It’s been a hard week, processing the recent deaths of several friends, a mentor, and then Tuesday night, the death of my sister-in-law’s brother from liver cancer, the same disease I have. As the old blues song goes, death don’t have no mercy in this land.
Since my mother died 25 years ago, there has been a phrase that I’ve used to help me deal with death: “Sufferings are nirvana only when one realizes that the entity of human life throughout its cycle of birth and death is neither created nor destroyed.” Even with this understanding, one naturally feels some sadness with the passing of a life.
On top of this, I am dealing with something I have haven’t really experienced before: fear. I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly apprehensive person. Foolhardy, perhaps. Fearful, no.
Jack’s death hits so close to home. I am better off than he was, though. He couldn’t be transplanted because the cancer had spread too far. I can. I have a chance he didn’t have. Yet, this offering of hope does not completely allay my fears about what I will soon undergo.
I was encouraged by a video clip on YouTube of a recent memorial concert for musician Lou Reed who died in October from liver cancer after receiving a transplant. His doctor related how at one point when Lou was sick in the Cleveland hospital and practically begging to be allowed to go home to New York, a liver suddenly materialized. Lou’s doctor went into the room and told him and Lou was like “Are you shitting me? Let’s go!” The doctor said, “Not a fear in his eyes. Nothing. And off we went . . .”
Lou was a practitioner of Tai Chi and studied Buddhist philosophy, although he was not a Buddhist (“I’d like to be” he said.) I wonder if he was familiar with the quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: “Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy.” As I face the same situation he did, I think that should be my mantra.
The Buddhist texts make it clear that the experience of joy in life is one of the primary goals of Buddhist practice. For instance, the Dharmasangiti Sutra says that the inner peace that comes from the practice of mindfulness “has as its real meaning the defeat of pain (such as infinite suffering) and the full attainment of joy in this world” and that “one must cherish enthusiasm through a eagerness for it; even as a man shut up in a burning house longs for cool water.”
So there is more to this thing we call mindfulness than merely having a calm mind, reducing stress, improving attention, being in the present moment and so on. It’s also very much about the enjoyment of being alive. And it is something we must be keen for, and work at. Joyous living is not a gift but rather a hard-won prize, obtained through the daily battle against suffering.
Nagarjuna listed priti, the sense of joy, as one of the seven factors of enlightenment, and further equated nirvana with infinite joy, just as he proclaimed that sufferings are nirvana and “the Buddha is like the sky and all beings have that nature.”
Joy is possible. I know it must be because I am surrounded by it. I live in a section of Los Angeles called Loz Feliz. I live in The Joy. And when you think about it deeply, you realize we all do.