Dear Still Water Friends,
In August 2014, I was fortunate to attend the Contemplative Practice and Rituals in Service to the Dying retreat with Roshi Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski, at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was one of very few retreatants not actively working or volunteering in end-of-life care or who had not recently tended to the dying of a close loved one, often at home. Our time together consisted of meals, work practice, and multiple daily sessions of silent meditation and group discussion that left most of us emotionally (and surprisingly physically) exhausted.
One of the very first things Roshi Joan told our retreat group was We are all dying. The message was clear: this is not an arm’s length topic about something that happens to other people. This is something that happens to us. We are all in this together. When it comes to being with dying, Frank and Roshi Joan said, we are reminding each other of what we already know.
Dying is the final phase of the art of a lifetime in a body, said Roshi Joan. It is a developmental stage, the sum of a life. It may be characterized by joy, or the opposite. The most important thing we can do in the room of a dying person is to be with things as they are. That’s our dignity. As for the dying person, if they’re raging, if they’re crying – that’s okay, that’s how it is. You have to be available to whatever actually is.
The intimate intensity of the retreat culminated in the final exercise, where we gathered together in facing circles to recite the Five Remembrances directly to each other in pairs:
I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill-health.
There is no way to escape having ill-health.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.
I love that last line. It’s what makes me find this whole Buddhist practice joyful rather than depressing. There is no way for me to escape aging, sickness, death, and being parted from my loved ones. Not a single sentient being can help me at the moment of death and neither can my accumulated possessions. However, all is not lost. I am heir to my actions of body, speech, and mind. As Thay says, everything I do determines my continuation body – and I don’t need to die to see what sort of continuation body I will have. I can look around right now to see what effect I’m having on the world. What greater motivation can there be to make sure that my actions are virtuous, generous, compassionate, wise, disciplined, patient, honest, and equanimous? How infinitely precious is every moment that I still breath, each moment an opportunity for practice.
In Living in the Light of Death: on the art of being truly alive, Larry Rosenberg and David Guy write: "We know in our heads that we will die. But we have to know it in our hearts. We have to let this fact penetrate our bones. Then we will know how to live.”
This Thursday evening at Crossings after sitting and walking meditation we will recite the Five Remembrances to each other. Then during our Dharma sharing we will explore together what it means to live with these ancient truths penetrating our bones. I hope you can join us.
In addition, you are invited to join us this Thursday for a brief orientation to mindfulness practice and the Still Water community. The orientation will begin at 6:30 pm and participants are encouraged to stay for the evening program. If you would like to attend the orientation, it is helpful if you let us know by emailing us at info@StillWaterMPC.org.
There is no going back
No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.
You have become a sort of grave
containing much that was
and is no more in time, beloved
then, now, and always.
And so you have become a sort of tree
standing over a grave.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unaging in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.
~ Wendell Berry ~
Zen Night Chant, recited each evening at Upaya Zen Center:
Let me respectfully remind you –
Life and death are of supreme importance –
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost –
Let us awaken –
awaken . . .
Do not squander your life.