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Death and dying

Let Yourself LOVE

Back in 1998, I was a young mum and an ordained Buddhist living and working in a exciting, modern spiritual community in London.

‘Not getting attached’ is a big teaching in Buddhism and it took me a while to really understand what this means, especially as a new parent  – and that


The following is an article I wrote about these exploration for Dharma Life Magazine.  And at the end of the article, a short video I recorded in 2009 with Inspired Entrepreneur, Nick Williams, on the same topic…

An All Embracing Urge

Published in Dharma Life Magazine – Winter 1998, written by Maggie Kay (Srimati)

Motherhood has opened up a new emotional realm for Srimati. But how to love wholeheartedly and continually let go is the ground of her daily practice.

Against the odds and ahead of hard evidence, I instinctively knew I was pregnant. As I lay in the bath there was something magical in the air. I found myself, hand on belly, making a heartfelt pledge in a tender whisper: “If you’re there, you’re welcome and I’ll do my best for you.” This was the beginning of the greatest love of my life. One week into my relationship with this unknown, unexpected being, I was howling with an ancient grief as I bled, and feared it was over. The pain of that love had also made itself felt.

But all was well, and that feeling of love and pain gathered substance during the months of pregnancy. My body surrendered more and more to its task, and love for my unborn became increasingly tangible with the growth of the life in my belly. So did the fears. Dreams of the coming birth were mostly beautiful, but my heart was full of the fragility of human life. I felt I would do anything to protect this life inside me, and yet there was so little I could do to ensure its wellbeing. That was ultimately out of my hands. Even before my child was born, I was learning that maternal love means letting go.

I spent an unforgettable night bringing my son into the world. In the calm and comfortable aftermath of that struggle, I lay stung awake by wonder, gazing at him. The blacks of his eyes shone in the dark, peacefully apprehending his new world as he lay between us, his parents, the very flesh that had created him. A few days earlier I’d dreamt I was begging a Nazi soldier not to shoot me, to give me one more week so I could see the face of my unborn child. Becoming a mother has shown me that the death of a child is the cruelest loss imaginable.

As a practicing Buddhist, (In 2002 I resigned my ordination to embrace all forms of spirituality and no longer consider myself to be ‘just’ a Buddhist) such strong feelings have raised many questions for me. What gives rise to such powerful and self-sacrificing maternal love? To what extent does this love help or hinder us in living a spiritual life?

Dharma Life Cover

Some Buddhists claim parenthood is unhelpful from a spiritual point of view, partly because it opens you up to such incredible attachment. It is generally true that the more emotionally involved you are with someone, the more you are liable to be caught in attachment. At worst this can mean limiting, insecure ways of relating, and unhealthy dependence. Attachment is difficult to recognize and can be easily rationalized as something less selfish. For a Buddhist, however, identifying and uprooting this clinging is the very heart of practice and for a Buddhist parent it is no different.

Nevertheless certain Buddhist traditions take the image of maternal love as a metaphor to describe metta, universal loving-kindness:

As a mother watches o’er her child, Her only child, so long as she doth breathe, So let one practice unto all that live An all-embracing mind.

Parenting, especially early parenting, can seem incomparably unselfish — but is it really? What enables such incredible resources to be unstintingly roused in the service of another human being? Perhaps it is because there is cellular identity with the child, especially in the mother’s case: My child is me. There is quite a leap between this and the empathetic identification of a Bodhisattva, the embodiment of compassion, with all living beings; but it is a powerful analogy.

I have come to value the power and vitality of maternal love and motherhood has given me a depth of experience that enriches my spiritual life. I have contacted a huge reservoir of passionate love for my son such as I have never experienced before. Most parents speak of this kind of love for their children. I prefer to see parental love as a spiritual opportunity. The answer is not to back away from the strength of that love, but to dwell deeply in it; to penetrate its nature and the nature of that which you love.

