Tuesday, May 28, 2019

A Dirge on Living and Dying

(Inspired by 34 years of practice and Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go, but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, —but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love, —
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.

More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Hello, all my old as well as my newer friends. As some of you know, I began daily meditation practice in 1985 when I met my first teacher Swami Chaitanya Siraj and took refuge vows with his teacher that same year. Swami Chaitanya Siraj had studied with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho) in his Indian Ashram for many years and was designated as a teacher in Osho's lineage; additionally, Siraj's path of teaching was wide and open to all of the Wisdom Traditions. In 1989 I met and began practicing with Zen Master Seung Sahn, and in 2001 I became a Dharmacharya, a Senior Dharma Teacher so I have been teaching individual students for 18 years. Also, because I chose to live the life of a mendicant in 2012, doesn’t mean that I don’t celebrate life. I realized while planning this recent trip to Southern California to study with my current teacher, one of many I have had since the beginning, that I am 62 today.

Hwangap (ch: 甲子, py: Jiǎzǐ) is a traditional way of celebrating one’s 60th birthday. The number 60 means accomplishing one big 60-year cycle and starting another one in one's life following the traditional 60-year calendar cycle of the lunar calendar. Many of my old High School friends were born in 1957, just like me, and this means that they were born in the year of the “Red Fire Rooster.” In case you didn’t realize it, 2017 was the year of the “Red Fire Rooster.”

Our Gregorian Calendar is base 10, so a Century happens every 100 years. The Chinese Calendar is base 60, so a Century happens every 60 years. This is based on the 12 Zodiac symbols and the 5 elements, so 12 x 5 = 60.

In the traditional way of counting ages, we begin a new 60-year cycle on New Year's Day, when everyone became a year older. Thus, people who were 60 and had completed their first 60-year cycle entered their second cycle on the New Year's Day when they turned 61 and returned to the same combination of zodiacal symbols that governed the year of their birth. Under the currently popular western method of counting ages, however, one enters one's second cycle on one's 60th birthday. The traditional cycles still remain, but the way of counting ages has changed by one year, so today I am only 2 years old.

In the past, a person's average life expectancy was much lower than 60, so Hwangap also means a celebration of longevity. The celebration party is also a wish for an even longer and more prosperous life. This party is customarily thrown by the children of the person who is turning 60 unless that person does not have any children, in which case there's no party at all. On one's Hwangap family and relatives prepare a big birthday celebration with lots of food.

As far as my Zen Community goes, we had a formal celebration of my 60 years during our July 2017 retreat in Oneida, NY. Changing, changing, changing, is the way of this world, let us all embrace it with love, compassion, and fortitude.

I started practicing Zen in the nineteen-eighties and learned much from my teachers during these early years. Consequently, as I progressed with daily practice, I can remember a few specific instances that occurred in the early nineteen nineties that changed my opinion and set the course for the rest of my life. One of my close mentors in those days was a Dharmacharya named Bridget Duff. She had started practicing with Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1972 in the very early days in Los Angeles. Prior to meeting Seung Sahn, Bridget had spent some time also studying with Jiddu Krishnamurti and experienced some very transformational life-changing events. Bridget was one of the original members of the Los Angeles group and was close to Seung Sahn for the rest of his life.

Bridget is the daughter of two rather famous (or infamous) parents of the nineteen fifty Hollywood scene. Her mother was Ida Lupino and her father was Howard Duff. Her mother was considered the most powerful woman in Hollywood next to Lucille Ball in the late fifties. Bridget grew up as neighbors of the Ronald Reagan’s and her best friend growing up was Patti Davis (Reagan) who was the same age as Bridgette.

In August of 1995, Bridgette had told me that her mother was dying. I had never heard much from her about her relationship with her mom or what was going on between them. Over the next few weeks, she told me that her mother had really alienated her relationship and wanted nothing to do with her daughter. However, due to her advanced colon cancer, she had reconciled with Bridgette and they got to try to reconcile about thirty years of problems over the course of two weeks.

