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Every temple requires three elements: the Master’s quarters, a Dharma Hall for the master’s lectures, and a Nirvana room for the sick and, if necessary, dying. The hospital bed will be in the Nirvana room . . .
As many of you know, I am working intimately with a group of people to build a small temple in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. One of the features of this temple is a hospital bed . . .
Ours is a small group of five people, and most members of the group are older, in their early seventies. They are healthy and active, but one senses in their presence a concern about closing up their lives, the last 25 years—or fewer. Some of them dwell on this issue more than others, thinking through the minute details of elder-care, finances, and companionship. Others, however, watch the concern rear its head — as if it were a gopher peeping out from its earthy hole — hoping for it to go away as quickly as it appeared.
As a member of this small community, I’m vowed to take care of those who are aging. They are my brothers and sisters, and we have shared—and continue to share—good and bad times together. Every morning we meet by conference call to study Dharma for a couple of hours, sharing our take of scolding and praise, realizing, confessing, and illuminating our true nature: inch by inch, day by day.
In Buddhism, there is no higher truth than this. “For instance,” writes a Master, “We’ll make a bed equipped with all sorts of modern equipment for the sake of the sick monk who is un-free in his physical movement. And for this sick monk, we’ll wish to plant beautiful flowers and beautiful deciduous trees, whose leaves turn color in the autumn, and whose flowers bud newly in the spring. And we’ll also plant those trees whose leaves and flowers are unremarkable, but whose branches display interesting growth, with an interesting color of trunk, sense of touch on the bark, or rise of roots.”
This kind of life isn’t secured by smartphone technology. It can’t be bought or scaled. Rather, it’s up to one’s self to generate it by one’s own activity in cooperation with one’s environment. We can plant a tree, but it is by the power of the soil, water, and sun that the tree grows and brings its fruit and shade. So it behooves us to ask from time to time: What is the end for which I’m living? What will be the result of my current actions, habits, and life?
As it happens, I recently came across an 18-minute documentary, Being 97. It is about a dying professional philosopher who taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and who wrote, among other things, a book entitled, Death. And interestingly—though perhaps not surprisingly—he concludes that the meaning of life and concern about death are not topics that can be resolved by reasoning. In one of the more poignant moments of the film (at 15:01), three weeks before his death, sitting in the winter sun of his Santa Barbara porch he ruminates on the splendor of trees. He says, “somehow, seeing the trees this time is a transcendent experience. I see how marvelous it is. I’ve had these here all along, but have I really appreciated them?” And then he laments, “I have not. This makes the fact of death more difficult to accept.”
What I take away from this is that the meaning of our lives is to live them well. And I hope that you are doing that. For if we’re living well, we’ll die well. Can there be any more purpose to life than helping others to live and die well, from generation to generation, person to person, and mind to mind?
To watch the Dogwood blooming through our window with the warm body of the friend with whom we’ve spent our life studying truth.
Is there a higher human achievement than this?