Like most of you, I visit my childhood home less and less. With each visit, I meet fewer and fewer people that I know as the years pass. People move on. They die. People have families and venture out from their domestic nests with less frequency. The north Atlantic rain that often sweeps in for days over Galway keeps people close to their firesides. But on the rare occasions that I meet a familiar face when out walking, I notice it is a face only half-recognised. Somewhere behind the wrinkles, behind the grey beard and scars of time, I see the ghost of a child’s face I once knew. I see the pale reflection of features from decades ago. A face I played with in the playground. The impish smile of a boy I stole apples with from a neighbour’s orchard. A face that was once young, like my own. When I see such a face I realise that I am less than present. I am occupying some imagined elsewhere that has no substance or reality other than memory. I am not truly seeing what’s before me.
It’s like when I walk the streets of my native town and see in my mind’s eye the palpable presence of buildings long demolished. This is especially true of the Claddagh Palace cinema in Salthill. When I walk by where it stood, it’s like the first Star Wars movie is still playing, or the busker that used to ply his trade to the queuing customers is still crying out ‘Goodnight Irene’ and strumming his guitar – his long hair and flared trousers still stand there. The shabby apartments that replaced the cinema stand squat and bulky before my eyes. But I really don’t see them. What I see is a presence from the past. My eye sees reality as it’s currently construed. Sure. But what I really see is a narrative of personal significance. What my mind sees is something else entirely.
The poet Seamus Heaney was well aware of the solid presence of these remembered phenomena. In his sequence ‘Clearances’, in memory of his mother, he saw the decked chestnut tree of his youth as ‘a bright nowhere’, a sort of luminous presence in absence. This shining emptiness is like a silence that speaks volumes. It is the solidity of potential, if only the conditions were right for its manifestation in actuality. Here the mind is perceiving emptiness directly. It is seeing clearly the emptiness of form and the fullness of emptiness. It is an atemporal vision that sees right through the illusion of independent being, but one that uses the illusory ghost of memory to see the lack of substantiality, even of the things before our eyes.
The dead, too, belong to this ontological realm of mystery. I remember my grandfather, Andy Mannion, walking along outside the morgue where he lay dead, and watching, I knew that only I saw him. His thin, lank frame picked its way along with his cane. He wore his jacket, shirt and tie, as he always did. He was not there, and yet there he was. I did not talk to him but saw him from a little distance away, when I stepped outside for some air and my grieving family stayed inside behind me, gathered around his corpse. He looked at ease, as if he were about to smoke his pipe – the rich scent of which comes to me now as I write. His walking ghost may have been conjured up by my mind. But that does not bother me. All illusions reside in a reality other than the empirical. Illusions have their own reality, just as pictures of things have a reality of their own. Conventionally, my vision would be explained away in either of two ways: there was nothing there and my mind was playing tricks on me or, conversely, I had seen a ghost. However, just because my mind was playing tricks and there was nothing there in actuality does not mean that I had seen nothing. I had seen something with its own reality – whether we choose to respect that reality or not. In an understanding where all is mind, my mind had perceived something.
Similarly, when I walk the road where I grew up, I see my long dead neighbour’s seat still in the porch where she loved to sit. May Murray, who lived to a good old age, loved to sit in that seat, taking the sun. From there she could keep an eye on the comings and goings of the road, particularly in her final years, as her mobility began to slip away. Now she has gone many years, and new people own the house, but still her seat remains. It is an empty seat, but in her absence, full of her presence. When I walk by, I can see her still sitting there. When this occurs, as it often does for all of us, our mind’s are simultaneously in a number of times, not just in the present. Our eyes are in the present, but our mind’s are in the present and the past. Indeed, our mind’s are in a number of pasts and, maybe too, in a number of possible future – a future, for instance, where we will no longer be around to ‘see’ May Murray in her seat. The sensation of such perception is that time is itself an illusion. From this atemporal, or, at least, multi-temporal point-of-view, there is no clear direction to time’s arrow. And, in addition, we clearly perceive the lack of solid substance to reality. We see exactly what the Buddha was referring to at the end of The Diamond Sutra: that reality is like ‘a flash of lightening in a summer cloud/ Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream’.
What we see at such moments is a clear view of conditionality, of dependent co-arising. When the causes and conditions are present, such and such manifests. When these causes and conditions pass or are no longer present, then manifestation does not take place.
In Ireland each February, the vibrant green hedgerows are swaying with daffodils. They are new and fresh, and often reflect the sharp light of early spring in the droplets of recent rain that cover them. In November, it is not that the daffodils do not exist. They exist as a potential. But they will only emerge when the conditions are present. Snow, too, needs very particular conditions to fall. There must be precipitation; it must be around zero degrees celsius; the ground conditions must be right. Only then will the rain thicken into the delicate beauty of snow. Only then will snowmen be built and snowballs thrown. Where I am from, this is incredibly rare – and increasingly so. My seven-year-old son, Arthur, has only seen snow in Ireland once. My second son, Éamonn, who is five, has never seen it. With such infrequent appearance, snow becomes more and more precious for us. When the time is right it will snow and we will build snowmen.
This conditionality, this dependent co-arising, can be a comfort in the face of death. Everything exists in potentiality, waiting upon its causes and conditions. When the causes and conditions are present, a child appears in the world and a mother becomes a mother, a father a father. When the causes and conditions needed to keep us alive pass, then we pass with them. There is a simple logic about it all – but on closer inspection, no simple-minded comfort.
