relationship while you are alive. What, then is the advice for Visākhā, and us?
• You don’t need more people; you need less clinging and aversion. You need more comfort with impermanence.
• Make friends, and have good positive relationships. Make sure that you seek to have kalyāṇa-mittatāor admirable friendships. You make these relationships for the right reason—quality, not quantity.
• Don’t think you or your family and friends will be spared. Death comes for all of us.
• Seek to love without attachment.
• Remember that you are not the only one who goes through suffering.
Visākhā was looking for a way to escape the pain of losing her grandson. She was trying to find a solution to circumvent death and grief. She went to the Buddha for help. And he did help. He made her aware that as long as she was alive, she would experience the death of others. Every day there is death. It is not something to be free from; It is something to learn to accept as a normal part of life.