In Memoriam: Daddy…

Caine: Master, what is the best way to meet the loss of one we love?
Master Kan: By knowing that when we truly love it is never lost. It is only after death that the depth of the bond is truly felt and our loved one becomes more a part of us than was possible in life. — from the TV series, Kung Fu (1972 – 1975)
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My daddy could whistle like nuthin’ you ever heard. And because I was a ‘daddy’s girl,’ one of my most ardent desires was to be able to whistle just like my daddy — but my mother strongly objected, citing the eternal law: It is unlady-like to whistle. So, being who I was, this inspired me to practice whistling approximately 29 hours a day. And daddy never said or did anything to discourage me. In fact, on many a long car trip together during the 1960s (if mom wasn’t present), we’d listen to the radio, whistling along together. ‘Cuz that’s what people did in the days before iPods and tablets. And we, like, talked to each other, too… I think we called that… analog conversation… Yeah, that’s right…

Never once did daddy laugh, seem irritated, or even appear to notice that in my efforts to “whistle,” I was only able to produce one tone, repeatedly, and somehow managed to spit all over myself and anything within a two-foot radius. So, true to my disobedient, unlady-like disposition, I continued to practice until I became so good that one day, while whistling in the stall of a public restroom in a shopping mall, a woman reported to a security guard that “some man” was in one of the stalls “just whistling away like it was nobody’s business!” I never saw that woman, but I suspect it was my mother…

Decades later, I still whistle all the time, to the amazement of both women and men, as only a hardened harlot of harmony could. Recently, a work colleague commented on the perfection of my pitch and said I sound like a bird. Yeah, mama, I can whistle… But that’s not why I whistle…It’s no longer a matter of pride.

Now, every time I whistle, I “feel” my daddy, who passed in 2012. Sometimes, I whistle intentionally, as a tribute to him, or to invoke his presence. Other times, I just find myself whistling along to a song, and because I can ‘jam’ in that fashion, I think of him. And much to my surprise, I feel my daddy’s presence today, almost three years after his death, as strongly as I ever have — perhaps, moreso than ever…

I do not believe, as do Christians, that there is a heaven, or that I will ever see my daddy again. He is gone. Nonetheless, as long as I am here, he is with me; and I love him more every day…

Namaste.

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The Number One Killer of Women…

Since leaving my full-time position in 2011, I’ve made my living doing something which my mother (my mother!) once told me I was incapable: being spontaneous. So, I’d been working a rather long string of part-time, temporary positions. In a bid to enter the full-time workforce once again, I recently decided to reassess my skills, seek training where needed, and revise my resume. Several weeks ago, just one day after applying for a position, I received a phone call inviting me to interview for a full-time position (I interviewed the next day, got the job, and that is why I took a little time off from this blog). While preparing my interview outfit, I suddenly felt compelled to add my “Little Red Dress” pin, the symbol for the  Go Red For Women.org  campaign. This campaign is near and dear to my heart because unbeknownst to many, heart disease is the number one killer of women, and this campaign is dedicated to making sure that everyone knows it.

For women, the symptoms of heart disease are much subtler than for men. As a result, a women can be in the midst of a heart attack and have no idea. Often, by the time a woman decides to seek medical attention, it can be too late. Admittedly, though I was not sure how appropriate such a piece of jewelry was for a job interview; I placed the pin on my lapel, trusting that it was the right thing to do. Interestingly enough, it would be only a matter of hours before I discovered that it was, indeed, the right thing to have done.

After what seemed like a successful interview, I decided to celebrate by going to Starbuck’s and purchasing an Oprah Chai Tea Latte, which unlike Oprah, I could then ill-afford. And I further justified this splurging by reminding myself that every Oprah drink purchased provides a donation to the cause of education – and we all know how much Buddhists loves causes – and effects…

Now, this is where things got truly interesting. The line at Starbuck’s was so long, I nearly left the store, twice. And despite being in the part of the line that was inside the store, it would be over half an hour before I got my drink. So, I decided to engage with the woman standing next to me, but she was going through her handbag, and didn’t seem disposed to speaking at that moment. I instead decided to speak to the woman in front of me and said, “You must really need some coffee to go through this!” She laughed and said, “Yes, only true Starbuck’s aficionados need apply!” About ten minutes later, I again leaned forward and whispered in quick succession, “Dunkin’ Donuts! Dunkin’ Donuts! Dunkin’ Donuts!” Again, we shared a quick giggle, and she said it was a tempting thought. About two minutes later, I felt someone lightly tap my arm. I turned around, looked down, and it was the woman behind me who’d previously been busy going through her handbag. She was in her eighties; barely over five feet tall; and had one of the most beautiful, soulful faces I’d ever seen. With a wistful expression, she said, “I, too, have that pin” (referring to my Little Red Dress pin). And a bond was forged.