You see, while there will be more daffodils next spring, the daffodils of last spring will never return. When our time on earth has passed, it will never return. Ash does not become firewood again. Zen master Dogen is clear on this in Question Ten of the Bendowa. He refutes the questioning student’s assertion that when the body perishes the individual’s mind may endure elsewhere. He describes this as a ‘fallacious’ doctrine, one that falls prey to the view of the duality of body and mind, when body and mind are, in actuality, one.
So, when the individual body passes, the individual mind passes with it. This individual mind is what Shunryu Suzuki Roshi called ‘small mind’. Now to western ears, this sounds like atheistic doctrine, plain and simple. The world is material and nothing else. There is no life after death. Ghosts, spirits, gods, the supernatural – all this can be dumped into the dustbin of medieval history. But Dogen’s understanding is not so reductive. There is a subtlety far beyond the materialistic or atheistic paradigms in Dogen. ‘Without exception, all the myriad phenomena in the entire universe are nothing other than this one mind, with everything included and interconnected’, he says. Here we have Shunryu Suzuki’s ‘big mind’. This is the constant principal of change and impermanence – one of the Buddha’s ‘marks of existence’. All flows. All changes – without exception. My grandfather dies and does not return. May Murray will never sit again in her seat, taking the sun. This breaks our hearts and we weep. It is the Dukkha, or unsatisfactoriness of our existence. There is no getting around it. This is it. And when this is over, it has passed forever. But to say this is it and only it is nothing but a partial understanding. In Master Dogen’s ‘one mind’, both the ash and the firewood reside. Everything passes but nothing is lost in this ‘one mind’. All is changed but all is still all. There is no final annihilation because everything has changed rather than been destroyed. While we are not offered the consolation of eternal life for our individual ‘soul’, what we are shown clearly in these teachings is the infinitely more subtle reality of things as they are. However, as long as we cling to the illusion of our individual existence, we will continue to struggle with it all.
This is the middle way. This is not atheism, where annihilation is total. But it is also not western theism, where we individually survive death in heaven. It is a much broader vision. It recognizes the reality of constant change and impermanence. We know this is the truth. The children we were are gone forever, but we do not mourn their passing. This is like our death. It is change, rather than death, as we understand it with the habitual mind of terror. Do we grieve for the self we were this morning? Do we struggle with the fact that we are no longer infants? We cannot even remember that time of infancy. Even when we hanker after the past, it is the present that is real and pressing, and the past is utterly unrecoverable, no matter how hard we run after it. To pursue the past is to squander the present and fail in the pursuit.
So, whether we know it or not, we are already in the realm of ‘big mind’. And big mind continues forever; it is borderless. To have existed at all is to eternally be part of the entire Dharma Body, the unfathomable ‘one mind’, the Dharmakaya of everything that existed in all directions and in all times. So, the ocean of truth contains all and everything. The body of truth, the body of water will shift and change, but not a drop will be lost. Everything flows together. This is the ultimate truth of things. It is really our only consolation.
But the ultimate truth aside, there is still the conventional, or relative truth of our lives, here and now. When someone we love dies, we grieve and cry. As human beings, we must respect our human form, our human reality. We love. We regret. We feel joy and pain. As we know from the great stories of the Zen tradition, even awakened beings participate in these human truths. I love the story of Satsujo, as recounted in the book The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women. A great student of Hakuin, Satsujo loses her granddaughter and weeps, grief stricken. When a neighbour gives out to her for her weeping, suggesting that an enlightened one should not grieve, Satsujo almost eats the head off him: ‘You bald headed fool,’ she says, ‘what do you know? My tears and weeping are better for my grandaughter than incense, flowers, and lamps!’
I have met practitioners over the years that could well learn from Satsujo. Indeed, I was one of them. Sometimes there is an entrenched view that cutting off attachments means to shirk one’s ordinary humanity, to be almost robotic in the face of simple human emotions. Buddhism’s unfair reputation for being bleak comes from such a practice. I’m sure you’ve met this manifestation of practice yourself. When you smile, no smile is returned. Zazen is some kind of endurance competition, where the strong triumph and the weak crumble. When sorrow strikes, it shows weakness to grieve – indeed, to grieve would show that attachment remains. I’ve heard monks on two occasions even suggest to young women that to have children is a hindrance and to be avoided; that caring for children prevents a whole-hearted commitment to the way. On one retreat, I even heard a woman with a son being advised in mondo (a public question and answer with the teacher) to leave her infant son, so that she could go on a three-month ango (extended practice period). Monastics seeing the monastic life as superior is common to all spiritual traditions. And Buddhism has its own unique version of this. Buddhism has its fair share of Satsujo’s ‘bald headed fools’.
Of course, the tradition offers plenty precedence for those seeking the way to turn their back on the world, to leave all familial attachments and set out with their robe and bowl, and not much more else. Shakyamuni, at the very beginning, abandons family and home to set out on his quest. The later Chan tradition, as related through Master Keizan’s Denkoroku, has examples of those that left parents in need of support to follow the way. Indeed, the ceremony and vow of becoming a Buddhist monk (shukke tokudo – 出家得度) means literally to leave home and set out into the homeless life. But what is often neglected is the reality of Shakyamuni’s later rejection of his earlier extreme practices in favour of ‘the middle way’. Master Dogen, too, honoured and accommodated the lay life, particularly in his early period, before establishing the monastery he is famous for, Eiheiji. And it would be neglectful not to mention Vamilakurti, a contemporary of Shakyamuni, and a upasaka (lay practitioner) that is deemed in the Mahayana to be the equal in terms of awakening to any Arhat or Bodhisattva. So, there appears to be many precedents for the lay and worldly life as a valid path to awakening, just as there are the rules set out in the vinaya for monks and nuns, that require a more outwardly obvious form of renunciation.
