Behind The Mask ~ A TRIBUTE

In 1993, just as I was about to leave Melbourne to make another trip to Malaysia and India, I came down with the ‘flu, so decided to delay my departure for a week, preferring to be sick in Australia than overseas. Two days after I did so, my father, who had been very ill for over a year, and in and out of hospital quite frequently, died. For him, it was a release as he was 84 and had suffered a lot through his illness; moreover, it was clear that there was little chance of him recovering. It was not a shock for me to learn of his death, therefore, as I had been expecting it.

I returned to Adelaide for the funeral, which I would not have done if I had already left the country; and it was good that I went back, as I could feel his presence around the place as if he were still there, as he might well have been. I lay on his bed and meditated, trying to tune in to him and send him positive thoughts; at night, I sat outside his work-shed where he used to potter around, and sang his favorite song: "English Country Garden". I got a lot of energy coming through, and felt good.

Because my mother is a Christian, the funeral was conducted accordingly, with a minister of the Salvation Army presiding. But I stated my intention to speak, too. The minister spoke first, and said quite a lot about God, Jesus, life-after-death, Heaven, and so on. Then it was my turn to speak, and though I had prepared some notes beforehand, I spoke extemporaneously. The gist of my talk was as follows:

"It is not a strange thing that we should grow old and die. The strange thing, on the contrary, is that we should live as long as we do! And who would wish to live forever? We get bored with our limited lives as it is!

"My father couldn’t complain that life had short-changed him; he lived for 84 years and witnessed many momentous changes in the world in this most-momentous century of all. And it is appropriate that the father should precede the son into the Unknown; this is the natural order of things; it would be more sad if it were the other way around.

"I am of the opinion, after many years of experience, that a funeral-ceremony is more for the living than for the dead, as the dead have left us to follow their destiny, while the living remain, hopefully to learn more about the life that is ours for just a while. At a funeral-ceremony, the living are faced with the stark reality of life: that we will all go the same way as the one who has just gone. And death, strangely enough, is the key to life; instead of being something morbid to think about, it provides us with an incentive to live life more fully, while we have the opportunity to do so.

"Where we came from before we entered this world, and where we will go when we leave it, no-one knows. There are many theories and beliefs about this matter, but they often conflict with and contradict each other. We may believe this or that, but to be honest, we simply do not know.

"Buddhism, too, has its concept about what happens after we die, but since I, as a Buddhist monk, have had no direct personal experience of it, I am not qualified to say anything about it; were I to do so, I would merely be repeating what I have read or heard from others, and to me, that is not good enough. I prefer the answer that Confucius is reported to have given when someone asked him: "Master, what happens after we die?" He said: "Why do you want to know about that? You don’t even know how to live now!"

"But, although I know nothing about life-after-death, I have had some experience of this life, and am therefore somewhat qualified to speak about it.

"My father was nominally a Christian, as that was the only religion he had been exposed to. But a name means very little, and sometimes less than nothing. However, he belonged to the religion that we all belong to, and cannot get away from, but which very few of us know much about, as it is so ordinary and every-day: the Religion of Life and Living. There are differences between people, of course—differences in race, nationality, religion, politics, culture, language and so on, but they are not nearly as important as we make them out to be. The similarities, the common denominators, on the other hand, are more numerous and much more important: people everywhere wish to be happy and free from suffering; all have hopes, fears and aspirations. And if we understand our own feelings, hopes and desires, we will also understand others, and know what to do in our relationships and dealings with them, for they feel basically the same as we do. The practice of the Religion of Life and Living, therefore, necessarily begins with ourselves, but should not end there. From understanding ourselves, we must extend our understanding outwards and expand our horizons to embrace an ever-greater portion of the world we live in.

"Life is precious, but the only place and time we ever have for living is HERE and NOW, for in reality, the past and the future do not exist. As far as we are concerned—each one of us—there is only the Here and Now; we cannot live anywhere else. Just try to live anywhere other than where you are: you will find that, wherever you are, it is always HERE. And whatever stage of life you might be in—infancy, youth, maturity or old age—it is always NOW. It is therefore of great importance to live as close to the present as possible.