Sometime, about a month later, I was in Reno, Nevada where I had arranged a retreat with Zen Master Bonsoeng (Jeff Kitzes), and a group of students who had been studying with Eido Roshi. I had been practicing with this group as my job had me in Reno at least three or four days a week at that time. I had brought up four of the residents of the Ocean Eyes Zen Center with me to attend this retreat and support the local Reno Sangha. During this retreat, Jeff gave a Dharma talk which discussed his alienation with his father when he decided to follow the Buddhist path.

Bonsoeng was brought up as a Jewish child in California and his father had hoped that he would follow in a banking or business path and support his father’s sense of family values. Bonsoeng grew up in the late sixties Berkeley environment and decided that Psychology and Buddhism was a much better path for him. Bonsoeng said that his father never forgave him for this. He then relayed that follow the diagnosis of a terminal illness, his father was given only a few months to live. Bonsoeng said that he decided to transfer his clients and spent as much time as he could in his father’s last days. Jeff said that the closeness and openness that his father expressed were moving and allowed the two of them to reconcile lifelong differences.

Following these two experiences, I looked at my own life and came to some deep realizations. I realized that I was very distant in relationship with both my father and my mother and decided that I didn't want to wait until a few weeks or months before their deaths to have a good relationship with them. I took to heart the teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn and applied his teaching of correct situation, correct relationship and correct function. I was distant from my parents and we were not very affectionate, nor did we communicate on a very regular basis.

I wrote a very detailed letter to my mother following these two experiences discussing our differences and seeming distance. I told her that she might be uncomfortable but I was going to be a good son, I was going to start hugging her (this had never happened before) and I was going to kiss her (this too) and tell her that I love her (this was a big deal for me so I decided to take the lead.) She responded well to my letter and from this, our relationship began to grow and bear fruit.

We grew stronger in our relationship and I was firm on celebrating all the major holidays with my parents and my family. We had great celebrations for Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. every year without fail, this was my commitment to my family. My mother was diagnosed with spinal cancer in 2002 and it took her life in 2003. I was with her holding her hand when she took her last breath. I can also say that there was nothing left unsaid between the two of us. We had the eight years to sort everything out about our relationship and our history.

I was worried about my father when my mother died and thought he would take a turn and just give up. He didn't and we became close friends and spent some tremendous time together. He became frail a few years later and I spent as much time as I could with him, sometimes months at a time. He lived in the Bay Area and I was living in Los Angeles. I got five years of great time learning and exploring with my father before he finally succumbed to emphysema. I was also blessed to be holding his hand during the final moments, as I had with my mom.

So, what does all this mean? I studied with many teachers and psychologists and looked for insight where I could find it during these years. I found great direction with the Zen Hospice Project and the teachings should be looked at as precepts for living and not precepts for dealing with dying people. Please take these points to heart. We have a very short time on this planet; we can only make changes in the present, so please follow these precepts to allow your lives to flower.

Five Regrets of dying people

1. We wish we hadn’t made decisions based on what other people think
When we make our decisions based on other people’s opinions, two things tend to happen.

We can make poor career choices. There are too many of us out there who studied for a degree we regret or even spend our lives pursuing a career we regret. Whether we are seeking parental approval or pursuing pay and prestige over passion, making a poor career choice is a decision that will live with us forever.

We fail to uphold our own moral compass. When we get too caught up in what our boss thinks of us, how much money we think our spouse and children need to be happy, or how bad we will look if we fail, we are at high risk of violating our own morals. Our intense desire to make ourselves look good compromises our ability to stay true to ourselves and, ultimately, to feel equanimity.

Laozi said, “If we seek for the approval of others, we become their prisoner.” The best way to avoid falling prey to the opinions of others is to realize that other people’s opinions are just that — opinions. Regardless of how great or terrible they think we are, that’s only their opinion. Our true self-worth comes from within.

2. We wish we hadn’t worked so hard
Working hard is a great way to impact the world, to learn, to grow, to feel accomplished, and sometimes even to find happiness, and this becomes a problem when we do so at the expense of the people closest to us. Ironically, we often work hard to make money for the people we care about without realizing that they value our company more than money.

The key is to find a balance between doing what we love and being with the people we love. Otherwise, we will look back one day and wish we had focused more on the latter.