From my own Zen (Ch’an) tradition, there seems an pronounced flavour of the worldly, rather than the otherworldly. This practical and down-to-earth character of Zen seems to have been absorbed into the tradition through Chinese culture. The emaciated, austere monks of India begged for their food, while the stocky monks of China tilled the land and wrestled out a self-sufficiency based on hard graft and the soil. I like that down-to-earth character in the Zen tradition. I like the lack of aloofness, the ordinariness of the spiritual path. It reminds me of so many people I knew growing up, people like my grandmother, for whom pretentiousness was not tolerated and everyone was expected to make an effort. But then, egalitarianism has always been valued in Irish culture, the understanding that it doesn’t matter how high your throne is, you still have to sit on your arse.
The Buddha has something of the egalitarian to his teachings, too. In a culture divided by the caste system, he taught that awakening was available to everyone equally. And the maladies of samsara that he saw so clearly – old age, sickness and death – are the great leveler that visit everyone – equally. I’ve always know this in a theoretical, abstract way; in the way that my son can imagine what it’s like to be an old man, and have us in stitches, walking up and down the kitchen with an imaginary cane. But recently, as I get closer to 50, I have begun to understand these things in my bones. The distant truth of our human limitations have grown in reality, as my youthful years are left behind. The looming destination, the termination of my individual human life, has become a more immediate truth. T.S Eliot’s lines now leap off the page with greater force: ‘…I will show you something different from either/ Your shadow at morning striding behind you/ Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;/ I will show you fear in a handful of dust’.
I have seen some of my friends go, one by one. Young Rory Kavanagh, walking off to the toilet, leaving me waiting in a Dublin nightclub, but never returning, dropping dead of a heart attack, while I waited for his return. Or Darragh Greally, falling asleep at the wheel and ploughing into the side of the motorway. Or Rebecca Burke, with whom I had my first sexual experience, being killed by an out of control motorbike. All of these things impacted on me, but failed to take away the feeling of the invincibility of youth; the feeling that, somehow, I would get away with my life.
That feeling of invincibility has now gone. It’s been a slow attrition of my groundless confidence in youthful immortality, a slow erosion of its arrogant edifice in the face of the brutal facts. Any semblance of this groundless belief in my own immortality finally disappeared this winter when I met a young Malaysian man, Calvin Poon See Yin. He never spoke a single word to me. Nevertheless, unknown to himself, he changed my perception of things forever.
I’m a former newspaper journalist and I lecture in journalism at DIT’s School of Media, in Dublin. It was a regular day at work. Students were coming and going to discuss their fourth year dissertations: the emergence of ‘Slow Journalism’, media coverage of the Paris terrorist attacks – that kind of thing. Next thing I get a call on my mobile phone: ‘Are you a Buddhist priest? I found your name on your website’. I confirmed that I was a Zen priest. The Asian accent on the phone made an urgent request: ‘Can you come to the Mater Hospital immediately. There’s a man here dying and he needs a Buddhist priest.
Luckily lectures were finished for Christmas. I called my wife and she kindly agreed to drop by my office with my robes and the various things I’d need. The woman on the phone told me that they needed to turn off the life support machine at four o’clock, and that they’d wait for me to come and pray for ‘Calvin’ as he passed. ‘Come to the Mater Hospital. He’s a Malaysian man. Calvin Poon See Yin’.
It took much longer to walk to the hospital than I thought. It was getting terribly close to four o’clock and Calvin’s family were relying on me – they had flown in from Malaysia to be with him. Despite the cold, sweat was running down my face as I rushed through the streets decked out for Christmas. Finally I arrived at the hospital, with ten minutes to spare. I went to the toilet to put on my robes, but it was occupied. I waited and waited, but then gave up. Happily I then found a small oratory for prayer on the ground floor. As a praying woman eyed me suspiciously, I robed up and walked quickly to reception to find out where the Intensive Care Unit was – the place I was told I’d find Calvin. I tried to get the receptionist’s attention a few times. But she had no interest in talking to me. It was almost four o’clock. Each, ‘excuse me’ fell on deaf ears, as the receptionist leafed through a shopping brochure, looking for something she wanted to buy. Just then a security guard walked by and he directed me to the first floor. I found the ICU quickly enough and a nurse went off looking for Calvin’s room. At a minute or two after four o’clock he came back: ‘There’s no Calvin here. You might be looking for the Mater Public. This is the Mater Private.’ I was in the wrong hospital.
You know, if you run through the streets of Dublin in full Buddhist robes at Christmas time, no one pays any attention whatsoever. As I sprinted, my mobile phone started to ring: ‘Where are you? We’re waiting to turn off the machine’. Thankfully, the Mater Public was just down the street. I arrived at the Intensive Care Unit and the staff must have been expecting me, as a nurse brought me directly to the room where Calvin’s family were gathered around him.
