Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Impermanence never goes away

Since early childhood I have felt out of sympathy with my own culture in many ways - one of which relates to how long we get to live, and whether anything follows this life.

I have never felt entitled to "three score and ten" (70) years - but it does appear like a reasonable average, in spite of all the stories about the short lives of those in The Middle Ages in Europe.

Hearing that our dog may only have a year to live, and so profoundly changing his diet, filling him with an assortment of chemicals, and operating on him to attempt to extend his life does seem fairly extreme.  Not that I don't want him to live longer and happier, you understand, but just trying to perceive the balance.  We seem to have a horror of death.

How much is it worth?

We may assume that royals getting into their 90s relates not just to their genes, but to the quality of treatment they receive, so money can be well-spent, but I have a great distrust of the fear of death that seems so prevalent in this culture.  Especially curious, when the Christian background should have left the ghost of a belief in 'going to a better place'.

I lean to what religious people might call atheism, but I don't like to define myself with a negative.  I suspect that consciousness goes out like a candle, but I know I could be wrong. After all, I might find some sympathy with (say) a Native American saying "There is no death, only a change of worlds."

All Things Must Pass.

And in that context, the Buddhist approach has always made the most sense to me.  Not the specific religious groups with chanting, and bells, and prayers and costumes and reincarnation, and so on (Buddha seems to have maintained a noble silence when questioned about such matters).  The Buddhism that empathises with all sentient beings, but describes the inhabitants of the world as transients.

So the idea that our lovely dog may not get to live 12 years upsets me, but not a lot more than stepping on snails in the wet garden does, or accidentally sucking a spider into the vacuum cleaner.  I am sad, but helpless, and doubt I will ever attain the pure ambition of a Jain or Vegan to prove completely harmless to other beings. I will grieve (unless I go first), but I will certainly try not to let the possibility/probability of him going first spoil what time we do have left together.

I hate my friends dying 'before their time' or even relationships falling apart, but I seem to shrug rather than 'rage against the dying of the light'.  It seems somehow vain, to me, and anyway a misnomer, like the Battle with Cancer. I see everyone as 'just passing through'.  Whenever I stop travelling I fail the simplicity test of a monk (bedroll, begging bowl. book and razor) - moss gathers when you stop rolling.

We don't get a variety of chances (unless the Multiple Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics appeals to you) so who can tell how long I might have lived if (say) I had never smoked, rather than gave it up later in life?  Statistics, and insurance companies can tell you the odds, but they never relate to individuals (a 14 million to one ticket wins the lottery most weeks).  We make our choices, without all the facts. If I give up all the 'pleasures' that are bad for me, do I get to live longer or (as in the old joke) does it just seem longer?

Seeing clearly

The other aspect of Buddhism that appealed to me comes from the fact that the basic story has no supernatural qualities, no interference from God or 'gods'.  A rather spoiled man (a prince) living the kind of sheltered life that many of us in The First World occupy, finally becomes exposed to, or confronted by, disease, old age and death - and it has a shocking effect on him.

He not only abandons his luxurious life, but his beloved wife and son, to go on a quest. We have enough trouble with suggestions that Jesus got married and had children (sex and sex organs) but the idea that he would abandon them really seems shocking, selfish behaviour.  And yet:

And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.  Matthew 19:29

Funny, how most people ignore so much of the actual advice contained in religious writings.

Ahem - initially over-reacting to his luxurious history Buddha becomes a total ascetic, but eventually finds that extreme unsatisfactory, too - before finally settling for a Middle Way.

So, not clinging to life, even if not recklessly seeking danger.   That mysterious Zen detachment of the Samurai seems to turn into (in The West) a macho disregard for death (the hero of the movie never dies).

Hey ho, and yet another unfinished thought - arising from walking the dog and wondering how many more nights we have together.

[More later]

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