The one who’ll die

Another dharma glimpse reflection from a conversation at Bright Earth sangha.

From time to time I fall into a pattern of waking around 3am, often when there’s some conflict or turmoil at work in me. I had one of these wakeful nights last week. As I lay there in a familiar pool of unease an odd thought came to me.

I’m the one who’ll die.

Why did this seem to matter? Are there are other I’s, then, besides the one lying here? The answer’s a resounding yes, I think, but exactly what this meant feels less clear now than it did in the dark. I suppose it has to do with the gap between the selves we perform before one mirror or another, and the person those selves omit to mention or actively conceal.

Funny how something can make compelling sense in the middle of the night, then you try and say it aloud in the morning and it’s all a bit laboured. But what called this night thought to mind when I saw I was writing this week’s dharma glimpse was the curious sense of reassurance it brought.

Whatever happens, I’m the one who’s going to die here. So things are OK.

I remember a beautiful passage in Shinman Aoki’s little book, Coffinman: Journals of a Buddhist Mortician, where Aoki shares the realisation which crept up on him over time as he dressed corpses for traditional Buddhist funerals. Aoki speaks of the deep peace that he began noticing on the faces of the dead. All of them. And as he worked alone with their quiet faces he came to a new understanding of nirvana. He saw that it was a fulfilment which comes to all of us, not as a result of our striving nor of what we’ve ‘made of ourselves’. Just an inescapable homecoming, a peace which our death cannot fail but return us to, whatever sort of life we happen to have lived.

Lying in the dark what struck me as if for the first time was that every single thing that is me will end when I die. Of this dependently arisen, conditioned life, not one trace will remain. And in a manner that requires no shoring-up or work on my part, I am quite literally “grasped, never to be forsaken” by the truth of this life’s natural and inevitable end.

This death is already with me, in fact – its intimate presence inextricably woven into this life’s every moment, holding me in measureless being as I lie here.

As I’ve tried to write down what happened last week another memory has surfaced, and they feel entangled so I’m to just going to run them together here.

It’s three and a half years ago. I’m sitting alone at night with my mother-in-law Christine. Already in steep decline, Christine has just found out that she has terminal cancer, with only a few weeks to live. This first night-watch with her is also the first time I’ve seen her since she received this news.

As we chat about her dying Christine says she sometimes wishes she’d paid more attention to the spiritual. “You now, going to church and stuff”. We wonder about this together. Supposing she had? Would her having done so have made any difference at all to what lies immediately before her now? Would any of that have made wherever she’s going now more or less real? It seemed clear to both of us, I think, that it would not. And the deep sense of confirmation I found in this, anyway, feels much the same as the one that came to visit me last week.

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