Death Is No Big Deal

William B. Turner
4 min readMar 6
Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion

One problem, sort of, with being on the Buddhist path is that Buddhists tend to hold unusual opinions on topics that many people in the United States think are very important, but think about in foolish ways.

A friend who is both on the Buddhist path and a hospice nurse talks about her former mother in law having “a good death.” This is not a phrase one hears very often in the United States. The increasing use of hospice in general is a good development, since hospice involves honestly facing the fact of impending death.

The Buddha was very clear: we’re all going to die. According to the official story, the Buddha started on his path to realization when he was still a pampered, over privileged prince and went out of the palace, where he saw a sick person, an old person, a wandering mendicant, and a corpse. The official story says that he had never seen such persons at all before, but it is more plausible that he had just never processed the thought that his wealth and privilege would not protect him from old age, sickness, and death, such that this was the first of several critical realizations that led him to his awakening.

Again, realizations are common and critical on the Buddhist path. Awakening is just the final, ultimate realization. A realization does not require new information, but a new perspective on existing information.

Anyone on the Buddhist path in the United States should know about the death of the 16th Karmapa of the Kagyu lineage in Tibetan Buddhism at an Illinois hospital. Tibetans take the idea of rebirth very literally and think that highly accomplished teachers know who the next manifestation of their officeholder will be before their deaths. This is true of the Dalai Lama, who is essentially the karmapa of his lineage.

The 16th Karmapa, who died in the United States in 1981, made a huge impression on the doctors and other staff who treated him in the last weeks of his life. They were amazed that he exhibited none of the signs they associated with a person who is dying of cancer. After he died, the state of Illinois and the hospital allowed a departure from the usual rules to leave his body where he died for three days. At the end of this period, the doctor who was treating him when he died found that his body was still warm near his heart, which the doctor could…

William B. Turner

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.