A friend of mine studied Buddhism with masters throughout Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Thailand. He met a monk who had been ill for a quite a while and had not been able to participate in the life of his temple or to teach. But this great and respected master decided to give one final dharma talk or sermon as a way of saying farewell to the community. It was a greatly anticipated event and the temple was packed with people for this special service. When the moment finally came for the dharma talk, everyone settled down onto their cushions, getting ready for their beloved teacher’s final words of wisdom. “You are all going to die,” he said, “SOON!” Then he bowed to them. The talk was over. That was his last teaching.
The universal truth of these last words is one good reason to talk about the Ars Moriendi, the Art of Dying, while observing All-Souls and All Saints Sunday. Because the human lifespan is short and whether it’s later this afternoon or a hundred years from now, death will arrive for all of us – SOON! Ars Moriendi was a 15th century text that came out of the devastation of Europe’s Black Death. The priestly classes who had attended so many deathbeds had been particularly devastated by the plague and there arose a need for a DIY guidebook to having a good death.