Behind a hospital curtain, a group of about nine people formed a circle around a young man lying unconscious in his hospital bed. His eyes were closed. he was barechested, with a number of wires fixed to his heart and chest area. In his mouth, a ventilator forced life-giving breath into his body. His wife stepped forward and greeting me. She bore herself with great dignity. She said her name was Sharon – a young Malaysian Chinese woman, no more than 35-years-old or so. She asked me to bear with them for a few minutes. She went and spoke to an older woman also present, and I withdrew to the back of the room where a nurse stood discreetly. The nurse whispered to me that Calvin was only 41-years-old and was dying of lung cancer. We stood beside each other, the nurse and I, as Calvin’s family came to some agreement. Looking around, I could see what were obviously Calvin’s little children sitting in chairs beside their Dad. They must have been around four and six or seven years of age. They were drawing little pictures for their Dad, and placing them on his rising and falling chest and stomach, as he drew some of his final breaths in this life. On the hospital wall, many more of the childrens’ pictures were on display: little drawings with smiling faces and love hearts, wishing their Dad well. Soon Sharon came back to speak with the nurse and I.
“We’d like the priest to say prayers first. Then we can turn off everything. Then we’ll have prayers afterwards … when he is gone,” she said.
As the family stood around Calvin, I blessed him with Wisdom Water and chanted the Heart Sutra and Refuges in Pali. I sounded the handheld inkin bell and said a few words, none of which I can remember. It was a very short, improvised ceremony. Then Calvin’s mother and brothers said farewell. As they did so, the truth of what was happening came to them with great force, as their calm faces were marked with grief and tears came. One or two left the room for a few minutes to find their composure. Then Sharon lifted the kids to say their goodbyes. It seemed that the reality of their father’s passing was too much for them to realise. They appeared not to really comprehend what was happening. They kissed their father and then returned to eating crisps in a chair off to the side. Then it was Sharon’s turn. She leaned forward and whispered for a few minutes into Calvin’s ear. She kissed him many times and rubbed his chest. She was so dignified and composed throughout. I will never forget how she deported herself. Then, when she was ready, she nodded to the nurse that it was time.
Everything that was keeping Calvin alive was gone, with the flick of a few switches. The nurse flicked from on to off, on three or so machines. The monitors mapping his vital functions remained on, displaying readouts on screen. And the nurse said that he would pass slowly over the next few minutes; that she would leave us in peace and return.
Calvin’s chest continued to rise and fall. Sharon rubbed his feet and legs and one of Calvin’s brothers found a Buddhist chant in Malaysian on his iPhone and directed other people in the room to it. As they chanted in their own language, I took out my own mala beads and chanted at the foot of the bed. The chanting went on for some time, and throughout this whole time Calvin’s vital functions gradually declined. The numbers on the various screens in the room and their related graphs slowly waned as we chanted. And as the chanting came to a close, Calvin’s brother found some traditional Malaysian music on his phone and held it close to Calvin’s ear for his passing. The children played with their toys on the seats beside the bed. It was so ordinary and familiar. It was so intimate and everyday. Except it was the passing of a young man’s life – right there before us. Over thirty or forty minutes he slipped away and then the room was filled with a great silence.
After a time, the nurse came back with a colleague. ‘Calvin has gone now,’ she said. We were then requested to all wait behind a curtain while they took the ventilator out of his mouth. The children kept trying to peek in at what the nurses were doing, but their mother and grandmother kept pulling the curtain closed again to stop them seeing. To the children it was like another game. But no one wanted them to have a distressing image in their mind as one of their last memories of their father. It was a shame, then, that when we were allowed back into the room the nurses had forgotten to close Calvin’s mouth once they’d taken the ventilator out. It was a careless oversight that made things a little more difficult for the family, as Calvin looked as though in agony with his mouth open in that way. Sharon, however, was very calm and serene. She asked me to start the ceremony and gathered the family round. I blessed the body, chanted and recited prayers for his passage through the bardo between life and death. Then, when the ceremony was over, I waited a few minutes to offer my condolences, but then had to leave to return to work. Indeed, a number of Calvin’s friends that were present did the same. One hour of the day they were at their friend’s deathbed. The next hour, taking orders in a restaurant or stacking shelves.
I saw the family again at the funeral, which I conducted at a funeral home up in County Meath, where they’re from, and at the cremation at Glasnevin Cemetery, in Dublin. Thinking about those days now, I still cannot understand why they had such an impact on me. I do not know these people. I had been with my granny when she died, so being with Calvin as he passed was not a new experience for me, in that sense. Maybe it has something to do with the realisation that Calvin is me. What I mean by that is that he was a man in his forties, with a wife and two young children. Death, for such a man, is entirely possible. Quite simply, I identified with Calvin, and for the first time I actually understood that I am going to die. Indeed, I am dying all the time. You are dying all the time. The whole thing is rushing by. It is ungraspable and gushes, like whitewater to its conclusion. I know that now. Really know it.
From the correct view of the Middle Way, that is only half the story, however. If death is constantly present, then so is birth. In the rounded truth of things, which is non-dualistic, birth and death are part of each other. From the point-of-view of ultimate truth, they are even the same thing. So, each moment we are born anew. Each moment is a new moment, latent with possibility, and possible because of the passing of the previous moment. This realisation gives us a great freedom. Birth gives us great freedom. And so, necessarily, so does death.
