Prince Siddhartha left the cloistered world of his palace home to wander in search of truth. His father had striven to shield him from the four aspects of suffering (Skt: duhkha), namely, birth, illness, aging, and death, that form the basis of the First Noble Truth of Buddhism.
In 2003 and 2004, I spent several months in São Paulo, Brazil, practicing and receiving teachings at Odsal Ling temple from my teacher, Lama Tsering Everest. At the end of a particular teaching on impermanence and the four types of suffering she gave us a homework assignment. Within the next 24 hours we needed to see a newborn baby, sick people, the elderly, and corpses. Putting all other plans on hold, we students spent the following day running all over a city of 10 million people—from nursing homes to hospital wards, from the morgue to the neonatal ICU—to fulfill our teacher’s command. Hopping the metro to a nearby hospital as a small group, we soon realized we had to go solo in order not to arouse suspicion among hospital staff. Unlike in the highly surveilled US, where everything is closely monitored, in São Paulo I was able to gain access to view several dead bodies.
Speaking fairly fluent Portuguese, I blended into crowded corridors on this surreal outing, eager to fulfill my assignment. Mala in hand, I walked the halls quietly reciting mantras for the sick and injured; the premature, dying, and recently dead. I waited with frantic and grieving, anxious and concerned relatives in cramped waiting areas. I wandered the dull green hallways and peeked into rooms, wondering where I’d slip in to see what Siddhartha himself had so long ago sought.
Beholding tiny premature babies in the neonatal ICU awed me. How pre-human they seemed in all their miniature desperation! My nephew had been born early, as had my own father, I recently learned. But a baby born several weeks or even two months premature does not compare to one born at 24 weeks. To witness such fragility of life struggling just to breathe and circulate is difficult to articulate. More familiar were adults with injuries, illnesses, and debilities associated with longer-term suffering. People encounter such a range of pains as their karma unfolds to end up in hospital.
Before leaving for the nursing home, where I visited with total strangers, I knew I had to find a corpse. Uncertain how to accomplish this, I calmed my mind and moved through the halls, hoping to fulfill my teacher’s instructions, and knowing she gave them with good reason. I can’t recall now, years later, how I managed to find the floor where the very-recently deceased lay awaiting preparations for a family viewing or a funeral. Intuitive wandering, I guess. I remember finding myself in front of a door, sensing that through it would be bodies. Mustering some shreds of bravery, I looked left and right, before slipping silently inside where a podium stood, with a guard-like staff member looking bored. I told him I was there to pray for the dead and would do so quietly in the corner. We were in a sort of foyer, alone together. Uninterested, he glanced at me and nodded. After a while, he left to do something else and I stole through the second door and into a shadowed room. Clammy fear slowed my breath, which stagnated in my chest. I gathered my courage, feeling sure I did not want to return to the temple with my task incomplete.
There were four or five gurneys in the room, each covered with a sad green sheet that revealed the contours of the corpse underneath. I couldn’t remember ever being in the presence of a dead person, let alone in a room full of them. It took every bit of presence of mind to pull back one of the sheets and look. I felt an unreasonable dread that the corpse could come to life, like an angry zombie. My anxiety hung in the air, laced with an otherworldly stillness. A minute passed as I gazed at the body so recently breathing and circulating, emoting, wishing, relating. It was difficult to form coherent thoughts.
Looking back, I see myself staring into the mirror of my own mortality. What a gift to experience this, precisely because it was a stranger. His death, while not affecting me personally, touched me in some deep, universal way. As if the corpse was speaking to me, saying: “You see? This is our fate. You are no exception. It is this simple after the fact. The differences lie in the karma leading up to it. None of us truly knows until we arrive at the moment, of conscious or unconscious knowing, that our time has come.”
In retrospect, I left the room hastily, out of a strong desire to leave the corpses behind, and also afraid of the guard’s return. It is only now, 15 years later, that I remember the experience at all. Today, walking along a sunny trail in the Colorado foothills, sunshine striking the rock faces and barren ground. Returning home, to an unexplainable stillness. A line in a book on impermanence and meeting one’s own death jumped out at me; about familiarization with dying and cultivating freedom from the anxiety around death. And suddenly I remembered that homework adventure we had together, so many years back. Boarding a bus, then the metro in bustling São Paulo, and dispersing in front of the hospital like Buddhist CIA operatives. The sun shining brilliantly on the path, the same way it did today, and had for Siddhartha too, before he leapt over the walls of his false sanctuary in search of truth. Wondering, wandering, searching for that which bonds us as specks of stardust upon this rolling Earth.
With love, respect, and devotion to Lama Tsering Everest for her simple yet brilliant homework assignments (there were others!), and to all my precious teachers for their breath spent teaching the great way of Dharma.