Dharma Talk
November, 2003

What happens when we finally give in to the truth that, like everyone else who has ever lived, we will die? After the initial shock and disbelief, we can be happy. Why? Because we stop fighting our reality (which was only a part of a collective hunch anyway) and start to, finally for some of us, enjoy it. We "hear the river within the river", see the flower in the flower, hear the rain inside the rain.
We notice so much more. Jim Harrison is a wonderful, curmudgeon poet who spends much of his time (rumor has it) in the hills and dunes of northwest Michigan's coast. He has wonderful ways of expressing this:
"Come close to death
and you begin to see
what's under your nose.
I've never learned from experience.
What else is there? You ask.
How about ninety billion galaxies.
Look again: that's not a yellow oak leaf on the path,
but the breastplate from a turtle. "
We see that everything, everything is precious and enjoy small moments because some part of us knows that those little things are big things. I can close my eyes and remember the moment my Grandmother Kapp gave me an entire blueberry pie for my birthday. I remember seeing it on the countertop of the bakery. I remember the smiles of the grown-ups watching my face. And not being able to quite reach the pie. I also remember the last time I saw my grandmother, rocking in a rocking chair, quietly looking out of a window at a Boston street. I think it was Huntington Avenue. I remember her even though I didn't know at the time that it was our last visit. I remember her smile and how much she just plain loved me.
Jim Harrison again: "Each time I go outside the world is different. This has happened all my life." Only now we notice.
We get to play. In August I spontaneously visited an art show at a huge mansion in a tiny town on one of New York's finger lakes. I was driving from Maine back to Michigan and figured, "What the heck". I don't even remember the name of the town. What amazed me wasn't the art, although it was much better than I expected, or the mansion, which even had a Japanese garden complete with a small meditation hall. It was the groups of women, maybe my age, wearing these huge (and I do not use the word "huge" lightly here) red hats. The women were everywhere, walking the grounds in clusters of twos, threes and fours. Even though they were mostly wearing skirts or dresses, the hats were out of Broadway productions. Feathered, ribboned, veiled. I had to ask. It turns out that once a woman turns fifty in this country she automatically becomes a member of "the red hat" club, which means that she has permission from her peers, other women over fifty, to dress, and act, as outrageously as she likes. What delighted me about the women, as I gaped away, was how spontaneous they were, how each one was fully in "present tense." It was wonderful. Fun, funny, entertaining without the need for melodrama, crisis, or crankiness. I'm keeping an eye out for a hat as I write.
Present tense is all we have. Admitting that our days are numbered helps us to be present for them. "Now" is where time expands, where all the senses get to play. A wonderful Tibetan teacher, Gyalse Rinpoche, puts it this way:
"Planning for the future is like going fishing in a dry gulch;
Nothing ever works as you wanted,
so give up all your schemes and ambitions."
When we give in to the truth that, like everyone else who has ever lived, we will die, we are motivated get to wake up, to really wake up. And our effort works. First stage, a calmness. It is all ok, all of it. Then samadhi. A quiet emptiness. Then mental and physical joy. Our fears drop away. According to the Abhidharma we all have five fears: of death; of the loss of livelihood; of unusual states of consciousness; the loss of our reputation; of speaking in public. They go, they all go. And none of them…..calm, the joy, the fearlessness….none of these are dependent on youth, beauty, or health.