Saturday, October 10, 2009

Death as a teacher

Jack Daw over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt, always has great posts, but lately he’s written a couple that have really sparked my thoughts, prompting me to share my own experiences on these topics. His post regarding death really struck a chord with me. In particular, his mention of the Five Remembrances, which I know as the Five Recollections, prompted me to resume something that had been missing from my meditative practice for quite some time.

Contemplating death ought to be an important part of anyone’s Buddhist practice, but as Jack points out, it’s a subject often treated superficially, if it gets any attention at all. Yet our serious contemplation on this subject can be transformative, as indicated by this passage, taken from Ten Dhamma Talks by Sister Ayya Khema:

“If we really believe in our impending death, not just use the words, our attitude towards people and situations changes completely. We are no longer the same person then. The one we have been until now hasn’t brought us complete satisfaction, contentment and peacefulness … If we were to remember each morning that death is certain, but now have another day to live, gratitude and determination can arise to do something useful with that day.”

Let me take the risk of boring all of you with my personal journey with death. Fair warning, I’m afraid this is going to be a long post. But death has been one of my teachers for a long time, despite the fact I was, for the most part, completely oblivious to its lessons.

It was either Flag Day or Independence Day in 1968 when I awoke at home completely alone. It unnerved me a bit, as I was only 9 years old, that I could wake to an empty house like that. I don’t have a clear memory of how the news was eventually delivered to me, but I learned later that day that my father had a heart attack while he was putting the flag up on our front porch. He was in the hospital in something called intensive care. That was it, that’s all anyone told me. And for years I had no idea what a heart attack was, or that my father had a very close brush with death.

Fast forward to 1972 when I was 14. I was out riding my motorcycle around a lake where my parents were building their retirement home when I came upon a scene of people watching a rescue crew pull a body from the water. I watched and listened, gathering enough information to learn that a man was water skiing in an area of the lake that he shouldn’t have been, because when he fell, he struck his head on a stump in the water. It was the first dead body I had ever seen, yet my reaction to seeing the corpse was barely discernable. I didn’t know who this man was; but there it was – death.

I’m pretty sure it was that same summer when I begrudgingly helped my father and a brother-in-law dig trenches around what was to be our new home near the lake to bury Styrofoam around the foundation to increase the house’s energy efficiency. I hated doing this laborious work and wanted to be doing anything but that. My utter uselessness led to my father’s frustration and he angrily told me to get the hell out of there and do whatever I damn pleased. I did and went off riding my motorcycle. When I returned later in the afternoon, dad was lying in bed. Mom told me that he had angina; again, no real explanation of what that meant. But I remember quietly walking down the hall to peak into their bedroom to see him lying on the bed, resting. At that moment, I finally understood what a heart attack was.

An interesting aside: My father was born in 1910 when Halley’s Comet passed by the Earth. He died in 1986 when Halley’s Comet last passed by the Earth. It was a heart attack that killed him.
My father, I slowly learned, was a very compassionate man. We had Siamese cats, two of them. They both caught feline leukemia. When the first was so sick it was beyond help, he placed it into a large hat box, which he took out to the edge of the woods by our house where he would shoot it with my .22 rifle. But he couldn’t bear to see the animal as he shot it, so he left the lid on the box. Of course, he missed making a fatal shot. Up in the house as I watched out the window, I could hear the cat’s shrieking and reflexive thumping against the side of the hat box as my father fumbled with the rifle, a single-shot bolt action weapon, as he tried as quickly as possible to insert another bullet. When he successfully managed that, he pushed the lid off the box and fired point-blank.

When the next cat became so ill that death was inevitable, he and I together did things differently. He was a biology teacher. We went to his classroom and picked up a plastic funnel, a large wad of cotton, and a bottle of ether. We soaked the cotton with the ether, put the cotton into the funnel then placed the funnel over the cat’s head. It was so weak it just lied there. Slowly, quietly, it died.

