Today, February 15, is known as Parinirnava Day in much of the Buddhist world. It commemorates the anniversary of the Buddha’s death, or Parinirvana. It’s a time for bearing in mind the essential truth of change, instability, and impermanence (anicca).
It’s traditional on Parinirvana Day to read the scriptures concerning the Buddha’s death: especially the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. It’s also traditional to visit temples to meditate, and to remember that our own lives here on earth are limited. Parinirvana Day is also a time for remembering friends and family who have passed, and often we’ll place their images at the foot of an altar.
For me, this blog often acts as a kind of memento mori, or reminder of death. To the best of my knowledge five people who have shared articles here have passed away: two of them I knew personally, while others I’d only exchanged emails with. I wanted to take the opportunity of Parinirvana Day to bring them to mind, to say a little about them, and to encourage you to read their articles.
The first is Suvarnaprabha, whose name means “Golden Radiance.” That was a great name for her, since she had a vibrant personality, full of humor, although she preferred to go by “Suvanna,” finding her Sanskrit name a bit combersome. She could be deeply serious, but she often laughed and inspired laughter in others. I vividly remember going with her to see Robin Williams perform in San Francisco, where she lived, and us spending the evening with tears running down our faces.
On Wildmind’s blog she wrote an advice column called “Ask Auntie Suvanna.” The original intent was for this to be a humour endeavor, but as time went by the requests for help became sadder and sadder. Suvanna’s responses were always kind and wise, though, and were often hilarious. I’d suggest starting with her pieces on the Buddhist approach to excess body hair, and On eating vegetarian monkey brains.
She also wrote a piece about teaching meditation in prison, which was very close to my heart as I was doing the same thing at the same time.
Suvanna documented her experience with cancer in two blogs, the first of which detailed her initial diagnosis and treatment, and the second of which, Crap, I’ve Got Cancer, took up the story of the cancer’s return.
Saddhamala (“She who is garlanded with faith”) was someone else I knew personally. We first emailed each other around 1998, when I was at the Rocky Mountain Buddhist Center in Missoula, Montana, and she was at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, although at that time she wasn’t yet ordained and went by her birth name, Nancy Nicolazzo. A few years later I moved to Newmarket myself, and I saw her a fair amount.
She was known as Nancy in her work as a chaplain and volunteer coordinator at a hospice, and it was in a hospice that she passed away. She’d had cancer that had metastasized. Knowing that death was inevitable she’d decided not to seek treatment. She was a talented woman who’d also worked as a consultant. In fact I once employed her to help me make my office space more pleasing and efficient, and the results were wonderful.
Saddhamala wrote many articles for Wildmind. She had done a lot of teaching and tended to distill her suggestions into lists of tips for practice. Sometimes, though, she wrote more personally, for example when she discussed her family background.
Marcus wasn’t someone I knew personally, and I must have met Marcus on social media. He was a therapist in California, and practiced at the San Francisco Zen Center. One of the striking things about Marcus was the number of tattoos he had — many of them Buddhist themed. I asked him to write an account of his journey on Wildmind’s blog, and so he wrote, Bodhi art: reclaiming the body with Buddhist tattoos, illustrated with a number of photographs.
Marcus passed away in 2013, I think. Not being a friend of his, I never did learn how Marcus died. Someone who knew him said he’d been ill, but she didn’t know anything beyond that.
Hazel Colditz was another Wildmind contributor I never had the good fortune to meet in person. I’m sure I would have liked her. Hazel was a talented photographer, documentary maker, and sculptor of rock and metal. She lived in the Arizona desert. We met on social media when she offered to review a book for me. She ended up writing three reviews in total, for “Taneesha Never Disparaging” by M. LaVora Perry, “Sitting Practice” by Caroline Adderson, and “Jake Fades” by David Guy. I always enjoyed her perspectives, and she was a joy to work with. She passed away in January, 2012, having battled an aggressive form of cancer for several months, and having endured multiple major surgeries.
Navachitta was part of the Auckland, New Zealand sangha of the Triratna Buddhist Community. She was ordained into the Order in the summer of 1990 in Taraloka, in Shropshire, England. I never new her personally, although we corresponded periodically by email for many years, and I always appreciated her support and encouragement.
Navachitta was a therapist who worked in private practice and was very active in the recovery community. You can read more about this aspect of her work in an interview she did with a representative of North West Buddhist Recovery.
One wonderful anecdote: While living in Britain, Navachitta once went to a builder’s merchant, saying she was looking for sacks. But hearing her New Zealand accent, the men she was talking to unfortunately thought she was looking for “sex.” Hilarity (although to the best of my knowledge no sexual intercourse) ensued.
Before her untimely death she only had time to write three articles and reviews for Wildmind’s blog. One, entitled From drama to Dharma, was on addiction to drama. Her second piece, Looking for the silver lining of our dysfunction, is about the connection between addiction and the potentially beneficial trait of novelty-seeking. Her final piece was a review of a book of poems by a fellow Order member, Satyadevi. The poems were inspired by natural and industrial disasters that had taken place in New Zealand.
Navachitta passed away in London at the age of 62 from a severe bacterial and viral infection.
I hope these stories have encouraged you to explore the work of the five individuals I’ve drawn attention to.
But on a deeper level, all five of their deaths were unexpected. I know I make assumptions about how long I’ll live (late eighties to early nineties?) and how I’ll die (either in my sleep or in a hospital bed?), but none of us ever knows when our time will come. It could be today.
And so the Buddha encouraged us to be mindful that death can come at any time, not so that we become afraid or depressed, but so that we be inspired to make the most of this precious opportunity to practice.
Life is swept along,
next-to-nothing its span.
For one swept to old age
no shelters exist.
Perceiving this danger in death,
one seeking peace
should drop the world’s bait.
We’re also asked to bear in mind, even more pithily, the remembrance, anicca vata sankhara : “Impermanent, indeed, are all created things.” Let’s mourn our losses, while tempering them with an awareness of their inevitability. And above all, let’s take them as an inspiration to live the best lives we can create.