Looking into the Darkness

March 10, 2017

I’ve been feeling my age more and more these days, feeling slower, more creaky, and less interested in coping with all of the things that keep others busy. My older friends assure me that I am not yet ‘old’ which is comforting, I guess, but it is comfort of a very meager sort because I feel like they are telling me, in not so many words, that its all downhill from here.

So what should I do? Shrug? Ignore what can’t be controlled? Get on with my ‘life’? Which is to say, act like the other 99.99% of the people on the planet at any given moment and pretend that I (and my so-called possessions) will live forever? Why isn’t my zen practice delivering pat answers to these questions?

I don’t have any answers, but I did find inspiration from two articles that popped into my inbox this morning: The Supreme Meditation (Larry Rosenberg, Lion’s Roar, 10 Mar 2017), and Dead Like Me (Ira Sukrungruang, Lion’s Roar, 10 Mar 2017). These writers are facing death head on so why shouldn’t I give it a try?

Rosenberg describes an early lesson he received from his teacher when they “volunteered” to spend the night with a fresh corpse. This initial encounter, difficult at first, cracks open a door for him that most of us have nailed shut. Rosenberg states the problem this way, “Sooner or later we all have to face the fact of death. We think of life and death as opposites, life as happening now and death as something that will happen at the end of the road, preferably an extremely long road.”

He describes how our attitudes, and modern culture, work together to insulate us from any awareness that we will grow old, become sick, die, and lose all that we have worked so hard to gain. He adds, “The truth is that we are aging from the moment we are born, that we have no idea when we may grow ill and when we will die. No one is guaranteed even one more breath. Death will take all our acquisitions away, including our sense of who we are, of everything we identify as self. Death is not waiting for us at the end of the road. It is walking with us the whole time.” and from this he realizes “Really facing death enables us to appreciate and make the best use of our life in a whole new way. … The attachments we form when we live, and that we will have to let go of when we die, are actually what make us suffer while we are here. Really facing death enables us to appreciate and make the best use of our life in a whole new way.

Letting go of attachments is a frequent refrain in Buddhist teaching and for a modern, well-off, family man like me, it sounds fairly dreadful. Am I really willing to leave my family, my home, my position in the world? Can’t I at least cling to all these things until death takes them away?

It is at this point where Sukrungruang jumps in with a potent question, “How do you want people to remember you?” He says Buddhism has traditionally dismissed the stock answers, “good father,” “person who gave,” and “person who tried hard,” in favor of not being remembered at all.

Yikes. Not only am I supposed to give up what I have, I’m also supposed to give away all chance of being remembered? Can I be comfortable with that? I think about how much I treasure my memories of my parents. I would hate to lose those, but I have to confess that I can’t recall much about my grandparents, and before them … nothing. My great grandparents are a complete cipher, and yet, without them I wouldn’t be here, alive, on this side of the Atlantic, instead of being only a “what if?” rubbed out by German death camps.

The prosaic ways of being remembered – father, giving, trying – suit my fancy, but they set me to thinking and here’s where I have ended up today: when my children (or friends, or colleagues, or whoever) find themselves calling on my memory, I would like it to be a pleasant experience. I have no desire to direct their memories in any way. I just pray that their experience of recollection is something that will elevate their spirits because, if recollection ends up becoming something else to them, I would just as happily go the orthodox Buddhist route and not be remembered at all.

As for me, I think I will take Rosenberg’s advice and re-introduce The Five Contemplations to my practice:

  1. I am subject to aging. Aging is unavoidable.
  2. I am subject to illness. Illness is unavoidable.
  3. I am subject to death. Death is unavoidable.
  4. I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
  5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and live dependent on my actions. Whatever I do, for good or for ill, to that will I fall heir.

 

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