A Prince about to be coronated as king, the future Buddha, determined to see what was beyond the gates of his estate He employed a chariot to show him around against the will of his father. On his journey he observed an old man, a very ill man and a corpse. Then he saw an ascetic whose face relayed contentment. As Siddartha contemplated the meaning of what he'd seen he came to realize that we all suffer or at least find life less than perfect, the first of the Noble Truths. The second Truth is that the cause is attachment. The good news can be found in the third and fourth, that we can end our suffering by following the Eightfold path.
The first Noble Truth says that "Life is dukka". Often this is translated as suffering, but closer fit would be unsatisfying or imperfect. Few of us will deny that there is dukka. This dissatisfaction comes from the impermanence of EVERYTHING in this existence. Impermanence is not the flaw, it is the reality. Our attempts to make permanent that which cannot be permanent brings us suffering and unhappiness. It is our thinking that is flawed or at least deluded with regard to reality. All of us will experience illness, aging and ultimately death. We all hope that we won't suffer any illness more threatening than the common cold, nor that we will have to endure too much pain as we age and we always imagine sitting back when we've done all we can in this life and quietly releasing into death. This life is rare so to attach to this scenario can only lead to more dukka. Attachment is two-fold as I think of it. There is clinging or grasping after pleasurable things and thoughts while avoiding those that are not. The middle way is to avoid both and just reside in the moment as it is.
There is a Buddhist practice of meditating on death. The premise being that since death is inevitable a few rehearsals might be in order to help us get it right. It's also a reminder not to identify too strongly with the body. Often in my meditations I visualize myself a sitting corpse or sometimes a skeleton. I remind myself that this body and mind are only dirt and will eventually decay and fail me. Rather than a morbid focus I find this practice very liberating. It relaxes me. It reminds me to relish the itch on my nose, for it will pass with or without my scratching it. The painful veins in my legs may one day provide pathways for grubs as they aid in my decomposition. The pinched nerve in my neck, the nerve damage down my left side that causes an endless itching sensation - all these will fade away, becoming mulch for a new harvest of life. And then I look at my body in a new light. It is chemistry and electricity. It is the most complex measuring tool for my analytical experiments in space and time. Who the observer of these experiments is I'm not entirely sure. But then that is why I'm still just practicing and not yet a Buddha.
Thought does not come out of a vacuum and so it is true of this contemplation of the impermanence of life. There were two occasions recently that brought my mind to focus on this topic. First was my friend Seda's post on Dysphoria (http://silknvoice.blogspot.com/2008/12/dysphoria.html) and all the comments that it generated. No one, especially in our consumerist society, will be completely happy with their body image. But for the transgendered this experience is amplified. It reminded me of how my body image has changed throughout my life. Remembering times when I was thin, ribs prominently defined beneath my skin, and yet I continued to diet and exercise to match some unobtainable picture in my mind. My best friend in high school suffered anorexia to the point that her reproductive system was compromised and she ultimately ended up in the hospital being fed intravenously to save her life. I'm relieved to say I'm way beyond that now. With my shaved head and chemical free face, I feel quite at ease with my body and all it's imperfections, flaws, scars, and now wrinkles. The signs of aging are asserting themselves each morning as I look in the mirror or try to make out the number on my cell phone display when someone calls. I could use modern technology, surgery, makeup and such to try to fit the ideal look for the aging adult (or worse, hold on to some youthful ideal I never achieved in the first place), but I think I already learned that lesson as a young woman. I'm proud of the wrinkles, because they're primarily from smiling. I'm proud of the stretch marks because they remind me of the warmth of pregnancy and that amazing and most intense experience called birth. Each scar holds a memory of a frightened young girl who tried something just a little beyond her capability, but she didn't let it stop her from trying it again later. And some scars were self inflicted, which remind me of how far I've travelled both in this external world as well as inside this host. My time with the body is so brief, so now I take good care of her in the hopes that she will allow me some more experiments in this space and time constrained world. I have great compassion for my body and my mind - they've been through a lot and managed to do way better than just survive.
Life is too short. There are no one way tickets. The second event that started this internal and now external dialog happened Friday night. I was participating in a teleconference for Nonviolent Peaceforce, when I noticed an email from the Unitarian Universalist Peace Action Committee. I assumed it would be about our upcoming meeting. It was, but it also added that a dear friend of so many of us was in recovery from surgery. She had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and surgery proceeded almost immediately. As soon as she is strong enough chemotherapy will begin in an attempt to kill off the 10% of the tumor that was inoperable. Four years ago her life partner died of this same cancer. My friend has given so much of herself to so many both here in the Portland community and abroad in places like Cuba, Budapest, etc. Now she is surrounded by a large network of friends who are giving their love, time and care, and hoping it will float her through this terrible experience. It's one thing to contemplate our own frailty and imminent death, but when it is a loved one the lesson can be so much harder. We must accept our helplessness while at the same time watching for every opportunity to give care and compassion. We have to maintain our strength and energy so that we can share it when theirs wanes. This is what we do. Humans are made to care for one another. Compassion is our natural state if only we'll let it be. Never deny an opportunity to help another and you will experience the contentment Buddha saw in the face of the ascetic. And when the day arrives when your own body begins to fail, you'll find yourself carried by the love and compassion of others, bringing you full circle.