My dear friend has decided she has borne enough pain in this life. For the three years that I have known her, she has only been able to assimilate nutrients first through a feed tube inserted into her intestine and now through a tube inserted into her vein. I don’t know the total length of time this has been going on or the agony that led up to these drastic measures. But she has had enough and plans to receive no more nutrition intravenously starting tomorrow. My friend is 34. Words can’t describe her specialness, her wisdom, her ability to connect, bring joy, evoke love, and offer compassion. My heart breaks for her, her family, and those of us who are fortunate enough to know and love her.
Appamada supported me at this time, as it always does, in concrete and unexpected ways. I went to Sunday service before the last time I was assured to see my friend again that afternoon. Our dear teachers are away but stalwart sangha members are carrying on and supporting the practice in our teachers’ absence. Head student Joel offered practice discussion and I decided to take him up on the offer. It was very helpful to talk with Joel about my friend and how I would aspire to be with her that afternoon.
Our other head student Laurie offered the lesson for the service. She led us in reading the first chapter of Thich Nhat Hahn’s book No Death, No Fear. As happens with surprising frequency, the entire chapter was remarkably apropos to my situation. The following paragraph seemed especially meaningful.
The Buddha has a very different understanding of our existence. It is the understanding that birth and death are notions. They are not real. The fact that we think they are true makes a powerful illusion that causes our suffering. The Buddha taught that there is no birth, there is no death; there is no coming, there is no going; there is no same, there is no different; there is no permanent self, there is no annihilation. We only think there is. When we understand that we cannot be destroyed, we are liberated from fear. It is a great relief. We can enjoy life and appreciate it in a new way.
This is the breakthrough, underlying truth that Siddhārtha Gautama realized. It is so hard to grasp, at least so hard for me to grasp. The realization of this truth begins by recognizing all the constructions our minds invent. We come to believe those constructions, those inventions are real. If you can get to the point of brushing those constructions aside, you can finally see clearly that the form we are in at this moment rather than being a concrete separate essence is just a momentary occurrence in an ever changing world. It is like, we are like when you look in the sky and clouds create a formation that looks like something – maybe a man’s face with a beard. As you keep watching, it changes before your very eyes. Yes! You can see it for a while! See the nose? Yes. And the beard? The dark spot is the eye. Oh, but wait. Now part of the beard has broken away. And the nose has flattened.
This is the way everything is on our planet, in our existence. We, too. There is a rising up and a falling away – all over. There are myriads of rising ups and falling aways, not all at once but continually, constantly, comings and goings. But really it isn’t comings and goings but change. To say there is a coming and a going is to put things in stasis. However, stasis is not a condition of our existence. It is a construct of our mind. When these forms that we are familiar with (our bodies) break down, they will change into something else. That something else won’t have our consciousness. Only this current form has that consciousness. So we won’t know what we become, because what we become won’t be “us” to know. What we know is this consciousness. All we can do is be grateful for this consciousness and drink it in. Don’t waste it being caught up in the mind’s illusions. Drink in what is here now. Experience the exquisite ability to actually be aware, to grasp what is occurring. To feel, hear, see, smell, recognize – this is the wonder and gift of consciousness. Those are all bodily functions. Perhaps that is what my Zen teachers mean when they say, “Get into your body.” Get out of your head and its constructions that take you away from what is really occurring right here and right now.