Science has shown that nothing can be completely destroyed without trace; things are merely transformed into other things. We should consider death, therefore, as a transformation, and that the life which informed our bodies here will flow on into other forms.

"So now, I hope and pray—and I’m sure you will join with me in this—that the person, force or energy which was my father in this life will go on into a higher and better life, will go on fearlessly and with a light heart. May he be well, courageous and safe now, wherever, however and whatever he might be! Thank you for your attention".

There were no Buddhists at my father’s funeral, but after the service almost everyone there came up to me and said things like, "You gave us so much to think about!" The best part about it all, however, was that both my eldest sister and her husband—who have never been at all religious (I am from a family of ‘heathens’, apart from my mother, who have not the slightest interest in things of the spirit)—both had tears in their eyes, and my brother-in-law was so stuck for words that his handshake was followed by a hug! I was amazed, as he is an unemotional person and we have never been close. I thought: "If only my Dad could see this now! It would almost have been worth dying for!"

That afternoon, after we had returned home, the phone rang and my sister answered it. It was a Sri Lankan lady in Adelaide, wanting to know my number in Melbourne, as some friends of hers wished to invite me to preside at a memorial service for their late mother the following Saturday; she was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to learn that I was there in South Australia. I told her that I intended to return to Melbourne on the Friday as I was booked to fly out to Malaysia on the Sunday. She requested me to delay my departure yet again, assuring me that her friends would pay any cancellation fees. To accommodate them, and also because I saw an opportunity to propagate Dharma somewhat, I agreed to her request, and made a further postponement of my trip.

That Saturday, I was picked up and taken to the house where the ceremony was to be held. Many people had assembled, and after a sumptuous lunch that had been prepared, I began my talk, which went on for about two hours. At the end of it, someone whom I didn’t at first recognize came up to me and said that he had enjoyed my talk. Recognition then dawned: it was a man with whom I had had some disagreement way back in 1975 and had not seen since. How good it is to resolve old conflicts and allow the wounds to finally heal!

This was yet another spin-off or follow-up of my father’s death; but there were others, too, and I will recount some of them here in order to show how one thing leads to another in chain-like sequence. There is really no beginning or end to anything; everything has causes and in turn becomes the cause of something else. My father’s death was not an accident but an effect, and led—like everything does—to other things.

After this talk, there was a request for another talk that evening, also to Sri Lankans. There is no Sri Lankan monk in Adelaide, nor, it seems, any monk who speaks English well, and so, whenever I’m back there and the Sri Lankans know it, they invite me to give talks, and I comply. They are concerned—and rightly so—that their young people, who have grown up there and whose first language is English, do not understand their religion well, and might lose touch with it. Some of my talks there have gone on for almost five hours!

Between the talks in the afternoon and evening, the lady who had made the initial phone-call that located me, discovered that I was suffering from pains in my chest and left arm, so called a Sri Lankan doctor to come over and check me. Now, for the sake of anyone else who might be suffering from similar pains, I would like to say that I have had these pains, on and off, since 1976, but all the tests I underwent in various places (I even paid US$190 in Chicago for a stress-test), revealed nothing; all I was ever told was that it was not my heart at fault; I was never told what it was. The pain was so bad at times that it felt as if I were being stabbed or having a heart-attack. And in 1993, in Melbourne, I had a prolonged bout of this pain that spread from my chest down my left arm into my hand, where it had never been before, and so concerned was I by this that I went, late one night, to the emergency-ward of a large hospital nearby and had an ECG, but again, it showed my heart to be normal. The pain, this time, lasted for several months and was quite debilitating; I could neither sit, stand nor walk for long without the pain increasing; the only position that I felt reasonably comfortable in was lying down; it quite curtailed my activities. Numerous acupuncture sessions failed to bring any relief, nor did copious draughts of bitter Chinese medicine, or Western analgesics.

