I had intended to spend the last couple of weeks diving further into the Avatamsaka world by rereading one of my old college texts on Chinese Buddhist philosophy, Entry Into the Inconceivable: An Introduction to Hua-Yen Buddhism, by Thomas Cleary. However on starting the book, I soon rediscovered how incredibly dense it is. My mind started spinning as I tried to grasp the interrelated aspects of phenomenon and noumenon (the latter defined as “a thing as it is in itself, as distinct from a thing as it is knowable by the senses through phenomenal attributes”, derived from Kantian philosophy and used by Cleary to denote the principal of emptiness). In other words, Entry Into the Inconceivable is simply not something I can absorb on my metro commute! I will have to save it for more focused, quiet reading time. In the meantime, I turned to another book on my to-read list: Living in the Light of Death: on the art of being truly alive by Larry Rosenberg with David Guy.
Rosenberg, who founded the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, has trained with a broad spectrum of Asian spiritual teachers, including those from several different Buddhist traditions. This book focuses on the Buddhist teachings on death: how awareness of the inevitability and inescapability of old age, sickness, and death leads to deepened spiritual practice (these are the Four Messengers said to have set the Buddha on his path to enlightenment). As Rosenberg writes, “We know in our heads that we will die. But we have to know it in our hearts. We have to let this fact penetrate our bones. Then we will know how to live.”
When I think of the Four Messengers, I like to substitute ‘aging’ for ‘old age’. Old age is not something that all of us will be fortunate enough to face and it’s a pet peeve of mine when people say things along the lines of “believe me, you don’t want to get old”. I’ve known people who have died quite young and would have given much for more time. Unlike old age, however, aging is inevitable. Even children are aware that they’re different now when they were babies.
Children often see aging as a positive because it brings them more freedoms and possibilities. For many adults, aging is seen as a negative because it brings more limitations and leads inexorably to death. Regardless of perspective, aging, like sickness and death, is an inevitability born of change – all composite things decay and eventually pass away. I think that the not-knowing how aging will affect us and when sickness and death will come, is a large part of what makes these topics uncomfortable for most people. We crave certainty, even though the only actual certainty is change! The Four Messengers therefore serve as a wake-up call to practice right here and now:
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.
The above paragraph by Rosenberg evokes one of my favorite fictional characters: the anthropomorphic personification of Death created by Terry Pratchett for his Discworld series. In particular, I love Death as portrayed in Pratchett’s Hogfather (which was subsequently turned into a two-part made-for-TV adaptation that is my favorite holiday movie, narrowly pulling ahead of It’s a Wonderful Life). As portrayed by Pratchett, Death is the only truly fair constant in the universe. He comes to all with unfailing precision and politeness, never judging on basis of socioeconomics or status. (He is also fascinated by humanity, commenting at one point in Hogfather “Human beings make life so interesting. Do you know, that in a universe so full of wonders, they have managed to invent boredom?”) With Pratchett’s Death in mind, I find the thought of Death walking along with me at all times actually rather comforting.
The traditional Buddhist meditation on this topic, which I’ve been practicing with in my sitting meditation for the last two weeks, is the Five Remembrances:
I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
there is no way to escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me, and everyone I love, are of the nature of change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My deeds are my closest companions.
I am the beneficiary of my deeds.
My deeds are the ground on which I stand.
I love that last line. It’s what makes me find this whole practice joyful rather than depressing. There is no way for me to escape aging, sickness, death, and being parted from my loved ones. But my bodhisattva vow continues! Not a single sentient being can help me at the moment of death and neither can my accumulated possessions. However, all is not lost. I am heir to my deeds, the actions of my body, speech, and mind. I can prepare in my life right now for that ultimate moment. What greater motivation can there be to make sure that my actions are virtuous, generous, compassionate, wise, disciplined, patient, honest, and equanimous? How infinitely precious is every moment that I still breath, each moment an opportunity for practice.
Rosenberg emphasizes that we don’t have to wait for conditions to improve to begin putting our motivation into practice in every moment of daily life. Pema Chodron says, come as you are. In a similar vein, Rosenberg says to stop obsessing over the ways in which your life, your practice, your health – your very self – fails to live up to your expectations:
Dogen said the same thing in his instructions to the cook, when he told him not to worry about the ingredients he didn’t have, just to work with those he did. At any given moment we are practicing with particular conditions, and one of them is the physical health we bring to the situation. It does no good to wish things were otherwise. A comparing mind brings suffering along with it. Just wholeheartedly use the ingredients you have, and don’t worry about how things might have been. The last feeble breath you take, as you lie on your deathbed, will be a perfect one to follow. Weak energy is just as good to follow as strong.
I want to conclude with a few comments on where I struggle with these teachings the most. From my experience, it seems that a certain amount of belief is a prerequisite to finding joy in this practice. I don’t know if belief in reincarnation is necessary, but it seems to help. Rosenberg refuses to make any pronouncements about whether there is anything after death. He has faith in his teachers who say there is, but more importantly than that, he says that he would continue his practice of ethics and meditation even if someone proved that there is nothing after death and Buddhism isn’t true at all – he would rather live in clarity and insight than in hedonistic denial.
All of which I agree with. However, where I’ve struggled the most with the Four Messengers is when I’ve tried to explain these concepts to others. For instance, death is a very difficult prospect for my husband, who sees it as a final obliterating ending. I greatly admire his secular humanist resolve in the face of that belief to live his life with the highest ethics. As a historian and great observer of the human condition, he says poignantly that he wants to live forever ‘so that he can find out what happens’. Being the heir of his own virtuous actions does not comfort him in the face of aging, sickness, and death.
Even more difficult has been talking about death with my children. I think most parents ease into that conversation with the death of a pet or grandparent. As a new adoptive mother, I faced the terribly hard situation of explaining the death of first parents to my young children. Since children reprocess difficult information in new ways as they develop and grow, we returned repeatedly to the topic over several years. The conversations never got any easier. I channeled some of the tenor of our discussions into the chapter titled The Doorway to Death: the story of Kisagotami in my children’s book In the Garden of Our Minds.
Try explaining the death of a close loved one to a small child. You can talk all you want about clouds turning into rain that becomes flowers, or about winter being necessary so that we can have spring, or how we are all like waves that flow back into water – but at the end of all your talking, your child is quite likely to look up at you and say “Yes, but why is my mother gone?” and there aren’t any words or picture books I know of to make that hurt lighter.
For the Anniversary of My Death
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
– W. S. Merwin