After my grandfather passed away a couple months ago, I spent some time reading Roger Zelazny’s novel Isle of the Dead. This is my favorite quotation:1
Nick swore he’d die with his boots on, on some exotic safari, but he found his Kilimanjaro in a hospital on Earth, where they’d cured everything that was bothering him, except for the galloping pneumonia he’d picked up in the hospital.
That had been, roughly, two hundred and fifty years ago. I’d been a pallbearer.
I mashed out my cigarette and made my way back to the slip-sled….The dead are too much with us.
The last part really stuck with me. Shortly after my grandfather died, and especially around the time of the funeral, I kept thinking about him. I found some old items that my grandfather had given me as congratulations for graduating college (almost 20 years ago, wow) and other momentos from the past. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was still alive somehow and watching over me. I then started to think about other loved ones who had died in the past, even while I continued to live: friends, grandparents and so on.
Indeed, the dead are too much with us.
But then later I started to think about it from another angle: are they really with us, or are we holding on to them and their memory?
For example, my maternal grandmother died from cancer when I was about 14 (I think she was 57 or so). It happened during Thanksgiving weekend, but it had been a long-battle with cancer that spanned months. She had been a big influence on our lives, and especially on me and my choice to go into computing more.² She was greatly loved by the family, and when she passed, it was a hole in our lives that never got filled. We never really celebrated Christmas or Thanksgiving the same way we used to, and gradually all grew apart.
But that was also 27 years ago. A lot has happened since then, but at the same time, that part of me is still holding on to memories from 27+ years ago.
That’s the nature of the self. The “self” as described by the Buddha is a composite. There is no true, static, underlying self that serves as the foundation. It is a composite of things, through and through. These composites are normally grouped into five “aggregates” or “heaps”, namely physical form (brain, guts, nerves, etc), sensations, perception, mental formations and consciousness. The ancient Pali-language word for these aggregates is khandha and literally would just mean a heap or pile in the mundane sense, like a pile of leaves, etc.
The point here is that as a composite being, we are made up of all the combined experiences, thoughts, genetic attributes and external conditions that come together to make us what we are. Thus, my memories of Christmas and Thanksgiving are just another thing added to the “pile” as a kid. They’re great memories, especially the Christmas where I got a He-Man Castle Greyskull set, but they’re just memories.
Holding on to these memories and people is something that can becoming unhealthy if one becomes obsessed by it. In some ways, it’s a bit silly too, but letting go is hard too.
The fact is is that I am alive here and now. The past is the past, and the future is unwritten. There is nothing further to this.
Or, as the Buddha said it in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta (MN 131):
You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
is left behind.
is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
Not taken in,
that’s how you develop the heart.
what should be done today,
for — who knows? — tomorrow
There is no bargaining
with Mortality & his mighty horde.
Whoever lives thus ardently,
both day & night,
has truly had an auspicious day:
so says the Peaceful Sage.
(translation by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
I am grateful to my ancestors and loved ones who’ve moved on, but at the same time, I am alive here and now. All that matters is here and now.
² That was back when BBS’s, BASIC and Tandy TRS-80 Color Computers were all the rage. She was quite an enthusiast back then, and I remember owning a 64K Tandy Color Computer 2 back when it was the latest model. I inherited her 16K version as a result.