I have been pushing myself to finish transcribing the notes I took during the Contemplative Practice and Rituals in Service to the Dying retreat with Roshi Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski, which I attended in early August at Upaya Zen Center. I didn’t used to bother transcribing notes I’d taking during Dharma teachings but then I read Dying with Confidence by Anyen Rinpoche. As I wrote in a previous blog, that book inspired me to type up my notes afterwards so that I can better internalize the teachings I’ve received. I wanted to record my impressions of the Upaya retreat while my memories were still strong and I had a better chance of interpreting my notoriously poor handwriting. I’m also leaving soon on another trip, which will bring many new experiences.
Before my trip, I wanted to write at least one more blog inspired by the retreat. I have enough material in my notes to write many more blogs; this one I wanted to be about the actual focus of the retreat – being with death and dying. I knew I would accompany the blog with the photo I took of the Upaya garden statue of Jizo, one of my favorite bodhisattvas and the one most closely associated with the deceased. I’ll have to devote some future blog to Jizo.
Writing about the death and dying teachings I received at the retreat has been very difficult, mainly because I’ve struggled to extract the teachings from the incredibly intimate environment in which they were given. Through the process of transcribing my notes, this blog emerged.
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. Continue reading →