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Buddhadharma : Fall 2010
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2 0 10 70 said that if you don’t understand death, you don’t understand life. You take it for granted and waste it. If you understand it, and even if you don’t finish the path at the time of your death, you will have no regrets, and will have the confidence to go on to the next life and continue the journey.” He gestured with his head to Fabrizio and the assistant, who then moved in unison to the platform. After carefully putting on his shoes, they helped him down. Rinpoche glanced at my open notebook and frowned. I didn’t know what I had done wrong, nor did I have the courage to ask. Since everyone was watching him, they also saw his look, which I thought was, at the very least, one of annoyance. He continued moving until he was in front of the woman with the red scarf. Unlike everyone else who rose when Rinpoche descended the stairs, she remained seated. He tenderly patted her on the cheek and continued walking. At that moment I felt as if the two of us were at opposite ends of a continuum. She was on the “to be given compassion” side, and I was on the “to be scorned” end. After Rinpoche left, two women gently lifted her into a standing position. A few minutes went by before she was steady enough to move. We had a fifteen-minute break before discussions of Rinpoche’s talk, led by Rene. The woman walked by me on her way outside, and I saw her bald head through the translu- cent scarf. I stood in line for tea and instead of thinking about the profundity of Rinpoche’s lessons, I wondered what every- one thought of me. I went outside, consumed with devising a plan for slithering unseen out of the workshop. As I inhaled the pine-scented air, I heard someone say, “Hi.” I turned and saw it was the woman with the scarf, smiling as she sat next to me. “Hello.” Her smile vanished as her facial muscles tensed. She bent over, rocked slowly, and wrapped her arms around her abdomen. “Is there anything I can get you?” “No, but thanks. I’m Marie,” she said, trying to smile again. “I’m Stan. Are you sure there isn’t anything?” “No, really. I’ll be all right.” We were silent for a few min- utes. “I hope I can come back tomorrow,” she said. I looked into a stand of ancient redwoods, trying to think of what I should say, occasionally glancing at her pained expression. “Sometimes when the drugs make me nauseated, I can’t do anything but lie on my side. High price to pay for a few more months, don’t you think? I have ovarian cancer and I’m hav- ing chemo.” “Oh,” I said. I didn’t know what to say to someone who tells you they are, or may be, dying. I blurted out the only words I could retrieve: “I have pros- tate cancer.” “Then, you know,” Marie said. I’m not sure I did, but I was too embarrassed to say any- thing. “Do you know Rinpoche?” I asked. “Death is certain, but not the time.” As everyone else thought about his words, I wondered what he had said about me. My self-absorption stopped when he burst into laughter. Life, according to Rinpoche, was part of a wheel, where death was just another spoke, as natural and as beautiful as birth. “Everything changes,” he said. “Nothing begins or ends; it goes from one thing into another.” I wrote furiously, believing that unless I wrote every- thing down, I wouldn’t remember all the ideas flowing from Rinpoche—in words so simple there was no room for obscure meanings. Those words, I surmised, could be the ideas I was searching for. “You cannot turn away death,” he said. For six months I had tried, pretending the lion stalking me would go away. For a while it had been easy. No detectable PSA (protein specific antagen), no reason to think the cancer cells were growing. Eventually, I realized it was just a reprieve. At some point in my life, the cancer would become virulent. The surgeon had made it clear that we were in a holding pat- tern and that he hoped I would outlive the cancer, or that a new protocol would be developed before my current treatment stopped working. “Death is hard to accept,” Rinpoche said as I wrote furi- ously. When I didn’t hear any more words, I stopped and looked up. Staring at me, he said, “If the Buddha, bodhisat- tvas, and arhats gave up their physical bodies, what makes you think you’ll live forever?” I hoped his comments were meant for everyone, and the only reason he had looked at me was that I was next to the platform. He turned away before continuing. “Death is a part of living. No death, no life. If you understand this, you won’t fear it. Death will be as natural as drinking a cup of tea.” He spoke for two hours while I wrote nonstop, believing that somewhere in these words would be the wisdom I was desperately seeking. Next to him on the platform was a cov- ered cup of tea from which he sipped sparingly when Fabrizio translated. On his other side was a box of tissues. He slowly pulled a single sheet from the box and covered his head with his robe. From beneath the robe came violent coughs. After a few minutes he uncovered his head and continued talking in a barely audible voice. Earlier in the day, Rene, a monk who would lead us in discussions, had said Rinpoche was ill and might stop speaking at any time. Barely above a whisper, Rinpoche said, “Many sages have “Death is a part of living. No death, no life. If you understand this, you won’t fear it. Death will be as natural as drinking a cup of tea.”