Falling leaves – parable on death
by Ajahn Brahm
Probably the hardest of deaths for us to accept is that of a child. On many occasions I have had the honour to conduct the funeral service for a small boy or girl, someone not long set out on their experience of life. My task is to help lead the distraught parents, and others as well, beyond the torment of guilt and through the obsessive demand for an answer to the question, ‘Why?’
I often relate the following parable, which was told to me in Thailand many years ago.
A simple forest monk was meditating alone in the jungle in a hut made of thatch. Late one evening, there was a very violent monsoon storm. The wind roared like jet aircraft and heavy rain thrashed against his hut. As the night grew denser, the storm grew more savage.
First, branches could be heard being ripped off the trees. Then whole trees were uprooted by the force of the gale and came crashing to the ground with a sound as loud as the thunder.
The monk soon realised that his grass hut was no protection. If a tree fell on top of his hut, or even a big branch, it would break clean through the grass roof and crush him to death. He didn’t sleep the whole night. Often during that night, he would hear huge forest giants smash their way to the ground and his heart would pound for a while.
In the hours before dawn, as so often happens, the storm disappeared. At first light, the monk ventured outside his grass hut to inspect the damage.
Many big branches, as well as two sizeable trees, had just missed his hut. He felt lucky to have survived. What suddenly took his attention, though, was not the many uprooted trees and fallen branches scattered on the ground, but the many leaves that now lay spread thickly on the forest floor.
As he expected, most of the leaves lying dead on the ground were old brown leaves, which had lived a full life. Among the brown leaves were many yellow leaves. There were several green leaves. And some of those green leaves were of such a fresh and rich green colour that he knew they could have only unfurled from the bud a few hours before. In that moment, the monk’s heart understood the nature of death.
He wanted to test the truth of his insight so he gazed up to the branches of the trees. Sure enough, most of the leaves still left on the threes were young healthy green ones, in the prime of their life. Yet, although many newborn green leaves lay dead on the ground, old bent and curled up brown leaves still clung on to the branches. The monk smiled; from that day on, the death of a child would never disconcert him.
When the storms of death blow through our families, they usually take the old ones, the ‘mottled brown leaves’.
They also take many middle-aged ones, like the yellow leaves of a tree. Young people die too, in the prime of their life, similar to the green leaves. And sometimes death rips from dear life a small number of young children, just as nature’s storms rip off a small number of young shoots. This is the essential nature of death in our communities, as it is the essential nature of storms in a forest.
There is no one to blame and no one to lay guilt on for the death of a child. This is the nature of things. Who can blame the storm? And it helps us to answer the question of why some children die. The answer is the very same reason why a small number of young green leaves must fall in a storm opening the door of your heart.