Dharma Glimpse by Mat Osmond
From time to time I fall into a pattern of waking around 3am, often when there’s some conflict or turmoil at work in me. I had one of these wakeful nights last week. As I lay there in a familiar pool of unease, an odd thought came to me.
I’m the one who’ll die.
Why did that seem to matter? Are there are other I’s, then, besides this one lying here? The answer’s a resounding yes, I think, but what this means exactly feels less clear to me now than it did lying there in the dark. I suppose it had to do with the difference between the selves I perform before one mirror or another, and this person lying here – the one those selves omit to mention or actively conceal.
Funny how something can make compelling sense in the middle of the night, then you try and say it aloud in the morning and it all feels a bit laboured. But I remembered this night-thought when I saw I was writing this week’s dharma glimpse, mainly because of the curious sense of reassurance or confirmation it brought. Whatever happens, I’m the one who’s going to die here. So things are OK.
I remember a beautiful passage in Shinman Aoki’s little book, Coffinman: Journals of a Buddhist Mortician, where he recounts a realisation that crept up on him over time as he dressed corpses for traditional Buddhist funerals. Aoki speaks of the deep peace that he began noticing on the faces of the dead. All of them. And as he worked alone with their quiet faces Aoki came to a new understanding of nirvana: as a fulfilment which comes to us all. Not as a result of our striving, nor of what we’ve ‘made of ourselves’. Just, an inescapable homecoming that every death returns us to, whatever sort of life we happen to have lived.
Lying in the dark what struck me as if for the first time was that every single thing that is ‘me’ will end when I die. That, in a way that requires no shoring-up or work on my part, I am quite literally ‘grasped, never to be forsaken’ by the intimate reality of this. And the intimate presence of my certain death is here already, holding me in measureless being as I lie here.
As I’ve tried to write down what happened last week another memory has surfaced, and they feel entangled now so I’m to just going to run them together here.
It’s three and a half years ago. I’m sitting alone at night with my mother-in-law Christine. Already in steep decline, Christine has just found out that she has terminal cancer, with only a few weeks to live. This first night-watch with her is also the first time I’ve seen her since she received this news.
As we chat about it, Christine says she sometimes wishes she’d paid more attention to the spiritual. ‘You now, going to church and stuff’. We wonder about this together. Supposing she had? Would having done so make any difference at all to what lies immediately before her now? Would her doing that have made where she’s going now any more or less real? It seemed clear to both of us, I think, that it would not. And the deep sense of confirmation I found in this, anyway, feels much the same as the one that came to visit me the other night. Namo Amida Bu.
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