Dogen Zenji is clear on this in the Zenki chapter of his masterwork the Shobogenzo. For Dogen, ‘Birth is undivided activity. Death is undivided activity’. The ‘whole works’, as ‘Zenki’, the chapter’s title is sometimes translated, consists of both birth and death. In this understanding, birth has no beginning or end. The entire, constant stream of reality, of things as-they-are, of suchness, flows without beginning and without end. The collective moments that make up our individual lives in this stream are simply part of an unending unfolding. The whole stream of suchness is entirely gone and new at each instant. The summers of our childhood have their own position in this great unfolding. But they have gone. Here we are now. It is an illusion to mourn the happy times of the remembered past, although it is understandably human to do so – to yearn that they be recovered. The child that enjoyed those summer days is no more. It is not that the summer days were robbed, or stolen from the child. Rather it is that the child that enjoyed those summer days is still with those summer days, and is inseparable from them. The child and those summer days are one. And the you that is you now is one with this moment. No other. The moment of your death does not belong to you. Your death belongs to the you that is dead. And when you die, the universe and all reality that was yours will pass with you. But you will never be separated from your moment in the sun. This is your moment in the sun – and here you are, in all your wonder.
The image that Dogen uses to communicate this is the image of taking a boat.
When you ride in a boat, your body, mind, and environs together are the undivided activity of the boat. The entire earth and the entire sky are both the undivided activity of the boat. Thus, birth is nothing but you; you are nothing but birth.
So, all this can never be separated from you. You are integral to the entire reality of now, in all directions and for all eternity. The child of the summer of 1974 will always be with that summer. There is no returning. But there is also no reason to be upset. In the Dharmakaya, everything has its correct position. There is no returning to our joyous summer, or to our winter of pain. Whether we feel loss or consolation with the passage of time, there is no returning. And although there may be no reason to get upset, upset we will get.
When my grandmother died, I cried real tears. I was upset. I missed her. I didn’t want her to die. But I realise that I was lucky to have been with her when she did die. I just happened to have been down in Galway, where I grew up in the west of Ireland, and where my grandmother lived with my parents. I was down from college for the weekend and it was just my grandmother and myself in the house. She hadn’t been well and spent all of her time in bed now, at the advanced age of ninety – it wasn’t long since we’d had her ninetieth birthday, in fact.
My mother had gone out to buy some things in the shops and I was just pottering around in the kitchen when I heard my grandmother call for me. There was desperation in her voice which caught my attention and I quickly went to her. I’d never seen someone near death before, but that is of no consequence. As a human being we recognise the appearance of death when we see it. Her face had a shocking whitish colour. Her breathing was loud and laboured, and didn’t have an easy rhythm. And when she grabbed my hand … I’ll never forget it. It was like the grip of a drowning person, a person holding on for dear life. I was taken aback by the power in the grip of her old, frail hand. She tried to speak, but couldn’t. I realised pretty fast that she was dying and would be dead soon. This was before everyone carried a mobile phone, so I had no way to contact my mother. I just had to stay where I was and hoped that she would come back before her mother died. I tried to comfort my grandmother, holding her hand and telling her everything would be alright. But she looked terrified. Her body was giving up and the terrible smell of death entered the room as she gave up her life-giving fluids. She was well aware what was occurring, you could see it in her eyes.
My mother came home after a short time and took in the whole situation in an instant. My grandmother was still alive but had started the process of leaving us. My mother told me to call the immediate family to come straight away to say their goodbyes. I got straight on the phone and called my uncles and aunts first, saying that they should come, that their mother was dying. I had just made one or two calls when I heard my mother, who is a devout catholic, start saying the Rosary at my grandmother’s bedside. Her prayer quickly gained in intensity and a few moments later I heard a loud howl, or sob of grief. A few moments later and the Rosary started up again. I didn’t have to go into the room to know what had happened. But I did go. Kneeling beside my grandmother’s bed was my mother, her Rosary beads in one hand, while she held a golden crucifix before my grandmother’s vacant eyes with the other. The old woman that had been with us only a few minutes before had left us. A pure change had taken place.
The howl of grief has no pretence. It is the clear, brutal apprehension of the truth of Dukkha. There is no getting away from it. We seek miracles, but there is no miracle available. While the Christian tradition has the story of Lazarus, brought back from the dead, Buddhism has the more brutal, but ultimately more truthful story of Kisa Gotami, the woman that came to the Buddha with her only child lying dead and lifeless in her arms. She asks the renowned holy man to bring her child back. And so, famously, the Buddha asks her to find a mustard seed from a family where no one has died. Then, he intimates, he will be able to help her. So, Kisa sets off looking for this magic ingredient for the Thagatha cure for death. She wanders from place to place, seeking this elusive treasure, all the time bearing her poor dead infant in her arms. Slowly the hard lesson is learned and Kisa returns to the Buddha, who consoles her and teaches her the Dharma. Kisa becomes a follower of the Buddha and ultimately an Arhat. As for the seed she sought, there is no such seed, no such cure. There is no family or no person spared from death. The magic wand we wish for does not exist. It is a hard teaching. But it is a truthful teaching – although one not everyone is able to hear.
From the great tradition of the Mahayana, we know that this brutal vision of the truth is only offered with skilful means, it is only offered to those that can take it. Many of us, however, need the consolation of a story, a narrative that can help us along, until we have the strength to give it up. The Castle City in the Lotus Sutra comes to mind. The fantastic city is an illusion for the weary travellers along their way, but a restful illusion, where one can replenish one’s strength before continuing along. It is a temporary, but necessarily provisional truth. Like a placebo, it may work, but if it is to work it must be totally believed in. That belief cannot be assumed or faked. It must be genuine. While it is an illusion, it is one that makes life bearable – like keeping someone in an artificial coma, because waking them up too early would cause their death. It is with this skill of the wise physician that Shakyamuni Buddha sends Kisa Gotami on her quest for the mustard seed. When her mind is ready it will apprehend the truth.
