Friday, December 9, 2011

Loss & Gain

My friend, the writer Kenneth Caldwell, recently posted an essay on loss, prompted by the deaths of friends and his reading Joan Didion's latest book, Blue Nights. This led to thoughts about the Buddhist take on having: that we have a self, for example, or indeed possess anything at all. The Buddhist stress on being reflects an awareness of the ephemeral character of "all and everything." In this schema, there's neither gain nor loss. Physical laws govern our comings and goings, our outward mutations over our respective trajectories. I have lunch with Kenny episodically, witnessing his evolution as an individual. No doubt he has his own view of me from the other side of the table. At some point, one of us will slip away, flitting awkwardly through the fold of unfolding existence. That we regret these losses is inarguable. I believe it was Milarepa who, charged with hypocrisy by a disciple as he wailed over a dead son, called that death "a super-illusion." Grief is hardwired in us, especially so with the death of a child, but in the end we grieve most of all for ourselves. The Buddha's project, as I understand it, was to wean us from every illusion that posits our solidity. 

I write this as a bourgeois with a household and an extended family, pater familias. That my house is two blocks from the Hayward fault provides a sense of the "thread" that the Puritans railed about, its tremors a reminder that life is provisional. My neighbor commented a few years ago that when you become older, obituaries surface as a kind of pornography. However much we may regret the deaths of others, however much those deaths may alarm us, the fact that we live on is not merely affirmative, but on some level pleasurable, Schadenfreude. Their loss is our gain, so to speak, in life's apparently zero-sum game.

I could end this here, a rueful comment on the narcissism that runs through life. According to Stephen Batchelor, the belief in reincarnation that figures in Buddhism reflects the religious assumptions current at its formation. The Buddha's position was that reincarnation might or might not be true, but death remains our problem. My own view, derived from Swedenborg, Steiner, and personal experience, is that we fall through time, finding again and again a similar cohort. I suppose this argues that Kenny and I have been lunching episodically for eons.