What I Don’t know about Death: Reflections on Buddhism and Mortality

What I Don’t know about Death: Reflections on Buddhism and Mortality

C.W. Huntington Jr.
Somerville, Mass.: Wisdom Publications, 2021; 167 pp., paper, $16.95.

Death would seem to be the greatest human mystery, although it appears to be only a bit more mysterious than life. C.W. (Sandy) Huntington Jr. acknowledges that in the first sentence of his book: “I know next to nothing about death.”

 Written during the six months Huntington had left of his life after being diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in January 2020, this book is his final gift to those of us who are left pondering the meaning of life and its end, death. “Science can tell us a great deal about dying and death from an objective point of view but nothing at all about what it means to directly face one’s own imminent demise,” he writes.

Huntington grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, and attended Michigan State University. He earned his PhD in Asian languages and cultures at the University of Michigan. Living in India from 1976 to 1979, Huntington studied with the teachers Ambika Datta Upadhyaya and Ram Shanar Tripathi. He traveled to India many times in his life, taking students in his Buddhist studies program (first at the University of Michigan and Denison College, and then to Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York), to experience that country.

The life of the Buddha and the nature of the spiritual path are the subjects of the beginning chapter of Huntington’s work, in which he notes that the spiritual path is often rooted in discontent, as was the Buddha’s. When the questions loom large in our minds, the search for answers begins. Most of us seek to know why. How can we attain happiness? The search is often a struggle to find the meaning in what confronts us in life, and “how ultimately futile our struggle for control” is.

Some people are critical of Buddhism’s seeming obsession with death and dying, which, as Huntington observes, sees “spiritual work as preparation for death . . . obvious in the case of the Tibetan Book of the Dead,” in which “the message is communicated . . . throughout Buddhist teachings, where meditations on death are commonplace.” But there likely is no more profound teacher of suffering and the way out of suffering than being given a terminal diagnosis of a “dis-ease,” as Huntington terms it in the chapter of that title. Wanting life to be other than it is brings on suffering “whenever our experience runs counter to our desires. What I don’t get what I want, or when I get what I don’t want, I become restless, worried, fearful.”

That reminds me of the phrase in a song by Sheryl Crow: “It’s not having what you want; it’s wanting what you’ve got.” That’s true even if what you’ve got is a terminal diagnosis. This quality—wanting nothing more than what you are given—is called desirelessness in Buddhist philosophy, as Huntington notes as one of the lessons of living and dying. It’s the only way out of suffering.

Huntington explores waking up and what it means as we move through life seeking enlightenment, which more often than not eludes us. His chapter on “A Pathless Land” also discusses waking up. We try too hard to attain enlightenment, which is our greatest impediment: “The harder I twist and pull, the tighter the knot gets. At some point my only choice is to give up trying to not try.” Does waking up (enlightenment) come gradually, through our own efforts, or in a sudden insight? He quotes J. Krishnamurti, who said that “‘truth is a pathless land’ . . . some problems will not yield to rational analysis, so there are skills that cannot be learned by mastering a formula.”

While most of Huntington’s insightful book is focused on the basics of the Buddhist philosophy of living, including nonattachment, equanimity, and desirelessness, ultimately one must learn to let go. “Letting Go” is his final chapter, both literally and figuratively. “I am dying, and what I don’t know about death has become a metaphor for what I don’t know about life. As I’m compelled to give myself over to this darkness of unknowing, I’m finding a new and deepened understanding about what it means to come to terms with what I’ve been given—with what Buddhism calls the ‘suchness’ (tathata) of things.”

Learning nonattachment and the practice of letting go is a lifelong effort, but one that finally gives us the peace and courage required to die. As my late partner, Brent, said to me in one of his last lessons to me: “Dying is easy; it’s living that’s hard. Dying is so easy.”

Huntington died on July 19, 2020, at 1:45 p.m., says his epilogue. “It was an entirely quiet passing. He simply let go.”

Clare Goldsberry’s latest book, The Illusion of Life and Death: Mind, Consciousness, and Eternal Being, was reviewed in Quest, spring 2022.