I mentioned how sad and shocking it was that so few people were aware of the danger of heart disease to women. She nodded and said, “I just lost my son, two months ago, to heart disease. He was 50. He literally just dropped dead.” After a brief second of initial shock, I told her how sorry I was for her loss and we just stood there, looking into each other’s faces for a few moments. After that silence, I again expressed my condolences and said I couldn’t imagine how she must feel. She thanked me and told me I was very kind. We continued to chat, but about other things – especially the slow-moving line. Eventually, I told her to stand in front of me, joking that though it didn’t get her much farther, she’d be that much closer to getting her drink. After she finally got to the front of the line, ordered her drink, and prepared to pay for it, I placed some money in the cashier’s hand saying I’d take care of it. My new acquaintance insisted that it wasn’t necessary, but I insisted that it was. I, myself, totally exhausted after my interview and from standing in line so long, had decided to forget about Oprah and, instead, get a drink with two shots of espresso just to give me the strength to walk out of the store. I couldn’t imagine how someone her age must have felt, standing for so long. She thanked me, saying “You didn’t have to do that!” I said, “You touched my heart.” She said, “You touched my heart, too!” and much to my surprise, reached up and asked for a hug. I hugged her as best I could while holding my handbag, briefcase, and a bag of recently purchased items.

Despite being so deeply moved by what this woman shared with me, the thing that impacted me most was the depth of her sadness – so raw, and so recent, and her obvious state of shock. I lost my father two years ago and still tear up whenever I think of him; so, I did understand, to a certain extent, the depth of her loss, but this was her child, not a parent. Truly, no normal mother expects or wants to outlive her children. And this was a woman who had obviously raised a son of whom she could be proud, and who felt that she could die a happy woman knowing that someone she loved, so deeply, was living a happy, productive life. Now, he was gone, literally in the blink of an eye, and it was she who was left behind, her own heart, though still beating, seemingly broken beyond repair. Yes, heart disease is the number one killer of women.

This, for me, was just one more reminder that life and death, so inextricably intertwined, must always be in our thoughts because strangely enough, it is death, alone, which makes us comprehend the value of life. Among ancient Buddhist practices, it was not uncommon for monks to sit on the roadside for days, observing the decomposition of the corpse of some unfortunate creature, as a form of meditation on the nature of death (impermancence). In fact, to this day, though much, much less common as I understand it, it is still possible to find malas (rosaries) made of bone, tailored for such meditations. There is probably no better reminder that in the end, our bodies, our vehicles in this life, are merely fertilizer.

According to the Buddha, to fear death is to be dead, already; yet, not to consider death, at all, leaves us just as lacking. Many of us live our lives as though endless tomorrows are promised; but nothing is promised. Nothing is forever. The only thing that never changes is change, itself. And whether we are “good” or “bad,” rich or poor, death will find us, and our loved ones, as well. This is why I strive to live each day as if it were my last (sometimes failing miserably). I want to consider the nature of my speech, my actions, and my thoughts. I actually like to keep in mind a verse from the Christian Bible, Phillipians 2:12, which says:

“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

This reminds me both that I am solely responsible for my own actions and their effects in my life, as well as that I need to make a serious effort in this regard. Hopefully, my “fear and trembling” will not paralyze me, but instead, energize and motivate me. Thus loss, death being, perhaps, its greatest manifestation, is simply a part of life; and unlike most gifts, is something for which we all have to ‘pay.’ Part of ‘paying’ is understanding that the Universe taketh, and the Universe taketh away. It’s nothing personal, just the nature of life. We need to conscientiously contemplate this and make friends with the idea so we can stop pretending it just isn’t so. In the words of the Buddha: “Everything is changeable, everything appears and disappears; there is no blissful peace until one passes beyond the agony of life and death.”

Namaste.
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Related Reading:

Buddha’s Last Words (Mahaparinibbana Sutta) from Somewhere in Dhamma… (blog) Note: I found this post, dealing with the death of a parent, relevant to the discussion because of how beautifully it deals with ‘unexpected’ death from a Buddhist perspective.