As a parent you have almost no choice but to love your child passionately, and this demands that you find the same intensity of wisdom. The more your heart is open, the more you can allow any wise reflections to touch you and let them transform you.

The story of Kisa Gotami is probably my favorite from the Buddha’s life. Kisa Gotami comes to the Buddha cradling her dead child. She is distraught, even a little crazed, and cannot accept that her child is dead. She has heard the Buddha is a great man, a great healer, and begs him to provide medicine for her ‘sick’ child. The Buddha replies that he will help her. She must find a mustard seed as medicine, but there is one condition: it must come from a household that has not known death.

Kisa Gotami sets out on her quest, knocking at doors. Those who greet her are happy to give her a mustard seed, but shake their heads when they hear of the condition. The living are few, but the dead are many. Kisa Gotami cannot find a house in which no one has died, and gradually a new perspective dawns. She sees the universality of death and this allows her to acknowledge what has happened. She buries her child, returns to the Buddha, and commits herself to the spiritual life.

Kisa Gotami “wakes up” during her quest. She sees that death and loss are universal, so she can finally grieve and let go of her child. This is a deeper engagement with life and death that sees it in a spiritual perspective. In accepting the death of her child, Kisa Gotami gains insight into the nature of human life. Obviously this is challenging ground. Kisa Gotami had the Buddha’s help. But it is not that she stopped loving, just that her love was placed in a much vaster context.

Tibetan Buddhist texts dwell on the mother-child relationship in many ways to evoke the intensity of love that human beings are capable of. The difficulty lies in transforming exclusive love into one that includes all beings. The prospect of loving every being like one’s only child is awesome, but life offers glimpses of such an experience. For example, when one grieves the death of a loved one, the combination of feelings arising from a personal loss, with an acknowledgment of the universality of death, can open up an intense love for all humanity.

Compassion comes with realizing that all beings will one day share this moment in their own way. Similarly, dying people sometimes reach a serenity where they accept impending death and are imbued with a sublime love for their family and for life itself — as if only this fullness of love is important, more important and powerful than death itself. Over the years I have thought a great deal about the nature of human love, ordinary human affection and intimacy with all its imperfections. It is this middle ground between the lofty climes of metta and the grip of unconscious attachment that I am interested in — that is where many of us stand for much of our lives.

Srimati with Jamie

When I first became involved in Buddhism I latched on to the notion of non-attachment because I was hurt by loss and death. I was 19 and didn’t know myself well. Although fairly bright and positive on the surface, I was unconsciously on the run from painful experiences. My adolescence had ended abruptly with my father’s illness and death, and I had witnessed the agony my mother suffered in losing him. I felt mature beyond my years, and my world of teenage rebellion became meaningless.

So, too, did my relationship with my first love, who had recently held such passion and promise for me. I had thought he was my soul-mate, the man I’d spend my life with. But my need for him melted away and I felt strangely alone. Suddenly, I found myself telling him it was over and telling my mother that I was leaving home.

Within a few months, my inner searching brought me to the Glasgow Buddhist Center, and I instantly recognized I had found the means to understand life and death that had been invisibly beckoning ever since I can remember. Although my response to the Dharma was largely sincere, I misconstrued some of what I learnt. While I rejoiced in my fortune at having come across the Buddhist path so young and unencumbered, I did not realized how much emotional backlog I had to deal with. It was during this initial phase that I developed a sort of defended pseudo-independence and fooled myself that I was free of attachments.

Fortunately meditation and spiritual friendship sorted me out. I threw myself into the spiritual life, and moved to the London Buddhist Center where I could participate in more intensive situations for practice, and be around more experienced Buddhists. Meditating every day, living in community with other Buddhists and working in a Buddhist Right Livelihood business was like being in a hall of mirrors. Everywhere I looked, my being was reflected back. There was no escape. So the pain of what I had been running from caught up with me. It was a journey into the underworld and I came more deeply into relationship with the love and pain that had been stirred by these losses.

