White Ashes

"If Buddha had played a trick like that on me, I would've torn his goddamn head off."

"If Buddha had played a trick like that on me, I would've torn his goddamn head off."

A Las Vegas casino hotel room with a party-size in-room tub isn’t really the ideal place to hold a Buddhist memorial service. But that’s where my wife and I found ourselves when the one-year anniversary of my grandmother’s death arrived, and even in the crassest corners of samsara we need to remember the things we truly value. I scrounged through our possessions in order to erect a makeshift altar: a bag of M&Ms and a cup of ice water (it held a $1 margarita the night before), a photo of my grandmother, and an inch-high ceramic Buddha I’d picked up in a knick-knack shop. With the ringing of slot machines and crooning of celebrity impersonators filtering in from elsewhere in the hotel, my wife and I bowed our heads and reflected on how Grandmother touched our lives.

We came to live with and care for my grandmother in North Carolina at the beginning of 2001, leaving behind jobs and friends (and crime, pollution, and overcrowding) in New York City. At age ninety-five she was still living on her own, fiercely determined to be independent despite being legally blind, diabetic, and too weak to climb stairs without assistance. Her situation wasn’t good: she’d recently had major surgery to remove a large colon cancer. The doctors weren’t sure she’d survive the operation, and they told her she’d need at least four weeks of in-patient recovery when it was over. But she went under the knife in mid-November and six days later was home sitting at the head of the Thanksgiving dinner table, surrounded by family. Among those who knew my grandmother, her stamina and ability to bounce back from illnesses and accidents became legendary. Over the years she’d fallen down stairs, cracked her head on furniture, and fought through cancer, strokes, heart trouble, and a bleeding gastritis that leaked out half her blood volume. One time in Texas she accidentally stepped on the gas instead of the brake, ran over my Great Aunt Eula Belle and me, and plowed through the wall of a restaurant. Another time, back in the twenties, she shot an attacking alligator in the eye while her date cowered in the bottom of the boat. Grandmother was a survivor.

But no one wins the battle against age, illness, and mortality, and by the time my wife and I arrived it was clear that she needed more assistance. Living with Grandmother kept her out of nursing facilities, and with us and the help of others she was able to continue her reign as the family matriarch. Religion was a strong factor in my decision to move in with her-Buddhism emphasizes gratitude and service, and respect for one’s elders. Ignorance, the bogeyman of Buddhism, formed a fair part of the decision as well: we were committed to doing what it took to make Grandmother happy, but there was no way of knowing ahead of time just how demanding such a commitment could be.

Religion was also sometimes a source of amusement in my interactions with Grandmother. I spent a summer with her in Galveston, Texas, before she moved to North Carolina. Still fuzzy on what Buddhism was all about, she insisted to me that Houston Rocket’s player Hakeem Olajuwon was a Buddhist. There wasn’t much point in trying to explain to her the differences between Buddhism and Islam. Another time, in North Carolina, Grandmother’s part-time secretary got a shock when she stumbled across our altar. She came rushing into the kitchen to declare “There’s something horrible upstairs!” Apparently she thought it was some sort of voodoo altar. Despite her bewilderment, it’s a testimony to the graciousness of Southerners that she never brought it up again.

When you live with someone in their mid-nineties, you gradually come to understand that the traditional Buddhist formulation of old age, illness, and death as the three basic facts of suffering is dead-on. You can gain tremendous success in life, raise a big family, have an exciting job, develop a rich spiritual life, spend your time helping others-life offers lots of opportunities for the time we’re here. But no matter how much you achieve, aging, sickness, and mortality are working away, whittling you down to size until the day they finally win for good. Like circling sharks they are always hounding us, harrying even the happiest of lives.

Over time, as I watched Grandmother’s health rise and fall, I came to realize that old age, illness, and death are not three separate, isolated phenomena, but rather are completely intermeshed. To be old is to be frequently sick and to have death ever nearby as a possibility. To be sick is to be aware of one’s aging and mortality. And death lies always at the end of the road-when we remember it we fear aging and illness, which hasten the inevitable. Buddhism is insightful to call attention to these three, yet the dogmatic approach can tend to obscure their interrelatedness.

Perhaps the persistent tendency to harden insight into unquestioned doctrine arises from our need to feel secure, to gain a hold on our situation and stave off the fear that things are dangerous and beyond our control. It’s an attitude that naturally appears when dealing with illness, aging, and mortality, the greatest of fears; and the fact that we really aren’t in control, that we can’t wield power over such awesome eventualities, just makes us crave answers and solutions all the more.