It is worth remembering, however, that the Castle City can only ever be a temporary abode. Sooner or later, the external truth of things will impinge upon its walls. It’s battlements will start to look like they’re crumbling and its shining glory will start to fade. Like any great city, sooner or later its defences will be overwhelmed and the siege will end. You can only hold out for so long.
When I look in the mirror now, I see that the crumbling has begun. The sunken eyes. Grey haired stubble. A general sagging. I know now what the poet Thomas Kinsella was talking of in his great ‘Mirror in February’:
Of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.
Under the fading lamp, half dressed — my brain
Idling on some compulsive fantasy —
I towel my shaven jaw and stop, and stare,
Riveted by a dark exhausted eye,
A dry downturning mouth.
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
To which, for the time being, I return.
Now plainly in the mirror of my soul
I read that I have looked my last on youth
And little more; for they are not made whole
That reach the age of Christ.
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities;
And how should the flesh not quail, that span for span
Not young, and not renewable, but man.
We see this in others before we see it in ourselves. We see old school friends at school reunions and are shocked at their baldness, their paunch; the sagging bellies and chins. Meanwhile, we look at ourselves in the mirror and think, ‘not too bad’, ‘holding my own’. Not realising, of course, that we are viewed as we view others. To those that have not seen us in a decade, we have become old men and women. We have become to them shadows of our former selves. Sometimes we see photographs of ourselves that show us the truth and we are appalled. We react by saying, ‘that’s a terrible photo of me’, and putting it out of sight and mind. Or we catch sight of ourselves unawares, reflected in a shop window, maybe. With a jolt we see our physical form as others see it. We find it difficult to see our own frailty, our own human vulnerability head on. It is much easier to see it in others. It’s when we see it in our parents, however, that it begins to hit home.It was on my last visit home that it really hit me. My father was diagnosed with cancer recently. He’s doing well but has no where near the energy he used to have. This was a man that was always up long before anyone else in the house. A devout catholic, he’d go to early mass even on the bleakest winter mornings in Galway and come back home for his breakfast before heading into work. This was a man that retired at the age of 70 and who, in truth, never retired – always having some kind of business going on the side. Now, however, he sleeps until noon. He looks tired and has lost weight. He has less energy to play with my children when we visit. And it’s not just him. My mother, too, is changed. The vigorous woman I have always known now suffers terribly from aches and pains. Arthritis has left her worn out and exhausted. With each visit, I see a change in her. Soon myself and my siblings will have to discuss how to look after them from here on in. First the tasks they used to be able to handle around the house will have to be done for them: cutting the hedges and mowing the lawn; moving the garden furniture out of storage each spring; storing the fuel for the winter. Then there is the matter later of … well, we will discuss that when the time comes. Even to talk about their aging is to raise a subject everyone would rather ignore.
This aging of my parents forces me to face the boundaries of my own existence. From where I stand at mid-life, I can see clearly in two directions. I see my receding youth and childhood, times that I can still clearly recall; a youth that seems so recent and fresh that I still have to take myself to task and realise that something happened twenty-five years ago, rather than the five years ago I feel. This is when I look back. Then, in the other direction, I see my father, who is about twenty-five years older than me, and I see the limits of my own life with great clarity. Now I know what twenty-five years is. I know what twenty-five years feels like, and how quickly it passes.
Awareness like this is vital. A true consciousness of the boundaries of our human life allows us to live authentically and not just while away the time. In Zen monasteries and practice centres, this awareness is inscribed on the wooden block that is struck to call people to Zazen. It says: “Great is the matter of birth and death; Life slips quickly by; Wake up, Wake up; Do not waste a moment”. The slab of wood on which this is written hangs outside the Zendo and is struck repeatedly with a mallet in a cascading rhythm before Zazen. It makes a loud and hard crack. You couldn’t say that it is a pleasant sound, but it certainly has an impact as the beats get faster and faster; closer and closer together. In many ways, its rhythm is the rhythm of time as we experience it: with each passing year, the years come and go, with greater speed. As children, a year, a summer is an eternity. By our late forties, one year bleeds into the other, and passes with quickening speed. As a year becomes a smaller and smaller division of our total, culmination of experience, it is experienced as a smaller fraction of the total. When we only have six years, a year is an eternity. When we have forty-six, a year is one year in the many that have already streamed by. These things, like all things, are experience relative to our position.
This awareness of the passage of time is a constant theme in Buddhist sutras, literature and culture. Why is this the case? Is it some kind of morose preoccupation with death and mortality? Why this obsession with transiency? Well, a bit like the concept of Dhukka (suffering) in Buddhism, it can easily be mistaken as a sort of wallowing in misery. But, rather, it’s a calling to awareness; a call to wake up and value the preciousness of each moment we have. So, there is a tension here through which must be navigated a middle way. On the one hand we need to maintain a keen awareness of time’s arrow; while on the other we need to resist becoming morose and heavily preoccupied with our own passing. We need to be present in this present moment. That is the challenge. Both are required and both rely on each other. Again, what seems like a contradiction adds up, rather, to the whole and accurate truth. Again we are faced with the radically non-dual nature of things-as-they-are. It is not that our mortality makes life pointless, rather it is that this mortality makes life very precious indeed. “However, if there is a thousandth or a hundredth of a gap, heaven and earth are far apart.” So writes Master Dogan in the Fuganzazengi, his universal recommendations on Zazen for everyone. If the fact of mortality is looked at in a slightly different way, then we fall into the error and confusion of nihilism. Right view is essential, right from the beginning.
