My friend George, an old Buddha, died recently. The cancer that was in remission for so long revived, occupied cells throughout his body, brought the living George system to an eventual halt. He was around 70 and had been meditating for many years. He and I had shared stories about our Buddhist practice and had gone together to sit at the Shambhala Center in the nineties.
I didn’t keep the practice discipline, not right then, but George did keep sitting at Shambhala, dug deeper and deeper into Chogyam Trungpa’s Vajradhatu and its somewhat westernized Tibetan Buddhist teachings. He became an influential meditation instructor within that context. He committed much of his life to the Buddhadharma.
After George died, we joined the Shambhala sangha to support his transition to the bardo, from this life to the next “whatever-it-is,” through a Vajradhatu funeral ceremony including Tonglen, where you visualize taking on the suffering of others, and giving your own happiness and success to others. It was a powerful ceremony.
Before the ceremony, George’s wife Louise told me that his last words were “It’s too late…” She wasn’t sure what he meant.
I have learned to breathe and connect to an energy that is within me and within all the myriad things that are part of ONE everything.
I have learned that form and energy are manifestations of one thing. I have learned that form is emptiness and emptiness is form.
I have learned that emptiness means impermanent, changing, never fixed in any way.
I have learned that suffering is a consequence of misunderstanding the nature of all things, their inherent emptiness.
And then there’s death.
I was fifteen years old when I realized that the death of this body and this identity is imminent and inescapable, ultimately real, totally unavoidable no matter what I do with my life. I was intelligent and well-read for a fifteen year old, my head was full of facts, concepts, and perspectives from many sources, from classics, to Classics Illustrated, to pop cultural science fictional writings and artifacts. My intellect was maturing much faster than my emotions, and at the point where I got clear about death and suffering, I wasn’t emotionally solid and together. I became obsessed with death and filled with dread.
Okay, dread is just a word, it doesn’t capture that emotion – it knocked the wind out of me. I was whole-body fibrillating with profound anxiety which I could not dispel. Everything, even the lightest bit of fluff on television or in films, reminded me of death.
Was I the only person ever to feel this profound suffering?
Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was sheltered from suffering in his youth and similarly shocked and disturbed when he first encountered old age and death. I wasn’t sheltered in quite the same way he had been, though I lived in a fantasy self-constructed from comic books, television, science fiction novels, films of every genre, etc. On the other hand, I could see the reality of old age and death around me as I was growing up, it wasn’t completely hidden. But that reality had just been another data feed, and I took it no more seriously than “Father Knows Best,” “Lost in Space,” or “Forbidden Planet.” Given my pervasive media habit, I had evolved a rich internal fantasy life – so this anxiety, really claustrophobic panic, about death was an early opening to phenomenological reality, and an understanding that aspects of my life and existence were totally beyond my control.
Like Gautama, I tried to find answers. I turned to books rather than contemplation, because in my world, books were supposed to have answers to all the problems and riddles and mysteries you could ever encounter.
I happened to have a book called My Answer by Baptist evangelist Billy Graham. It was a book meant to address various questions he’d heard, and of course, one question he’d heard a lot was about life after death. His answer: in heaven, we spend eternity singing hymns with angels – or, if we’re evil, or if we’re democrats, we’ll spend eternity burning in hellfire and brimstone, a vision of hell I knew at that point mostly through Jimmy Hatlo’s Inferno cartoons.
Either way, the conclusion was horrible. Yes, I would live forever, but I would live forever either tortured by fire or tortured by boredom.
The Buddha said that our life is prone to dukkha, which is often translated as “suffering,” but is probably closer to “unsatisfactoriness.” It’s like a potter’s wheel that doesn’t turn smoothly, and screeches with friction.
We have this sense that life is unsatisfactory because we cling to states and objects as though they were fixed, yet they keep changing. It’s like chasing the rainbow. If your lifeis tied to a belief that you will reach the rainbow and that the rainbow will be a fixed object, you’ll always feel that life is unsatisfactory, because you misunderstand the reality of the rainbow, which is that it is an impermanent reflection of light in a particular context, always changing, never persistent, never fixed. When you have the right understanding of the rainbow, you can appreciate it when you see it, but you won’t chase it or cling to it.
Everything in our life is like that – all impermanent, changing with time and context. I can see this so much more clearly, as I get older, as I see everything around me changing. I saw both my parents move through various stages of life, grow older, ,eventually die. Not long before she died, my mother said to me, matter-of-factly, “I’m ready.” I brushed that off, but within a month she was dead. I couldn’t imagine being “ready” at that point in my life, but I’ve come to understand this impermanence.
And who dies? There is no permanent, fixed self. Rather, there is coherence of many systems that comprise a particular organism. It’s a complex system of processes orchestrated from a seemingly single perspective, the thing we perceive as “self,” as “me.”
This conductor of the orchestra, the sense of self, is just a perpective, a point of integration. It only seems to persist from second to second, but that’s an illusion. In fact, “seconds-in-time” are just contructs relative to context, there is no real second or minute or hour that you can capture in any sense as a real thing. “Real” and “thing” are relative concepts. The idea that you are a separate living thing is an illusion, so your death is also an illusion. There is no birth, no life, and no death, even though we experience all of these things. There is no experience.
I can’t take comfort in this because there is no I to take comfort and no comfort to take, but all of these things seem to exist in a particular context and perspective and flow.
- “When a man rightly sees,
he sees no death, no sickness or distress.
When a man rightly sees,
he sees all, he wins all, completely.”
~ Chandogya Upanisad
It’s too late. It’s never too late.