It happened yesterday

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Ten years ago today, My father died. A number of years that not that long ago would have seemed incomprehensible.  The expression is cliche: It seems like yesterday and so long ago at the same time. Cliches are overused for a reason: they lack original thought, because so many people experience what they convey.

I know you, dear reader, know and understand what I mean when I express to you I can still viscerally feel that last time I kissed him, held his hand and told him I would see him on Monday. It happened yesterday.

I had told him only the day before that I would see him on Monday; I didn’t know he wouldn’t live another 24-hours never mind the 48-hours Monday assumed.  On that Sunday, I had gone out with my father in law on a deep sea fishing trip we received for Fathers’ Day. My sister messaged me and told me Dad really wasn’t feeling well and can I come by today.  Later, while on my way there, I asked her if I could get him some coffee. I can still feel the blood empty from my face when I learned he was gone. That happened yesterday.

I stopped and bought him a coffee anyway. Black, two sugar. The man loved his coffee and he ought to have one last cup with his kids before his journey. I bought a coffee for my sister and one for me, and we shared them while we awaited clergy and the ambulance. I silently reflected with regret for not having been there sooner, for not having spent more time, for a whole host of short-comings as a son while the Priest granted blessings upon him. I saw his lifeless body slumped in his chair almost as though he were sleeping – I’d seen him “rest his eyes” while sitting in his chair so often over the course of my life, but never once imagined I was being conditioned to witness this moment. So clear it’s as though it happened yesterday.

Then there was my sister. She kept it together, until the Medical Examiner’s office came and packed him up. Out of her living room, they wheeled a sealed plastic body bag out on a two-wheeler, and she lost it. Fell apart. That was the moment of permanence to her, even though she sat with him as he felt his eyes become infinitely too heavy to keep open and slipped out of this life. She sat with him as his blood finally became too toxic for his heart to continue pushing through his body. It was to her he spoke his last words. It was only seeing him as the outside world now saw him that she lost it. I’m quite sure that were I to ask her, she would say that it could easily have been 10 hours ago.

Coming home was a long, hollow drive. Alone with my thoughts. That empty feeling of suddenly being quite alone in the world, that the one person to whom I meant the world was no longer. The fogginess of my thoughts and emotions of that drive home still has no equal in my life; I should be thankful, grateful for that and yet, as I write I’m sobbing as though it really did just happen yesterday.

I remember lying in bed, looking at the ceiling. Emotionally drained and empty. We all knew this moment, this day would come sooner than later, and yet when it arrived there was literally no way to steel myself. Like knowing a lava floe was coming and all you can do is stand there and take it. He knew it. I was with him at the hospital when the doctor told him that the transfusions were becoming less effective – that his body was losing white blood cells faster than they could replace them. I was with him when he told the doctor that he wanted to stop the transfusions because he was using resources better used by someone whose body wasn’t failing in the way his was. I was there when she told him that decision was “not compatible with life.” He knew what his choice was, he knew and still abided. Either way it was a matter of time, but his way meant sooner rather than later. I lay in bed thinking about that before at some point drifting into some degree of sleep. Sad. Empty. Drained. Knowing that the next day held telling my kids that Papa had died.

All of that seems so real and raw. All of that was ten years ago today. All of that could have been yesterday.

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Strength of Mind: Self Immolation

Malcolm Brown photograph of the self immolation.

Thích Quảng Đức was a Buddhist monk who on June 10, 1963 led a procession of monks to an intersection a few blocks from the South Vietnamese presidential palace, assumed the lotus position where an associate poured gasoline over his head. He recited a homage to Buddha and subsequently lit himself on fire in protest.

I never fully comprehended why a man of faith would willingly take his life. Indeed, in Buddhism, life is precious and its destruction is to be avoided.  But then again, my own world view is that of a Western Christian, and Christianity’s view on suicide is very clear. Buddhism doesn’t work with absolutes.  According to one author, Buddhism sees human birth “as incredibly precious, an opportunity not to be wasted. That the human predicament includes stress and suffering is the First Noble Truth; the Second, Third and Fourth Noble Truths guide our relationship to that suffering.”