Go Red for Women.org from American Heart Association (Website)

 

A Matter of Life and Death

One of the most difficult transitions I’ve ever experienced, as an ex-Christian, was that of learning to think of “death” in the Buddhist sense. Mind you, I use the term “sense,” quite loosely because there is no one, perfect Buddhist definition for people like me (unenlightened). That said, there are some interesting differences, as well as similarities, in the ways that Buddhists and Christians view life and death.

Regarding “life,” Buddhists view it as never-ending (and never having “begun”), except for respites of varied and indeterminable lengths in between, with “extinction” (death, once and for all) as a happy goal (except if they elect a Bodhisattva existence, which allows them to return, again and again, at will). Conversely, Christians view life as impermanent with “everlasting life” as a happy goal and reward for living the one and only perishable life they believe they’re given, to the best of their abilities, and therefore enabling them to escape the eternal, irreversible, living-death of hell fire. Another way of saying this is that for Buddhists, there’s always the next life (and not necessarily a human one); but for Christians, this is, essentially, “it.”

One of the most fundamental differences between Christianity and Buddhism, which eventually freed me to become a Buddhist, was what I call each system’s “prime motivation.” When Christians proselytize, if nothing else works, the “threat” of burning in hell for “not believing,” convinces many people to profess some type of faith “just in case.” I mean, ya’ never know; this whole ‘burning in hell for eternity’ thing could be true… On the other hand, The Buddha Shakyamuni exhorted us ‘not to simply take his word,’ but to “test” what he said, and only proceed if we found his words to be true. This might seem like an insignificant ‘difference’ to some, particularly to Christians who already find “God’s Word” to be “true,” but for me, the freedom to weigh “the truth” against practical experience made all the difference in this world, for me (and I realize that Christians would also say they’ve arrived at the same determination in the same way).

Nonetheless, it always seemed strange to me that certain Buddhist practitioners would live their lives with the ‘goal’ of “extinction” (not returning for another life). Having been raised in the Christian faith, and taught that if I didn’t get my “one chance” right, I’d spend eternity burning in hell; the opportunity to return and try again (and again), as opposed to “Don’t pass Go; don’t collect $200; go straight to Hell” (I hope that’s right; I’ve never played Monopoly in my life), sounded pretty good to me – even if all those subsequent lives would be miserably weighed down with the fruits of negative karma. Subsequently, this seeming Buddhist fixation with “extinction,” never to return (though never really going away because you were never really born – ah, Buddhism, ya’ gotta love it…) seemed positively unnatural to me because who wants to die?!?

Here’s what I discovered. And mind you, this could make perfect sense to you, or mean nothing at all because it’s all a matter of timing, the right words, or no words at all. Additionally, I am not wise or all-knowing, and I cry every time I think of how someone, somehow, sometime, helped me get this through my thick skull:

Question: Why is being extinguished “good?”
[My]Answer:

  1. Being extinguished is neither “good” nor “bad” because we do not “exist”;
  2. it is not “we” who are extinguished, but rather, our delusions (e.g., concepts of “self,” ‘permanence,’ ‘independence’/‘separate-ness’); so, ultimately,
  3. when these delusions are gone, so is the “we” that doesn’t truly exist.

If this makes no sense to you, it isn’t because you’re stupid and I’m so smart. It isn’t even because I’m right and you’re wrong, or vice versa. All I can say is that even though it doesn’t look like much, it’s all I’ve got – and it’s the world to me.

Though the Buddha conveyed part of his wisdom through his teachings, much of it he conveyed silently, to those who were ‘ready to receive.’ The name of the Buddha, Shakyamuni, is interpreted as “silent one of the Shakya clan.” This is because he chose the life not of a contentious academic, or a street preacher, but of a ‘contemplative.’ As was the case with Jesus of Nazareth, who neither coined the term “Christianity,” nor called himself or anyone else, “Christian,” the Buddha neither coined the term “Buddhism,” called himself or anyone else a “Buddhist,” nor even talked half as much as Jesus, who was not a contemplative. All of the Buddhist sutras/suttas and the fact that there have been many “Buddhas,” only makes it seem like Buddha Shakyamuni was his own best corporate PR firm and publishing house. Unlike the Buddha, I can neither teach with or without words. I am not qualified. I can only share of my own experience, hoping to both learn from others, as well as daily increase in my own mindfulness and discernment.

And I continually review the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese text. The following is an excerpt, available in its entirety in PDF format, online, titled “Tao Te Ching: A Modern Interpretation of Lao Tzu Perpetrated by Ron Hogan,” ©2002, 2004.
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“If you can talk about it,
it ain’t Tao.
If it has a name,
it’s just another thing.

Tao doesn’t have a name.
Names are for ordinary things….”
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