By fully grieving, in opening up my heart to what had happened, the psuedo-independence crumbled. I was heartbroken, and from that broken heart a bigger heart was released. I began to see that non-attachment was not about holding back, being self-contained and trying to limit the inevitable emotional damage that comes through being in relationship with people. Ironically, I’ve found that non-attachment is about loving deeply, letting my love flow, admitting how much friends, family and partner matter. It involves being willing to love them, give myself to them, even though we will one day be parted. There’s nothing we can do to stop death, to end separation. Non-attachment means being prepared to take the pain of losing loved ones because the sheer experience of love is worth it.

My attitude to love began to change as I acknowledged the truth of impermanence, and the inevitability of the suffering implicit in loving. From feeling I made myself vulnerable by loving, I began to experience a greater robustness in my love. What did I really have to lose? I started to see love as giving rather than losing myself. Really to love I must be prepared to give everything and let go of everything. I must learn to release my love, love for its own sake, with no desire for a secure pay-off.

More than a decade later, with a partner and a four-year-old son, those ponderings have a new arena. The issues of attachment are different. I cannot choose whether or not to love my son, whether it is ‘safe’ to invest emotional energy in him. It is absolutely what I must and will do. I am only beginning the journey of loving as a mother, and every time I think I have understood what is involved, it changes.

And yet I sense that the lessons of this decade are the same. Only insight into to my son’s true nature, indeed into human nature in general, can free me from attachment. Every so often a tragic news story rips through the day-to-day illusion that this love is forever, never to be disturbed by accident, illness, separation.

I do not want to have to face what Kisa Gotami experienced in order to wake up to the human situation, but I do want to wake up. I want to feel unbounded love that is passionate, full and wise. Living with the tension of loving fully and letting go is not easy: it involves simultaneously holding two apparent opposites.

But hopefully the tension will allow a larger perspective to emerge. In the meantime I feel it is the only option. Love is not about binding another or oneself to a status quo because of insecurity. That is essentially an impossible task: things change, like it or not. It means taking a stand on a deeper, spiritual knowledge. To love fully is to open oneself to the truth of the human condition.


Talking with Inspired Entrepreneur, Nick Williams, about love and non-attachment – video interview  2009.  Click below:

Spirit in a Human Body

In early June 1982, I found myself sitting bolt upright in bed. It was the middle of the night and I thought I was dreaming, but here I was with my eyes wide open and it was still happening.

The eerie star-like essence kept on flowing from under the bedroom door, along the ground and now formed a person-sized pillar at the end of my bed.  I knew it was Dad.  I could feel him.

As I stared at the essence, I was enveloped in a reassuring cloak of love and security, and for the first time since he’d died a few days ago, that awful, brittle fear melted away.  It seemed that Dad’s spirit had deliberately come to me to soothe me.

I became strangely peaceful and fell asleep.

My sister, Katy, was staying over, but didn’t stir.  She was back with me in the attic bedroom we used to share as children.

Now an 18 year old teenager myself, the room was all mine.  Katy had left home to get married six years before and since then I’d painted the walls chocolate brown and put a mattress on the floor under the alcove.

My mechanical genius boyfriend, John, had rigged up an extra speaker out of an old oil can so my ancient LP player would sound better.

We would burn incense and lay around listening to Genesis and Pink Floyd.  It was the 80’s and there weren’t many other ‘hippies’ of our age, but we were happily retro together, feeling like we’d been born 10 years too late.

John was intense and keenly intelligent and didn’t seem to quite fit into our plain old Scottish backwater world.   The music we loved was our religion – opening our consciousness to other dimensions and posing questions about the meaning of life.

More than one medium ventured that John had been a Tibetan Buddhist monk in his last life.  Certainly his dark hair, broad face and slightly slanting eyes hinted of Tibetan, but he was all Scot in this life.

