My grandfather had a stroke last year, only months after my grandmother passed away. He can speak fine--thank goodness--but can't walk or use his left arm at all. Luckily he lives on the same property as my parents, so they can take good care of him. Lately he's been having a hard time accepting the fact that he can't do all of the things he used to; he'll talk about driving to the store, going to work, or mowing the lawn.
Until a few years ago, he was an avid hunter. So recently he's been asking my father to wheel him into his spare bedroom to look at his rifles.
In frustration, my father said to me, "Why can't he understand that his hunting days are over?"
As a Buddhist, I can understand this tendency all to well. We cling to everything--objects, ideas, people, experiences--for security, validation, a sense of identity.
When my father said this, the enormity of our clinging struck me as it never had in the past. Listening to my father relate how difficult of a time my grandfather--a man I greatly admire, who is now facing the most difficult challenge in his life--was having letting go, woke me up to the complexity of human clinging.
I suddenly realized, in light of my grandfather's story, that if we cling so desperately to objects and habits, imagine how much we cling to existence itself! Clinging to this "I," according to the Buddha, is the source of rebirth.
It all became so clear. Trapped in this dualism of life and death, I literally felt my own innate grasping at existence--a physical impulse like gasping for air. Despite my own occasional tendency to escape into the peaceful oblivion of sleep, I never considered how much I cling to the idea of existence. To my sense of identity. To my concept of "I."
Everything else is a satellite orbiting this "I."
Last week I assigned my senior Honors class to write three questions they would love to know the answers to. Inevitably the top two are: Does God exist? and What happens to us when we die?
In the past I would have definitely chosen the second one. But not anymore.
The more I study and practice Zen, the less certain I am of what I would have hitherto called "constants" or "givens"--consciousness, life, existence itself.
Now I'm more concerned with understanding the nature of this life, of this experience, of this thing I call "I." After all, why should I be concerned with the afterlife when I don't even understand the true nature of this life?
What my practice has taught me is that freedom isn't found by accumulating objects or power, but with relinquishing. In that way, I'm just like my grandfather--learning how to let go.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: iKeito.