“What is born is of the nature of death”

My cousin was 57 years old and lived with her husband in Northern California where they had raised three children, all adults now. Several years ago, she had breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. At that time, she appeared to be cancer free. Just a couple of months ago she had some tests done and again, it looked as though she was in the clear.

Over the Fourth of July weekend she emailed, writing that she was worried about how her stomach was swollen. She’d had a blood test and was going for a CT scan early the next week. It didn’t sound good to me. It sounded like ascites, where the abdomen becomes very swollen and distended. I’d seen that a lot at the liver clinic. People with ascites look like they are pregnant, and it is painful.

On Sunday, July 7, we talked on the phone. She was afraid the cancer had spread throughout her entire body. She cried. I didn’t say much. I just listened. Even though there was nearly 400 miles of distance between us, I tried to there for her, present in body and mind. I did remind her that fear was her worse enemy . . .

Cancer had spread through her body and ravaged it with a vengeance. Her kidney was more tumor than organ, I am told. She died this past Monday, July 21.

With cancer, you can never say never.

We corresponded via email frequently, sometimes as often as two or three times a week. Besides the bond of family, we had that special bond formed by our experience with the Big C. We both battled cancer and we also battled fear, and we would encourage one another to stay strong and fight the fight. In one of our last email exchanges, later the same day we talked on the phone, she wrote, “Fear sucks our life away.” I believe she understood that the greatest tragedy is not physical death but rather when a negative emotion like fear destroys what lives within us. I hope the realization helped her touch some peace in that final skirmish.

Sufferings and peace are both of the nature of the mind.
It is fortunate to have made the resolution to liberate oneself from sufferings
While understanding that all sufferings in the world and the peace called Nirvana are mingled into one,
Without having imperfect views and without taking the phenomenal world to be real.
It is fortunate to remember from one’s heart
Meditations on the transcendence of birth and death,
Knowing that what is born is of the nature of death
And not unchangeable as we imagine.

from Gyu-thog’s Hymn of Wisdom



Being Alive

I’ve had problems concentrating recently, which is why blogging has been slow, intermittent. It is partly due to my recovery from major surgery and the medication they are giving me, and partly due to other matters that have been pressing on my somewhat compromised mind, such as the death of a dear family member.

Fear of death (thanatophobia) is a phobia shared by most people. Almost everyone is afraid of dying. Buddhism teaches that when we develop a deep understanding of the inevitability of death, we can overcome this fear and face death with courage.

Another aspect of fear of death is a reluctance to talk about death, or think about it. But the subject of death should be discussed and pondered, and I feel our reflection on death should lead us to an appreciation of life.

There are times when it is difficult for me to remember just how precious life is, times when I begrudge my life.

It is easy to lose track of what is important. The old adage about stopping to smell the roses is a good one, because as Thich Nhat Hanh says,

When we learn to stop and be truly alive in the present moment, we are in touch with what’s going on within and around us. We aren’t carried away by the past, the future, our thinking, ideas, emotions, and projects.”

Nor are we preoccupied with feeling sorry for ourselves, bemoaning our disappointments, and so on.

Life is not fair. Life is uncertain. Death is not fair. Death is uncertain, but inevitable. Every moment of life counts, every breath is precious . . .

There is only one important point you must keep in your mind and let it be your guide. No matter what people call you, you are just who you are. Keep to this truth. You must ask yourself how is it you want to live your life. We live and we die, this is the truth that we can only face alone. No one can help us, not even the Buddha. So consider carefully, what prevents you from living the way you want to live your life?”

– Dalai Lama XIV


Cowardice Will Save the World

By all accounts, James Garner, who passed away Saturday at age 86, was a likeable guy, who excelled at playing likeable guys on the small and big screen. Many of the characters he played were interchangeable: wisecracking, sometimes glib, unsentimental, cynical. A number of them were cowards.

In one episode of the show that provided Garner with his initial fame, Bret Maverick said, “Bravery gets you nothing but hurt.” And Jim Rockford, Garner’s other big television role, was always a reluctant hero. But the biggest coward Garner ever played was in The Americanization of Emily. In that film, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Edward Madison makes no bones about it. He says, “I preach cowardice.”

Andrews as Emily
Andrews as Emily

Emily is one of my all-time favorite films. I saw it shortly after its release in 1964. In those days, we had what was known as the “double bill” or “double feature.” You got to see two movies for the price of one (plus a cartoon). I don’t remember what the main feature might have been that afternoon (as I recall it was an afternoon), but Emily stayed in my mind. For one thing, it caused me to fall in love with Julie Andrews. I had already seen her in Mary Poppins, where she was practically perfect in every way, but in this movie, she was sexy as hell.

Emily was memorable for another reason . . . in 1964, I still had an idealistic view about war, I doubt I knew much about what was happening in Vietnam at that time, and I certainly had not read anything in-depth about Gandhi or learned the word ahisma yet, but Charlie Madison’s “cowardice” resonated, striking a pacifist chord that must have already existed within my 12-year-old soul.

