death. week 17.
Camus famously wrote that the only serious question in life is whether or not to kill yourself. He’s mistaken. There is one other, even more serious question. Ask yourself: what are you ready to die for?
The First Panchen Lama's Death Poem
I and all beings throughout space and without exception
Go for refuge until the ultimate of enlightenments
To the past, present, and future Buddhas, the Doctrine, and the Spiritual Community. May we be released from the frights of this life, the intermediate state, and the next.
May we realize that there is no time to waste,
Death being definite but the time of death indefinite.
What has gathered will separate, what has been accumulated will be consumed without residue,
At the end of a rising comes descent, the finality of birth is death.
May we be relieved from mistaken appearances of non-virtue
When, deceived at the time of need by this body sustained so dearly,
The frightful enemies—the lords of death—manifest
And we kill ourselves with the weapons of the three poisons of lust, hatred, and bewilderment.
May we remember instructions for practice
When doctors forsake us and rites are of no avail,
Friends have given up hope for our life,
And we are left with nothing else to do.
May we have the confidence of joy and delight
When food and wealth accumulated with miserliness are left behind
And we separate forever from cherished and longed-for friends,
Going alone to a perilous situation.
May we generate a powerful mind of virtue
When the elements—earth, water, fire, and wind—dissolve in stages
And physical strength is lost, mouth and nose dry and pucker,
Warmth withdraws, breaths are gasped, and rattling sounds emerge.
May we realize the deathless mode of being
When various mistaken appearances frightful and horrible
And in particular mirage, smoke, and fireflies appear
And the mounts of the eighty indicative conceptions cease.
May we generate strong mindfulness and introspection
When the wind begins to dissolve into consciousness
And the external continuum of breath ceases, appearances dissolve,
And an appearance like a burning butter lamp dawns.
May the mother and child clear lights meet
When near-attainment dissolves into the all-empty
And all conceptual multiplications cease and an experience
Like an autumn sky free from polluting conditions dawns.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the journey that the soul undertakes during death and rebirth. I don't know anything about that, but much of the book does seem to describe the various layers of consciousness that pervade my everyday existence. In fact, it seems as if it could have been written as a guide to psychodelic trips. (The Dalai Lama's introduction makes it clear that the process of dying mirrors many common experiences, like falling asleep, sneezing, or an orgasm.)
A moment of dying is indistinguishable from a moment of living. Well, obviously. A moment of dying is a moment of living. It is all an unraveling. Death forces us to notice, for once in our life, what life truly looks like. Or rather, a moment of living forces us to understand what a moment of dying looks like. And it can be terrifying. But only because I am terrified of life itself. As I pay attention to the ultimate death, I can’t help but notice the little deaths all around me. How life is far more cruel than death could ever be.
“Death cannot harm me
More than you have harmed me,
My beloved life.”
- Louise Gluck
Is life really worth living? Do I secretly long for death? Never mind. In learning to die, I am merely learning to live. Learning to approach the moments of my life, allowing them to penetrate me. Learning to face them, support them and release them, rather than existing in a grey no-mans-land beyond life and death. That land of distraction. That land of anxiety. That land of fear. That land of hate. That land of suffering.
For some obscure bizarre reason, a moment of unvarnished clear life seems nearly unbearable. I am often brought to tears by it. Before what? I do not know. An encounter. With whom? I do not know. My self?
Intimacy and loss feel so much the same.
Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
“Nearly everyone in our transport [to Auschwitz] lived under the illusion that he would be reprieved, that everything would yet be well.”
I look around me. Sounds about right.
“Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”
As I read Bataille (Inner Experience + Eroticism):
Are the words “violence” and “freedom” essentially synonymous? Like a single object viewed from two different angles.
To conceive of the erotic, is to conceive of one’s non-existence. By the same token, to desire the erotic, is to desire one’s non-existence.
What is it that I crave when I crave intimacy? It is nothing but death. That total acceptance; eternal and total understanding. That penetrating embrace. "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine." But not an encounter with that old death; a death of terror and compulsion. A new kind of death; an encounter filled with recognition, return, and love. What Bataille calls continuity. Creative collapse. A sense of rest. A sense of home. A spaciousness.
Baruch Ha'Makom, Baruch Hu.
A sacred sabbath that consummates and elevates the profane workweek. It is as though all of life is a metaphor for death. Or better, all of life is a sublimation of death. Countless small loves, in preparation for that final great love. They were right all along. True love really does last forever.
"Then God will rejoice over you as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride."
The interplay of death and desire. We strive anxiously for more, and then rest appreciatively with what we already have. One is forbidden to mourn on the sabbath, for one is commanded to recognize death in all its beauty. One is commanded to ‘live in death’. One cannot mourn what one already is.
