Reflections on Illness, Old Age and Death

The Buddha was determined to resolve his questions about suffering after encountering someone who was quite ill, another person who was struggling with the inevitable decline of old age, and after witnessing family members preparing the body of a loved one for cremation after death. This is the “Great Mater” investigated in Zen practice and will be the theme of my Fall course at Appamada, Living Our Dying.

As I was preparing for today’s Inquiry I received a message that a beloved sangha member has entered hospice. He is in his 80’s and has been declining physically in recent months even while his spirits have remained quite vibrant. We were told that he has a few days to live. One of my dear friends just lost his son two weeks ago. The young man died when his vehicle hit a tree after he fell asleep driving home at night on a country road. Today, I also learned that another sangha member in the UK has had a recurrence of her cancer. Illness, old age and death are with us always.

Here are two poems for your reflection. The first, by Mary Oliver, describes everyday worry about both the mundane and the sublime. The second, by a Sufi poet, speaks deeply to the mystery of loss and life. Both invite us to learn to “sing” — to offer our song to the world despite the inevitable, or maybe precisely because we are only here for a short while. I hope they speak to you as they did for these people in Inquiry who came forward with their songs.

A postscript: As I was preparing this small post at my desk on Monday afternoon (August 25) I received a call that Antaro Burke had died peacefully an hour earlier, at 3:20 PM. This post is dedicated to him and to Tom Utts, the young man who died in the tragic accident on the morning of August 3.

I Worried

I worried a lot.  Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up.  And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

~ Mary Oliver

The Unbroken

There is a brokenness
Out of which comes the unbroken,
A shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow beyond all grief
Which leads to joy
And a fragility
Out of whose depths emerges strength.
There is a hollow space
Too vast for words
through which we pass with each loss,
out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.
There is a cry
Deeper than all sound,
Whose serrated edges cut the heart as we break open
To the place inside, which is unbreakable and whole,
While learning to sing.

~ Rashani (Sufi poet)

Inquiry recording: