The Interconnectedness of Death

Last February neurologist and Awakenings author Oliver Sacks learned he had terminal liver cancer. He shared this news with the world in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. I was moved by his thoughts about dying and I wrote a blog entry about it. As you may already be aware, Sacks died Sunday. He was 82.

oliver-sacks3His cancer was metastatic, and I’ve read that liver metastases is considered an absolute contraindication for liver transplantation.  However, it was treated. Sacks stated in a July 24 Times piece that in February, the cancer was treated with embolization, a procedure where substances are injected to try to block or reduce the blood flow to cancer cells, and the metastasis was “wiped out.” But a July 7 CT scan showed the metastases had regrown and spread beyond the liver.

He’d started immunotherapy treatment, but it was only to buy him time, and obviously it did not buy much of it.

In an appraisal written for yesterday’s edition of the Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote that in his work, Sacks cast light on the interconnectedness of life. The interdependence of life is a well-known Buddhist doctrine.  There is, too, an interconnectedness of death,  as stated so well by John Donne:

any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Life and death are interconnected. What Buddhism calls “the cycle of birth and death” is a continuum. Life is the active phase and death is the passive phase. It is said that the continuum of a human being, or more precisely consciousness, is beginningless. As to whether it is endless or not, there are divergent opinions.

From my perspective, finding myself in a situation very similar to that of Sacks,  beginningless and endlessness are not so important. What matters most is the indivisibility of life and death. Fear is one of the greatest sources of anxiety, particularly fear of one’s own death. When we realize the oneness of life and death, its interconnectedness, and the emptiness of all things, there is, as the Heart Sutra says, no fear and no illusion. This is wisdom and with this wisdom we enter into nirvana, which is nothing more than this mundane world of life and death.

That is from the ultimate truth. The relative truth was stated by Sacks himself: “I cannot pretend I am without fear.”

To my mind, “no fear” does not refer to the absence of fear, but rather to how we handle fear.  It means the absence of anxiety, or better, winning out over the anxiety that fear brings. It means facing even death with hope and confidence.




At eleven o’clock on the morning of Thursday August 9, 1945, the world’s second atomic bomb exploded 1,625 ft. above Nagasaki, one of Japan’s westernmost cities, located on the island of Kyushu. Nick-named “Fat Man,” a reference to Winston Churchill, it completely destroyed the city. More than 73,000 people died.

Nagasaki after the bomb.
Nagasaki after the bomb.

At that very moment, the Japanese Supreme War Council was meeting at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Unaware of what was happening at Nagasaki, Premier Suzuki was urging the council that in light of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima three days before, Japan could not possibly continue the war. Still, it took six more days for the Japanese to announce surrender.

Thus, the Atomic Age began.

I grew up with the Atomic Bomb, the constant threat of nuclear war. Although I don’t recall ever receiving instruction on how to “duck and cover” as has been shown in some famous newsreels, I do remember clearly seeing those orange and black Fallout Shelter signs almost everywhere you went.

Ah, nostalgia.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Fallout Shelters were quite a phenomenon in the U.S. Most were makeshift, just basements in existing buildings. However, many people built their own backyard underground bomb shelters. In Kansas, where I lived at the time, they doubled as tornado shelters.

It was a very real fear for some. But, I didn’t think anyone would be foolish enough to resort to nuclear war. After all, as P.J. Sloan wrote, and Barry McGuire sang, in “Eve of Destruction”: “If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away/There’ll be no one to save, with the world in a grave.”

That doesn’t mean that as in the subtitle to Stanley Kubrick’s 1965 film, Dr. Strangelove, I had “Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” I didn’t love the Bomb. Who could? I just didn’t worry about it.

The late, great Slim Pickens on that wild ride to oblivion in "Dr. Strangelove."
The late, great Slim Pickens on that wild ride to oblivion in “Dr. Strangelove.”

I do now, though. That a terrorist could carry a dirty bomb into an American city, perhaps my city, and set it off is a possibility that seems frighteningly real. Terrorist groups are not like nations. The mutually assured annihilation that held the superpowers in check is not a consideration for terrorists.

I don’t fret about it all the time. But it’s there. Fear. One of our most basic, innate emotions.

Not all fear is negative. Some fears are useful, as survival mechanisms. A healthy fear of fire, for instance, is a good thing to have. But some fears are not helpful. Theses are the fears we learn, and whether rational or irrational, for some people they can be overwhelming.

In Buddhism, fearlessness is often touted as a quality of life obtainable through Buddhist practice. In The Heart Sutra, we read that because bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita, or Transcendent Wisdom, they have no fear. This shouldn’t be taken literally. The sutra was composed in what we might call shorthand, so “no fear” actually refers to having no fear of emptiness.

In his Precious Garland, Nagarjuna describes four flawed ways of pursuing dharma practice. One is when we are held back by inhibition or fear, in that we feel threatened by emptiness. This fear comes from clinging to substantiality, to the idea of “I” or “mine.” For the wise, however, there is “no fear” because the teaching of emptiness shows that there is a way to transcend the concept of self, and unlearn certain fears.