But I see here, Quảng Đức was not escaping from suffering or stress.  He was drawing the worlds’ attention to the ignoble condition of the Buddhist population in South Vietnam – a country that was then 90% Buddhist and ruled by a Catholic minority, intolerant of the Buddhist world view. “Not to be wasted” is not the same as “having ended.” It makes sense in a way: Catholics are very black and white about life and death, about subservience to authority and hierarchy; Buddhists tend to be more complacent, willing to accept their lot. Where Christianity is very much ordered around the ten commandments – concrete rules not to be violated – Buddhism is ordered around four noble truths, guides without much in the way or explanation.  In Christianity we’re taught “right from wrong;” In Buddhism the meaning of Right includes an ethical, and a balanced, or middle way.

So, why would the practitioner of a religion teaching life as incredibly precious and the destruction of which is to be avoided, self immolate in protest? The middle way.

The idea that he wasn’t escaping suffering, but rather he was embracing suffering in hopes of bettering the lot of those of his countrymen.

What was shocking to the rest of the world – his ability to remain in lotus.  In The Making of a Quagmire, David Halberstam wrote “…As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him…” He had accepted his suffering, embraced it.

The Four Noble Truths liberate people from suffering.  Here they are from Lionsroar.com

1. Suffering

Life always involves suffering, in obvious and subtle forms. Even when things seem good, we always feel an undercurrent of anxiety and uncertainty inside.

2. The Cause of Suffering

The cause of suffering is craving and fundamental ignorance. We suffer because of our mistaken belief that we are a separate, independent, solid “I.” The painful and futile struggle to maintain this delusion of ego is known as samsara, or cyclic existence.

3. The End of Suffering

The good news is that our obscurations are temporary. They are like passing clouds that obscure the sun of our enlightened nature, which is always present. Therefore, suffering can end because our obscurations can be purified and awakened mind is always available to us.

4. The Path

By living ethically, practicing meditation, and developing wisdom, we can take exactly the same journey to enlightenment and freedom from suffering that the buddhas do. We too can wake up.

So, by immolating himself, he was actually freeing himself and his countrymen from suffering.  Reread that passage from David Halberstam: “…As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound…”  Suffering people do not sit still. He had let go of the samsara, that belief that he was separate from others.  He gave up this existence and its suffering: to be sure, he believed in reincarnation – that he would return to the earth in another form, and not to be sent to an afterlife to sit before judgement.

The Catholics in charge of the country could not comprehend why he had done what he did because they believed in an absolute prohibition on suicide, and in the certainty of sitting before God’s judgement.  When Quảng Đức’s action did not yield immediate results, several other monks self-immolated as well.  Interestingly enough it was not the leadership of South Vietnam who came to understand, but rather the rest of the world, horrified by what was now happening, pushed the government to action.

Now that I’ve described my understanding of what happened on that day, I want to share a video taken of the event.

At a time where public protest was not the norm, at a time video recording was a novelty – if not luxury – there is a video recording of it.  Think of what a video recorder in 1963 would have looked like – as the first 75 seconds of the movie show, it must’ve been large and bulky, and judging from the angle, frowned upon by the authorities.  We see the thousand or so protesters encircling the monk, jostling perhaps for a better view, and the authorities pushing them back.

I can’t help but to think how this man was about to light himself on fire for these people, people who clearly had not reached the level of enlightenment he had – likely people with less strength of belief as his, or less commitment.  The protest was allowed to continue, even as the police would have seen the gasoline being poured over his head; perhaps it wasn’t immediately obvious to them that was, in fact, gasoline.

The most powerful moment of that recording occurs at about 2:07 – the moment he lights the match.  It’s as if everything else STOPS. The jostling stops. The police turn away from the throngs of people to face him, to a man their arms and hands by their sides: Respect? Awe? Disbelief?

By 2:25 or so you can see clearly how accurately Halberstam reported his lack of movement: it’s not for another 30-seconds of the video before his now charred remains fall over. Halberstam notes just how quickly a human body will burn, so bearing in mind the footage has been slowed down, in real time some the gathered crowd would have begun immediately bowing on hands and knees and this would have been over in a matter of seconds.