הִתְנַעֲרִי מֵעָפָר קוּמִי לִבְשִׁי בִּגְדֵי תִפְאַרְתֵּךְ עַמִּי
Only with death, can work subside. Only with death, can celebration begin.
As with an orgasm, so with death. The crucial matter is who you’re doing it with. Then, why you’re doing it all. And finally, what has led you to do it. One must pursue death as one pursues a lover. One must learn to flirt. Death, too, needs to be courted. One must recognize in her dark face the warmth of a long sought after and irreproachable lover.
King David when describing burial:
צדיק כתמר יפרח, שתולים בבית אדני בחצרות אלהינו יפריחו.
The righteous will blossom like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our gods.
Perhaps the greatest truth related to death is this: Death is never an end. And the result of death is never an absence. To recognize this is to deal honestly (and therefore lovingly) with death. To ignore this, is to declare war on death and thereby life itself. This is simultaneously the most obvious and yet somehow most surprising recognition related to death.
“The path of non-knowledge is the emptiest of nonsense.”
- Bataille, Inner Experience
Issues: (1) Bataille overly accentuates the darkness. Or rather, he only allows light in through the back door. (2) he over-privileges so-called ‘inner experience’. The same mistake that all mystics make. He forgets (or glosses over) that all experiences are equally precious, equally profound. (3) he kisses and tells. (Why do I insist on secrecy / privacy?)
"So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams."
- Thanatopsis, by Bryant
Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet - Sermon on Death
“O Death, we give you thanks for the light that you shine upon our ignorance. You alone can convince us of our lowliness; you alone can teach us of our dignity.”
“Nature, almost envious of the gift she gives us, often tells us and shows us that she cannot allow us to keep for very long the little bit of matter she has loaned us, that it must not remain in the same hands, that it must always be being exchanged. She has need of it for other forms; she requires it for other works.”
“This visit was not without cause: it is the artisan himself who comes in person to see what is lacking in the building, for he has a plan to renovate it in accord with his initial design: secundum imaginem ejus qui creavit illum. (Col 3:10)”
“O Soul, console yourself. If this divine architect who has undertaken to repair you allows the old structure of your body to fall piece by piece, it is so that he may return it to you in a better state and may rebuild it in a better order. For a little while, the body will fall under the empire of death, but it will not leave anything in his hands save mortality itself.”
“What then do you fear from death’s approach? Perhaps in seeing your house fall you fear that you will lack shelter? But listen to the holy apostle: “We know,” we know, he says, we are not led to believe by uncertain guesses, but we know most assuredly and with complete certitude, “that if this house of dirt and mud in which we live is destroyed, we have another dwelling place prepared for us in heaven.” (II Cor. 5:1) O merciful conduct of the one who anticipates our needs! He has a plan, as Saint John Chrysostom fittingly said, to repair the house he has given us. When he destroys it and casts it down in order to make it anew, we must move out. Yet he himself offers us his palace, and within it, gives us rooms wherein we may await in peace the complete reconstruction of our former abode.”
I have not a single worry, a single concern, that does not instantly (and gleefully) evaporate death's glare.
“Death, to me, is gain,” (Philippians 1:21)
I saw it in her eyes. The way she suddenly sat back from me, tilting her head away. It was present in the thick cloud that rolled over her blue eyes; eyes which just moments ago sparkled with mischief. I could see it in her eyes. She no longer saw me.
“He’s one of those men,” I can see her think.
I could see it in her eyes.
She left in a flash. I barely caught the back of her sweater as the door closed quickly behind her. She carried her jacket in one hand. In her haste to get away from me she didn’t dare pause to put it on.
I chased after her but once I caught her I found that I had nothing to say.
“Sorry, I’m so sorry.” She just stared at me. What did I want from her? It was obviously too late to make amends.
I mumbled another apology and slunk back to the bar to collect my things.
It is only now, a day later, that I realize what I wanted to tell her.
I want her to know that she had me wrong. That I’m not one of those men. That I really do care. And while I may be dirty, filth alone is no sin. In any case, for her, I’d happily come clean.
I wanted her to know that I’m not a bad guy.
Then why was I paralyzed? In my heart of hearts, didn’t I recognize myself in her female gaze? My guilt suddenly illuminated by her dead stare.
In that moment, standing in the cold on Essex street, I just wanted to make things better. I just wanted to heal the hurt that I’d caused by my mere existence. I wanted to protect her. Protect her, even from myself.
When I got home, I sent her a final text, then curled up into a ball and passed out fully clothed on the couch.
I know you don’t want to talk to me anymore, and I respect that. I won’t bother you more than I already have. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry and thank you for standing up to me and my words. You showed me, with your words and your actions, that what I said and thought is not okay. I’ll try my best to be better. I know you wanted to have a nice time and I’m very sorry for ruining your night with my behavior. I hope the lesson you taught me will sting for as long as it takes. Most of all, I’m sorry I hurt you.