In a similar way, the modern formulation of the stages of grief popularized by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross offers a guidepost on the way of loss for the bereft, yet if taken literally, it denies how we revolve continuously in these mental states. Contrary to the most common understanding of this process, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are not discreet states arriving in a predetermined order. Since Grandmother’s death, I experience all of them in seemingly random order during the course of a day. At the grocery store I consider whether to buy tomatoes and make Grandmother some hoppin’ john, even though she’s not waiting at home anymore. Later, I’m sad that I can’t hear her stories anymore and that she’ll just be another old dead person to the children I haven’t had yet. Later still I feel I’ve accepted her passing, only to catch myself day-dreaming about how I might’ve done something to prevent the stroke that finally got her. You don’t pass through each stage of grief, never to return. Instead, they all become your new companions, your inadequate replacements for the person you’ve lost for good. Your mind becomes a house haunted by the ghost of your loved one.

One Buddhist concept that sheds light on this process for me is that of ichinen sanzen (the mutual possession of and interpenetration of the 3000 mental worlds within the space of a single thought), formulated by the Chinese monk Tiantai. All of the possible mental states, from enlightenment to utter ignorance and depravity, exist as potentials within us at every moment. With our thoughts, speech, and actions we can call forth and embody any of them, and we may backslide into any from the force of karma or habit. The interconnectedness of all things means that both happiness and depression lie just a moment away, waiting for the right trigger to manifest in our lives. And so it goes: there is joy in my grief, anger in my gratitude, fear and desperation in my attempts to humbly accept the world. The grieving process spans 3000 mental worlds and then some, with room left over for dreams and fantasies.

In the midst of my grief, one of my Buddhist teachers told me that “death ends a life but not a relationship.” Eventually I realized that this is really true-I still mold my life to fit Grandmother’s whims and steer according to her example, even though she isn’t around anymore to offer her judgments and encouragement. Struggling with school and so many commitments, I have to pause and consider whether you can really make a dead person proud. For that matter, is it possible to let them down? In Shin Buddhism we say that when someone dies they immediately go to the Pure Land, the realm of true reality, and then return to help those still trapped in the world of suffering. In a way, this expresses my feelings. My grandmother is gone, but still present. Her suffering is ended, but her support and lessons continue.

One lesson I learned, and learned hard, is that death really is suffering. At the very end, Grandmother languished for three and a half weeks, with bedsores, paralysis, and pain. It was a relatively good death-at home, with family, under medical care, and in bed, after an amazingly long and colorful life. But still it was difficult. Let’s not fool ourselves; waiting at the end of our current adventures is almost certainly the worst experience we’ll ever have. Spirituality can sometimes prepare us to face this experience, but also often papers over it, sugarcoating the finality of our extinction until the actual moment arrives, and all the wrapping-paper falls away to reveal the truth in its starkness. Old age, illness, and death aren’t words in some old Indian book-they are the real facts of existence, more real and enduring than anything we do or create during our short individual lives.

This was all driven home for me one night several months before Grandmother died. Sound asleep, I was awakened by the clanging of the old dinner bell she kept by her bed to summon me in emergencies. I went downstairs and found her sick, doubled-over on the bed. “I’m feeling bad, stay with me,” she pleaded. As the night passed, she would retch and vomit up black blood, then fall into a fitful sleep from the exhaustion of her ordeal until she woke to throw up again. I gave her medicine, changed her soiled clothes and bed-sheets, cleaned the floor, helped her off and on the toilet again and again. Somewhere in the middle of the night I began to do tonglen, a Tibetan Buddhist practice that involves visualizing a person’s pain as a black cloud, breathing it into oneself, and returning it on the out-breath as a healing, soothing white cloud. The tonglen helped me to stay with Grandmother and do my best, but really there was nothing I could do to take her pain away. It was a fact of age and illness, unassailable by my efforts or desires. Likewise, when it was time for her to die, there was nothing to do but let it happen.

But as real and final as death is, I learned another lesson from Grandmother when she passed away. It sounds corny to those who aren’t dealing with the aftershocks of death, but the truth is, life does in fact go on. It becomes a series of moments, slowly unfolding one after another as you deal with each day in turn. Following the Buddhist traditions, I found a roadmap that gave me things to do as I worked to find meaning in my post-Grandmother life. I performed the appropriate Buddhist actions: I had a memorial service carried out at my temple, put up a birdhouse to make merit (taken not literally in my sect, but as a form of symbolic thanksgiving), and placed a picture of Grandmother on my altar. These actions aren’t understood as directed toward the deceased-the dead person has either gone to the Pure Land, or, if you’re of a more figurative (or cynical) mindset, has disappeared and is gone. Either way, it’s not the dead who need help or comfort, but the survivors. The dead have the easy job-they just have to stay dead. But those who continue after them have to find paths back to stability and happiness. And so religion appears again to offer wisdom, both pre-fabricated and hard-won, to fit the situation.

