There are times when some insight into the Buddha’s teachings seeps into one's being gradually, like the darkness of a moonless night fading before the inexorable dawn. I had an experience like this when, somewhere in my sixth year of study, an extensive explanation given by one of my teachers, Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso, dissolved a veil in my mind and I knew without a doubt that rebirth definitely occurred for all unliberated beings, impelled by karma, or the result of our actions.
Then there are other times when understanding is forced upon you with startling violence, demolishing even your most cleverly constructed defenses. Such has been my experience these past two months in relation to the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence and the unreliability of everything we experience in the relative world.
Just after the new year, I received an email from an old college friend. He sought me out to relay news of another mutual friend, Dan Plummer. I lost track of Dan after college, but it seems he became a research scientist out in California and developed a passion for competitive cycling. This made sense; Dan went at everything with great intensity. Needless to say, he was totally fit, a Lance Armstrong type.
But then, according to this article in the San Jose Mercury News, one day Dan and a friend were slowly riding down a road made slick by rain and wind-blown leaves. The friend “heard a loud snap…turned around and saw a eucalyptus tree hit an electrical wire. When Saltzman went back, he found his friend…underneath the tree. He went to get help, but it was too late.” Dan died instantly. He was 39.
Fast forward to Atlanta, two weeks ago. A young woman named Kelly Blackmon is on the scene, photographing events at the Oglethorpe Museum and the various Mongolian performances. She’s generally just around, but one night she’s not there.
“Where’s Kelly?” I ask.
“Oh,” I’m told, “it’s the most horrible thing. Yesterday afternoon, her brother in Alabama lay down on the couch to take a nap. Later, his wife came to wake him up but couldn’t rouse him. He just died there on the couch. No one knows why.”
“Unbelievable. How old was he?”
“Early thirties, maybe. Had two children, four and five months.”
Then this past Thursday evening I’m checking email in a Manhattan Starbucks, and open a message from an Arizona birding friend with the subject line “Bad News…Sit Down”. Roger often sends funny, satirical links, so that’s what I was expecting. Instead it was a gutpunch. One of my two best birding buddies, John Prather, had suffered a massive stroke. He was found on his living room floor, still clothed in the martial arts uniform from the class he had just attended. He was 36.
Here’s the letter I sent my other birding buddy, Tom Linda, to share with a memorial gathering of his friends and family tonight:
Like you, I am deeply shocked by the sudden passage of our wonderful friend John. As a Buddhist monk, I have my way of understanding such things, but that does little to dull my personal grief, or my sadness for John’s many loved ones whose lives are diminished through losing his presence.
John and Tom Linda were my two best birding pals during the four years I lived in northern Arizona. As an exercise in remembrance, I thumbed through my Sibley guide and did – what else? – some listing, and found that John was present for, and often the main locator of, about 40 of my lifers plus a handful more Arizona birds. One of my most memorable birding trips ever was a long weekend swing through the SE Arizona hotspots with just John and me camping and birding dawn ‘til dusk. We were set in motion by reports of a Plain-capped Starthroat. Well, we snagged that, and went on to see just about every other bird on our target list. It just rained lifers. I returned home with 12 new ticks and spectacular memories, like the Black-bellied Whistling Duck calling on a fallen log at Patagonia in the first blush of dawn, a Gray Hawk feeding babies, Whiskered Screech-owls calling so near they woke us at 2am, and the magical hike into California Gulch for Five-striped Sparrow.
John’s unabashed love for all things in the natural world and his exuberant style of birding inspired and taught me. But other than helping sharpen my birding skills, mainly I remember John’s laughter. Even in our deepest outrage about the actions of this thoughtless administration – John had a deep sense of justice and commitment to conservation – or growing fatigue as I forced him to tromp around some more in the 110-degree Sonoran Desert because I still hadn’t seen the damn Gilded Flicker, he would always shrug it off with a wry joke.
He also loved to travel, as do I, and I’m pissed that I won’t ever benefit from having him show me the birds in his beloved Latin America or be able to show him the birds of my equally beloved Mongolia.
But I’m pretty confident John will reincarnate among us. You know why? His birding companions know he had a wee competitive streak, and I know that wherever he is, he won’t be able to stand that he didn’t hit 400 Arizona birds, that Tom and I have Blue Grouse in the San Francisco Peaks and he doesn’t, and that we still kind of doubt he really saw Tufted Duck at the Sedona Wetlands.
The Buddha was right on when he taught that nobody and nothing ever lasts, and we can almost never predict the factors that will separate us from them. So don’t wait to love and appreciate others, and help them wherever you can. Be patient, let petty grievances go, and don’t lose the opportunities to laugh with good friends.
Tom, you’re my brother, and you know I’d give you a big bear hug and share a couple of tears with you if I were there right now.
