For Al Tribe
A fundamental tenet of Buddhism (and science) is that nothing can be lost from the world: life and death are one continuous flow of form into other forms. In our blood are minerals that once were rock, observed poet Lorine Niedecker. Rock and water flow in our veins, and we flow back into them. We know this much. Which makes birth and death opposites — the entering and escaping of life from a given form. But life and death aren’t opposites; they’re partners in an infinite dance. Death is the means by which life renews itself.
Despite this understanding, when someone we love dies, we experience a hole in the world through which something beyond value has slipped away. Life feels utterly changed, and we know it will remain so. And yet life doesn’t pause in deference to our loss, but proceeds with seeming indifference.
Poet W.H. Auden wrote about the death of Icarus:
“…the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”
This is the sadness and the beauty of life — that it sails on, with and without those we love, with and without us. The sun shines because it has to. This is all that life knows how to do, the never-ending to which its ingenuity is devoted: it goes on.
Even in the thickest beginning of our grief, there are moments when we forget our loss. Then the memory breaks over us, and we’re shocked anew, and remorseful for having forgotten even for a second…for having sailed on. Death is harder on the living than the dead, because we have to continue. We think of questions we want to ask, jokes we want to share. We have long conversations with our memories and our imaginings.
Some Buddhist monks meditate in charnel grounds. This is a way of holding death where it belongs: in front of our eyes, all the time. Because we would live our days differently if we lived them intimate with this reality, rather than in virtual denial of it. Of course, we know we’re going to die. But we think of death as something that will happen sometime. And we think of sometime as a time removed from now. This fallacy enables us to be petty, to waste life, to obsess about things we know don’t matter, and to take for granted ones we love.
If we felt in our bones that we could die at any moment, which is the truth, how would we live? If we knew that each meal might be our final one, would we taste it more? If we thought that this day could really be our last, or another’s last, what would we say to them? How would we behave in the world?
There is a ground that is neither denial nor despair. It’s a middle path not halfway between those extremes, but beyond both: a way that embraces life-and-death as one, a practice that Pico Iyer describes as “joyful participation in a world of sorrows.”
My friend Al Tribe was, among many attributes and qualities, a Zen priest, psychiatrist, and deeply loving man. For about two years we met once or twice a month on Thursday afternoons at the same coffee shop. During one of these conversations we discussed enlightenment, which now seems odd because it’s not something I think about much. Maybe I was testing him; I tend to be skeptical about dwelling on enlightenment. Anyway, Al wrote his understanding and experience of the word on the back of the receipt for our lunch. It read, “EVERYTHING IS ALL RIGHT.”
For nearly a year, the receipt sat on my altar. Al died just before Rohatsu, the first week of December, dedicated in the Buddhist world to silent meditation in honor of Buddha’s enlightenment. In the middle of this meditation, I visited his family, taking a copy of the receipt for his wife. I worried whether it was too soon for that particular message, but it was the only one I had in his handwriting. It turned out to be all right.
This is just to say I miss you, Al. And I wonder — even on days of least light, is it conceivable to feel that everything is all right?