February 08, 2010

We Just Never Know

So I'm on my way to the Bay Area in the morning to see a dear long-time friend, a very early Dharma brother from the days of Haiku Zendo and Kobun Roshi. Without much warning, without many symptoms he has a terminal diagnosis. We're all in shock as this robust man is suddenly given news that his time is limited. He's just around 60 years old. Two weeks ago he was out hiking with his wife and my eldest daughter in the East Bay hills and no one suspected there would be such an abrupt change in everyone's life.

Such news makes the world more beautiful than ever. Last Monday, June, a Zen practitioner and I were out cleaning up the plum tree before it was too advanced in its blossoming. The buds had already started and we hadn't much time to cut some branches without injuring the year's fruit yield. I clipped off numerous small branches for flower arrangements. They represented the transition from winter to spring, the tiny buds just barely articulated on the thin spikes. Then lo and behold, I went into the zendo tonight and beautiful, tender, white blossoms are shimmering on the altar. The world looks more beautiful than ever.

It's easy to talk about impermanence, to say we're merely temporary visitors here, but mostly we know it without a true realization until we or someone close to us faces the reality. We've known about it all along but then the news comes as a shock. Truly, the shock is that we'll be separated, the person won't be here and it makes everything change. The biggest shock of someone dying, at least to me, is that we are cut off from language. We can imagine the person, we can remember their faces, even the sound of the voice, or the smell of them, but we can't sit down together and talk, can't clear up any mysteries, can't inquire or share thoughts. We can only imagine what they might think of something, imagine their response. The loss of language is what startles me. It feels as if they've disappeared. I wonder where they go?

From the standpoint of my own self dying, I don't think I go anywhere, I just think I finish. It's just over. When I die, I won't know I'm dead. What makes us think we will know when we are dead? Dead is being dead. I'm pretty fine with my own death. It's other peoples' going that I find so strange. I am left behind still living when someone else is not. But, no doubt I will take my turn and death will come in its time and place.

Meantime, the world looks more beautiful than ever. The going of someone close makes it precious.