So, rather than falling into morosity, we should be enlivened by the limitations of our human lives. If our individual time were boundless, we would fosilize, lack all life. There is very good reason why Gothic literature sees the immortality of the vampire as a horror. The vampire lives for centuries; life becomes meaningless for him and he loses all connection with his frailty and vulnerability. He loses all solidarity with other human lives. A bizarre freak with no limitations, the vampire wanders, discontent through the centuries. He is far removed from his fellow man and lives in isolation. Only the human connection of mutual vulnerability allows us to bridge this gap of atomisation. Without that frailty, one is cut off. Paradoxically, it is the very limitations of our lives that frees us to act. Our joys and miseries are limited by the time we have. And if we do nothing, we will have squandered that time. If our lives were limitless, our joys would wane with time and our miseries would be limitless. Also, with endless time, there is no incentive to act. When we look out and see the bright, sunny morning slipping away on us, we are eager to get up and out to enjoy the day.
There is another archetype that lives from century to century that it is important to talk about – and one that is in marked contrast to the self-serving vampire. This archetype is the archetype of the Bodhisattva. The one that serves, rather than is served. The one that vows to stick with all suffering beings and to return to this world again and again, until not one being is left unsaved. Here the boundlessness is not a boundlessness of selfishness but a boundlessness of love. Living for the sake of all sentient beings rather than for one’s own sake, the Bodhisattva ideal expresses a benign vision of unlimited life – and one where the final manifestation of Buddhahood is immanent throughout its many times. The arc of migration that the Bodhisattva follows transforms the sadness of our limited life into a limitless movement toward Buddhahood. For those that have genuinely entered the Buddha Way, that have vowed to follow the Bodhisattva path, the boundaries of their on human life open up to an eternal vista. For many, this is a literal returning, again and again, to serve through a new incarnation. For others, there is no literal reincarnation, but rather the wide scope of karma, where actions have effects way beyond the here and now, throughout the whole world system; throughout the whole Dharmakaya, indeed. Personally, I see individual reincarnation as a reductive understanding of the breath of the Dharma, an inheritance from Hinduism. In any case, I’ve always taken issue with the dissonance between the teachings of reincarnation and anatta. In short, if there is no self, then what is being reincarnated from lifetime to lifetime? Not that I expect reality to fit into the limited filter that I have in my skull to apprehend and understand it. Non-dualistic reality always confounds our intellects – that’s something we understand in Zen. Yet if there is no abiding self, then there can be no enduring self to be passed on from lifetime to lifetime. In a reality that constantly streams forth, nothing is created and nothing destroyed, yet nothing remains the same or constant. If the entire universe is our true body, it is not our individual continuity that is reincarnated, but it is the entire universe that is being reincarnated, from moment to moment. Understood this way, this is the true reincarnation, of which the traditional Vedic understanding teaches. It is an understanding that also encompasses the truth of Karma. The Bodhisattva’s compassionate actions ripple out throughout all space and time, beyond the temporal borders of our individual lives in ways that we cannot begin to comprehend. This is the truth of the Bodhisattva’s vow to remain with all suffering beings throughout time. Beyond this life, our actions carry forth, for both good and ill.
When I am giving Dharma Talks, sometimes I touch on this matter. I love to illustrate it by saying, “the meals prepared by our great, great, great grandmothers are still feeding us”. These meals of the distant past, prepared with love and diligence, fed our forebears and nourished them, kept them alive through hard winters and times of want. They allowed them to survive and give birth to the next generation and the next, which gave birth to us. In western countries, we do not revere our ancestors as they do in the east. And yet we should. It is not superstition or religious piety that makes us respect and remember our ancestors. Rather it is a realistic recognition of the debt we owe them. It is very real – as real as the flesh on your bones.
In Ireland, until recent years, this was felt keenly. It was my grandmother’s own grandparents that survived the Great Famine of the 1840s. Those of us that are alive today, myself included, are alive only because our forebears found a way to survive. And who knows what they had to do to survive. Those meals that still sustain us were hard won – in many ways that we will never know. That my grandmother’s grandparents found a way to get through those times allowed the family to survive. I simply would not be writing these words without them. The Karma of their choices and their efforts carries forward to us today. Even the fact that I find it difficult to leave food uneaten on my plate is a result of that Karma. A century-and-a-half after the Great Famine, the cultural habits of surviving generations reflect the trauma. It’s deep in the psyche. And even those that are totally unaware of their history are subject to it.
This is also true on a personal level. Recently I met an old friend of mine that has struggled for years with alcoholism. For quite a while now he has been off the drink. He has become an avid swimmer and is very physically fit. He’s changed career and now teaches the Alexander Technique. Now that he is clear and lucid, the reasons for his drinking have just become apparent to him. He has come to realise that he suffered an ongoing childhood trauma that he had put out of his mind. Indeed, he put it out of his mind for years by getting out of his mind on alcohol. But now that he is strong and clear he feels able to face this trauma. For years his self-destructive behaviour was fuelled by a hidden or buried history.
