I can’t believe it’s happening.
So said the beautiful Ruth to me, in tears, at the wake of her fiancé John, last night in Jersey City.
I mentioned that he and I had spoken the morning that he died. She acknowledged this and added:
He was so excited about his new snowblower, he couldn’t wait to try it out. I can’t compute. This doesn’t seem real.
Between the blowing and the shoveling, John had a heart attack. Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive. And at times like this, when things go disastrously wrong and we simply can’t compute, I think we are shocked out of our permanent grasping and get glimpses of how nothing is as it seems, glimpses of the illusory, dream-like nature of things. We don’t always know what to make of that understanding — but we do know at those times that we want to wake up.
I said to Ruth, “It feels dream-like, yes?” And she stared at me and shook her head, “Yes, yes, that’s it. Like a nightmare.”
During this wake, we were greeted by John’s almost identical and equally charming brother James, who was gracious enough to introduce us to the whole family, even though France and Julian were just neighbors and I had known John for approximately ten minutes. The atmosphere was far from gloomy, despite the tears. Even as John lay there with his spectacles on (I wondered why, seeing as he wasn’t even wearing them when his eyes worked), this large African American assembly were all greeting each other warmly, laughing in the midst of tears. Earlier in the day, when Julian and I delivered food to John’s circle of friends in his home, encountering this rich-hearted community struck me with the realization that each living home in this road was not separated out as it appears from the outside, but connected in a million ways. People just like me live in all these houses, drive all these cars. We are all in this together.
Now, at the wake, it was not hard to see what Shantideva meant when he talked about us all being “walking corpses”. John’s body was so waxy. Bodies are so obviously just lumps of meat – it so clearly was not John laying there. So where did he go?! Where are people really headed as they walk their bodies up and down the streets of Manhattan or drive their cars along the road? Where are we all really headed, given that our bodies will all be laying there like this before we know it?
You know how you see pictures of celebrities with their doubles at Madame Tussaud’s? These bodies are made of wax, but it doesn’t seem so different to the lifelessness of our actual bodies when they are no longer animated by consciousness.
So what is the relationship between the mind and the body?
I started musing on this subject in this article, Buddha & the Brain, which has garnered some good comments from people who have pondered this subject. Plus, I intend to write more about the mind-matter connection soon, so in the meantime please leave your comments so I can incorporate them.
I once took some people to visit a morgue with the idea that it would help our death awareness, and it did, it certainly did. The mortician was delighted at having young people voluntarily visit him and ask about what he did all day, he said his friends never asked about it, in fact he didn’t have any friends. For days after seeing those waxy bodies, I could not help but see cities of animated corpses, including the squirrels. We are not our bodies, that much is clear. And it may seem morbid but I also find it utterly realistic and therefore helpful to envisage myself lying there, like John, and to envisage people I am attached to lying there, like John. For that is what is going to happen. Better to prepare for that now, get things in perspective now, live each remaining day fully now. Seriously, folks, we are all going to be dead very soon.
Ruth had chosen a beautiful poem, adaptable to whichever holy being we have faith in,
given to us all on the back of this card. Hopefully “that place” is the Pure Land, where John now finds himself thanks to his positive mind and the thousands of prayers he has created the causes to receive.
Don’t grieve for me, for now I’m free,
I’m following the path God laid for me.
I took his hand when I heard Him call.
I turned my back and left it all.
I could not stay another day
To laugh, to love, to work, or play,
Tasks left undone must stay that way.
I found that place at the close of the day.
Perhaps my time seemed all too brief.
Don’t lengthen it now with undue grief.