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Rev. Jennifer Block Headshot

When the Buddha Faces Death

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The horrific deeds in Newtown, Conn., the death of Ravi Shankar, Lady Katherine Middleton's morning sickness, landmines killing girls in Afghanistan, the arthritis in my hip, my grandmother's 94th birthday. From an array of sources, these near and distant realities flood my consciousness in the first hours of Monday. People go crazy, people get sick, and people die. My body is deteriorating. I've not made time to visit my grandmother. I think to myself, am I a pessimist or a realist? Does it matter?

If we want to heal and transform our society from one where our children kill other children and the gifts of our elders are shuttered away from plain view, I think so. We must remember our shared humanity and basic goodness right in the middle of what is difficult.

The three most common causes of people needing care in our day -- old age, sickness and death -- were the very same that inspired the Buddha to reach beyond the familiar into greater truth and happiness. In doing so, he eventually found a path to peace in the midst of all that is difficult, uncomfortable and confounding. I imagine that if the Buddha received a terminal illness or heard of the tragic and senseless death of innocent people, his first thought would be along the lines of "life is like this: always leading to death." And in then is seeing the fear and sadness on the faces of those nearby him, his second thought would be "may the pain of every individual be completely cleared away." The Buddha faces death with these immediately in mind because he has had a change of perception, like suddenly seeing a three-dimensional object, where previously one could only see it as flat.

According to Buddhist tradition, in the latter part of the sixth century B.C.E., Siddhartha Gautama wandered through northern India. Local villagers became curious about his uniquely radiant character, and asked, "Are you a celestial being or a God? Are you a man?" To these questions he replied, "I am none of these. I am awake." He then became known as the Buddha, which literally means "the Awakened One." What does it mean to be awake (aside from being upright on a Monday morning)? The Buddhist answer to this question is found by looking carefully and bravely at the way life is, rather than through the lens of our individual hopes, fears, and dreams. The Buddha pointed to this lens as the root of pain and sorrow and taught that we each have the potential to awaken from what is imaginary to what is real. One reality is we all want happiness and to be freed from pain. Another is we are all on our way to our deaths.

I am an American Caucasian woman whose New Jersey roots run deep. I live in a Malaysian neighborhood in San Francisco where the food vendors write prices in letters unfamiliar to me. On morning walks with my dog, I pass an elderly Asian couple out for their daily walk. The wife walks several steps behind her husband, adjusting her pace to his canter. They do not speak to each other and appear to be strangers. In the last year, more than five bubble teashops have opened nearby in as many city blocks. In noticing these happenings, I have a choice. One is to view my neighbors and their culture as strange and separate. The other is to remember that just like me, my neighbors want to be happy. And just like me, my neighbors are bewildered by senseless violence and the challenge of losing weight to ease arthritis.

We can remember our shared humanity anywhere and everywhere. It is available at all times. This strength of heart and mind are a reasonable antidote to the confusion, sadness, and anger that plague those of us who are not yet Buddhas. When we are able to recognize ourselves in "others," when we can open ourselves to the truth of our shared humanity and mortality, we can greet the day in a fundamentally different way. Hello confusion, hello stranger, hello pain in my hip.

Along with the usual forms of your morning routine, I invite you to look carefully across the space in front of you toward another person. Across the subway care, across the coffee shop, or across the street. Notice his jacket, her hair, their shoes. Try saying to yourself, "That person right there, that stranger, wants to be happy. That person does not want pain." Then relax and see what that's like. Just like me, and just like you, that person is coping with some sort of difficulty or pain. Old age, a micro-managing boss, a broken umbrella. He and she will face death someday, though hopefully not so soon. I encourage you to wish him or her well in the privacy of your own mind: may you be happy, may you be comforted in your difficulty, may you find an umbrella nearby.

The effort of remembering our shared humanity assures us that we are embraced by a wider community, not forsaken as isolated individuals. This daily practice can enhance our appreciation for life. It can also make us more able to face death like a Buddha.

In January 2013, Jennifer Block is launching a training program in contemplative caregiving with San Francisco Zen Center. More info is here.