My friend’s story reminds me that Dogan’s admonition to forget the self is prefigured by his call to know and study the self. First we must know our history – personally and collectively – before we can free ourselves from it. It is pure naivety that think that we can continue unawares, that we can go straight to some objectless realm of pure samadhi and shortcut the hard and difficult job of working through things. If we neglect study, we are caught in the trap of our own Karma; we are doomed to act it out, again and again. In the relative realm of ordinary human life, our actions have motivations, causes and conditions. In Zazen, these appear to us with great clarity. Like a scientist observing something dispassionately, we can gain a place of perspective in Zazen, a place where we can observe, without getting caught up too much. From this perspective we can see things very clearly; we can truly study our lives. Then the freedom of forgetting the self becomes possible. It is a liberation that is hard won. First we must know what is bugging us. We must become very intimate with it. Then, having embraced it, we can bid it adieu. But if we try to go straight to the farewell stage we are only fooling ourselves. We will end up right back in the middle of our difficulties. And modern psychotherapy appears to concur with this ancient Buddhist understanding. The best course of action is to turn toward our suffering, rather than our natural inclination to turn away from it. The counterintuitive route is the one that will heal us. Then it is really possible to forget.
Indeed, we know this dynamic even in our simple, mundane actions. Before we can drive a car unconsciously we must spend many difficult hours learning to drive. When we have deeply studied, then we can forget. Our subconscious takes over and our conscious lives continue, totally unaware most of the time that we are driving a car. We are in a state of natural grace, going with the flow of things. If we stop and become too conscious of what we’re doing we find ourselves right back in the learning stage, and may even crash. We allow ourselves to get in the way of ourselves, rather than getting out of the way – which is much more effective. But this can only be done when driving has been mastered. It is simply not possible before the hard work is done.
Of course, it has been the ultimate forgetting of the self that has concerned me in these pages. The great death. Death in the conventional sense. This is the ultimate forgetting. With death, the dissolution of the human memory is the key event. With the loss of memory and the loss of consciousness, the individual dissolves into the greater reality of things, the background reality of ‘Big Mind’. Then we will have no choice but to forget the self. And many of us panic at this prospect. However, with attentiveness to the already present reality of things, we can make our peace with this. It is, after all, happening to us each and every moment. And this is pivotal. Usually, you see, we ask ‘where do we go when we die?’. But the real question has more to do with time than space: when do we go when we die? That is the better question; and we already know the answer to it. The boy I was has not died. He merely, as Dogen would have it, occupies his Dharma position as that boy – and that is totally cut off and separated from me as the man I am now. Similarly, the person I am now cannot and never will die, as I belong to this time, and here I am always alive. At some point, there will be no body, mind and personality that resembles the continuity of the person I am. But that is cut off from the Dharma position I now occupy. In any case, there will be no personal consciousness in the way I currently understand it. Death kills death. There will be nothing dead. As Woody Allen jokes, “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. Well, we won’t be there. We are here. Nowhere else.
And even our being here is nothing like we think it is. We consider our being here primarily to mean we are conscious in this time and place. Yet most of our brain activity, the overwhelming majority of it, has nothing at all to do with being conscious. Indeed, most of what’s going on is subconscious, with the brain running things in the background that are totally cut off from consciousness and which we can in no way access in a conscious way. And in addition, this organism that I am is also in constant, streaming flux. It’s continuity is an illusion. But is is not totally discontinuous either. Obviously there is some continuity, but over the course of a lifetime there is clearly greater change that occurs than there is continuity. To put it in Buddhist terms, we are empty of an intrinsic self. There is a self, but it is made up and dependent on everything else. It is profoundly alive and part of the stream of life. It is pulsating with life. It is flowing and changing. And that is joyous. It is beginningless and endless transformation.
A friend of mine always suggests that we should ‘grow old with grace’. I think what he means is that we should relax into the transformation of the years. This is easier said than done. When I wake up in the mornings and my body is stiff when it used never be, this is hard to accept. When I see my beloved parents struggle with their aches and pains, I wish it were not this way. When my children who once hugged and kissed me with such delight now draw away and assert their own individuality more, I miss those days of easy affection. When sickness and death come, I will cry. But that is the way things should be. There is crying with total abandonment to grief, the cry of despair and hopelessness, and there is the cry that has a deeper awareness, beyond the tears. This latter state is the place where being-in-the-world and a realisation of the greater truth converge. It is not a cold and humourless piety, a denial of human experience and emotion. It is not the freedom from suffering we are so often promised with spiritual idealism. As if that were possible while we are here and now in the body, the only place we can be while remaining ‘me’. Rather it is a freedom in suffering. This is closer to the Bodhisattva path. Being awake in the midst of our inevitable human suffering is it. Meeting the aches and pains, the losses and defeats with some grace. This is available to us. This is our noble practice of dignity and grace. Being true to the lived reality of life. Here is liberation. Yearning to be free from the pain of being, that is bodage, not the pain itself.
But who knows. I don’t. These are my thoughts at the mid-point of this life. Now it is so suddenly all very real. There is a certain urgency to the pace of things. There is a quickening of everything, as spring passes, summer and winter comes, then suddenly it is spring again. Who knows? Maybe the mid-point of my life was years ago. Maybe I am in my old age. None of us know where we are along the trajectory of our lives. We just don’t know.
All I know is that the Cherry Blossoms are flowering in my garden again. The spring air is cold in the mornings. I can hear my children playing upstairs in their bedrooms and the smell of freshly brewed coffee is coming from the kitchen. Such is the truth of things. Right now, things will never be better or worse than they are.