Relatives, friends, and companions
When a long-absent person
Returns from afar.
Just so, in passing from this world to the next,
The merit we have made
As a family does the return of a beloved relative.
Dhammapada v. 219-220, translated by Gil Fronsdal
There are a number of ways to read this verse. On one level it is about rebirth and what comes after our death. On another level it is about our relationship to our actions, our “merit-making”, a relationship akin to recycling in my mind.
We can understand the laws of karma as basic recycling – nothing disappears, it all breaks down and something new starts. It rolls on with only partial identifiers of transitional stages. Try to imagine that this applies to energy and actions as well as to food and compost.
These lovely words from the Dhammapada create the warm promise that in the end, we will be welcomed into a cosy nest built up of our virtuous deeds. It is a corollary to the idea that we can’t actually own anything except our actions. When we come to the end of our lives, what we own becomes pretty meaningless; what we have done is seen as who we are and what we leave behind, or pass on to others.
In ordinary materialist thinking, this is an odd observation. Who cares what happens when we die? However, no matter what you think about a life after the one we’re currently living, there is food for thought here. What is our relationship to our wholesome actions? Do we recognize them as more important than accumulating things? Can we take comfort (not pride!) in them today?