Last week I had to put my dog to sleep, a fourteen year old Brussels Griffon named Sono, a name he was given by my son when he was about six years old when we got him. He was part of the family all through my son’s growing up, and I really loved that dog. As he died in my arms, I cried and cried and I feel the tears coming up now as I talk about it. He died a couple of days after the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of my wife Deborah in a plane crash in 1994. And I also just found out this morning that my old friend Milton Moon, a potter in Australia has died. I corresponded with him for many years. He trained in Zen and pottery in Japan and became something of a living national treasure in Australia as a potter.
I was thinking of him this week, as well, because one of the things he sent me was a personal memoir of all the dogs in his life. I think he talked about something like fourteen different dogs that he had over the course of his life, and he just talked about them, when he got them, how they lived, and how they died, one after another, generation after generation. He just passed away at 93 years old. The memoir in its own way was a kind of teaching about attachment and impermanence, how deeply attached he was to each one of those dogs and what it was like to outlive them.
All of these losses have caused me a great deal of suffering. I’ve been doing this practice now for forty years or so and there’s supposed to be something in there about the end of suffering, but where is that? What do we think that means? Certainly the first noble truth, life is suffering, we can be on board with that. But a cause and an end of suffering? What was he thinking?
Sometimes I hear people talk about a distinction between pain and suffering, where suffering is the self-inflicted piece that can be eliminated, like blaming yourself, unnecessary thoughts of maybe I should have done more, maybe I could have done it differently, that sort of thing. That’s true. That part can change considerably, but I don’t think that a world religion would sustain itself for a couple millenia if it simply performed that simple psychological therapeutic task. People want to have some more direct comprehension of what it means to have to face loss and death. Back in medical school the joke in the surgery department was, all bleeding stops eventually.
My tears for Sono will eventually stop the way they eventually stopped for Deborah, but sometimes in the face of trauma or terrible losses like that of a child, maybe they never stop, maybe there’s some pain that never goes away. What then?
When we think about what do we mean to truly escape suffering, we might go to a koan like the one where the monk asks the Master, how can I escape heat and cold? And there heat and cold can stand in for all the extremities of life that we face, that we’re subject to. And the Master says, Well, why don’t you go to the place where there is no heat or cold? The monk asks, Where’s that? The Master says, In summer heat kills the monk, in winter cold kills the monk. There’s a way in which all that’s being offered there is not separation from the very thing that we’re trying to escape from. Being killed by heat or cold is to lose any sense of the possibility of controlling or escaping the heat or cold, to be nothing but this world of heat and cold.
When we think about how we can apply that to the world of relationship and loss, sometimes it seems that the monastic tradition said, literally, well, go to a place where you won’t suffer from attachment and loss. Home-leaving -- that’s the definition of monasticism -- was both literal and a metaphor for detachment. But Shakyamuni set this precedent of leaving his wife and child and family and home and all his possessions. If you stay attached to these things, you will lose them, you will suffer. And sometimes I’ve said it seems like that strategy is one of “If you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose,” and we try to find a way of detaching ourselves either literally or figuratively from some part of life to avoid suffering,
The day that Sono passed away, I could feel myself saying, I don’t know that I could ever go through this again. I don’t want to have another dog if I’m going to have to lose him like this. Don’t get attached to anything because you don’t want to have to face the loss. But I think the alternative lesson is to really accept the fact that suffering is the price we willingly pay for love, and they will come as a package in our life. We won’t eliminate one without eliminating the other, and that’s too high a price to pay. I think everybody at some level comes to a practice like this looking for some alternate “get out of jail free card” and there’s going to be some antidote of transcendence which will give us this promised release from suffering. Well, maybe all that business of cause and an end and an eight-fold path, maybe that’s just a lot of sugar coating, because if I say that life is suffering, nobody will be able to face it, but after forty years, in a way, that’s what you come back to, life is suffering.