While we’re on the subject of contemplating our own deaths, I want to share with you an understanding that recently deepened for me.
The Buddha’s Eight-fold Path starts with right view, which means (in a nutshell) knowing and behaving with the knowledge that our actions have consequences. For good or ill, what we do and what we say are the ways we affect ourselves and others; they matter more than anything. Our daydreams and revenge fantasies, our pleasant or unpleasant memories, only incline our minds in often unhelpful directions; but what we DO moves the world – towards the negative or positive (sometimes both).
It can be difficult to bring this principle into focus. As a friend recently stated, one form of wrong view is “I can’t help it.” We delude ourselves with the idea that we can’t control our urges and responses. If that were true, it would be very sad; our whole lives would be pre-determined. But it’s not true; we have choices, and every choice nudges us (and consequently others) in a particular direction.
My main Dharma teacher, Patrick Kearney, tells a story about discovering an old photograph while clearing out his deceased mother’s home. The photo was possibly, but not definitely, himself at about age 15. He was struck by the fact that the person in the photo wasn’t actually him, and wasn’t actually not him. What was sure was (and is) that the decisions made by that sensitive, confused 15-year-old boy led to the reality we were experiencing together. If different decisions had been made, if he’d stayed in law school, remained a good Catholic, not followed his internal imperative to learn to meditate, not ordained, struggled, disrobed…there would be no meditation teacher and no students now.
This is me speaking: After he is dead, all the many gifts he has given to scores of students will continue to produce results, in an ever-expanding circle. Because of Patrick’s encouragement, I went to Myanmar to sit with Sayadaw U Tejaniya, and the course of my life was altered. Many of the wholesome actions I take now only happen because I became his student, and this is very likely to be true of others.
The point I’m trying to make is that our actions outlast us. Our actions affect others, and then those people affect others, and on it goes.
Another striking illustration of this point is made in a wonderful contemporary play by Katori Hall, The Mountaintop. It is set in Memphis, Tennessee, in April 1968, on the evening before Martin Luther King, Jr. is shot and killed. MLK Jr. is visited by an (unorthodox) angel, sent to help him across the great divide. MLK protests vehemently: “But I haven’t finished my work!” Because of the magic of theater, and of the playwright’s imagination, MLK is allowed to see many of the ramifications of the actions he had taken and the words he had spoken, through the decades to the present. It is breathtaking; his effect on history both in the USA and in the world is powerful and ongoing.
We aren’t able to know what the future effects of our present-day actions will be, but we can try, every day, to make our decisions and choices as wholesome and beneficial as possible. The effects of our actions will last longer than we will.