How Impermanence Enriches Our Lives

Joko Beck’s thoughts on tragedy were a challenge for me, but I was attracted to these lines: “From the moment of conception our life is on its way out. And from a personal point of view, this is a tragedy. So we spend our life in a pointless battle to avoid the end. That misdirected battle is the real tragedy.” In sitting with her words a memory came up from many years ago. It was before my Buddhist practice and I was visiting the Rubin Museum in New York City which is a museum of Himalayan Art. It has a dynamic environment that stimulates learning, promotes understanding, and inspires personal connections to the ideas, culture, and art of Himalayan Asia. I took the elevator up to the top floor to view a special exhibit. When the door opened, I was faced with a huge sign that read “YOU WILL DIE.” I was shocked and dismayed. But it was a fascinating exhibit of Eastern philosophies and religions versus western philosophies and religious on the subject of dying.

On an intellectual level, I resonated with the Eastern thoughts on dying but it was not until now, after the death of my husband , that I was able to use zazen to experience on a visceral level the teaching that to live my life fully I had to delve into the great matter of birth and death. I started using my sitting and focusing practices to come to terms with the death of my parents, dear friends, my husband, and ultimately, my own death. Joko says, “When our practice is steady, ongoing, intense, we can begin to sense the error of an exclusive identification with mind and body. Of course we will see this to varying degrees and sometimes, we will not at all.” She says it’s not intellectual comprehension . In the Buddhist view, to deny death is to deny life. This, however, I have found is not the place from which most Westerners function. Throughout most of our culture, the denial of old age, sickness and death run rampant. This leaves us unprepared when it is our time to die, or our time to help others to die. What I personally was unprepared for was battling the medical professions obsession with side stepping death when it came to addressing my husband whose body was shutting down and his doctor’s insistence on keeping him going no matter how much additional suffering it would cause. I struggled to get any of my husband’s doctors to sign off on having a palliative car representative evaluate his condition. An essay I discovered on Buddhism and Palliative Care, entitled “Life is Uncertain. Death is Certain” stated “Dealing with suffering is the common element of Buddhism and Palliative Care. It is a target of Buddhist practice to free all sentient beings from suffering, just as it is a medical target to alleviate suffering in palliative care.” I would add it should be a mantra for all care. Frank Ostaseki, cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project, wrote this about how death can teach us about living fully: “We can harness the awareness of death to appreciate the fact that we are alive, to encourage self-exploration, to clarify our values, to find meaning, and to generate positive action. It is impermanence of life that gives us perspective. As we come in contact with life’s precarious nature, we also come to appreciate its preciousness. Then we don’t want to waste a minute. We want to enter our lives fully and use them in a responsible way. Death is a good companion on the road to living well and dying without regret.” Joko retold an ancient koan about a man being chased by a tiger. The man does his best to save his life and protect himself, as we all should. He is left clinging to a flimsy vine, suspended on the side of a cliff, with a tiger growling above him and one below him. On the vine was a ripe red strawberry. If he chose the strawberry, he would fall to his death. At the last moment, he picked the strawberry and ate it. Oh what a delicious strawberry! Joko says as we patiently practice (experiencing our breath, being aware of the thinking process), realization is born, not intellectually, but in the very cells of our body. False thinking evaporates as clouds in the heat of the sun, and we find in the midst of our suffering an openness, a spaciousness, and joy we have never known before. Life is precious,,, so before my physical death I ask myself how have I touched the lives of others? How have others touched my life? Do I have regrets that I need to let go of? Will I have a sense of completion at the end of my life? So I sit on my cushion and breathe, one breath ends and the next begins. I sink down into the earth where the inhale and exhale meet, being born and dying over and over again.

With bows, Kato