Fearlessness is really a state where we have cultivated mindfulness to such a degree that fear cannot overwhelm us. Using meditation, the path of Transcendent Wisdom, we stabilize our mind by maintaining a focus on the present, lessening the possibility of influence from thoughts about experiences from the past or anxiety concerning future events, where fears generally arise.

One benefit that comes from accepting emptiness is the understanding that many of the things we fear have no real substance, they are ultimately unreal. I’ll admit that it’s hard to accept the idea that a terrorist threat is empty. Or that fire is. But as far as the conventional everyday world is concerned, we have this wonderful tool of mindfulness at our disposal to loosen the grip of fear. We can master fear, instead of letting it master us, and in that sense, we become fearless.

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers
But to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain
But for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield
But to my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved
But hope for patience to win my freedom. 
Sarvamangalam! Blessings to all!

– Rabindranath Tagore


Based on the True Story . . .

The Lady, a biopic on Aung San Suu Kyi starring Michelle Yeoh, is scheduled to be released in the U.S. on December 2. I haven’t read any reviews but I did read that the film has been banned in China. No surprise there, I suppose. And I also saw that the Lady herself told the Wall Street Journal on Monday, “I’m not really interested [in the film] and haven’t thought of looking it up on the Net or whatever.”

With her first born son, Alexander, in Nepal, 1973

Now, I did see the trailer on TV a few weeks ago. I got the sense that they’re marketing the movie as a love story. It’s a shame that filmmakers still feel the need, or are forced, to go in that direction. Yet, Aung San Suu Kyi’s true story is a great love story, and tremendously romantic. After all, this is a woman from Burma who fell in love with British scholar (born in Havana), got married, and was starting a family and living a sort of idyllic life in England, all of which she ended up having to sacrifice in order to stand up for democracy in her native land.

Suu Kyi and Michael Aris, 1973

I picked up Suu Kyi’s book Freedom from Fear, first published in 1991, today at my friendly neighborhood thrift shop. At a buck fifty, I couldn’t resist. The first thing I did of course was check out the photos in the middle of the book. Many of them of a very young Aung San Suu Kyi. Gazing at these pics, I could understand how Michael Aris could fall “instantly and madly in love with her” (according to a family friend). Not only did she posses a brilliant mind, she was cute as hell, too. Still is.

So far, I’ve just skimmed through the book, reading passages here and there. Like this from the essay ‘In Quest of Democracy”:

The Burmese people, who have had no access to sophisticated academic material, got the heart of the matter by turning to the words of the Buddha on the four causes of decline and decay: failure to recover that which had been lost, omission to repair that which had been damaged, disregard of the need for reasonable economy, and the elevation to leadership of men without morality or learning. “

That could be describing the situation here in the U.S. right now. We need to recover something that’s become lost in America. We need to go back to a time when business wasn’t only about greed, when companies would take their profits and reinvest in their businesses. We need to go back to when there were controls in place to check against rampant greed. It is obvious that some very powerful people are standing in the way of repairing the economy, and as well, opposing any attempt to make it reasonable and equitable. As far as our current crop of leaders go . . . well, less said about them the better.

Back to Freedom from Fear, this is from “Towards a True Refuge”, which according to the book “is the text of the Eighth Joyce Pearce Memorial Lecture, composed by Aung San Suu Kyi in the fourth year of her house arrest, and delivered on her behalf by her husband Dr. Michael Aris on 19 May 1993”:

Loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, Buddhists see as ‘divine’ states of mind which help to alleviate suffering and to spread happiness among all beings. The greatest obstacle to these noble emotions is not so much hatred, anger or ill will as the rigid mental state that comes from a prolonged and unwavering concentration on narrow self-interest. Hatred, anger or ill will that arises from wrongs suffered, from misunderstanding or from fear and envy may yet be appeased if there is sufficient generosity of spirit to permit forbearance, forgiveness and reconciliation, but it would be impossible to maintain or restore harmony when contention is rooted in the visceral inability of protagonists to concede that the other party has an equal claim to justice, sympathy and consideration. Hardness, selfishness and narrowness belong with greed, just as kindness, understanding and vision belong with true generosity.

Mountain trip in Bhutan, 1971

Freedom from Fear, a collection of writings, speeches and interviews, is mostly about politics, with a few history lessons and some great little dharma talks here and there. So far, I’ve seen almost nothing of Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal story. I don’t know as much about it as I’d like, but as I indicated, I find it romantic, and tragic, and inspiring. I hope someday she can write the story herself.

But, I have a feeling that is an endeavor that doesn’t interest her much more than the biopic does. So I guess we’ll have to wait for the “definitive biography.” If I was writing it, or the author’s editor, I would tempted to called it Aung San Suu Kyi, A True Bodhisattva.