As with any telling of story, I’m quite sure there is so much nuance and fact missing from the account.  That’s not really what this post is about though. It’s about the strength of mind and purpose,  of self control and selflessness, of belief to be able to make a decision you believe to be the middle way – one coming from a place of enlightenment – even if it means putting yourself in harms way, giving yourself up for the good of the majority.

I will remember this lesson just how much the mind controls our perception of the world, how it controls our sensations. How it can allow a man literally burn to death without so much as flinching. I will remember this the next time I am faced with a challenge I don’t believe I can complete.

Godspeed

Eternal rest grant unto them , O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them .
May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

It isn’t often you’ll find me reaching back into the faith of my childhood to find the words to convey meaning at life’s most difficult times, but tonight these words seem appropriate and right.

Tonight, a beautiful and wonderful human being has become one with time and with the universe, has left this earth and gone forth to the great unknown.  If I could let her know anything, it’s that I love her son like he is my brother and that brother of mine loved her as much as any person could love another.

Throughout her illness, she demonstrated rock solid resiliency.  When it became clear treatment was no longer effective, she demonstrated the strength of character I’ve come to know over the last 30+ years.  When one is at peace with herself, she can make those around her stronger.  And she did just that.

She exemplified feminine strength with rock solid conviction and understanding of who she was in this world.  I can think of few people I have ever known more impressive, more confident, more tough or strong.  More loving or sure.  Tonight, I am sad to know she has left us, but proud to say I knew her.  She leaves the world just a little bit better for her having been here, and far better than most.

Godspeed.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 27

Nana Asma’u

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Nana Asma’u by Heba Amin

She was an Islamic scholar and set the precedent of modern African feminism.  She had the advantage of being the daughter of one of the most powerful men in one of the most powerful caliphates in the region, but she made the most of the opportunity to empower women.  She leveraged her considerable intellect to create educational opportunities and careers for women that still exist.

She was a princess, but she spent her life educating women – Muslim and non-Muslim, wealthy and poor.  She was an adviser to her father, and believed that seeking education was a religious duty of both men and women and that to deny women this right was to challenge the will of God.

As an educator, she wanted her people to be as educated as possible, and trained other women to help her do this. She wrote instructive poems that the teachers would memorize and then pass on to their students in the villages to which they traveled. These women wore distinctive clothes identifying them as trained teachers, and they were to receive the highest respect while instructing both men and women on general as well as religious topics. As these teachers walked the country-side – enduring harsh environments to do so – they were empowering the citizenry with knowledge in a time of turbulence and war. To be sure, if women were educated they could then pass along knowledge to their families.  Women in Nigeria were literate at a time when universal literacy was unheard of.

150 years ago (she lived 1793-1864), she was leading a cause for educating the masses and specifically women. Those in The West who know of her, recognize her as an early feminist. West African Muslims praise her efforts in augmenting the rights of women to learn and be active members in society.  She chose to spend her life advocating for women’s right to education – indeed, she saw it as a tenant of Islam that women should be educated, and should know how to read.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 18

Principles of Unitarianism

500px-flaming_chalice-svg1I’m not much a follower of organized religion and I’ve generally stayed away from discussing religious figures over the previous 17 days of inspiration – the world doesn’t need another list of inspiration including Jesus Christ or Mohammad.  What I believe the world does need, though, is to draw inspiration from multiple sources, multiple perspectives, multiple beliefs. Perhaps a little more understanding of each other and a little less posturing.  In disclosure, I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the Unitarian church.  I simply appreciate their teachings.

The UUA does not use dogma nor a specific creed.  Indeed, they’re more interested in the principle of freedom of thought than having these things, but they do use seven principles that are meant to guide their congregations:

  • The Inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

The message I read in these principles is to be the best person you can be, whether or not that means being a Unitarian or not.  Consider what the world might look like if more people were interested in a search for meaning and truth than in pushing their truth and meaning on others; where compassion would be the guiding principle instead of righteousness.

In an age where we can be so divided, I am heartened to believe that others seek congregation and justice and am inspired to be more than what I may currently be by virtue of others seeking truths as well – even if they’re not my truths.