A year ago today, I turned 69. My wife and I met family members in New York State and celebrated with, among other things, a chocolate cheesecake that my niece Linda supplied and ribs that my cousin Joe made (although not necessarily in that order). As we drove back to our home in Virginia, we discussed throwing a big celebration this spring, perhaps with a renewal of our vows. May 23 is our anniversary as well as my birthday.
Spring is here again. My birthday and our anniversary have rolled around, and I turned 70. But, as Buddhism teaches, nothing is permanent, not even spring and birthdays. Neither my wife nor I can handle a big celebration. We’re inviting close friends, two couples, to join us for dinner.
I thought I would be proud to turn 70, and on one level I am. It’s an age I never expected to reach. Growing up in a Jewish immigrant neighborhood of Philadelphia after the Second World War, I didn’t have many male role models who lived that long. My father died just a few days after his 60th birthday. My Buddhist faith tells me to live fully in, and appreciate, every moment. That’s usually easy for me to do. But not today.
It’s not my recent surgery that makes it hard. It’s my new-found aversion to spring.
About a week after we returned home last year, our son Thomas died at age 29. He fell from his skateboard around 1:50 a.m. on June 1, and nothing is the same as it was before. Of course, nothing is ever the same as it was before, but some not-the-sames are not-the-samer than others.
Much has changed over the last year. I sold my business and tried to focus on spiritual growth for me and for others. We moved to a smaller home, redecorated it and installed solar panels. I went ahead with my right shoulder replacement, my fifth joint-replacement operation. And I found a spiritual home in Dzogchen Buddhism as taught my Lama Surya Das.
Last September, I shared in this blog a story about an important Tibetan Buddhist teacher named Marpa. I didn’t realize then that I would become a follower of his Dzogchen teachings or that I would hear Lama Surya tell Marpa’s story for me the following January. Here is the story again, with a slight variation in translation, as told by Lama Surya:
Marpa’s firstborn son, Dharma Dode, was his heir. Marpa had a premonition and told Dharma Dode not to attend a festival and not to ride a horse that day, but Dharma Dode did both, was thrown from the horse onto a rocky surface, and died.
As Marpa wept bitterly for two weeks, covering his head with his robes, the local residents asked him why he was crying. He had taught them that everything is a dream. “Yes, everything is a dream,” said Marpa. “And the death of one’s child is a nightmare.” Then he buried his head in his robes again and cried for two more weeks.
Lama Surya was making the point that I need not feel that my practice had slipped because I was mired in grief. My practice was my grief.
So for all of us who have experienced one of life’s nightmares, may we go easy on ourselves. Life is still a miracle, even as our practice is mired in grief.
We all shine on.
— Mel Pine (Urgyen Jigme)
Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine