14 Aug 2009
If not now, when?
If we had one more day or week to live and that was it, would we be doing the same things we're doing now?
It was my maternal grandmother’s 90th birthday recently. I felt inordinately proud and went around telling everyone. My friend Roz then told me her grandmother was 97, which kind of took the wind out of my sail but just for a short while.
My grandmother is sprightly, and not just for her age. My mother took her for a full medical and she passed with flying colours. No high blood pressure, no high cholesterol, no diabetes (and she used to take six sugars in her tea. As a compromise, she now takes four), and aside from some physical aches and pains, she has a clean bill of health. She’s a devout Buddhist and prays everyday without fail. In her spare time, she enjoys mahjong (a classic Chinese game) , shopping and buffets. She also likes to complain a bit but at 90, I guess she’s allowed. I’m especially fond of her because she used to come and look after my siblings and I when my parents were travelling.
I also think she’s responsible for my rainbow gene - I have at least an uncle (maybe two) and three immediate cousins who are gay. One of my cousins organised a birthday party for my grandmother when she was in her 80s. Imagine the E&O, one of the most elegant hotels in Penang, imagine a roomful of grey haired senior citizens, punctuated with several generations of progeny. And then imagine the evening’s entertainment provided by drag queens. My grandmother didn’t have a hand in choice of entertainment but she and the audience (parochial Penang) didn’t seem shocked and even appeared to enjoy themselves. I’m not 100% certain that they knew the performers were drag queens, but anyway.
While being extremely happy to celebrate with her, the celebration was also a strong reminder of mortality. What must it be like to be 90? Each day, when she goes to bed, I wonder if she thinks – will I wake up tomorrow? It’s not very auspicious to talk about death at a birthday (or at any time at all if you’re a traditional Chinese) so I didn’t ask. I hope you too don’t think that talking about death is very morbid. Death is very much a part of life. It exists and it is inevitable, even though we try our best not to think about it. Every minute that we live, is one minute closer to death.
If we are healthy and young, we all think we’re pretty immortal. Death is another lifetime away. In reality, death can happen to any of us, anytime, anywhere. I knew a woman in her thirties who, on Christmas day, a few years ago, went upstairs complaining of a headache. Twenty minutes later, she had passed away.
Tibetan Buddhists focus on death very much. The monks even do some of their meditations in a cemetery, and in Tibetan cemeteries, the bodies are not buried but left exposed, so you can imagine what it would be like. Why think and talk and focus about death so much?
One of the reasons is because it shows us how to live. The very reason why we feel so uncomfortable to think or talk about death is the very reason why we should. When we think we have so much time left before we die, we don’t prioritise properly. We think oh, I’ll be spiritual later, I’ll do charity work when I’m retired. I’ll visit my parents later. I’ll be romantic with my partner later. After I make my millions, after I get to the pinnacle of my career, after my kids grow up - okay, maybe this last concern affects less people here but you get the idea. The truth is - if we had one more day or week to live and that was it, would we be doing the same things we’re doing now?
Let me end with a quote from my Guru,
“Time passes fast. Situations change. Whatever we work so hard to accomplish in samsara [defined by the Merriam Webster as the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma] vanish fast. People age fast. People die and they NEVER come back as we know them, so we have to make the best while they’re here with us now. Don’t let simple obstacles, laziness, fear, avoidance, excuses stop you from doing the best you can for people who have been kind to you in many ways. Time and death of people will not stand still for you to finish your project, plans, works and wishes. If the REAL reason for what we’re doing now is meant to bring happiness to who we care about and we neglect, ‘mistreat ’ them, forget them or make them sad, how do we know when WE are ready, they’ll be around or alive?” - H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, from his book, If Not Now, When?
Sharon Saw is a writer / editor at Kechara Media & Publications, which focuses on publishing the teachings of H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, a high incarnate Lama of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. A selection of Buddhist and non-Buddhist related books from Kechara Publications is now available on Fridae Shop. You can follow Sharon on Twitter. This column will appear every other Friday.