Saturday, January 23, 2010

Siddhartha, liberty, mushrooms, life, and death

This morning I took a short walk around my neighborhood and came across a bale of straw in a ditch. A bundle of last summer’s dead grass, it was now teeming with decomposers. Was this a big, wet bundle of life or a big, wet bundle of death?

I walked on... thinking...

2500 years ago a pampered young prince ventured beyond the confines of his palace with his faithful servant, Channa. His father, the king, had instructed Channa to make sure these excursions were pure pleasure junkets. Nonetheless, it turned out that the prince saw on successive jaunts an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a mystic. And thus began the Buddha’s journey of awakening.

My musings about the Buddha were interrupted as I walked past the fire station flying the US Flag. The Pledge of Allegiance popped to mind. If you’re not from the US, you may not know that the following words are  solemnly intoned on a daily basis in most kids’ classrooms—often with a seriousness that belies our collective denial of the fact that all of history’s worst villains were first of all Patriots:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the republic for which it stands,
One Nation, under God, indivisible,
With liberty and justice for all.”

I go along—partly to avoid the suspicions of Patriots, and partly because I’ve been reciting this national prayer-poem for so many years that its meter and rhythm are ingrained in my body/mind like a mantra. I do place particular emphasis on the final six words, “with liberty and justice for all.” well aware of their irony these days. America incarcerates more people than any other country, both in raw numbers and per capita, if Wikipedia can be believed.

I’m ashamed, too. For me. For America. I don't believe in bad people.

Mushrooms blooming in the bale of hay somehow spoke to the pledge in my ears, and they morphed into a new pledge, something more pleasing, more compelling, and truer. It is mostly faithful to the meter of the original and goes like this:

“I pledge awareness of Kind Death
Who will be faithful to us all,
And of the Compassion for which She stands,
One Life Force, call Her God, indivisible
With Serenity and Comfort for all.”

2010 has been a year of lots of death already. Haiti, of course. My wife is now at the memorial service of a friend who served on the Sebastopol City Council some years ago. Lots of people my age and younger than my age are coming up with the kinds of diagnoses that I'm glad not to have. Yet.

Yet. It's only a matter of time.

I'm trying to reframe Death from that scary, gaunt, black-shrouded Halloween figure with a scythe. That's so silly.

Death has got to be someone quite different: a caring, compassionate female figure—more like Kwan Yin, who is faithful to us all. We can count on her, Death, above all else, to call upon us.

Surely she shall, someday, soften the glare, palliate our pain, quiet the cacophony, bathe us in love, enshrine us as fond memories in the hearts of those we've loved, and transform our molecules into luscious food for fungi.


steven said...

dan i really appreciate your posting this thoughtful and insightful piece of writing. i love the embedding of the siddhartha story in your daily experience. have a peaceful evening. steven

Dan Gurney said...

Thank you, steven. a peaceful evening sounds just right.

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Dan - what wisdom and comfort you offer here. I resonate with every word you express and appreciate your personification of death as having the gentle, tender qualities of someone like Kwan Yin.

I have been reading an interpretation of Rilke and several of his poems where he, too, speaks of death's gentle embrace.

The Christian myths and images around death can be frightening - they are so far removed from the rhythms of nature.

I am going to copy this post, print it and have it available to read in moments of ego despair.

P.S. Love your re-working of the pledge!

Dan Gurney said...

Bonnie, thank you for your kind remarks. I am very pleased that you find some comfort here; your blog works that way for me...a pleasure and a comfort.

Exciting fears and then offering protection from the fears you've raised is a cheap, easy, and dishonest way to take advantage of people. Corporations (like pharmaceuticals), some religious figures, and some politicians employ these tawdry tactics relentlessly.

I had some misgivings about doing "The Pledge" part of this post because so many of my readers don't live in the US. I wondered whether it would resonate at all. I'm glad that you love it, even in Toronto.

Barry said...

I hope you know how extraordinary this post is Dan. It was very well written and very comforting.

Dan Gurney said...

Thank you, Barry. I regard you as one of the best bloggers practicing this craft, so your comment is especially meaningful to me.

Dan Gurney said...

Today, at our whole school assembly, as we prepared to "pledge the flag" I silently recited my reworked pledge. It was sublime.

The Pollinatrix said...

This post gives me a lump in my throat. I've returned to it several times with simply no words. I still have none.