3. We wish we had expressed our feelings more openly
We are taught as children that emotions are dangerous and that they must be bottled up and controlled. This usually works at first and boxing up our feelings causes them to grow until they erupt. The best thing we can do is to put our feelings directly on the table. Though it’s painful to initiate, this forces us to be honest and transparent with ourselves and others.

For example, if we feel as though we don’t make enough money at work, schedule a meeting with our boss and propose why we think we are worth more. As a result, they will either agree with us and give us a raise or disagree and tell us what you do need to do to become more valuable. On the other hand, if we do nothing and let our feelings fester, this will hinder our performance and prevent us from reaching your goal.

4. We wish we had stayed in touch with our friends
When we get caught up in our weekly routine, it’s easy to lose sight of how important people are to you, especially those we must make time for. Relationships with old friends are among the first things to fall off the table when we’re busy. This is unfortunate because spending time with friends is a major stress buster. Close friends bring us energy, fresh perspectives, and a sense of belonging, in a way that no one else can.

5. We wish we had allowed ourselves to be happy
When our life is about to end, all the difficulties we have faced suddenly become trivial compared to the good times. This is because we realize that, more often than not, suffering is a choice. Unfortunately, most of us realize this far too late.

Although we all inevitably experience pain, how we react to our pain is completely under our control, as is our ability to experience joy. Learning to laugh, smile, and be happy (especially when stressed) is a challenge at times, but it’s one that’s worth every ounce of effort.

Bringing it all together

Some decisions have repercussions that can last a lifetime. Most of these decisions are made daily, and they require focus and perspective to keep them from haunting us.

Five precepts for living as taught by Frank Ostaseski (with my interpretation):

Welcome everything, push away nothing.
My first Zen teacher Seung Sahn Dae Jong Sa was quite fond of saying, “Put it all down,” which was his way of saying “welcome everything, push away nothing.” In Zen, we also say things like; “live in the moment” or “be mindful.” Pema Chödron, who is a teaching lineage holder of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, says it from the opposite perspective, “Abandon all hope.” This means to give up our ideas that things will change other than what they are. Abandon the idea that the outcome of a given situation is other than what it is, right now. Face this life with full awareness. Suzuki Rōshi once said something to the effect of: “it’s like going to a restaurant for lunch, and when your lunch is served you say to yourself, ‘I shouldn't have come to this restaurant, I should have gone to some other restaurant. This restaurant is not so good.’ The truth of this situation is that we can only be here now. I still have a little card my first psychology professor gave me from a class on “transactional analysis” I took in 1980 which says, “Even if you don’t like the way it is, it still is the way it is.”

Bring your whole self to the experience.
This means to live our lives with our whole bodies and souls. To be completely present and to pay attention to ourselves as much as we pay attention to others. We have to feel ourselves in each situation, feel our own tension, our own fear, our own apprehension. We need to love ourselves in each moment, especially in times of stress and anxiety. If we pay attention to our inner self, we can relax into the moment and it will be easier to be present.

Don’t wait.
Waiting implies something is going to happen by itself. It also implies that perhaps it can be done in the future. The reality that Buddha taught was that the only moment we have is now. Krishnamurti, who was one of the greatest sages of the twentieth century, talked a lot about this point. He said, “We delude ourselves in thinking that we can change some behavior in the future. It is through our discursive thinking that change can happen in the future. The only moment we have to change anything is now.”

Find the place of rest, in the middle of things.
This means that we must find that place of calm in the middle of the storm. The storm of our lives, the storm of work, the storm of getting our kids ready for school, the storm of someone who is close to us that is dying. It means that within each activity we can find a place of peace and then we can see the truth for what it is.

Cultivate a don’t know mind.
Suzuki Roshi called this beginners mind. In the mind of the beginner, possibilities are endless, in the mind of the expert, possibilities are few. An ancient once said, “Not knowing is most intimate.” This is being here without expectation or idea. This is our essential practice.

Don’t wait, act now, do what you have been avoiding, wake up and re-enter your life, already in progress!

~ Wonji Dharma


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