Friday, November 1, 2013

Dead Like You

I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.
I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.
I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.
I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
I am the owner of my actions (kamma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.
Anguttara Nikaya V-57 (Upajjhatthana Sutta)

A memento mori is a reminder that we all will die. It's said to have originated in ancient Rome: A Roman general parading through the streets after a victory was followed by his slave, who reminded him that this glory would pass -- everyone, even generals, will die. "Memento mori," the slave would say. Remember that you'll die.

That's a key thought in Buddhism too, conveying both the truth of impermanence and the need to practice now, in this moment, while it's possible.  I am of the nature to die, one of the five reminders in the Pali Canon. In the mahayana, it's the second of the Four Reminders, following the preciousness of human birth: Death is certain, it comes without warning.

Reciting those reminders is part of the daily practice for many Buddhists. (Including me.)

But it's not the only way we can remind ourselves of that inevitability. Clocks, for instance, can be seen as reminders of how quickly our time on earth passes. Leaves turning color and falling off the trees.

Today is Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, in Mexico, a celebration that includes sugar skulls and parties. (It's actually a multiday celebration that began on Halloween and continues through the Roman Catholic marking of All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2.) Those who are taking part visit the graves of loved ones, bringing food and other offerings.

I've never been big on visiting graves, and my family's graves are far away. But there are other ways to remember and celebrate them. Thanks to my mom, who's in the process of moving, I've come into some lovely reminders, including a chair from my grandparents' kitchen and a doll that my aunt made from my great-aunt's pillow case. Both are now dead.
How about you?

My mom, in the interest of paring down, was going to sell the chair and give the doll to Goodwill since it's really a beautiful piece of folk art. I took them. The doll sits on the chair next to my shrine, and they remind me of where I come from and where I'll go and the preciousness of this life. All we have are our actions. Let them come from love.

One of the forms I recite says: Everything is impermanent. This ephemeral existence is not to be wasted. My death is certain; the exact time is unknown. Knowing this, what is most important?

To me, what is most important is to not to cross things off some bucket list but to appreciate the moments I'm here, to try to be of benefit to all beings -- but at least to do no harm.

How about you?

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