Life is like getting onto a small boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.” -Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
This past week I attended two funerals, one for an an uncle, one for a cousin.
This coming week I’ll be attending a birthday party for one of my grandchildren.
My family shrinks as elders depart, grows as children enter the world.
This week was also the autumnal equinox: the end of summer, the beginning of autumn.
The world ceaselessly instructs us in impermanence. Nothing remains the same because there is no “thing.” Every “thing” is always a process in transition to becoming some “thing” else.
When I was young, my extended family seemed to be a stable, unchanging entity. It was filled with uncles, aunts, and cousins. Two decades went by with only minimal change. It felt like I could count on it forever.
Now all the uncles are gone. Every one.
Now all the aunts are gone except for one. She is ninety-four and suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease.
And now two of my own generation, my cohort of cousins, are gone too.
But those cousins have had children, and their children have had children. One branch withers, another blossoms.
My body also gives me daily lessons in impermanence. It reminds me of it when I take my insulin for my diabetes. It reminds me of it when I visit my oncologist for my six-month check-up. It reminds me of it when I wake in the middle of the night to pay obeisance to the prostate gods. Ceaseless change.
Four years ago my first wife, the mother of my children, passed away after enduring the ravages of cancer. Two months before she died, our son’s wife gave birth to twins. One warm, bright April morning my wife and I took a cab from the emergency room at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center where we had spent another traumatic night to go to the neonatal ICU at Beth Israel Hospital for a first look at our beautiful new grandchildren. Was there ever a day more filled with intense, contradictory emotions?
Now I’m remarried, and my new wife brings me the joys of her children and their wives and children. My family contracts and expands.
This is what I want you to know. We had no beginning. We are part of a ceaseless chain of events that began, this time around, with the Big Bang. We came from our parents’ DNA, and they from their parents’ DNA. The effects of our actions reverberate throughout time and ripple throughout history. We are part of the vast tapestry of being. In the absolute view of things, we have no end.
Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness there is no…. decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping… (The Heart Sutra)
But from the relative point of view we have an end. The fact of our impermanence, of death-in-life, can sharpen our awareness of the limited time we have available to make use of our precious human lives.
Cambridge Insight Meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg tells the story of meeting Tara Tulku Rinpoche who repeatedly fingered the beads of his mala while reciting a mysterious mantra. When Larry asked the meaning of the mantra, the lama replied “I’m going to die. I’m going to die.” We all need reminders to focus on using our life wisely. When we realize our time is limited we can ask ourselves how we really want to spend it. What’s really important? We want our loved ones to know how much we care about them. We want to improve things around us. We want to leave something of value to those who come next.
As Dogen Zenji reminds us:
Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take Heed! Do not squander your life!