Love to you all,
Tom Fry/Konchog Norbu
I’m 40, and there’s no weaseling around this issue anymore with delusional thinking – I could die later tonight or tomorrow. Why not? All these three were younger than me. None woke up thinking, “Today I’m probably going to die in a freakish way.” Youth is little comfort. The appearance of health is no guarantee. And if it’s the mind that goes on at the time of death, how can someone of intelligence who recognizes this not regard as unimportant all activities other than the cultivation of a virtuous, compassionate mind, and the actions it inspires?
In these times, it is my habit to scan Buddhist texts for wisdom and guidance. More often than not, I go right to the source – the records of Shakyamuni Buddha's and Padmasambhava’s words. They never fail me. Here is Shakyamuni Buddha fending off Mara, the Deceiver:
“Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Rajagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrel Sanctuary. There the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus thus: ‘Bhikkhus!’
‘Venerable sir!’ those bhikkhus replied. The Blessed One said this:
‘Bhikkhus, this life span of human beings is short. One has to go on to the future life. One should do what is wholesome and lead the holy life; for one who has taken birth there is no avoiding death. One who lives long, bhikkhus, lives a hundred years or a little longer.’
“Then Mara the Evil One approached the Blessed One and addressed him in verse:
‘Long is the life span of human beings,
The good man should not disdain it.
One should live like a milk-sucking baby:
Death has not made its arrival.’
[The Blessed One:]
‘Short is the life span of human beings,
The good man should disdain it.
One should live like one with head aflame:
There is no avoiding Death’s arrival.’
“Then Mara the Evil One, realizing, ‘The Blessed One knows me, the Fortunate One knows me,’ sad and disappointed, disappeared right there.”
There is also a poignant moment in the long, marvelous Mahaparinirvana Sutra when the Buddha’s attendant finally understands that the Buddha is really going to pass from this world. He goes off and weeps by himself, but is called back by the Buddha, who gently admonishes and encourages him:
“Enough, Ananda! Do not grieve, do not lament! For have I not taught from the very beginning that with all that is dear and beloved there must be change, separation, and severance? Of that which is born, come into being, compounded, and subject to decay, how can one say: 'May it not come to dissolution!'? There can be no such state of things. Now for a long time, Ananda, you have served the Tathagata with loving-kindness in deed, word, and thought, graciously, pleasantly, with a whole heart and beyond measure. Great good have you gathered, Ananda! Now you should put forth energy, and soon you too will be free from the taints.”
Then, of course, there are the Buddha’s final words to the full assembly of his disciples, summing up his entire 45-year teaching career: “All conditioned things are subject to impermanence. Strive for your liberation with diligence.”
Padmasambhava, working the same theme for his main disciple Yeshe Tsogyal, is ferociously direct and uncompromising, just like I like it:
“Tsogyal, haven’t you heard that your forefathers and ancestors died? Haven’t you seen that your peers and neighbors die? Haven’t you noticed that your relatives die, whether they be old or young? Haven’t you ever seen a corpse being carried off to a cemetery? How is it possible that you don’t remember that death will come to you, too? If you remain unmotivated, the time to attain liberation will never arrive!
“The very root of virtuous qualities is to take impermanence to heart, so never ever forget the fear of death! Among all notions, impermanence is the most eminent, so never be apart from it! The attitude of believing that things last is the very root of all wrongdoing, so pull it up! Unless you take this attitude [of impermanence] sincerely to heart, evil will heap up like a mountain.
“To make this clear: ordinary people do not seek liberation; the dignitary is conceited and clings to his inflated self-esteem; the rich are shackled by avarice; the ignorant bask in evil deeds; the lazy live in apathy; the practitioner reverts to worldliness; the Dharma teacher strays into the eight worldly concerns; and the meditator, lacking devotion and diligence, pursues the aims of this life. All this is due to failing to take impermanence to heart.
“Once the thought of impermanence is genuinely assimilated in your stream of being, all the qualities of the path of liberation will heap up like a mountain. So form the attitude of having no task whatsoever to carry out! Form the attitude that mundane aims are futile! Cast away the pointlessness of this world!
“Embark on the path of liberation with fortitude! Don’t cling to material things! Don’t fixate on the five aggregates as being yourself! Understand that diversions are Mara [the Deceiver]! Understand that desirable sense objects are trickery! Never be apart from a sense of urgency!
“Regard the affairs of this life as your enemy! Seek a true master! Flee from evil companionship! Flee to the solitude of mountain dwellings! Don’t delay your spiritual practice! Observe your vows and samayas! Mingle your mind with the Dharma!
“If you do like this, the yidam will bestow the siddhis, the dakinis will grant their blessings, the buddhas will give you assurance, and you will soon reach enlightenment – all this results from taking impermanence to heart.
“From the past until this very day, all the buddhas and their sons and daughters, and all the vidyadharas and siddhas were liberated from samsara by taking this to heart!”