Even in a town of 850 people: when one considers all the possible connections of family, relatives, friends, and coworkers, the reality of death is never far away. There are times when the pace of death and loss seem to increase, but for the most part it is only our sensitivity to its presence that is growing or shrinking. When it strikes close we inevitably feel it. Lately, people are communicating more and checking in on each other more, so it’s understandable that the normally quiet and isolated tragedies of life are out in the open.
As beings in samsāra, the wheel of rebirth, we are often caught in dualities. We see a beautiful sunset or have a lovely day on the beach. But when we return home we hear someone dear to us has passed away. Our day is ruined, our happiness destroyed. How could one find joy when things are crumbling around them?
Grief is a natural part of life. What isn’t natural is to see these processes and try to find some ultimate philosophy based on it. Some ask the question – “Which is it? Is life great and beauitful and joyful, or is life misery – an endless procession towards death?” To which one might respond, “Why does it have to be one or the other?”
Why should one reality cancel the other out?
It seems to me every landscape painting started with an artist catching sight of a beautiful natural setting. They were struck by it. “How beautiful!” they thought, and got out their brushes and paints. But at that very same moment, a deer was urinating or a hiker was tossing an empty bottle into the bushes. The scene they captured with their paints is indeed beautiful, but the beauty wasn’t in the scene itself. Beauty doesn’t reside in a stone or dirt or trees.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This old saying stands the test of time. The scene the painter saw was nothing special for the deer or the hiker, it just was. But the artist stopped, and breathed, and observed, and saw. “Behold! Beauty!” For it is the mind that is beautiful, not the landscape.
The fascinating thing about beauty is that when we put it in its proper place in the scheme of things, we see that beauty is not dependent on pleasure. Painful things can be beautiful. So can simple things, and complex things, big things and small things. Stable things, and transient things. The beauty of the mind is completely independent of whether or not something is pleasant.
There is an aesthetic in japanese called ‘wabisabi’. It is described as the beauty of something showing signs of age or imperfection. A rusting shovel, a creaking chair, a leaning old tree, a creosote-singed hearth. All have intense beauty – not despite their imperfections but because of them.
Perhaps the hardest thing in human life is not to dance between dualities and pit beauty against loss, joy against sorrow. Instead, perhaps we can learn to see the beauty in death, the purity in grief, and the joy in impermanence. It starts by not assuming a life is pointless because it ends in death. The more we truly see death, the more beautiful that life becomes.