Many times when our temple receives requests to have “a monk” visit someone in the hospital who was identified as Buddhist, I end up referring them to other temples more in line with the patient’s nationality or the caller’s expectations. The other day I received such a request – the caller said she didn’t belong to a local temple but went occasionally to the Vipassana center near Rockford. She was suggesting to her mother to look into Buddhism now that her mother was being placed in palliative care at a nursing home after release from the hospital. When I heard that her mother had weakening kidneys, I agreed to see her, thinking of my own mother who kept refusing dialysis and finally had to go into hospice care.
For my first visit the daughter met me at her mother’s room. When her mother, Diane, said she’s an avid reader of the New York Times and the New Yorker and the daughter said she gave her mother a book on meditation and psychology with a long, technical title, I apologized for bringing a “lightweight” book – Rev. Gyomay Kubose’s The Center Within. Since our temple’s bookstore items were packed away to make room for the summer festival, it was the only book I could wrench out of the storage box. Although I’ve joked about that book being for people with ADHD (i.e. articles are too short and underdeveloped), I thought the final article “Every Day is the Last Day” was a nice presentation of the Buddhist attitude towards death and dying.
A couple weeks later when I was in the neighborhood of the nursing home, I went to visit Diane. She had read Rev. Kubose’s book thoroughly and observed how dated it was, written before our temple had much diversity (dozens of European Americans among the hundreds of ethnic Japanese) and before gay and women’s liberation would challenge Rev. Kubose’s old-fashioned outlook on gender and marriage. Maybe not so much in Rev. Kubose’s book, but in some materials Diane had read about Buddhism from time to time, she found exhortations to cut “the ties that bind” while most advice she’s received on health and aging encourages people to develop social networks.
I explained to Diane that the big misunderstanding about Buddhism is that it is against “attachment” to other people (see my Oct. 18, 2011 entry “The word ‘love’ - the negative connotation in Buddhism”). The “attachment” Buddhist teachers disparage is the attitude of possessiveness towards other beings, treating them as objects to control. In my reading and experience I’ve seen that those who are spiritually awakened cultivate their connections to people. They recognize that our relationships with others is the concrete manifestation of the truth of interdependency, the truth that there is no separate self because each life is part of the interactive network of all lives.
So I told Diane she is already living the truth of interdependency – in her close relation with her daughter, in her phone conversations with her brother on the West Coast and with her local friends (she mentioned a good friend just called to tell her about attending the Pride Parade the day before). During our conversation I wondered if she was expecting me to say something wise but instead I’d ask more questions about her personal life.
The way she breathed with difficulty and occasionally fell into light sleep in mid-sentence reminded me so much of my mother in the last few weeks she was alive. After I left Diane, I thought that in a way any dying mother is my mother, any ailing sister is my sister, any father in chemotherapy is my father. Maybe that is the only empathy I can muster for others – to relive with them my recent experience of losing the three family members. Buddhism says we should be careful not to project our past experience onto judgments of the present, but I can’t help feeling if my grief is worth anything to others it’s to let them know I have been and will be the witness to the transient moments of a precious human life.