The Upside Down Bowl
“Question: The Western world seems to be suffering from a sense of great reluctance regarding both the contemplation of death and its attitude toward it; death has become a taboo subject, one that is increasingly the object of an absurd denial.
As a Buddhist, does this situation not trouble you?
For those who have dismissed death from their minds, time seems as insipid as sand running through their fingers. It’s no coincidence that, in Buddhism, meditation on death is of pivotal importance. You might say, “But it’s morbid! What’s the point of thinking about it? It’s far better to think of something else, to take one’s mind off things!” Yet, this is clearly not the case. It is precisely when we become keenly aware that, on the one hand, death is unavoidable and that, on the other hand, the circumstances which bring it about are unpredictable—whether death comes tomorrow, in ten days, or in twenty years, who knows?—that this is when time takes on a whole new meaning.
In Buddhism, there are practices associated with this thought of death: for instance, that of the hermit who, in his retreat, turns his bowl upside down on the table each night. In Tibet, this gesture is typically done when someone dies. It symbolizes also an attitude, one that consists in acknowledging that we do not know which will come first—the dawn of tomorrow or our death… In fact, a very beautiful verse by Nagarjuna says, “How marvelous to breathe in and out again.” It is true that such an outlook bestows a priceless value on life.”
Extract from a radio interview with Matthieu Ricard discussing western attitudes towards death. It makes me think about how we can use this metaphor of the upturned bowl in a new way of developing a service that enables one to create their ‘future obituary’. In fact a way we could design our lives based on how we design the inevitable, a personal death coaching service of sorts. Fundamentally we all want to control our death but could it dictate how we live our lives in a more applied way? Like reverse engineering your life to fit an idealised death? A way to explore the interesting tension between personal expectations for how one may like to die and the traditions that one ultimately goes through.