THE BONY FACT OF TIME
“What time is it?” he asks again,
shifting his pain in the wheelchair.
I search for an answer, but sense
that clock time isn’t what he means,
his bony feet in my hands. The white wall
sun-splashed. Thirty-three, he looks ninety.
My hands strong; his white sole. “I don’t know.”
(Morning: I breathe, stretch, enjoy
the grass beneath me. Tai-chi:
a firmness of feet, earth support, birdsong.)
“It’s a very spiritual thing,” he says,
“to massage someone’s feet.” Breathy.
“Scary” he says. “This not knowing…
What’s going to happen, I mean.”
We wonder. The radiant curtain; a breeze.
Then: “What time is it?”, forgetting he asked.
– Christopher J. Ash
“(T)he thought of death is… a powerful stimulus that brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for the search for the meaning of life, and it makes me recognize the importance of this very moment, as it highlights the real possibilities that are still before me.” – Herbert Guenther. (See post: June 9, 2015)
I want to share some of the gift that contemplating death brings. Here’s how I experience something that seems to resonate with what Guenther wrote, in that passage. I can be sitting at a my computer, I can be in a cafe, I can be driving my car, or talking to my partner – and a pristine space opens. The thought of the certainty of my death, or of the uncertainty about the ‘when, where or how’ of my death – or of the certainty of the death of those I love – these contemplations easily bring such openings.
My positioned and positioning ‘self’ dies, just like that. Dissolves. Knowing is purely present, without any seeking or orienting. Acquisitions have ceased. I’m simply aware of the quality of openness itself. And, if I don’t scramble – that is, if I don’t make boundlessness a problem – if I relax and trust it, sigh into this unknowing knowing, then there is a meaningfulness that exceeds any of the phrases about it.
Now the second part of Guenther’s statement is sweet, because the boundless, empty, and still presence is full of magic. It’s called ‘ordinary life.’ And this magic unfolds. (Hence: “… the importance of this very moment…”) Languaging can be a part of the unfolding, a servant of the bigger meaningfulness. Because, this is a matter of ‘not two’ – that is, it’s not about something called the present, colourful languageable moment which is different from the still, luminous openness. Not at all. We’re talking about how unfolding occurrings (sic) never leave the implicit, the invisible womb of reality. (They never fully form, either, into somethings.)
“… the real possibilities that are still before me.” So, this moment, purely present as it is, is full of possibilities, unfolding, “out of” this implicate matrix. (It’s a poor metaphor, given what I’ve said about ‘not two’). This unfolding includes the person who is aware, who is “the unique occasion” for life unfolding its possibilities. What magic is that! I’m sometimes drunk on the wonder of it. It makes me laugh, and it calls Rumi to mind: “I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way. Whoever brought me here, will have to take me home.” (Coleman Barks trans.)
In a Focusing group which was exploring our relationship to death, Zen teacher Jan Hodgman suggested we visit a local graveyard. Joyce came with me.
What a complex experience this was. The first thing that grabbed me, at the front gate, was the signage presents us with the human habit of division. I stopped awhile to get the lay of the place: the map showed all the divisions – these causes for which so many have died throughout history. Over there is the Catholic section, over here the Presbyterians are buried; and there the Church of England; and, there’s a section for the “Independents.” (I found the only Buddhist in this section – a child’s grave with ‘Om Mani Padme Hum engraved on it).
Knowing a little bit about the painful convict role in the beginnings of my town, I took special note of where I would find the convicts’ graves – the men kept practically as slaves in the local stockade. Sometimes, when they died, they weren’t actually buried, because they weren’t looked upon as worthy of laying beside the citizens. They were discared in the bushland. The map had them down the back of the graveyard proper, behind the Jehovah’s Witnesses. When I went there is made me sad, that they are still the neglected, the forgotten, down an unkept track, in the scrub.
Joyce and I separate for a short while, while I go down the bush track. I reflect that all that is dear to us, we part from eventually. That’s one clear message in this place. At the convicts’ graves, I reflect that their mothers’ couldn’t have wanted this end for them.
Back in the main graveyard, the poor were interred alongside the rich. Money might give us a bigger gravestone, I thought, but it doesn’t keep death away. Neither does your religion, or your place in the strata of society, obviously. Some large marble graves, alongside those that were merely piles of earth. This one with a rough, wooden cross askew. The convict scum, and the respected citizens.
I reflected that one’s body interred with others doesn’t make much difference to the certaintly of death. Down in Wentworth Falls, by the railway line, there’s one lone grave, of a young man killed by lightning in the early days of the mountains settlement. What’s the difference? Alone by the railway, or here in the Church of England section with your wife or husband’s bones?
The couples, families, children. Death comes at any age. I contemplated the ages at which people die. And, although a graveyard doesn’t reveal the causes of death, I recalled Atisha’s contemplations on death, and imagined that here in this place we would find numerous causes of death. (Atisha reminds us that the causes of birth are few, but the causes of death are many.)
I contemplated that my own death is certain. My dear wife’s death is certain. And neither of us knows the time. I’m breathing, aware of my soft belly, and this immeasureable life.
It seems so counter intuitive, to find more life through being in touch with the certainty of death. However, that’s how it works. And, my energy gets directed to more meaningful activities, and not wasting time on energy-draining pleasures – like TV. Including daily practices that remind me of the certainty of death, increases my commitment to a full life. I am inspired by what Herbert Guenther wrote in the first volume of this translation of Longchenpa’s Kindly Bent to Ease Us:
“It would be quite wrong to try to evade and to suppress the thought of death, and it would be quite morbid to brood over this inescapable fact. Death is not the end of Being; it may the end of some sort of being. Being remains unaffected by death; only that which is fictitious, sham, is continuously dying. Hence the thought of death is rather a powerful stimulus that brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for the search for the meaning of life, and it makes me recognize the importance of this very moment, as it highlights the real possibilities that are still before me. It is in the light of death that I am prompted to act in such a way that, should death strike, my life may have had some total significance.”