Dr. Karunaratna—for such was the name of the good doctor who came to check me—asked me some questions and inquired if I had ever had a neck x-ray. When I said ‘No’ he suggested that I have one, as he felt that the trouble stemmed from pinched nerves in my neck. Strange, but not long before, I had thought that the pains might be caused by nerves. Over the years, I was given various ‘diagnoses’, including a blockage of the vital-energy (‘chi’), inflammation of the rib-cartilage, and even spirit-possession! Dr Karu’s explanation made more sense than even the sanest-sounding of the others, and I resolved to follow it up on my return to Melbourne.

When I got back to Melbourne the next day, I was met at the airport, and on the way back to the temple where I was staying, was asked if I would like to visit a friend on the route. "Why not?", I said, and so we went. Upon arriving there, I was told that the father of someone who had been my Vietnamese translator for some years was near to death in hospital. I asked the man who had picked me up if we might go to the hospital next, so we went directly there. Making our way to the ward where the man was confined, we found all his family gathered around his bed, on which he was lying in a coma, connected to life-support apparatus, with tubes running in and out of him in all directions; it looked as though he was already dead. His family was standing around numbly and quietly, and I said to my translator that this was an appropriate time for a Dharma-talk; he agreed, and called everyone to listen. I spoke about the need at that time for everyone to control their grief, which would not help the departing person in any way and might even impede him, and to think with one mind in sending him positive thoughts. He loved you, I said, just as you loved him, and if he is still aware of us now, he would wish you to be happy, not sad. We cannot bring him back but must let him go, and in doing so, you should now focus on the good times you shared with him, and think positively, in order to speed him on his way. As I spoke like this, my translator noticed tears coming from his father’s eyes; had he understood what I was saying? It is nice to think so. He died soon afterwards, and I was requested to speak at his funeral, which I did.

I was unable to get an appointment to see a neurologist in Melbourne before I flew out to Malaysia a few days later, as the waiting-list was too long, but in Kuala Lumpur, some friends took me to a doctor who had treated me for pneumonia there in 1991. I told him—Dr Joseph Soo—what Dr Karunaratna had said, and he immediately made an appointment for me to see Malaysia’s leading neurosurgeon, who was a personal friend of his. Dr Bala’s clinic was crowded and I had to wait for several hours before being called into his examining-room, by which time, the x-rays that had been taken on my neck while I was waiting, were ready. Again, I was lucky to meet a kind and sympathetic doctor—the third in a row—and he showed me from the x-rays and explained in terms that I could understand, the cause of the pains that had troubled me for so long. Not only this, but he told me it was quite a common complaint—known as cervical spondylosis—and that, in fact, he himself had had it some years before, but it had responded to medication without requiring surgery. He said that a minor operation could fix it permanently but advised against it at my age, as it might cause complications. He prescribed and supplied me with medication and I was happy to pay the bill of M$150; it was such a relief to finally know the cause of the pains, as not-knowing was just as bad as the pains themselves! If anyone else who has been suffering from this ailment, without knowing what it is, reads this and gets some insight into it, my pain will not have been in vain; I have told of it here in case there are other sufferers of the same thing who might get some relief.

The medication worked and, some weeks later, the pains had subsided to such a degree that I no longer needed to take it. I am under no illusions, however; the pains will probably return, as they used to do from time to time over the years, as the condition has not been corrected. But, having discovered the cause, when they do return, I will know better how to deal with them, and there will not be the fear that it is life-threatening.

To conclude: Where my father has gone, I do not know, but I do know that I cannot now think anything negative about him; such thoughts do not come into my mind, and I’m happy about this, for he had many negativities, as we all do. There were many times when I thought badly about him, I must confess, but now these burdens have been put down and I must express my gratitude to him for all the help he gave me, directly and indirectly. He wasn’t the best father in the world, perhaps, but neither was he the worst. He was, simply, my Dad.

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