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on love, death, and pain

As I tweeted about a week ago, the first draft of the book is done. (Except for checking one footnote, for which I await an order...and given the snow I don't expect a mail delivery until next week!)

A few weeks ago, Elissa asked me if I had done any writing about Piccolo's passing, and I told her I planned to work something into the book. So here's that. Not including the copious appendix, these are the closing words, following on a discussion of life and death and reincarnation and anatman:

It’s now January 2010, a few years after the trip to Japan that started this book. As I have been concluding work on it in the past few months, death has come and paid me a visit, taking the two dogs who were my close companions for over twelve years.

People are much more forthcoming with questions and advice when you lose a dog than when you lose a parent or a spouse or a child. And so friends have been asking me, “Will you get another dog?” (Compare the questions “Will you marry again?” or “Will you have another child?”, which we often wonder about but seldom ask the bereaved spouse or parent.) Many have suggested that I do so – some even to the point of implying that grief is something to avoid, that I should fill the void as soon as possible.

Another advisor, though, pointed out that taking another dog into my life will just have me back in this same place of grief some years down the road. And this is true – but it is also true for any relationship. Every connection we make eventually ends with us saying good-bye, from one side of the grave or the other.

The only way to avoid that grief would be to never love – an even greater tragedy. I am reminded of an aphorism attributed to author John A. Shedd: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Just so, a heart that never loves is safe from the pangs of grief; but that’s not what hearts are for.

And so the death of a loved one (two-footed or four-footed) is a reminder of the grief that is common to us all, a call to tenderness, a call to open the heart and let the whole Cosmos in.
As I knew that my second dog, Piccolo, was in failing health and likely to pass on soon, I wrote this prose poem:

The snow is gone. Where did it go to? There were billions of snowflakes, in my backyard, each perfectly detailed, dazzling faceted. Now they have gone, and my yard is mud.

Did they go to snowflake heaven? Did they reincarnate as packed powder on some ski slope?

Each snowflake was a nexus of conditions, of water and temperatures and altitudes of clouds. Each snowflake was a mass of Arctic air, plus an ocean breeze, plus a low pressure system. Each snowflake contained the cycle of seasons, the tilt of the Earth's axis, the deep ocean currents that make the climate, the Milankovitch cycles that make the Ice Ages. And more: the formation of the Earth itself, the Sun, the element of oxygen born in a dying star, the hydrogen that condensed out of the Big Bang, the whole universe in each snowflake.

And then those elements move apart, no longer overlap and the snowflake cannot be seen. But it is not gone, because the seasons, the Earth, the Sun, the Universe, remain.

And what is true for a snowflake, is no less true for a dog or a human. We are the snow that appears when conditions are just so, and then melts and goes into the soil, and is taken up by trees and grasses, and rises to become the cloud skittering across the sky, and then falls to become the stream and the ocean and the puddle, part of other sets of conditions, each glorious and beautiful. We melt into the world, and our oneness with it – which never went away – is again revealed.

And this oneness is also revealed when we open our hearts, remove the boundaries, and let death remind us of our own tender Buddha nature.


I really appreciated this post, and completely agree. If taken in properly, grief can soften and open the heart.

This quotation from C.S. Lewis's The Four Loves came to mind reading your post: "There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell."

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