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Lions Roar : March 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN MArcH 2011 28 everything changes, and we must part from loved ones; my actions, or karma, are my true belongings, the ground upon which I stand. Pema Chödrön condensed the five remembrances into three pithy phrases: Since death is certain, and the timing of death un- certain, what is the most important thing? that last phrase is par- ticularly provocative, especially in our culture, freighted as it is with distractions like television, tweeting, and facebook. the five remembrances also are reminiscent of the ancient art of memento mori, remembering that I will die so I can live to the fullest. I’ve been inspired by two realizations: the first—both coun- tercultural and radical—is to entertain the possibility that there is a sacred dimension to the process of aging. We recognize that time is precious. the richness of a life wisely led enriches our experience of everything. While not romanticizing aging, dying, and death—often such a ruthless process—we can still regard this phase as a unique op- portunity to call upon practice to sustain and inspire us. though far from Western cultural norms, the last chapter of life can be seen as the most heroic. there we are with declining energy and perhaps a life-threatening illness, and that’s when we’re called to meet the greatest challenges of a lifetime. and as the years accrue, the call to the inner life grows louder. now our greatest ally proves to be the wisdom of the dharma and our commitment to practice. When I was in my sixties, my hus- band hob, a longtime practitioner and ordained dharmacharya (senior teacher), was diagnosed with alzheimer’s disease. from previous experience with my mother’s similar illness, I knew we were in the big leagues and that I, as his primary caregiver, would be facing himalayan-scale challenges. my first response was to call upon tulku thondup, a kalyana mitta, or spiritual friend, for many years. I knew he would respond with the kind of inspiration I sorely needed. at the very start of our conversation, he made an astonishing statement: “this will be difficult, but take it as a blessing, a teaching, a training.” a part of me couldn’t believe his words. a blessing? how could he say that? and yet, as the journey unfolded, this statement became one of the most compelling teachings I’ve ever received. It became my north Star, the dharma compass by which I negotiated the most difficult, sometimes harrowing situations. Basically, he was invit- ing me to frame everything that happened within the context of Buddhist teachings. he went further, suggesting that I could approach even the humblest of activities as part of my practice. It’s easy to catego- rize our activities in terms of some personalized hierarchy of importance, but he shattered that illusion when he said: “even as simple a gesture as giving someone a spoonful of food is practicing the paramitas (perfections). that action involves generosity, kind- ness, compassion, and the wisdom of no-self.” during the six years of hob’s illness, I returned to these two teachings over and over again. furthermore, over time I was even able to find blessings amid this heart- breaking illness, for it was love—mine and everyone’s—that sustained us through the suffering more than anything else. It is said that meditation is a prepara- tion for dying, and tulku thondup had said those very words during our meeting. I then witnessed that preparedness in my husband’s moving toward death. Because of our many years of shared practice as well as his ease in speaking about his own death, we had talked together very openly about the subject. then he had a series of episodes where he would unexpectedly pass out. the first occurred while we were having dinner at a restaurant. uncon- scious for what seemed an interminable length of time, he lay in an ambulance with the emts shouting at him to break through his unconsciousness. then he stirred into a semiconscious state, and stated clearly, “Will you guys keep it down—I’m trying to die here.” from the expressions on the their faces, I doubt they had ever heard that particu- lar statement before. the next day, hob tried to integrate the enormity of the experience. “I prac- ticed dying last night,” he said. “now that I’ve died once, I can use that as my guide. there’s nothing scary here. If dying is this easy, no problem.” from a Buddhist perspective, the pro- cess of aging consciously involves stay- ing open to the sometimes harsh realities of what’s happening to the body–mind. It’s also about knowing what our inner resources are, and what will sustain and keep us inspired as we meet the challenges of later life. as we proceed through that unpredictable territory, our most valuable allies will be the support of the teachings, our dedication to practice, and the cour- age and enthusiasm that the dalai Lama highlighted with his story of the old man and the Buddha. ♦ Suffering, nonself, impermanence— all three are beating the drum of our diminishing years. Time to wake up!