I turned 40 last year. Even if I’m lucky and try to keep myself in good health, I’m halfway done.
This Valentine’s Day post begins with the Pali Canon, the earliest collection of Buddhist scriptures. It starts with the most evocative description of death I’ve ever read. Buddha is speaking to the king and describes a scenario:
Four men come to you, one each from the east, the west, north, and south. Each of them bring the same news: “I saw a great mountain high as the clouds coming this way, crushing all living beings.”
The Buddha then asks what should be done.
What is the biggest object that has ever sped toward you? A car? A semi? Could you imagine four semis bolting toward you, one from each of the four cardinal directions?
How about an avalanche? Can you imagine four avalanches converging where you stand? How about four mountains? If you live in a place with mountains in the distance, take a moment to imagine four of them crushing everything in their way, careening toward you.
Of course Buddha is speaking of death, but it’s not enough for him to state the fact. He’s making an attempt to get us to imagine it.
We are not going to avoid this. I am not going to avoid this, and I’m halfway there.
“This has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day” you may be thinking to yourself. Don’t worry, I’ll tie it all together, but we need to imagine one more thing.
The Sangaha recounts Buddha depicting a “great aeon”. As Beth Jacob describes it:
Buddha described a great aeon as longer than the time it would take for a person to wear away a mountain of solid granite about seven miles high and wide by stroking it once every hundred years with a silk cloth.
Jacobs then points out there are immaterial beings in the Buddhist cosmology that exist for 84,000 great aeons. “The mountain has to wear down to a grain of sand 84,000 times.”
Start by imagining 100 years. It’s longer than most of us will live. Now imagine a granite countertop. How many whisks with a silk cloth would it take to reduce a granite countertop to dust? Have you ever wiped a granite countertop?
Now imagine driving seven miles. Imagine that distance cubed, 343 cubic miles of 100% granite. Reducing that to dust with a silk cloth takes a great aeon.
Finally, imagine 84,000 of something. In Buddhist cosmology, there are beings that live for 84,000 of these eons. Once you wrap your head around the scale of time involved, it’s mind-blowing how short our life is by comparison.
If you’re reading this, your four mountains have not slammed together. We don’t know how much time is left, but the mountains are on the horizon. And our lives are terribly short. Dogen described the existence of the world as:
reflected in dewdrops
shaken from a crane’s bill
These vivid descriptions of death and time often elicit fear. More importantly, they’re a wake-up call. They force us to reckon with our limits. What we choose to do is important, because we can only make a limited amount of choices. How we spend our time is the most important set of decisions we can make, because we have very little of it.
Which brings us to my intention for Valentine’s day: To be present with my wife whenever we’re together. To make sure I am there each moment we are together. I want to avoid being distracted, or half-in, half-out of conversations. When we’re eating breakfast, or brushing our teeth, or watching a movie, I want to be all-in.
The present moment is really all we have, and the greatest gift is that moment, over and over again until they aren’t there anymore. To quote Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song”:
These precious days
I’ll spend with you