I certainly prefer birth over death, beginnings over endings. A baby is fresh and new, a delight of potential and surprise. Old age, sickness, and death are so sobering. Yet, many Buddhists work with that. I believe it was Issan, a Buddhist abbott, who started the first hospice, when the AIDs epidemic hit California, and no one knew what to do. Buddhists find hospice work fulfilling, as do many people once they have served as caregivers for a spouse or parent. Facing death, we are more sincere, we are leveled.
In my church, memorial services often glide over the hard part and emphasize the joys of the person's life, before he got so sick, that is. It is a celebration. Yet I remember one service in which people spoke about the dead woman, Lisa, her eternal youthfulness, and at last one man got up and said, "She did not remain herself to the end. That was the tragedy." I knew that, too. I had visited her in her locked dementia ward. She had been dressed well, and sat on an absorbent pad on the bed, smiling, pretending to know us. She was not herself anymore. I appreciated that man's honesty. He loved her.
As I understand it, it was encountering the realities of end-of-life that led the Buddha to leave his home and search for some consolation. It took him a while, years of traveling from one esteemed teacher to another, learning what they had to teach, meditating, doing all sorts of rigorous spiritual practices. What he came up with was - Life is hard. Very unsatisfactory, say. Because in every single birth, death is implicit. All living things mature and die. Our problem, the Buddha said, is our endless thirst. Our craving to not have life be the way it is.
You sure know about this when you end up like me, limited by a mortal illness our medical system tries hard to defeat. Beyond "lifestyle" treatments, kidney failure can be addressed only by dialysis and transplant. Both are crude, painful, elaborate and expensive treatments, but dialysis is worse, and is usually low yield in terms of restoring health. So we thirst for that magical transplant.
I had to stop there the other day and examine that. This is one reason we meditate, to go deeper with ourselves, until we face the strength of our cravings and our unrealistic delusions. Transplant is not in fact so magic as all that; the real story with Cinderella is that you might marry the Prince, but you will still have to sweep up the ashes of life, metaphorically speaking. Our lives don't stop at the beautiful waltz of the beginning.
Going deeper with myself these days I realize how I crave healing, how I want to believe there is - or will soon be - a treatment that will give me back my life - the energy of middle age. Or at least, more years with more good days. I have an alternate craving: to forget the whole thing and just accept quietly dying; that is a choice a kidney patient can make.
Lousy alternatives. Realizing this yesterday, I went about doing my laundry yelling fervently, "Don't want!" That assertion was one of the first things my grandson learned to say, and as a toddler he could say it ferociously. "Don't want!" Of course, Don't Want is as much a craving as Want.
I came back from a Memorial Service the other day with an index card on which I had written,
There is no happy endingZen says the answer is to sink deep into that truth. Accept it. I guess that is the Right Understanding piece of the way of life the Buddha recommended as our consolation, what is called The Noble Eightfold Path. Ah, so, I hear my sister-in-law say. It comes down to that after all. Where is the consolation of right livelihood, of not taking what is not yours, of kind speech? This hardly seems appealing compared to a party, or a transplant.
to an individual life.
So, what is going to console us?
The image I put up today is End of Day glass. If you click on that phrase, it will take you to a site that describes this accidental art, which makes beauty is made out of the leftover scraps. That seems a very nice idea to me. Consoling, in fact.