A famous Buddhist story tells of Kisa Gotami, a young mother from the Buddha’s clan whose baby boy died suddenly. Grief-stricken, she carried his corpse with her everywhere, wailing and wondering aloud why her child had left her. People pitied her, and eventually she was told to go to the Buddha for advice. When she reached his retreat, she demanded that the Buddha bring her boy back to life. Somewhat surprisingly, the Buddha agreed to do so, but first asked Gotami to do something. “Anything, anything,” she cried in desperate hope. The Buddha told her to go into the village and bring back a mustard seed from a house which had never known death.

Kisa Gotami went from house to house, still clutching the limp body of her child, asking for mustard seeds. People readily agreed to give her one, but when she asked if anyone had died in the house, every time the occupants nodded sadly. In each house there had been some sort of loss-a father, a sister, an aunt, a baby. As Gotami made her way through the village, she gradually began to understand that death was an absolute fact of existence, that no one escaped it, not in the meanest hut or in the palace itself. Finally, she took her child’s body to the charnel ground and left it, returning to the Buddha to be ordained as a nun. Realizing that the Buddha never meant to resurrect her boy but was teaching her a more important religious lesson, she released her attachment and with newfound wisdom, committed herself to a life of spiritual awakening.

I’ve read or been told this story dozens of times. Before, I always marveled at the truth of this tale, its brave acceptance of the way of things, the contrast between Jesus’ improbable miracles and the Buddha’s humble demonstration of a spiritual fact more important than the healing of flesh. I’ve told this story more times that I can recall, confident in its correctness and value. But then Grandmother died, and without my knowing it, the story completely changed. The first time I read about Kisa Gotami again after Grandmother’s death, I immediately thought, “If Buddha had played a trick like that on me, I would’ve torn his goddamn head off.”

The truth is, I’d much rather have Grandmother back than to acquire some sort of spiritual insight. I’d eagerly trade in all my books and statues, my altar, and all the teachings I’ve attended and blessings I’ve received. If Jesus had been around handing out resurrections, I would’ve surely picked him over do-nothing, it’s-a-learning-experience Buddha. Hard-won religious understanding is a very poor substitute for the love and support of someone close to you. But whether or not it takes second place, it’s all you end up with. Everyone is going to die on you, until the day that you die on whoever is left. So learning from the worst, immutable parts of life, or just continuing to revolve in painful ignorance, is the only choice we get. Buddha’s story may have a disappointing punch-line, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t right.

In the Vegas hotel room, my wife and I finished our Sutra chanting, and I prepared to read aloud an epistle by Rennyo, a charismatic Shin leader who helped spread the Pure Land teachings throughout medieval Japan. His brief letter reveals an intimate knowledge of how old age, illness, and death await us all, an understanding born from the deaths of four wives and seven children over the course of an eighty-five-year-long lifetime. Yet while Rennyo feels genuine grief, ultimately these losses become the occasion for awakening wisdom and compassion:

Though loved ones gather and lament, everything is to no avail. The body is then sent into an open field and vanishes from this world with the smoke of cremation, leaving only white ashes. There is nothing more real than this truth of life. The fragile nature of human existence underlies both the young and the old, and therefore we must, one and all, turn to the teachings of the Buddha and awaken to the ultimate source of life.

By so understanding the meaning of death, we shall come to fully appreciate the meaning of this life which is unrepeatable and thus to be treasured above all else. By virtue of true compassion, let us realize the irreplaceable value of human life and let us together live the nembutsu in our lives.

The nembutsu is the central practice of Shin Buddhism, an expression of joy that arises when one realizes that one is embraced and supported by the infinite compassion of all things. Learning to live a life of gratitude is what this practice is about. I thought Rennyo’s sentiments were echoed by a quote from Antoine de St.-Exupery that was read at Grandmother’s funeral: “We live not by things, but by the meanings of things.” If this is true, then it isn’t the fact of Grandmother’s life and death that ultimately matter, but what I take from them.

In an era that so often hides death and suffering, when our elders are squirreled away in nursing homes and corpses are painted to appear lifelike at their funerals, I know I’ll never think about aging, sickness, and death in the same way again. Grandmother’s struggle and loss, the pain of old age and the continuing potential for happiness that persists until the very final moment, are truths as solid as anything the Buddha taught. These truths call me to remembrance, whether I’m seated in my home temple or a glitzy casino. When you finally touch reality on this level, there is nothing left to do but to say “Thank you, thank you.” Thank you for joy and sorrow, for death and new life, for caregivers and the opportunity to help. Thank you for love while it lasts, for memories that endure. And thank you for grandmothers.

Jeff Wilson is an assistant professor of religious
studies and East Asian studies in Ontario. His most recent books include: Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America (Oxford University Press 2009) and Buddhism of the Heart: Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness (Wisdom Publications 2009). His next book, with University of North Carolina Press, will examine Buddhism in the American South.