Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Dying a Good Death

Gail Karen died peacefully last Sunday, surrounded in her home by family, friends, and members of the Everyday Dharma Buddhist sangha. The following evening the community gathered at the zendo, nestled among Victorian houses and cottages in downtown Santa Cruz, to chant the Heart Sutra.

"Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness; that which is emptiness form. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, formations, consciousness."

"In emptiness (there is) suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no cognition, also no attainment with nothing to attain."

"For those of us left behind," announced the sangha's teacher Carolyn Atkinson, "we begin a period of holding her close in our hearts, of recognition, of mourning and of celebration." Each evening for a week, the sangha will sit in meditation to honor Gail. Next Monday the Heart Sutra will be chanted again, and then also each Wednesday evenings for seven weeks to complete the traditional Buddhist 49 days of mourning. "Gail reminds us again," said Carolyn, "how very precious this being alive is, and how important our practice can be."

I first met Gail five years ago when I began sitting with Everyday Dharma at the Santa Cruz Zen Center on School Street. My marriage had broken up and I was looking for a community of seekers who were trying to make sense out of this precious and crazy life. Carolyn had been trained in both Zen and Vipassana forms of Buddhism, and was a founder of the original Zen Center in the 1970s, and Everyday Dharma seemed to offer Buddhist teaching without the trappings of Asian language and culture. There was a minimum of ritual and the talks and lively conversation following meditation were about everyday life and how mindfulness might reduce suffering. We sat on our cushions and shared the messy stuff of our lives. We learned that we were not our minds and that we could distance ourselves from the restless chatter of thought.

Gail was attractive. She was a petite and vibrant blonde with a full resonant voice and a charming accent that I couldn't immediately place. But I soon learned that she came attached with a husband, a tall, handsome cinemaphotographer named Fred who always provided a humorous perspective on weighty matters. I also learned that her original language was Spanish and that she was born and grew up in Santiago, Chile. Gail's comments and questions in the discussions were always close to the bone. But she also had an infectuous smile and a deep-throated and full-bodied laugh. Best of all were her hugs. Gail really knew how to hug.

One of Carolyn's favorite quotes that she often cites in her talks is: "It may be not what I wanted, but it's what I got." This affirmation served her well through several operations for breast cancer. I found it helpful in dealing with my prostate cancer. And when Gail was diagnosed with colon cancer over two years ago, it became even more central, for Gail and for the community. Gail shared with the sangha the entire process of her illness and approaching death. She talked openly about her fears and hopes, about the operations she endured, and about the news several months ago that the cancer had spread to her liver. Three weeks ago we met after meditation and she gave me one of her earth-shaking hugs. This time I knew it was to say goodbye.

Gail's was a good death. Her's was not a struggle or a battle with the cancer that killed her but a coming to terms with it. She did not "rage against the dying of the light," but somehow submitted to the fires of necessity, so that at the end she was pure compassion, the ego all burnt away. Gail's dying taught us how to live, how to enjoy the precious present moment. And her dying also taught us how to die, for this is the gate we must all pass through.

How different the Buddhist teaching about death seems from the Christian story! The Resurrection means for me that "death shall have no dominion"; that death is not the final answer. We are not random atoms in a meaningless universe. But the Buddhist "emptiness" is not nihilism, or the absence of spiritual fullness. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says "I came that they might have life and have it to the full." How one might attain fullness of life -- paradoxically, by dying for the other -- is contained in the teaching of the Good News (a teaching I'm afraid only a few can hear and follow). It is not that dissimilar from Buddhist teaching that "emptiness" results from giving up ego attachments, from the forms in which we cage reality. For both Christians and Buddhists death is a mystery that we cloak with stories. In the presence of a good death, like Gail's, we are all comforted and strengthened.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha
, ends the Heart Sutra, traditionally chanted in the original Pali language rather than in translation. It means: "Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone all together beyond, awaken, all hail."

Goodbye, Gail, and all hail to you.

You can read about Gail's life here.

A Memorial service will be held this evening.

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