Firsts are strange. There’s this Chan (Zen) sentence which, if one doesn’t mind going nuts, you may contemplate silently: “what was my original face before I was born?” Slowly, very gradually, like a motionless cat waiting for the mouse to pop out of the hole, the boundaries start to dissolve. Because a “first”, if you think about it, is a sort of line in one’s conscious experience which marks the spot where an event, or a sequence of events, begins.
And now for the magic trick: Let’s do a thought experiment together.
Snap your fingers.
Ok. Now let’s break it down. At what exact moment in the movement-sequence you just made did the “snap” occur? is there an actual boundary in space-time which is the snap? You see, once you break things down into they’re component parts, there is no actual single part to which anything can be reduced, which can then be called the exact event.
Rather, this is a function of our mind, our Mind which in Vajrayana Buddhism is called “The Wish Fulfilling Jewel”. This cognitive function allows us, for the sake of our evolutionary sanity, to turn endlessly complex chains of events (irreducible chains of events) into a singular entity we call a “thing”. When Buddhists speak of emptiness, they refer to the actual absence of “thing-ness” in all phenomena, and therefore to the endless interconnectedness of all phenomena.
Now, having defined a singularly important term for any future discussions, let’s get back to the story. You see, I have been experiencing many firsts and lasts lately. I got married (silly wife, what was she thinking…), I took my Upāsaka vows (google it), I was credited in a serious academic publication for the first time, I am writing my first blog post, and for the first time I sat with a dying man.
This brings us to “lasts”. My father-in-law, is dying (well, all of us are, but he is statistically more likely to die sooner rather than later). Hence the rushed wedding, which, thank Buddha, he attended and which was beautiful and emotional, happy and sad, all in exact, wonderful, romantic, sappy proportions. But throughout the preparations, three weeks of them, I sat with him a bunch. I saw how confusion turned into despair, turned into anger, into some other stages of grief which I can’t remember and finally arrived at acceptance- or at least what to my eyes looked like it. He is now free to laugh, cry, reminisce and bemoan to his big heart’s content. That is wonderful.
As for myself, I feel that Buddhist practice was outstandingly important in allowing me to be there for my newly acquired family members. You see, thinking about death is IMPORTANT. I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t contemplate your own mortality every day, true compassion, true happiness, wholesome priorities and any other mode of authentic contentment is absolutely impossible. If we don’t stare Yama (lord of death) square in the eye, we will spend our life running from him. For your enjoyment, here is a partial list of ways I personally ran (and sometimes still run) from him:
Addictions- nicotine, sugar, chatter, smartphone, overthinking. Aversions- anger, hatred, pushing, wall-building, defensiveness.
But when I stop- in that gap, in the zooming-out, the “non-abiding awareness”, I feel the reality of it. The soft, tender, vulnerable reality of being a human being, with failing, confusion, stress and sadness, with joy, bliss, ecstasy and endlessssss peace. In that space I suddenly realize- Yama is a caring friend, doing a job assigned to him by the very basis of existence. I sat with one man who fully faced his own mortality, while Yama has to face countless beings in the same predicament.
Although, if you practice deeply, you’ll see that you already are surrounded by the walking dead. And in that realization, you will be free to exist far more fully than you ever have before.
May you be happy, well and at peace. Amituofo!
“You must realize that what we now have
and touch as we stand here is the skin covering our skeleton. Think
deeply about this fact.”— Ikkyū Sōjun