The initial impetus for starting this blog was my being given a sabbatical by the congregation I serve. Starting this past 1st of September I have five months for reflection, study and writing. I’m framing this sabbatical with two major activities. First, I’ve been offered a position as minister-in-residence at Meadville Lombard, the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago. Specifically, I’m the “John Lester Young Fellow,” the second to be so named. The grand title apparently means I get an apartment for the duration. All very exciting, let me assure you. Second, I’ll be spending five weeks in India. The plan as it currently stands is to visit the tribal Unitarian community in the Khasi Hills in Meghalaya state, roughly straight north from Bangladesh. From there for the bulk of the India sojourn I plan on visiting the major sites of the Buddha’s life and death.
But what I find very interesting and what becomes the grist for this my first formal posting to the online version of my longstanding Monkey Mind newsletter column turns on death.
For me much of my thinking about this sabbatical has been about new things, new birth, new possibilities. But as I actually begin this sabbatical I find myself sent off surrounded by death. A week before my sabbatical began the mother of one of the Society’s members died and I found myself focused on that. Then right after I delivered my concluding sermon before taking off on sabbatical I learned one of our longtime members had died. So, my actual taking off has actually been delayed a few days while I attend to that matter. As I’ve learned so long ago, in these matters, death trumps. Also in the background of my consciousness the husband of one of my spouse’s co-workers who shared an interest in Buddhism unexpectedly died a few days ago while at the gym. As he and I were of an age and we were both, how can I say this, big guys; this similarity has not gone unnoticed by my spouse and friends, or me. And right behind that an old friend who is also in my age cohort, although with vastly healthier life-style was just telling me about the unexpected diagnosis that might have fatal consequences down the line.
For the daybook entry this morning I quoted Joan Halifax, scholar and Zen teacher. I find her an intriguing and compelling guide on the spiritual quest and commend her books to anyone interested in the fundamental matter. Our quest for wisdom demand attention to what is, as Joan points out. And attending to what is includes recalling death.
Which leads me to a brief reflection on death and perhaps how best to engage it. There are those who have a friend drop dead, or find themselves undergoing a brush with fatality and ask “what lesson is the universe trying to teach me?” This is, of course, a profoundly silly and narcissistic view. Other people don’t die so I can get a lesson. The universe is vastly larger and more complex than that thought allows. Those who say otherwise don’t know what they’re talking about.
But, there is something here, a matter of respect. If a friend dies, if we find ourselves reminded of our mortality and the passingness of life by someone else’s tragedy, noticing and not turning away, looking for what I can learn becomes a matter of respect. We accept the lesson as it presents without attributing a self-centered meaning on the complex matters of the universe, the waves and cross currents of a multicausal, multivalent, multiverse. So big, so mysterious, so curious. When we’re on our game, the response is well shut my mouth: and just be. Present.
It’s astonishing what births out of that shut-my-mouth-present.
So, out of respect, out of gratitude, out of wonder, I’m trying to hear the whispers of the cosmos as I embark on my grand adventure.
And maybe this can be a pointer for you on your own path, as well.