I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Contemplating life

Whatcom Falls

Yesterday morning Mel, Chris and I walked four miles in the Whatcom Falls Park area, and I quickly snapped this picture of the roaring falls. Over the years, I've seen these falls almost disappear during the dry days of summer, and sometimes they have been even more massive and powerful than they were yesterday. All that water! It never stops completely, just pouring over the edge and continuing its journey down to Bellingham Bay to join the ocean. As usual, I was again struck by the sheer volume of water. How does it keep on coming? Where does it all go?

Yesterday, I learned that Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Tibetan Buddhist monk, died at the age of 95, eight years after having suffered a severe brain hemorrhage and lost the ability to speak. He received plenty of treatment for his injury, and was eventually able to return to his Plum Village Monastery and live out the rest of his life. Although he was unable to speak, he was able to communicate through hand gestures and other means. 

Nhất Hạnh was active in the peace movement and deep ecology, promoting nonviolent solutions to conflict and raising awareness of the interconnectedness of all elements in nature. He was the founder of the largest monastic order in the West. He also refrained from consuming animal products, as a means of nonviolence toward animals.

I had been aware of him for many years, and he wrote an incredible number of books during his lifetime. He traveled extensively before his stroke and is just about as famous as the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhist circles. The New York Times published a collection of some of his most famous sayings yesterday, and I was enchanted to read them. I hope you can read them for yourself here. But just in case you cannot, here's one I think is timely:

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.

 Maybe it's because I have recently become so interested in Buddhism, but for whatever reason I was very much moved by learning of his death. I also wondered if he will be one of those "rainbow bodies" that I have heard of. It's when the body of an enlightened being simply shrinks away and leaves behind only hair and nails. It's one of the reasons that monks' bodies are supposed to be allowed to remain undisturbed for at least three days after death. One description (from the link above):

Generally, the individual, who entered meditation before death, continues to maintain the meditation posture — they do not topple, slump, or display rigor mortis. The body, particularly the area around the heart, stays warm. This was recorded by medical science in the case of the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, who died in a Chicago hospital in 1981.

 There is so much we don't know about what's real and what's not. Now that I am entering my eightieth year of life on earth, I am finding quite a bit of solace as I learn about different ways to look at my life and my eventual death. A few years ago, one of my favorite bloggers, Ronni Bennett, learned that she had pancreatic cancer and for the next few years chronicled her journey from a massive surgery to remove the cancer (which wasn't successful) to her final death. I still think of her often, and remember that although in the beginning she was terrified of death, by the end she said that she was no longer afraid. Although I was frustrated that I didn't get to know the nitty-gritty details of her passing, it didn't really matter in the long run because she taught me, and others, so much about how to approach our final days.

Through the long years of my life, I have lost many who were dear to me, and the suffering and loss stays with me even today. One of the lessons I've learned, though, is that as the years pass by and I recollect my loved ones, it is with joy and happiness, rather than with tears that I remember them. Not only that, but I am blessed with the loved ones who surround me in the present moment. My dear partner gives me so much joy every day, and although he is not the same as he was before his stroke more than a year ago, he still remains my favorite person to share my life with. He still struggles with language, but it's been long enough since that fateful day in August 2020 that I am still seeing him improve imperceptibly as he continues through his own journey through life. He has taught me that humor is an essential ingredient in getting through the rough patches we all face.

During this coming week, I will attend a reading by a local Zen Buddhist priest (priestess?) at the local Senior Center. She has written a book called Autumn Light: My Fifty Years in Zen. Through research, I've learned that Edwina Norton is a member of a Zen community here in Bellingham that I will probably get to know more about. They have closed their dharma center during the pandemic and are looking for a new place to purchase. I look forward to learning more about it all. 

For now, however,  I'll continue my early morning meditations and enjoy the eventual return of the light. We are gaining 2 and a half minutes of daylight every day now, soon to be at the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox (February 2). And I have been struggling to get this post written so I can get on with my day. It's not the same since I no longer rush off to the coffee shop or ride the bus to town. That might be changing soon, however, as I'm hoping we are on the downside of this pandemic. At least I am now in possession of some good N95 masks and feel I could venture onto the bus. But not quite yet; I'll wait and bide my time.

Until that occurs, I'll be continuing to enjoy my daily life, if not the usual regular routine. At least I'm getting a little exercise, and my back is almost back to normal, probably 95% healed and it no longer hurts constantly. Yay for that! And I do hope, my dear friends, that you are staying safe and free of illness. Please remember to give love and compassion to all you encounter: it will return to you in time. Be well until we meet again next week, dear virtual family.