I didn’t “come out” to my family until I was 35 years old, and the first person I told was my mother. I was quite fearful of her reaction as the Catholic Church was her life and we all know how accommodating the Catholic doctrine is of homosexuality. I had been away from home for a very long time and did not know that the priest in her parish at that time had brought a very positive message to the congregation about gays and, most importantly, AIDS. She showed me an article about the priest that mentioned another man named Mark who was living with AIDS. The writer quoted Mark as saying that he lived in a remote area and sometimes needed help with simple things like housekeeping or getting to the doctor. I decided to give Mark a call and offer my help.

I could tell Mark was suspicious of my intentions when I called him, but he agreed to meet me at his uncle’s house, as he did not want me to know where he lived yet. When we met, he revealed that he knew who I was, that he remembered me because we went to high school together. He was a year ahead of me, and we had never associated with each other, so I had no recollection of him. We became friends and I would visit him from time to time to watch movies and call him more frequently to chat.

One night I gave him a call to see how he was doing. When he answered, I could hear he was weak, his voice distant and faint. He told me he was having a bout of fever. I asked if he needed anything, but he didn’t reply. All I could hear was his wheezy, raspy breathing. I told him I was on my way over. It was about a 20 mile drive. When I arrived he appeared to feel better than he sounded on the phone. As long as I was there, he suggested, why don’t we watch a movie? During the movie the fever returned; I could hear his raspy and labored breathing. I moved from my chair to the couch where he lay, sat so he could lay against me and I put my arms around his chest. We sat like that and watched the rest of the movie.

It was very late when I left. He later told me that the following day he drove himself four hours to the V.A. hospital in Ann Arbor (he was ex-Navy, honorable discharge) where he was treated for PCP, a rare form of pneumonia that was a common killer among AIDS patients. A year later, he drove by himself from Michigan to San Francisco where he died a few months later.

At that time, I think every gay man thought about how he may die. We all, I think, wondered what we would do, how we would behave, when we received that information that many of us believed to be inevitable – that we have AIDS and were going to die. Getting the results for every HIV test I had was always a time when I had to face my mortality. And every time I wondered what I would do, how I would feel, should I learn I was positive. I’ve been fortunate when so many others have not.

And so when I came to Buddhism, my teacher impressed upon me how important recognizing the inevitability of death was, its utter certainty. And I realized how much I had already encountered death, and how I was continuing to encounter it. I just hadn’t always been paying attention.

My teacher talked about how monks would go to cemeteries in the middle of the night to meditate and contemplate death. I couldn’t do that, but interestingly, I had a book about homicide reporting – I was a police reporter for a newspaper at the time – that had all kinds of grisly photos of corpses in various states of decay. I didn’t like looking at those photos because my monkey mind always set an emotional trap for me, leading me to think about that “poor dead person,” how they “must have suffered at the hands of their killer.” But the point of meditating on death, my teacher emphasized, it to realize that our body is not who we are, it’s just a body. And the photos of decaying corpses and dismembered homicide victims in my book were not images of people – they’re just bodies.

I have a different attitude about death now than I did in the past. But there is still something very important for me to do that I haven’t done, and that is use death as an appropriate motivator. Death can be a useful tool to prompt us into action, to take the steps we know we ought to, but just haven’t gotten around to taking.

The notion that death waits for no one is a worthy one for contemplation.


  1. Beautiful post, Richard. I think listening to others talk about death in a realistic sense helps us realize that it should be addressed and meditated upon. We may not need to sit out in cemetaries to accomplish this - we just need to pay attention to our own experiences as well as to others.

    Thanks again for your post.

  2. Oh, and thanks for the plug. You rock.

  3. Thanks Jack, you rock too! Why contemplating the switch to Wordpress? Does the blog platform offer more flexibility?

  4. thank you for this. earlier today I read the story about Sean Strub in today's NY Times, and it brought me back to those days when it seemed my daily life was a meditation on death, when every day there was the stark reminder that I would die, perhaps like all my friends. Years later, when I stood in Rangoon at an intersection where there was a statue of an old man encased in glass I was struck by the message in Burmese and English:

    You will die.
    Birth is suffering.
    Sickness is suffering.
    Old age is suffering
    Death is suffering.

    This, in a country of great suffering where so many people were of good cheer. I was taught just as much walking around the country as I learned sitting on a cushion in a meditation center there.

    Thank you again for this.

  5. Thank you for posting this Richard.