Yours in the Dharma:  Essays from a Buddhist perspective by Sandy Garson

This blog, Yours in the Dharma by Sandy Garson, is an effort to navigate life between the fast track and the breakdown lane, on the Buddhist path. It tries to use a heritage of precious, ancient teachings to steer clear of today's pain and confusion to clear the path to what's truly happening.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Death Trap

Last week, after two solid months of rain and chilly damp, my heart burst with such joy at the sight of cheery daffodils in the supermarket, I threw away my financial fears and grabbed a bunch. Every time I saw their exquisite sunshine in the kitchen, my spirits perked. I who am a fool for flowers loved those intensely yellow daffodils making me so happy for only $6.99—cheaper than a ticket to the Caribbean. I even thanked them for doing their own thing, trumpeting hope of brighter days. The big phooey was that after four days, the daffodils keeled over and died. The thin brownish tissue paper drooping toward the table was the sad sight of impermanence. My glorious beauties became the city’s compost.

Deflated by what the Buddha called the suffering of change, I sat down to console myself with the newly arrived New Yorker, the Feb 1 edition. Sometimes brilliant writing can put joy in my head the way those daffodils put it in my heart. What I found this issue was an overeducated, overprivileged thirty-something venting her dismay that after her mother died, nobody could give her the sure fire crib notes for how to pass the test of grief. “A Better Way to Grieve” was a clueless woman’s blithering odyssey from one so-called academic researcher to another in hope of citing the magic bullet, the holy grail of the one and only infallible one size fits all answer to her test question: how should I mourn to be politically, socially and culturally correct? I need to get an A plus, and someday you will too so bare with me.

Please excuse my portraying it as pathetic because I am far more acquainted with mourning than I wish I were. While my peers were adding credentials and degrees and spouses and children, my decade of the twenties was a time of vast subtraction. I buried my paternal grandmother, my mother, my mother’s cousin, my dearest great aunt who was my de facto maternal grandmother, my brother-in-law, my maternal grandfather and my best childhood friend. And of course the family dog, the beagle Frizbee.

After twenty ensuing years of wandering in the glitz of the Western cultural desert, I became a Buddhist who starts the day saying: “My life is like a water bubble that can burst at any moment, so today I must make it meaningful.” The lamas who teach me turn their offering and tea bowls over every night before falling asleep in case they do not awaken to fill them in the morning. Over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha taught that birth is a death sentence. Get used to it. We are all daffodils bright today, compost tomorrow. Impermanence has no exceptions, not one of us.

The Victorians who stubbornly staggered over the Himalayas and discovered the hidden Buddhism of Tibet were profoundly shocked by and contemptuous of what they saw as its gloomy and dispiriting emphasis on death. Later missionaries who made themselves cheerfully busy dispensing Spam and powdered milk chastised Tibetans fleeing their homeland for this unhealthy fixation on doom. Western Christians just couldn’t see how unhealthy and indeed contemptible their denial of death was. These people representing a culture given to march with placards screaming ‘The End is Near’ or ‘The End is coming’ were obviously oblivious to their own need for departure plans.

I myself have not found anybody who does death better than Tibetans. Survivors will shrug and say: “This is impermanence. We have to accept that. It cannot be changed.” They do not cry. They are too busy praying to the gods to accept their loved one into a state of grace while they are also praying to the deceased, sending their loving gratitude for everything that happened along with all their aspirations that good actions of the now ended life will allow for a bright future in another birth. They go on like this with fervent devotion for 49 days. Then they burn all remnants of the departed and, having done their best, go on like pilgrims in a new world. Grieving is impermanent too.

Accepting death and the idea that we are all playing beat the clock makes life more precious. We are all living on the edge, ready or not, so telling yourself you could die at any moment is good impetus for smelling the roses and the coffee, for making up and forgiving without a protracted fight. A sense of impending doom definitely focuses you on what is authentic and what is not important. You know: Who has time for that? It’s amazing how you can get stuff done without procrastination--sometimes anyway.

It is really helpful to watch out for the old watchwords of Detroit, planned obsolescence, because our chassis’s are precisely that. Once in an uncharacteristic moment of emotional honesty, my father’s late wife told me the only thing that pulled her through the seemingly inconsolable grief of her mother’s death was remembering I told her how gracious it was of her mother to leave the stage in order to create space for her newly born first grandchild. “It’s the only way of looking at it that made any sense,” she said, not knowing she was agreeing with the Buddha who said change is the lifeblood of the universe. If things were stuck and frozen, none of us would be here now. Death is about what they call in kindergarten "taking turns."

The late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, one of the great sages of the 20th Century, chided his Western students about their mourning habits, calling them selfish egotism. ‘And who are you crying for?’ he’d ask. He said the deceased had been set free from all sorts of suffering so we should be filled with joy. But we cry like babies because we have lost something we liked, something we had grown attached to having. The only reason we are crying is because we don’t have what we want any more. We have a gaping hole in our life. We cry for ourselves and not the dead.

The aging and ailing Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche once stood on a small stage, waved his arm to say goodbye and suddenly started laughing at all of us watching him so intently. “You are so stupid,” he said, reading minds, “so very stupid. You think that death means the end of something. You think it means life is all over.” He sneered loudly. “Listen to me. Nothing happens.”

And so we come to the question of what does happen? What do you really lose? My mother has been dead for over 42 years but she remains my mother. And she is still yelling at me not to be late and telling me to acknowledge family birthdays. Sometimes I tell her she’d be so happy that I got the lead out and walked a balance bar without falling over. Conversations with my mother remind me of another 2,500-year-old piece of wisdom, found in the well-known Hebrew prayer of mourning and nowhere in the February 1 New Yorker: “The departed still lives on Earth in the acts of goodness they performed and the mind of those who hold them dear.”

~Sandy Garson
"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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