Far Side of Fifty said...

Oh I do not agree with Buddhism. I was someplace before I was born and certainly will return there once I die. I have faith that I am saved through the Grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is a beautiful message found in the Bible. Have a wonderful Sunday:)

Rian said...

DJan, I find comfort in the words of Buddha... and have read some of Thich Nhat Hanh's words also. And although I don't know a lot about either, I find it not so much a religion, but more of as a way to understand life... and death.
And I'm so glad to hear that your back is better!

Barbara Rogers said...

I also read Ronnie Bennett's blogs as she experienced her declining months. It was very difficult to suddenly hear she'd made her final decision. Just a disappearance of a very thoughtful woman. I've been close to several people in their last days/months. I have benefited so much from their attitudes...the lightening up from worry, the concentration on experiencing each thing that comes along. Thanks for posting your own journey here, and sharing thoughts as you investigate Buddhist ideas. I still don't know how Zen is different than Tibetan Buddhism!

Elephant's Child said...

I will have to ponder that quote. It is a way of thinking which is alien to me - and well worth exploring. Thank you.
I am very glad that your back is better, and grateful that you share your journeys (physical and mental) with us.

Marie Smith said...

Your Buddhist quest sounds fascinating, a way to understand life and death your quest makes so much sense during this difficult times. Understanding and comfort are needed these days.

Hope we are on the down side of this pandemic!

Arkansas Patti said...

I would say sorry that the monk you hold in such high esteem has passed but understanding his beliefs, it would be hard to be sad. He is just moving on. Also his beliefs will live on.
As my mother often said, death is life's greatest adventure. Then we shall finally know. But I like the Buddhist beliefs. There is such a gentleness there.

Galen Pearl said...

Yes, I was sad too. Thich Nhat Hanh always presented such a gentle presence. I look forward to hearing more about your exploration of and experience with Buddhism, and perhaps what will become your involvement with the local community you discovered.

Linda Reeder said...

I appreciate that you find comfort and meaning in Buddhism, but today you lost me on no birth, no death. To me, that, and taxes, is pretty much all there is, and it is up to us to fill that space between birth and death with purpose and meaning.

Gigi said...

It doesn't have anything to do with the majority of your thoughtful post; but I just had to tell you that I am DELIGHTED whenever you tell me something along the lines of "we are gaining 2 and a half minutes of daylight every day now". It reminds me that winter will soon be past us.

John's Island said...

"Please remember to give love and compassion to all you encounter: it will return to you in time." I do believe that. Your recent posts talking about Buddhism, to me, have been encouraging and positive. I hope you will continue to tell us more about this part of your journey.

Red said...

I have firmly believed the idea in your last two sentences all my life. It's simple and really works. I enjoy your comments on Bhuddhism

Betsy said...

I must say that Bhuddhism doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but truly I am not afraid of death. I have died once, just days before I got my pacemaker. I was "gone" long enough to experience death and I'm excited to return to what I know was Heaven and my family that has gone before. Of course, my days on this earth are wonderful too and I will never regret each day here, but I know that Jesus is waiting and it's much, much more beautiful than anything we have seen here.

Friko said...

Dear DJan, you still speak to me directly. I have been away from blogging on and off for quite some time and am only now trying to appear here more often.

I have no religious beliefs other than a general spirit related awareness; buddhism and its consciousness are closest to it.
I love your final sentences, I am trying to live up to them which is not always easy.

I am glad to hear that both you and your life partner are recovering.

Anvilcloud said...

It is nice to see the light returning, but it is very cold here. It is -20°F this morning.

gigi-hawaii said...

This is a very good post about Buddhism, a religion I know very little about, having been raised a Catholic. If Buddhism helps you, then do follow it. It can't hurt you.

Rita said...

I would have too much to say on the subject of life and death recently. Just glad I was determined at a young age to live my life like each day was my last. (Who knew I'd live this long!) I choose the positive side. Love and kindness and compassion--all you can muster. And remember it could be anyone's last day--any of the people you love or care about. So let them know how you feel. Life is a miracle. The dark spots on the path can either teach you about light or keep you in darkness. Your choice. love and hugs from Fargo

William Kendall said...

A beautiful waterfall.

Tabor said...

Ernestine from My Journey to Mindfulness blog passed away a while ago. Her daughter generously updated the transition. I was so thankful for that. Amazing how we can come to love various bloggers. I have always been intrigued by Buddhism and should take a course or two so that I am no so totally ignorant.