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Ink scroll by Nagasawa ROSETSU (Japan, 1754-1799)
Ink scroll by Nagasawa ROSETSU (Japan, 1754-1799)

The world is assailed by death
And smothered by old age;
Pierced with the arrow of craving
And always obscured by desires.

The world is assailed by death
And besieged by old age;
Eternally beaten, with no relief,
Like a thief beneath the rod.

Old age, illness and death approach
Like three great masses of fire.
No strength can resist them.
No speed can out-run them.

Spend your days without confusion,
Whether few or many remain.
For every night that slips away,
There is that much less of life left.

Whether walking or standing,
Sitting of lying down,
Your final night is drawing near.
You have no time to be lazy.
From Sirimanda Thera, Theragatha VI.13, vv. 448-452, trans. Andrew Olendzki

More Thoughts from Oliver

More thoughts on death from my eloquent friend Oliver Schroer, who has untreatable leukemia.

Dying is a funny subject. Very slippery when you try to get in there. I mean, I am dying now, am I not? But for me, dying represents more like that moment in the play where the actor clutches his throat and falls to the ground in a dramatic display, possible two or three times. That moment of passage which caused Nathaniel Webster to utter as his last words (paraphrased): “I die. I am dying. Both are used.” Right now it feels as though I am living, and rather intensely at that. So we could say that we are all dying, because in fact we are. We are all heading there. But that becomes very abstract, and believe me, it is not less abstract for me right now than for any of you. So that kind of leaves me back at square one in terms of my grasping of what is happening on a daily basis.

Sometimes I think of dying as taking a trip, a trip far away to a place from which I cannot come back. We all know people who do that…. move to Tasmania (great place, by the way…) The point is, we wish these people well on their journey, but we don’t get all choked up and overwrought about it. We remember them fondly, and they live on in our memories through stories and the legacy they have left. We toast them in absentia, and hope they are doing well in their new digs. Well, my whole journey feels a bit like that. I am going to this place we will all go, and my travel plans are just a bit more immediate than yours. (Though life is strange, and I still might not be the first to go. Just be careful crossing those streets and driving those cars, folks.) I think a lot in terms of metaphors to help me understand things. I have been informed by the stationmaster that my train is coming in immanently, and that I should be ready to get on board when it does. But until that train comes, I am still doing what I am doing fully and completely.

I am still trying to decide if he misspelled “imminent”, which means “any minute now”, or deliberately used “immanent”, which can mean “performed entirely with the mind”.

If a beam falls and nobody notices, does it change anyone’s life?

An excerpt from Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon”. Sam Spade tells the story of a Mr. Flitcraft, who has a good life, but completely disappears, abandoning his wife and two small children:

“Here’s what happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up–just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk along side him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his fingers–well, affectionately–when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off his life and let him look at the works.

“Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man who was most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.

“It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, not into step, with life. He said he knew before he had got twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace again until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.

“He went to Seattle that afternoon … and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

Most spiritual practice begins with a shock: unmistakable evidence that an “ordinary” life, even a very good one, does not, and will never, satisfy. We all live immersed in differing degrees of denial and frustration, anesthetized (or simply deluded) by our patterns. We drift through our lives, mechanically serving the intricate medley of behaviour patterns that we call “Me”.

When the beam falls, there is an instant of awakening. What people do next varies a little, but not much. In the vast majority of cases, they go back to sleep.

I’m grateful to for bringing this into my inbox.