Being Changed With Every Breath…
by Mary Sojourner
“… the Jeweled Net of Indra, a metaphor from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, which portrays how all beings are interconnected across time and space. The image, a vast net of inter-connecting threads, describes how at all intersecting nodes there is a diamond-like jewel that represents all sentient beings — human and other — that exist in the universe. Each jewel reflects every other jewel in the vast net. Whenever suffering occurs anywhere in the great, luminous net, a tear appears. In times of trouble, people respond, and their compassionate response helps the net to reweave around the places of suffering.” — Olivia Hoblitzelle, “Get Your Dyin’ Done Early,” Inquiring Mind, Fall 2008
An older friend is afraid for his mind. I am seventy-two and have been afraid of losing my mind since I was eighteen. Olivia Hoblitzelle’s husband, Hob, had intended to give a talk on Indra’s Web at the Cambridge Insight and Meditation Center. He was more than qualified. He’d trained in Buddhist meditation and was a lay monk in the Tiep Hiep Order. He’d taught for fifteen years.
None of his fine mind, deep practice and devotion helped him the night of the Indra talk. He had readied his talk for months, actions Olivia noted were inconsistent with his usual preparations. He began to talk. And, stopped. And, stopped. And, stopped again.
I was not in the room, but I can guess a silence fell. Not so much the quiet of waiting, but the same kind of silence that might have filled the audience on the night George Carlin stepped onto the stage of a glittery revue and did nothing for ten minutes. In Carlin’s case, it was the diamond brilliance of his wit that shone. In Hob’s case, it was a fraying of the exquisite weave of his neurons and synapses.
The silence must have held. Hob’s audience was made up of Buddhist practitioners. They would have understood how possibility lies in the void. And then, Hob told them what was happening inside his head. Can you imagine? No theory, no canon, no texts or chants. Hob taught from the deepest knowledge. He spoke from the immutable truth of the moment.
I don’t know his exact words. I imagine he might have said, “I, too, have not been spared the first three of the Four Heavenly Messengers: old age, sickness and death. I am blessed to remember the Fourth, the monk sitting with what was left of his breath. Buddha met all four, as I will. Forgive me, I do not know what to say next.”
I imagine the silence that followed those words was the silence of the slow gathering of unbearable knowledge that must be borne.
Olivia Hoblitzelle is one of a myriad of Earthly Messengers. I did not want to read her words and I knew it was time to meet all the messengers. Youth doesn’t spare us from sickness or death, but there is little room in our modern world to meet with our old age. Sogyal Rinpoche has written: “How many of us are swept away by what I have come to call an ‘active laziness’? It consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activities, so that there is not time at all to confront the real issues.”
It is time and there is not time at all for those of us growing old and grown old to meet Old Age. We will not truly encounter that messenger in theory, canon, text or chant. We will not bump into our difficult friend in the mall.
“The most important thing is not to get trapped in what I see everywhere in the West, a ‘shopping mentality:’ shopping around from master to master, teaching to teaching, without any continuity or real, sustained dedication to any one discipline,” says Sogyal Rinpoche.
I dedicate this post to my older friend; to M. who lay in the presence of her death and turned the hospital ceiling tile above to a diamond, a diamond into which she gathered all she loved and whispered, “I love you”; to any of you who know that as diamonds are carbon brought through heat and pressure. You are a raw diamond, being changed with every breath into the old person you will become.
Mary Sojourner is the author of the novel Going Through Ghosts (University of Nevada Press, 2010) and the memoir She Bets Her Life (Seal Press, 2009), among her many books. She is a National Public Radio commentator and the author of numerous essays, columns, and op-eds for dozens of publications. Sojourner is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision, where her columns appear on the third Friday of every month.