A rich merchant asked a Buddhist monk for the secret to a happy life. “Grandfather dies, father dies, son dies,” he replied. The merchant demanded angrily: “How can that possibly be called happy?” The monk explained: “Like it or not, we all die. So what could be better than for it to happen in the natural order?”
We’re now approaching Halloween – the eve of All Saints’ Day followed by All Souls’ Day – when, according to Christian and other religions, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thin and ghosts walk among us.
Well, children dressed as ghosts, anyway.
The beauty of the occasion, for me, is that in the fun and frivolity of high-spirited parties and creepy costumes is the dance between life and death. No matter how far we may feel from the natural world, we are still part of it. If the world harvest were to fail, we would find it hard to munch our way through our laptops and mobile phones. “Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize that we cannot eat money,” so the Cree Indian saying goes. Already this year we have seen global wheat prices soar after freak weather caused poor harvests. Even developed nations are just a few missed meals from anarchy, we are warned.
This can be a hard concept to grasp in a land of plenty where youthfulness is worshipped, old age is hidden away and death is almost taboo. But in order to live as fully rounded human beings, we must see through the illusion of immortality.
That was the lesson I had to learn when I was younger, when my mother died. There’s something special about mothers – especially good ones – and they have an air about them, when we are children, that they will always be there for us. Of course, this is not true, and each death we face, each funeral we attend, is another wake-up call to acknowledge the fragile impermanence of our own existence and to live each day with hearts and minds open to the adventure.
And that’s why Halloween is so important. It can help us to see through the illusion and have a good laugh at ourselves for pretending death is something that only happens to other people. It reminds us that life is no more than a veil of time between our arriving and our going. Its very brevity is what gives it meaning and poignancy, like the butterfly’s short-lived but exquisite beauty: that’s why the gods of ancient Greece were jealous of mortals.
Halloween is the child of the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘sow’ – as in the pig – ‘in’). This is one of eight half-remembered, mostly forgotten, seasonal festivals when we can reconnect, and dance, with the ever-changing seasons of our lives and land. Doing so is even more important nowadays for the ever-increasing number of us who don’t live and work on the land and who struggle to find the time to ‘get out into nature’ on a regular basis.
Once we start getting back in touch with this living cycle, this natural order, it becomes so much easier to be “environmentally friendly” because doing so progresses from being a chore, or a fad, to being something that flows through us naturally.
So, I shall end by wishing you a happy Halloween and a silly (Old English meaning ‘happy’) Samhain.