In July this year, a colleague and fellow traveller in the Zen Buddhist community I belong to, was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. She died last week. My colleagues and I were upset and sad with the news in July, as we are with the news of her death.
Thanks to the teachings of the Buddha and my Mindfulness practice I am able to accept the inevitability of death in my life, for a while now. When the memory of my colleague comes to my mind, I think of the good times spent with her — her laughter, her generous spirit, and her ability to give of herself. I accept her illness and her death.
The teachings of the Buddha speak of the impermanence of life. Impermanence means that everything changes, and nothing remains the same in any successive moment. And while things change every moment, they still cannot be accurately described as the same or as different from what they were a moment ago.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist teacher explains the notion of impermanence:
Have you ever played with a kaleidoscope? Just a small movement is enough to make something miraculous appear. A tableau of colours and forms is presented to you, a manifestation. You keep this view for a few seconds, then you turn the kaleidoscope and another manifestation appears. Should we cry every time one of these manifestations comes to an end? A flower manifests, then disappears, then manifests, then disappears — thousands upon thousands of times. If you look deeply at things, you will see this reality. We manifest, then disappear. It is a game of hide-and-seek.
I have a long association with death. My first close encounter with death was when I was 8 years old. My mother’s father, who lived by himself, about 20 kilometres away from us, was murdered rather brutally. Shortly after that, my father’s father living in Dhariwal, Punjab also died. I have a photograph of my father, his five brothers and two sisters at the ‘pagadi’ ceremony where the eldest son begins to serve as the head of the household. However, by then there were many households, as my father and his siblings were spread all over India. My two grandmothers had passed before I was old enough to remember them or their deaths.
I have no memory of the death of my uncle (my mother’s oldest sister’s husband) who died in a mining accident. They lived close to us, and overnight my aunt was widowed with two young girls, my cousins, both under 8.
When I was 14, my father was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He died 17 years later, after a long and painful period of suffering, numb and dysfunctional with the side effects of medication and the psychological fallout of a life that had changed, forever. His long years of ill heath were painful for him and all of us around him. For the last 8 years of his life I was living in the US, and when his death came, I had a huge sense of relief, taking solace in the fact that his suffering had ended.
In the late 1960s, while working in the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata) one morning I got news that a friend had drowned while swimming. Just like that. One day he was with me and my friends and then, gone.
A few years after that, my young cousin and his father died in a car accident. Shortly after that my cousin, his sister, died due to a heart condition, a few months after she got married as she waited for a visa to join her husband in the US.
Over the years, many close and dear friends have died. Some to cancer and others to long term health complications. My mother died in 1993, although healthy, but with a persistent infection. My father-in-law died in 1998. Several colleagues and parents of my friends have also died in the last decade.
Last year, the sister of a close friend, in her mid 80s, was sick and in and out of hospitals in Delhi. My friend lives in Australia and her sister lived in New York most of her adult life. My friend felt she needed to go home, but there was no close family member to look after her sister. I advised my friend not to return to Australia and bring her sister home to her apartment, and assist in her last days in this world.
My friend agreed and brought her sister home. She wondered how long she needed to stay. In definitely, I said. Her sons, in Malaysia and Australia, asked her how long she was going to be in Delhi. My answer: indefinitely. Because, that’s how death works. And often, so does life. My friend’s sister passed away peacefully, in her home in Delhi, surrounded by people who loved her, with her Gurbani music, incense, flowers and photographs. My friend returned to Australia after a few weeks.
I often think about my own death. It is not far away, but it could be. No one knows. I turned 70 last December, and I am taking steps to ensure a smooth transition into another life, so to speak. Having accepted death as inevitable, I am not afraid of it. Having a lived a full life there is not much I aspire to achieve as I age, every day, every year. I am grateful that I wake up every morning, blessed with marginally good health and look forward to the day, whatever it brings.
Thich Nhat Hanh says: Our greatest fear is that when we die, we will become nothing. Many of us believe that our entire existence is only a life span beginning the moment we are born or conceived and ending the moment we die. We believe that we are born from nothing and when we die, we become nothing. And so, we are filled with fear of annihilation.
Mindfulness has helped me to see life deeply. I no longer feel (like I used to) that impermanence is a negative aspect of life. If anything, I have come to believe that impermanence is the very basis of life. I now know that if what exists were not impermanent, no life could continue.
If life is impermanent, then should we say it is not worth living? No.
Thich Nhat Hanh says: It is precisely because of its impermanence that we value life so dearly. Therefore, we must know how to live each moment deeply and use it responsibly. If we can live the present moment completely, we will not feel regret later. We will know how to care for those who are close to us and how to bring them happiness. When we accept that all things are impermanent, we will not be incapacitated by suffering when things decay and die. We can remain peaceful and content in the face of continuity and change, prosperity and decline, success, and failure.
The ups and downs in my life have revealed to me the nature of impermanence of things. Before my practice of Mindfulness, I suffered greatly and was unable to accept them as natural phenomenon in my life. The practice taught me to see the value of impermanence, even in sickness and death as in wellness and life.
I am grateful to the teachings of the Buddha: 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.
In some ways growing up with death around me taught me about the impermanence of life.
But, the practice of Mindfulness has taught me how to accept and value impermanence in all its ways, in life and in death.