Two world diseases, similar in that they are both life-threatening and immuno-suppressive, are intimately part of our daily lives. In the United States over 120,000 people have died because of AIDS, and globally there have been many more. Today it is estimated that 1 to 1.5 million Americans have been infected, many not knowing they are HIV positive and perhaps carrying a hidden booster to that virus (mycoplasma) first disclosed by Luc Montagnier, discoverer of HIV, and recently verified by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology according to Science News (March 2, 1991, p. 133), and the numbers indicate that the proliferation of this illness worldwide has yet to peak. New discoveries lead us to hope that control of the illness is not far off, and there is hope for a vaccine by the end of this century. In 1990 the American Cancer Society predicted that about 30 percent of Americans will eventually develop some form of cancer. Although decades of research and billions of dollars have made some gains, we have no critical understanding of the causes of this disease.
In recent decades it is common to have had friends, acquaintances, or family members battle one of these illnesses. Two of the great gifts they can share with us are their thoughts and feelings, especially when death is near. In December 1989 I met and became a friend of a person with AIDS, and in the process of his living and dying I received such a gift. Asked to speak at his funeral I chose to be as spontaneous on the subjects of living and dying as we had been over the last year of his life; yet wasn't sure how or where to begin. The day before, I decided to go to the church where the service was to be held. It was a beautiful Old English style chapel built in the late 1800s with large cut stone outside and brick and wood inside. Walking through the building reminded me of experiences of my childhood and early adolescence. I read the plaques telling of the history of the building and looked at the attractive stained-glass window stretching high above the altar. Then I walked over to the lectern where the lessons from the Bible for the next Sunday were to be read. There was the following:
Deep within them I will plant my Law, writing it on their hearts. . . . There will be no further need for neighbor, or brother to say to brother, "Learn to know Yahweh!" No, they will all know me, the least no less than the greatest. — Jeremiah 31:33-4
I knew then how to begin.
In the world's sacred traditions the similarities found in the core teachings are remarkable. When it comes to birth, death, and life itself the basics are consistent: compassion and forgiveness; divinity within us, not outside ourselves — the dauntless inner essence on a never-ending, unfolding pilgrimage. We are sparks of infinite divinity taking on impermanent coats of skin which hide our true selves. These veils are not only our physical bodies, but our thoughts, desires, vitality, and the invisible structure upon which the body is formed, all built and rebuilt by actions taken during our journey through "many mansions" of existence. If we are to understand the wisdom impressed upon our hearts and minds, these coats of skin must fall away. It is our life on earth and our karma that bring about the challenges necessary to drop these impediments. When the abrasions of daily events come our way, we can dismiss them and deny their reality as self-made lessons, or we can see in them an assisting hand brushing away the layers of self-centeredness and greed in their many forms.
Generally we are too distracted by our "busyness" to see things as they truly are; it seems only the severest shock can awaken us. Confronted by the imminence of death, we find ourselves struggling to find meaning in our life, trying to answer the basic questions — Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? — that we may see life with the knowing eyes of the soul. Perhaps plagues throughout history have assisted us all in greater and more mysterious ways than we know.
Today we know more about cancer than we did. At one time individuals with the illness were shunned by their "friends" and family, and treated as outcasts and even threats. With AIDS in America it is worse. Social stigma turns self-perceived virtues into the vices of separateness and condemnation. Here is the test, provided by nature, to those who are not themselves afflicted, to realize unconditional love and compassion as taught worldwide by the teachers and elder brothers of humankind. But the real test, and perhaps greater victory, goes to those who suffer: not only do they face the pain and agony of disease, but ignorance and bigotry, in some cases from their own family, all the while enduring the sadness of those they love and who love them. Few experiences, met with greatness of heart, could be more truly initiatory into the divine wisdom of the gods.
In the life of one willing to move ahead rather than look back with regret, to examine impartially his or her strengths and weaknesses under these conditions, the true self may, if only in small part, be gradually revealed and shared. Those capable of doing this — such was my friend — do so for the future. They undergo the deepest challenges, exploring the meaning of life and the sacredness of the moment. If they travel far enough, they learn to forgive the ignorance and brutality of others, thus revealing the makings of a warrior of compassion. Their numbers are now legion from two contemporary world plagues. Is it possible that a new cycle for humanity is being born of such efforts taken to the portals of death, not giving in until the natural moment comes to pass through? They weaken the karmic forces of self-centeredness and provinciality, to become increasingly selfless and universal in their thoughts and actions.
When death comes, nature compassionately peels away the veils. The physical body is left behind, worn out, and in time the rest of the vehicles drop away. We hear: "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," but have we ever thought fully what this means? Things of the earth are dropped away to earth, no longer needed by the divine spark — not only the seen physical body but the invisible and mechanical thoughts, desires, the life force which drove the earthly being, and the astral framework of the physical body.
Some, for reassurance or from grief, try to speak with the deceased through a psychic or medium. But they speak only to a conglomeration of these empty yet still potent habit-forms, once used and now abandoned by the spiritual essence, the true being. To thus infuse these shells further with our own vitality is to work against nature and the departing pilgrim soul, and for this reason religious disciplines worldwide condemn any contact with the dead.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, . . . we may as truthfully say Mercury to Mercury, Venus to Venus, and Sun to Sun. Each of the seven sacred planets has built us up, and in time we leave with each that which belongs to it until the light that lies within all living beings is unveiled in us and radiates with solar splendor. To the degree we abandon some of our many coats before death, to that degree is our afterdeath enriched and magnified and the next life filled with the true things of value which neither thief can steal, nor moth eat, nor rust corrode.
The passage of death is, as we are told, the passage into new life. Let us not grieve — the pilgrim-warrior journeys among the stars, preparing for his return.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Theosophical University Press)