Ashes, Stars, and other Fires

There is no shortage of argument or discussion concerning the nature of life and death. Earliest records of philosophy consider the golden questions of humanity: what is the meaning of life and what is death. Religions, a moral code and guide for society, each opinionated and corrupted by institutionalization make many claims and assertions to the meaning of life and death.

Here is one very simple, undeniable thought, all agree on: life, in all its forms, is a fragile thing.

The Japanese consider the fragility and beauty of life to be best described in the metaphor of the Cherry Blossom trees; life is both overwhelmingly beautiful – made so by all the different connections and experiences we derive from it – and tragically short. Blooming season of the Cherry Blossom is powerful, glorious and immersively captivating. Unfortunately, it is also devastatingly and tragically short; like life, a fleeting thing of immense beauty.

Just as in life, some blossom petals fall before the season ends; a fallen blossom or petal like the end of short lives.

Death is nothing short of devastating; there are no words to justifiably encompass the loss we feel when so violently confronted by death.

My aunt died young; my cousins, only just at the crossroads of youth and adulthood have experienced one of the greatest losses life is.

Life is, as the Buddhists claim, suffering. In all its forms. Buddhists however, understand suffering – and consequently life – differently to the majority of social conventions; suffering refers to the unsatisfactorily and painfulness of mundane life. Suffering, really, is the process of spiritual liberation and enlightenment. Life is embodied in the sufferings of the mental, physical and emotional of birth, aging, illness, and dying.

Birth is painful, old age is painful, sickness is painful, association with unloved objects is painful, separation from loved objects is painful, the desire which one does not obtain, is painful too – Buddha

To truly understand Buddhist concept of suffering, you need to consider its doctrines; suffering is a mark of existence, in that it is result of attachment to elements of the temporary and the fragile of life.

It is in these attachments, I find we have purpose in life; transferring life from mundane to fantastical. It nevertheless, leads to intense suffering in the unfortunate reality of mortality and death. Impermanence is after all another characteristic of existence. Death isn’t suffering for the dead; it is a form of perfect freedom regardless of your beliefs. The dead are no longer attached to us, they do not mourn for us.

We mourn them.

Life is suffering. But it is, oddly, in that suffering we experience and witness true beauty and life.

I am an atheist; I reject the idea of deities, souls or heaven – I, specifically, am committed to the absence of believe in the existence of a God or the spiritual. I have no doubts. I wish I did; I wish I believed in something else but I find myself completely unable to.

I wish I had the comfort of belief; but in many ways I am also thankful I do not. I find small comfort in the knowledge my aunt is at rest; she suffers no more in any form.

Strangely, I have always found greatest comfort in the words of Vincent van Gogh regarding death:

Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.

Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?

Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.

To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot

As he famously said I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.

I have no belief, but I have memories and time. I have regrets, but I also am proud of many aspects of my relationship with my aunt. This is what gets me through the cavern left in her faded warmth.

I see my aunt everywhere; I see her in memories, I see her when I consider her thoughts on subjects, and I have her lectures. I have the attachment of her life still, despite her loss.

A billion stars shine in the night sky every night; whether or not I believe does not change that reality. My aunt died; but I remember her.

And just as stars that shine every night, that will have to be enough.


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