Today is my birthday. In ancient times Zen monks would mark this day by writing a “death poem”. A death poem is one that tends to offer a reflection on death that is often coupled with a meaningful observation on life. Given my own history, I think I have a different view. I have now been infected more than half my life with AIDS. Given the nature of treatments when I was first diagnosed, that also means I have spent more than half my life considering my mortality. I have been told at least 4 times in my life that I was going to die, was near to death, or otherwise reminded of my mortality by medical professionals. I have been present at more deaths than I can count. I started my Buddhist practice, chaplaincy journey, and hospice work as a way to make sense of and relate to the extreme grief I carry. Death is a constant factor in my life so I see no need to write a death poem as my life is a death poem. I have lately been taking to consider aging in terms of, “it beats the alternative.”
So how do I mark my birthday? First I cultivate and consider how grateful I am to my Mother. Along with giving birth to me, she raised me. The more I age, the more like her I realize I am, and that this is at least part of whatever contention we have with each other. My mom is in many ways, an amazing woman, and the older I get the more I appreciate her and her impact in my life.
I also use this as an opportunity to assess, how I am doing? Meaning, how close am I to being who I want to be in the world. Along with being a moment by moment expression of practice-realization, I also see this in a broader sense of “right livelihood” as well as integrity, integration, and intention. I still haven’t figured out how to proceed in regards to my life as a priest. I am still resolving my feelings of betrayal, hurt, and grief as I separate from my previous spiritual community. How do I practice not holding onto ill-will and not disparaging while being true to my experience and memories. I also have no more clues about what kind of job to start pursuing since I don’t see myself as a chaplain. In so many ways, I am as confused as I ever was.
I am also more and more at peace with myself, and my practice. I have wonderful opportunities to teach the dharma. I have opportunities to bring the tools of my life to service with other people in interesting ways, and I am building community that supports and loves me. In general I can say that I have a life that is pretty full of amazing things that inspires me and moves me. I recognize that I am very lucky and am grateful for all of the support I receive. Not everyone is so lucky.
So my poem is instead simply to live in the midst of all of this, fully embodied and at ease. May we and all beings be so lucky.
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