On my bedroom walls, the Donny Osmond and George Best posters had long been replaced by pictures of fairy goddesses and mythical creatures.  And there was also a cut-out picture from a magazine I’d been given by a Hari Krishna in town one day.

What a Hari Krishna was hoping for in Paisley (a ‘seen better days’ town near Glasgow) is anyone’s guess, but for some reason I accepted his magazine and found one of the pictures in it to be strangely compelling.  Up on the wall it went.

The image was of a ‘cycle of life’ – a depiction of an Indian man being born, aging and dying, drawn clockwise round the page like the numbers on a clock.

At the top he was a baby, then a toddler, then a child and then getting older and older until he died and became a baby again.  I loved the exotic Indian poetry of the picture, and somehow it spoke to me even though I couldn’t put its meaning into words.

I so loved having my own space in the attic room away from it all.  Although I had a happy family life, I relished time on my own.

If it hadn’t been for Dad’s poor health, I’d have moved into digs while I studied psychology at university in nearby Glasgow.  But I wanted to stay at home and support Mum and Dad, especially now that both Katy and my older brother, Jim, had flown the nest.

It wasn’t an easy time with Dad in hospital, but Mum was a tower of strength.  She worked full time (which involved extensive travel), looked after the house beautifully, honoured her singing engagements as best she could and spent most evenings visiting Dad.

But even Mum wasn’t invincible.  In the winter of 1981 a grumbling health problem became acute and she was taken into hospital.

This led to Dad’s final hospitalisation too.  His condition wasn’t good and he needed care.  He certainly couldn’t manage without Mum.

The next few weeks were bleak.  With Mum and Dad both in hospital, I felt very alone when I came down with a nasty flu.

Thankfully, this phase was short lived.  I got better and Mum recovered well and was soon home again.  Dad, however, never made it out of hospital.

The evening before he died, it happened that my brother, sister, and I were all visiting Dad together.  Mum was delayed and would see him later on her own.

We found Dad restless and a slightly delirious.  We hadn’t seen him like that before and were puzzled, but we didn’t guess what it meant.  None-the-less, we all said goodbye with special tenderness.  It was to be our last.

The next day, on the morning of 4th June 1982, Mum woke me in my attic bedroom with a call from downstairs.  “I’ve just heard from the hospital”, she said, “Your Dad’s condition is deteriorating.”

Half way through the 20 minute journey to the hospital, I suddenly doubled up with an inexplicable pain across my body.  It only lasted for moments, but felt like a signal.

When we arrived we were ushered into a waiting room. “I’m sorry to tell you”, the nurse said to my Mum gently, “your husband has just passed away”.  Shock hit me like a great crashing wave.

My sister, Mum and I were shown to Dad’s bedside.  The curtains were parted and I struggled to comprehend what I saw.  He wasn’t there!  My Dad was just not there!

Sure there was an inert shell that resembled what my Dad had been, but this was not my Dad!  I had never seen a dead body before and now, in that instant, I understood that it is pure spirit alone that brings life to our bodies

I wasn’t drawn to the empty waxwork lying on his hospital bed.  Instead I stood back and looked up.  I could feel Dad all around us in the air.

It was as though I was breathing him, floating in him, drinking him.  It was a draft of heady, intoxicating bliss. Dad was free, he was everywhere!

Back in the waiting room, the atmosphere of spiritual intensity was expanding until it filled every space.  It was as though molecules of sublime gas were being pumped into the room until the density almost burst down the walls.

Dad’s love was all around us and he was flooding us with his presence.  I looked out of the window, awestruck and suppressing an enchanted smile.

What I was experiencing now seemed more real than the talk and interaction that was going on around me.  It was a like my camera lens on life had been re-focussed to a different dimension.

My ‘normal’ reality had receded to the background whilst a vivid supernatural reality was sharply present instead. I’d never known anything like it before and yet it seemed strangely familiar.  It was wonderful.  It was home.