Rude Awakenings

by Frederick Brenion

I had a "near-death experience" recently. No, I didn't see a being of light welcoming me into Heaven or the Pure Land. There was no review of my life, nor did I travel up a tunnel into the Light. But I almost died.

It was the night of our Ho-on-ko Service. I returned home, had a late snack, and went to bed. Sometime after 1 am, I awoke with a start and shot out of bed. I had stopped breathing. I staggered to the bathroom to try and cough up, gargle, anything that might clear the passageway in my throat. All I could do was to struggle at it. Nothing worked. If breathing did not resume I would pass out and then ...there would be no "then." My throat opened just enough for a small gasp of breath. But not enough, the airway closed up again. I struggled some more, again a small gasp, screaming into my chest, but still not enough to sustain me. I coughed up gastric juices which pooled into my closing throat, scalding with horrible pain. Finally one breath, then another, then another. The lungs heaved each time to fill with air. I staggered out, got some cold water to sooth my throat and sat down trembling, sweat coated. My wife was sound asleep. What would she have found in the morning if I had failed? I sat for a while. I made some tea, anything that would bring comfort. I had work the next day. No, I'm calling in sick. I'm not fit for work this day. I'm not fit, period, at all. I needed sleep but was scared to try. What if it happened again...and again. I tried to at least doze at. As I drifted off, I was filled with such sadness as this thought came to me: "What a pity to find the Dharma and then to lose it."

The following morning I found a name for what occurred. Collapsed Apnea, a sleep disorder where the windpipe closes up cutting off the air flow. It can be fatal. If you are middle-aged, overweight, have sleep problems like lack of dreaming, tiredness, snoring, you can be a candidate. There are treatments, and the best one is to lose weight. I am exercising now, eating less, and losing weight. I am feeling better, sleeping better. I still have a ways to go, but I really like breathing and I like the feel of it in my lungs very much. I want to keep enjoying that for a very long time!

Yet I cannot create breath, I can only be sustained by it. I depend on the air to live. I cannot create my life, it was given to me, I can only maintain it. All my reading and all my knowledge did not save me that night. It was my body's natural desire to live that did. I had nothing to do with it. How humiliating to be so helpless. How stupid to get like this. How easily it could have gone the other way. How uncertain life really is. How rude this awakening was. How fortunate that I awoke and began to awake.

It was a "Rude Awakening" that night. It was not just a warning call to live life right or lose it, but a realization that of all the things I could have lost that night, it was not just my life I would have lost. It was the Dharma itself. I have been pondering that thought "What a pity to find the Dharma and then to lose it." I had spent the last two-and-a-half years studying about Buddhism and the Dharma, and then becoming a regular visitor to the West Covina Buddhist Temple. But it is not just enough to study, important as that is. I realized I wanted to live the Dharma. I wanted the Dharma to live in me. That is what "Tariki" is about, the power of the Dharma living through us. The Dharma expressed in Amida Buddha is that of Life and Light, and I was on the brink of Death and Darkness. The opportunity to live is only there so long as we are alive. I did not realized how much I wanted to live and how much I wanted the Dharma until it hit that I could lose it all in a matter of moments at anytime. The Buddha is right when he said, "My life is not lasting. My death is lasting. My life will end in death. Inevitable is my death. My life is uncertain. Death is certain."

Our lives are always on the brink, and we live only by the power of Light and Life itself. To live our lives otherwise is the greatest of follies and the height and root of our delusions.

Shortly after my experience, and by great timing, during the month of November, I attended a class as part of the "Buddhist Views of Life and Death" lecture series, hosted by the Orange County Buddhist Church and taught by Rev. Marvin Harada. Being the holiday season, it was a wonderful time for fellowship and to share some of our different experiences and questions. I for one was eager to gain a clearer understanding of what I had recently gone through, though reticent about sharing it until I had sorted through it. The class was well attended, and the topic this evening was "Contemporary Buddhist Writings on Life and Death." There were handouts that we read from during the class.

There were two extracts that caught my attention. The first was "Life and Death" by the Rev. Gyomay Kubose. I was struck by the following passage:

Buddhism teaches resolving the problem of life and death. Most people do not want to die. They fear death. When we come to understand Buddhism, then death no longer becomes a problem. Death no longer becoming a problem means that if I die it's okay, if I don't die it's okay. Whenever death comes, I am able to smile and die. Buddhism teaches that whenever I die, it's okay, because I am living everyday completely.

It is obvious that I am nowhere near this level of acceptance. It was not at all okay to me to die. But then I was not "living every day completely" either. I must first really live before I am ready to really die.

The second extract, "The Joy of Impermanence," by an unknown author (translated from Japanese by Rev. Harada), however hit the mark for me, and I shall quote it in full, as it is worthwhile sharing, and sums up so well:

Death. It's terrifying. Death. It's painful. Death. It's depressing. But I think that because man has death he reflects about life. Because there is death I have the thought of wanting to live.

In life there is death. But because there is death we are able to be truly sad. Because of death we are able to truly love. Death is what truly makes man live. There is nothing more dignified than a person who lives facing death head-on. I want to live facing death. I want to live with real meaning in life.

But man is weak, and those who suffer try to avoid death. They try to forget about it. But hasn't one who has forgotten about death also lost life? Eventually in our human life death comes. No matter how much we have tried to forget about it, it still comes. At that time, no matter how much we might regret the lack of real "living" in our life, we cannot repeat it. Now is the time to think about it. As I face death, what am I really living for? What is the purpose of my life? I want to truly live life deeply. It doesn't matter what form my life takes. Whether it be a lifetime of sickness or poverty, if I truly live life, that life will be unequaled in brightness.

In death nothing remains. Only the depth of what one has lived remains. If I were to die tomorrow, it's too late to study for it today. If I were to die tomorrow, I could probably forgive all of mankind today. If I were to die tomorrow, I would probably be grateful that I was born and lived as a human being today. If I were to die tomorrow, I would probably be truly humble today. If I were to die tomorrow, I would be able to meet my true self today. If I were to die tomorrow, I would probably cry from the depth of my being today.

But for me, there is life tomorrow. For me, the sun will come up in the morning. But having faced death, I can now bow my head to the Buddha and die. Having faced death, I can say thank you to all beings and die. This is the expression of the joy of impermanence.

Death is a mystery. What happens at that moment and after is unknown to me. Dying is not a mystery. Our passing might be painful and it might be peaceful. There is no guarantee what we shall experience. But experience we shall and the mystery we each must face. Perhaps we fear death because we fear the pains of dying. Dying can be a dirty business, but then so is birth and we celebrate our births. I didn't die, but I experienced, if only for moments, the possibility of it. In that possibility was an awakening towards life, hopefully a birthing into the Dharma. We are impermanent creatures. We begin and we end. It is what we are. This can be a hard truth, but a liberating truth if we understand it. The Buddha taught us this truth and made it one of the centerpieces of his thought. We might just find joy and peace if we accept this truth and make it our own. That joy of impermanence is at the heart of Dharmic life.

But having faced death, I can now bow my head to the Buddha and live.

The author adds the following note:
I urge all you who are experiencing sleep disorders of whatever type to please seek help and make whatever life changes are needed. To breath and to sleep well is something that should be appreciated and enjoyed.

Shortly after these experiences, I requested to become a member of West Covina Buddhist Temple and to be permitted take refuge in the Three Treasures of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. It is one thing to talk the talk, one must also walk the walk.
-Frederick Brenion

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