Based on William Bradford Huie’s 1959 novel of the same name, written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Arthur Hiller, the film is essentially a satire on war, but it’s also about life, love, bravery, Hersey Bars and Coca-cola. Garner’s character, like Henley in The Great Escape, is a “scrounger,” and aide-de- camp for an admiral stationed in London. It’s just before D-Day and Charlie has things pretty good, living it up in his cushy job until he’s handed a dangerous assignment (photographing the first dead man on Omaha Beach) and falls in love with Emily, a British war widow.

This brief exchange conveys the two character’s outlooks on life:

Emily Barham: I believe in honor, service, courage, and fair play, and cricket, and all the other symbols of British character. Which have only civilized half the world!

Lt. Cmdr. Charles E. Madison: You British plundered half the world for your own profit, let’s not pass it off as the age of enlightenment.

Chayefsky’s script captures the growing anti-war feeling, which in ’64 was actually little more than an undercurrent on college campuses across the U.S. Chayefsky later wrote Network, another cynical film, and it is his cynicism here that gave Emily its cutting edge. I don’t know, but I suspect that Chayefsky found the peacenik sentiment of songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” with its “Oh when will they ever learn?” refrain a bit trite. Waiting in the wings was flower power and the Summer of Love and it would be quite a while before we learned that they will never learn.

Which begs the question, is Charlie a craven coward, or that another word for a pacifist, a hero who sees the absurdity of war and refuses to participate in it. Charlie sums up his philosophy with these remarks to Emily’s mother:

We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on the ministers and generals, or warmongering imperialists, or all the other banal bogeys. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers. The rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widow’s weeds like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices. My brother died at Anzio…Yes. An everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud…Now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. That’ll be in September…Maybe ministers and generals blunder us into wars, Mrs. Barham, the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution . . .”

You will have to watch the film yourself to see how Charlie’s views on war play out, and filmed in glorious black and white, it is a film well worth seeing . . . more than once. By the time Garner made it, he was in a position to pick and choose the parts he played, so I have to believe that he shared this cynicism toward the virtues of war, even though he was a true hero in the classic sense, receiving two Purple Hearts in the Korean War.

moe2I’ll always be in love with Julie Andrews, and I will always have a fond regard for James Garner, a likable guy who played likeable guys so well that he seemed like a friend and it’s sad he’s no longer here.

And I think I shall always be a coward.


The Photographer of New York

One of the benefits of having a blog is that you can use it to introduce your readers to interesting people whom they might not have known about previously. Today it is Berenice Abbott, an American photographer best known for her black-and-white photography, born on July 17, 1898. She learned photography from Man Ray in Paris during the 1920s, returned to American to become the photographer of New York City according to some folks,and taught at the New School for Social Research for over 20 years. She died at the age of 93 in 1991.

Read more about this strong-willed, independent, pioneer of modern photography here, while this site claims to be the official Berenice Abbott archive.

Does not the very word ‘creative’ mean to build, to initiate, to give out, to act – rather than to be acted upon, to be subjective? Living photography is positive in its approach, it sings a song of life – not death.”

– Berenice Abbott

Whether it is a photograph or on film, I’m a sucker for black and white. For certain subjects, the stark images are more compelling, and without the color to distract, it is easier to concentrate on the image. Orson Welles once called B&W “the actor’s best friend” because he felt actors gave better performances in black and white, for it allowed more focus on the actor’s expressions as he or she emoted.

Today, several of Berenice Abbott’s most notable photos:

Penn Station, Interior, Manhattan - 1935
Penn Station, Interior, Manhattan – 1935
Brooklyn Bridge 1933
Brooklyn Bridge 1933
Children at a fair 1967
Children at a fair 1967
Jean Cocteau with a gun 1926
Jean Cocteau with a gun 1926

Sufferings are Nirvana

Sufferings are nirvana is what the Heart Sutra means when it says, “Within emptiness there is . . . no suffering and no beginning and no ending of suffering . . .”

The Heart Sutra is emptiness from the Bodhisattva point of view. At times, I think it is easier to see things from the point of view of Buddha, for it is relatively undemanding to learn emptiness as the oneness of all beings. The Bodhisattva view is harder because you must grasp emptiness in terms of the liberation of all beings.

In the phrase sufferings are nirvana, “sufferings” stands for this world we live in, or samsara, the world of suffering. We all know that it is impossible to go through life without the experience of suffering, so Buddha’s first teaching was “Life is suffering.” What he meant was “Life is peace, nirvana.”

Mu Soeng, in his book on the Diamond Sutra*, writes,

[Although] the bodhisattva chooses to stay in samsara, she or he is not seduced by the things of samsara and thus dwell in nirvana, free from any kind of clinging.”

Clinging is a root cause of suffering; it can be clinging to the false sense of self, clinging to the relative as absolute, or clinging to sense-pleasures or possessions. Sometimes we can cling to suffering and see nothing but suffering.

By practicing non-clinging a bodhisattva cultivates the transcendent wisdom (prajna-paramita) that brings to light the universal emptiness and enables all beings to realize the kind of liberation in which all things are nirvana.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Mu Soeng, The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, Wisdom Publications, 2011, 110