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In July, a fellow traveler in the Zen Buddhist community I belong to was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer.
She died last week. The community members and I were upset and sad about the news in July, as we are with the news of her death.
Thanks to the teachings of Thích Nhất Hạnh and my mindfulness practice, I can accept the inevitability of death in my life. When my colleague’s memory comes to my mind, I think of the good times spent with her—her laughter, generous spirit, and 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; 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.
Thích Nhất Hạnh, 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 colors 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 eight-years-old. My mother’s father, who lived by himself, about 20 kilometers 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 Rasam Pagri ceremony, where the eldest son begins to serve as the household head. 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 the age of eight.
When I was 14, my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. 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 health were painful for him and all of us around him. For the last eight years of his life, I was living in the United States, 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 the news that a friend had drowned while swimming. Just like that. One day he was with my friends and me and then, gone.
A few years after that, my young cousin and his father died in a car accident.
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.
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 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.
Thích Nhất Hạnh 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.
Thích Nhất Hạnh 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 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 the impermanence of things. Before my practice of mindfulness, I suffered greatly and was unable to accept them as a natural phenomenon in life. The practice taught me to see the value of impermanence, in sickness and death, 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.