“Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!” –The last words1 of Shakyamuni Buddha
“David: You knew enough to tell Saavik that how we face death is at least as important as how we face life.” –Merritt Butrick in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Normally I try to post something “Buddhist” before a Buddhist holiday, but this year I was late, and I have a good excuse (I hope).
February 15th, according to the Solar calendar, is Nirvana Day the death (入滅, nyūmetsu in Japanese) of the historical Buddha. According to Buddhist tradition, having achieved total enlightenment and having exhausted all residual karma, he was completely unbound (Nirvana, 涅槃).2
However, this past week, I spent a few days in Phoenix, Arizona again on a business trip. I always enjoy going because the timezone is similar, the weather is sunny and hot:
…and the food is different than Seattle (more Mexican, less Asian):
One evening my co-workers and I went to a nice chicken-wings and hamburger restaurant. The food was excellent, and I ordered a hamburger that was “medium”. It was a pretty pink in the middle, but it was delicious so I ate the whole thing.
The next evening, I started to get sick. Not just sick, but violently ill. I was working late that night, but I finished my work and came back to the hotel around 2am and I stayed up throughout the night. I lost a lot of fluid, and still wasn’t feeling better. I was getting worried, dizzy and exhausted, so I packed my bag to go to a nearby hospital. Fortunately, the medicine I took earlier started to work, my body started to recover and I finally got some sleep around 6am.
After returning home to Seattle though, I was still ill. After losing so much fluid, my stomach was weak, and my toe swelled up with gout (痛風, tsūfū). Days later, my toe still really hurts and it’s hard to walk.
There was a big lesson to all this: one day I was working hard and having a good time, the next day I was tremendously ill and almost had to go to the hospital.
I’m in my late 30’s, so I’m not old, but these past few years I started having medical problems from a lifetime of high-blood pressure, bad diet, stress and not enough exercise. My bad habits are catching up to me. I also believe that the problems I have in my late 30’s are a warning of much bigger problems I will have later in life.
The Buddha’s final words above are a reminder to his monks to be diligent and not slack off until it’s too late. But they apply to all of us: don’t squander your life on stupid stuff.
If we pretend to ignore mortality, then mortality will come back and bite us really hard someday.
In 15th century Japan, a famous Buddhist monk, Rennyo (蓮如), wrote in a letter (the Letter on White Ashes, 白骨の章 hakkotsu no shō):
Thus our bodies may be radiant with health in the morning, but by evening they may be white ashes.
So reflecting on the Buddha’s words, I realized that the lesson of life is that, ironically, a life of self-discipline will set you free, while a life of self-indulgence becomes a prison.
1 The Pali-Canon Maha-parinibbana Sutta is called the daihatsu nehan-gyō (大般涅槃経) in Japanese, and the last words quoted above are often translated as:
2 More on the what the Buddha describes as being “unbound” through Nirvana can be read here.