I once asked Phiroz Mehta what the central problem of our lives was. He pinched his arm and said: ‘We think we are this body, but we’re not.’
When I lost my mother after looking after her for five years, not only had I lost the last member of my family, but I also lost the main motivation for getting up in the mornings.
First comes the self-pity. But since no amount of that helps you or the way you feel — it just makes you feel worse! — you have every reason to put it aside and no reason whatsoever to let it nibble at you; that’s just as pointless as concerning yourself with the weather!
Much more of a problem for me was seeing something interesting or going to the theatre or a concert, and not having anyone to discuss it with. If I went on holiday — I went to Mexico in the spring of 2011 — I could tell someone all about it, someone who was genuinely interested. But suddenly there was no one to tell, and no one to be interested in what I was, or did, or anything. Unsurprisingly, I lost interest in myself.
Men never really stop being little boys. When we are small, we want to tell mummy what we’ve been doing, and bask in the interest. Then, when we are older, we tell girlfriends or wives, or whoever we’re very close to. It’s a very human search for approval and acceptance.
The time that my mother was in hospital in a coma, I found to be very distressing. There was the ghost of a presence. And it was almost a relief when she died. It is at those times, when everything is thrown into question, that we need support and wise advice.
In my bedroom, I have pinned up on the wall the following conversation between Ajahn Chah (the abbot of a famous Thai monastery, Wat Pah Pong) and an old lady who had gone to the monastery but could only stay for a short time as she had to return to take care of her great grandchildren. She asked if he could please give her a brief dhamma talk.
‘Listen,’ he said, ‘there’s no one here, just this. No owner, no one to be old, to be young, to be good or bad, weak or strong. Just this, that’s all; various elements of nature playing themselves out, all empty. No one born and no one to die. Those who speak of death are speaking the language of ignorant children. In the language of the heart, of dhamma, there’s no such thing.’
We see life and death as broken pieces, because we do not understand the timeless, unbroken reality from which they seem to emerge. As Phiroz said, ‘We think we are this, but we are not.’
This did a great deal to raise my spirits. But then I remembered what the Buddha himself said, and I pinned that up with the other piece:
‘There is this unborn, unmade, unconditioned, and if there were not, there would be no liberation from the born, the made, the conditioned.’
That liberation is what Ajahn Chah called ‘the language of the heart’, and the place he called ‘our real home’.
When Ramana Maharshi was dying, his grieving followers asked, ‘What will we do when you have gone?’ to which he replied, ‘Where would I go?’
Whatever happens to us, whatever we do, our lives and deaths are a function of the unborn, unmade, from which we have never been separated for a moment, and which is the refuge that can never be taken away from us. We just need to live with it until we see it for what it is, for what we are.
vinnanam anidassanam anantam sabbato pabham
‘Infinite, trackless consciousness shining everywhere.’
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The last phrase is in the Digha Nikaya 11 Kevatta (Kevadda).
.. unborn, unmade… From Udana 8.3
From Ajahn Chah’s well known book A Still Forest Pool:
A devout, elderly village lady from a nearby province came on a pilgrimage to Wat Ba Pong. She told Achaan Chah she could stay only a short time, as she had to return to take care of her great grandchildren, and since she was an old lady, she asked if he could please give her a brief Dharma talk.
He replied with great force, “Hey, listen. There’s no one here, just this. No owner, no one to be old, to be young, to be good or bad, weak or strong. Just this, that’s all; various elements of nature playing themselves out, all empty. No one born and no one to die. Those who speak of death are speaking the language of ignorant children. In the language of the heart, of Dharma, there’s no such thing.
I too have lost my mother, my friend, the person that cared about me. I could discuss anything with. She is still here dementia has left her a shell I can visit. I have made peace with this realizing I was grasping for a life with her that was gone. This has helped fill in more of the puzzle.
One of life’s hardest lessons is to watch someone you love create their own hell to the point of self destruct and still remain loving and compassionate, whilst remaining detached from their suffering, and to realise that we cannot burden ourselves with their suffering, otherwise we live in that hell with them.
Thanks for your lesson, John. This very point was brought home to me 21 years ago when I tragically lost my young soul-mate in an accident. Looking at his battered body, lying peacefully (but obviously no longer him) in his coffin, I was totally aware that ‘we are not this, the body is merely a shell we travel about in’. That lesson, my most challenging life lesson to date has changed how I view many things in life. Lots of love, Karen
Thank you so much. I just recently found out that my father has cancer and will not be taking treatment. I will soon travel across the country to see him, and say goodbye. I hope that I can confort him as you have conforted me by reminding me of what we are, and are not.
I lost my mother several years ago, then less than a year later my father passed away. After mom was gone, he lost his reason for staying in this life, however he still spent time with friends and family till the last days. I learned a great deal about accepting death from his actions, and living life while we have it.
Thank you for the lesson. I still struggle with the death of my grandmother. Its been about 6 years now. You were so right. She was my approval for all things and my voice of reason and strength. I too suffered through a period where I had no desire to do much of everything. But I found my strength in my meditation and my running. Then soon discovered that she was with me. She had always been with me. I still have rough days. But far more better days.