A couple of weeks ago, I walked by Harry’s garden. It’s a small garden, about 10 feet by 20 feet, off to the side of a narrow dirt road. I’d forgotten all about the garden till then, and what I saw was a mess. It wasn’t really Harry’s garden anymore. Harry had died the year before. I’d not been around when he died. I did not know him well. But when I saw his garden choked with weeds, I felt a deep sadness suddenly well up in me—for Harry, his garden, and everyone and everything else that dies, moves on, slips away.
Harry and his wife, Gabriella, lived in a house down the road from Gampo Abbey, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery on the northern tip of Nova Scotia I’ve been going to once a year since 2005. This year, I made it there twice, once in May and once last month. I stay in a small cabin on the grounds for a silent, solitary retreat for about two weeks each time. I’m not supposed to be talking to anyone. But sometimes when I go out for a walk down the long, remote dirt road and see someone, I’ll say hello. And hello often evolves into a bit of conversation.
I’d met Harry and Gabriella walking toward me one lovely August afternoon my first time at the abbey. They had been affiliated with the place for years before, and in their retirement years, had chosen to live nearby. I thought it brave of them to pick a place where the winters are cold and long, and told them so. I remember Gabriella waved away such petty concerns. “If it’s cold, you put on a coat.” I liked that simple logic. And agreed with it.
On another one of my walks during my retreat that summer, I saw Harry working in his garden, which was across the road from their house. The garden was lit by a small patch of sunlight surrounded by pines, and Harry’s thin, tall frame threw a shadow toward me and the road while he worked. He didn’t see me. I kept to my vow of silence and continued walking.
During my subsequent retreats, the couple’s health quickly declined. They were not young when I’d met them. Both were in their eighties. Turns out, I rarely saw them again. Maybe one or two more times. Gabriella’s mind started going, a victim of Alzheimer’s. Harry tried to take care of her till he died last year. Then the resident monks and nuns tended to Gabriella, offering a rotation of 24-hour care at her house. I saw Gabriella one more time. It was last year at the monastery’s main building, where she was going to have lunch. I said hello to her. She said hello to me. She had no idea who I was. That winter she was moved to be closer to family in Ontario.
On this retreat, I’d brought along I book I’d started reading on my last retreat, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, by Patrul Rinpoche. The book is a translation from a Tibetan teacher Patrul Rinpoche had studied with, so it’s an old classic. Patrul Rinpoche lived and died in the 19th century. A few days after I was struck with sadness when I saw what was left of Harry’s garden, I turned a page to a chapter called “The Impermanence of Life.” What follows are 20 pages on the Buddhist teachings on impermanence, focusing mostly on our death, from which nothing and no one escapes. One of my favorite passages:
No soldier’s army, no ruler’s decrees, no rich man’s wealth, no scholar’s brilliance, no beauty’s charm, no athlete’s swiftness—none is any use. We might seal ourselves inside an impenetrable, armoured metal chest, guarded by hundreds of thousands of strong men bristling with sharp spears and arrows; but even that would not afford so much as a hair’s breadth of protection or concealment. Once the Lord of Death secures his black noose around our neck, our face begins to pale, our eyes glaze over with tears, and our head and limbs go limp, and we are dragged willy-nilly down the highway to the next life.
There are pages on the impermanence of everything else—the seasons, towns and cities, great empires, friendships and other relationships, buildings, fortunes, sorrows, happiness, poverty. “Everything is subject to change,” Patrul Rinpoche writes, “everything waxes and wanes.”
The purpose of these teachings are to, quite simply, point us toward living good, virtuous lives. Patrul Rinpoche quotes one teacher, Geshe Potowa, thus: “Think about death and impermanence for a long time. Once you are certain that you will die, you will no longer find it hard to put aside harmful actions, not difficult to do what is right.” So the lesson here, which is not always easy for me—or for others, I suspect—is to simply be kind.
During my retreat, I took plenty more walks, sometimes on the monastery grounds. Harry had a small Bonsai tree garden on the grounds. The wooden tables are all still there, but the trees are gone. A cabin I used to stay in—called Cliffhanger because it sat on a cliff 200 feet above the Gulf of St. Lawrence—was closed last spring. A chunk of nearby cliff had washed away into the gulf and the cabin needs to be moved back before anyone can stay in it again. One evening when eating a simple dinner of rice and steamed vegetables I’d prepared and put into a bowl, I dropped the bowl, and it shattered into four pieces. That evening I watched the sun go down in a blaze of vast, oceanic beauty. When I walked back to my cabin, I saw more leaves turning.
The only thing we can really do with change is get used to it, as much as we often don’t like it or want it to happen. Death and impermanence are not things we normally think about, I know. But here in the deep north when your life slows down, you see it. If you stand still long enough you can see how the world is changing all around you all the time.
It feels like a sort of training, and that’s exactly what Buddhists call it. It’s a training because we can learn to dispel our illusions that life goes on forever, or that anything else lasts forever. Then when we experience a loss, it won’t seem like the end of the world. Which doesn’t mean we won’t be sad when people we love die and things we hold dear break or disappear. Sadness is not the same as despair.
And we can always keep ourselves attuned to what we might gain from our losses. Regarding this, one 17th and 18th century Japanese poet, Masahide, said it best:
Barn’s burnt down—
I can see the moon.
On of one my last days at the abbey, I took another walk past Harry’s garden. A part-time neighbor from Halifax hours away was working nearby. I stopped to say hello, of course. Turns out he was rescuing an old rhubarb plant Harry used to tend to, and he was going to transplant it near his own house in anticipation of getting fresh rhubarb come spring.