Some of the most beautiful scenes that we see in our lives are sunrises and sunsets. We drive, walk, run, and bike to watch the landscape, sky, and colors change before us. We pause to watch the display of light and color over the ocean, lakes, mountains, and trees, or behind birds flying over the horizon. These are the most special moments that cause us to stop and reflect—these transition points between day and night. We think of our lives - of the days and nights that have begun and ended as our life moves forward day by day. We think of all of the sunrises and sunsets that we have lived through - making some appraisal of the past and where we are now. We wonder how many sunrises and sunsets will remain in our lives, and think of how time passes on and on.
I remember the sunsets on the horizon over the water in Manhattan Beach and at Avenue H in Redondo Beach, over the trees at my house on Greyhawk in Bend, over the Deschutes River and behind Mt.Bachelor at Drake Park in Bend, behind the hills and trees of Miller Road in Portland. Just the word sunset has a special connotation. Inevitably it brings to mind the sunset of our lives and the uncertainty of when that day of our own sunset will come. When we watch a daily sunset we think of our day, where we are in our lives, what we hope for the next day or the next year. At the end of life we also make a review, make plans, have hopes - even little hopes for the last weeks, the last days.
In the book, Crooked Cucumber by David Chadwick, David describes one evening at Tassahara when everyone was gathered in the zendo for the evening talk by Sunryu Suzuki. As dusk faded and candlelight lit the room, Suzuki took questions. David asked, “Of all the Buddhist teachings that you have described to us, what is the most important teaching?” He didn’t think Suzuki would answer. Suzuki paused for a long while, and then said, “Everything changes.” Impermanence is one of the three most basic teachings in Buddhism (along with emptiness and inter-connectedness). Dogen Zenji, a 13th century Zen master, quotes Nargarjuna, “The mind that sees into the flux of arising and decaying and recognizes the transient nature of the world is the way seeking mind.” (Points to Watch in Buddhist Training, Katagiri Roshi, Buddhadharma Magazine.)
Over the last few years of my life I have tried to understand and practice and even embody the teaching of impermanence. I’ve tried to accept the implications of all of the partings at the end of life — the words I wish I had said, the behaviors I wish I had done, the regrets, the missed opportunities, the missed love, the missed events, the missed goodbyes that were never expressed. And yet, there is so much in a life to appreciate, and in my life - to be thankful for, to treasure and cherish - all that I’ve learned, dance and news reporting, my training, my practice, all of my clients, the people who I have loved so deeply, the special men I have loved and have loved me, Bear and Bodhi, my family….
Inevitably our experience of our own inner reality is limited. We’re not aware of it, but we are so busy or so distracted by the stresses of our daily lives that our perceptions are dulled. In the book, The Politics of Experience, R.D. Laing lamented:
“We have forgotten most of our childhood, not only its contents but its flavor; …We hardly know of the existence of the inner world: we barely remember our dreams, and make little sense of them when we do. As for our bodies, we retain just sufficient proprioceptive sensations to coordinate our movements and to ensure survival…. Our capacity to think is pitifully limited. Our capacity even to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell is so shrouded in veils of mystification that an intensive discipline of unlearning is necessary for anyone before one can begin to experience the world afresh.”
That intensive discipline of unlearning can be resolute personal effort, or it can be psychotherapy, or it can be meditation. With the practice of meditation, our perceptions are enhanced. And with intensive practice that can lead to realization, we regain our sensitivity entirely. In Mind of Clover, Robert Aiken writes, “When we are preoccupied with ourselves, we are out of touch with things as they are, with the marvels of the stars and the grass, and we vent our greed upon the world until our isolation becomes a way of life.”
Robert Aitken explains that in part Zen practice is “a process of purifying the human mind in order to reach a certain condition where a sense experience such as seeing the morning star or hearing a stone strike a stalk of bamboo, will trigger realization. This process of purifying involves zazen and the rest of the Eightfold Path, right thinking, right action, and so on. When you are ready, some little thing will happen, and then everything will be clear. But Aitken shows that Zen practice is also more than that, and he quotes Hsueh-tou, “Experiencing the thing in itself, star, flower, tail, horns, is realization of mind. This mind is the myriad things and beings of the universe, and when a single thing advances and confirms the self, all things are realized.” The Blue Cliff Record, Case 1.
Robert Aitken goes on to illustrate his point by looking at the similarities of Native American thought to Zen Buddhist teaching. He quotes the Haudenosaunee Address to the Western World presented to the United Nations at Geneva in 1977:
We are shown that our life exists with the tree-life, that our well-being depends on the well-being of vegetable life, that we are close relatives of the four-legged beings. In our ways, spiritual consciousness is the highest form of politics….We believe that all living things are spiritual beings. Spirits can be expressed as energy forms manifested in matter. A blade of grass is an energy form manifested in matter — grass matter. The spirit of the grass is that unseen force that produces the species of grass , and it is manifest to us in the form of real grass.
Sunsets begin with the bright sphere of the sun passing ever faster down towards the horizon. As soon as it begins to disappear in front of our eyes the color display shines forth. Yellow and deep orange leap into the sky. Depending on the clouds and cloud formations, the bright coloring will vary. As the sun descends further, the sky brightens with a display of colors - yellow, orange, red, violet, pink colors reach across the horizon and deepen in the sky. As the sun falls from sight the colors change, the sky begins to darken, the colors ever deepen.
It’s possible that the end of our lives can cast color and light as we communicate to those we love and as we take care of our final tasks. There is an acceptance with sunsets. An inevitability. You can’t argue with a sunset. Just as with a sunset, the end of our lives will come all at once or in a slow moving display of colors and hopefully grace. Either way there is no arguing with the coming time. We can express our love to those we care about, express all the things that we appreciate in each of them, but in the end we accept the finality - the end of another day - or the end of our life.
THE EXCESSES OF GOD
Is it not by his high superfluousness we know
Our God? For to equal a need
Is natural, animal, mineral: but to fling
Rainbows over the rain
And beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows
On the domes of deep sea-shells,
And make the necessary embrace of breeding
Beautiful also as fire,
Not even the weeds to multiply without blossom
Nor the birds without music:
There is the great humaneness at the heart of things,
The extravagant kindness, the fountain
Humanity can understand, and would flow likewise
If power and desire were perchmates.