C. W. “Sandy” Huntington Jr. was born February 24, 1949, and grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, walking distance from Michigan State University, where he later attended college. He earned his PhD in Asian languages and cultures at the University of Michigan under the guidance of Luis Gómez, training in Sanskrit with Madhav Deshpande and then, while living in India (1976–79), with Ambika Datta Upadhyaya and Ram Shankar Tripathi. Sandy would return to India, especially Banaras, many times during his life; for him it was a second home.
Sandy first taught at Antioch College’s Buddhist Studies in India program, then at the University of Michigan and Denison College, before joining the faculty at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. There he inspired undergraduates for more than two decades, receiving numerous awards for teaching.
As a scholar, Sandy urged his colleagues in Buddhist philosophy to reflect on their hermeneutical assumptions. His provocative critiques were marked by unusual creativity; he not only deconstructed old ways of reading but also offered new ones. This is evident in his seminal work on Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara, which was published as The Emptiness of Emptiness (Hawaii UP, 1989). Sandy was also a gifted writer for non-academic audiences, making philosophical ideas accessible and rendering them with literary flair, as with his acclaimed novel, Maya (Wisdom Publications, 2015).
Sandy passed away peacefully on July 19, 2020, following a six-month struggle with pancreatic cancer. He is survived by Liz, his beloved wife of thirty-five years, and their two children, Sam and Katie.
The following is an excerpt from his last book, What I Don’t Know about Death.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
—“Kindness,” by Naomi Shihab Nye
When I went away to India as a young man, I was in search of a wisdom I thought I could not find at home. I had no idea what “wisdom” might be. But now, here at the end of my life, I’m learning.
These days I’m resolutely ensconced at home, an old, dying man living out his last days in quarantine from a pandemic that is ravaging the world. Death, or the threat of death, is everywhere. Here in the silence of my home I’m discovering, as the days pass, that there are distressing truths one can know intellectually but not assimilate, truths one assimilates only when forced down a cul-de-sac. From the perspective of the dead-end road—that prison of necessity—the consequences of not coming to terms with my unmitigated loss (a loss of literally everything) overwhelm my most valiant efforts at denial, all those otiose desires to remain the person I was before being diagnosed with terminal cancer. The truth is, of course, that I will never again be that healthy, vital person; those days are over. I am dying, and what I don’t know about death has become a metaphor for what I don’t know about life. As I’m compelled to give myself over to this darkness of unknowing, I’m finding a new and deepened understanding about what it means to come to terms with what I’ve been given—with what Buddhism calls the “suchness” (tathata) of things.
At the beginning of January 2020—only a few months ago—I was fine. I spent three afternoons every week working out at the gym. I split wood for nightly fires, shoveled the drive, and went for long walks with the dogs, the three of us roaming the woods that blanket thirty acres of land I and my wife own in the hills outside of town. I was eating and drinking and moving through my days with the impunity and self-confidence of a healthy man. I was in fact indulging myself, feasting on a vitality that had followed me into my early 70s. Over the years I had become habituated to my good health, habituated to a body that never failed to respond to my demands. I more or less assumed that tomorrow would be the same as today and that this state of affairs would continue for some time, perhaps another ten years or so. Far enough out, at any rate, that death was nothing more than a vague specter. That, at least, is what insurance actuary tables seemed to promise. The Buddhist texts, with which I was on much more familiar terms, suggested otherwise, but the forces of denial are everywhere reinforced by our popular culture. And we are, after all, creatures of habit, driven by our past karma.
On New Year’s Eve my wife and I invited some guests over to celebrate. We either made or purchased an abundance of wine and liquor and festive treats—rich, heavy fruit cake soaked in rum, a variety of cookies and pastries, a table full of crackers, chips, cheeses, and bowls of creamy dip. In the company of our old and dear friends, we drank, smoked, and talked until sometime after twelve, when one by one people hauled themselves up and out into the cold, snowy darkness, exhausted and ready for bed. It had been a pleasant evening. After they left, my wife and I did some cleaning. When the abandoned plates and glasses and silverware had been rinsed and stacked, ready for washing the next morning, I settled into an armchair to have a nightcap before calling it a day. I had taken the first sip of my bourbon when I noticed stirrings of discomfort rising up from somewhere deep in my gut. Within minutes I was doubled over in excruciating pain. All I could do was press my hands tight against my stomach, curl up on the floor in a fetal position and moan. My wife sat at my side, concerned and vainly trying to comfort me. After half an hour or so the pain began to subside, and I was able to climb the stairs and collapse into bed. This was my first indication that something was not right.
The next morning I woke up with a mild residual discomfort that never went away. The pain was easily bearable, though, and on the fifth of January I went back to teaching. My college has a short, four-week “J-term” that is often used to take students to study abroad. In the past I used to take a group to India every January. It was a lot of work, though, and I eventually got tired of bearing 24/7 responsibility for all the psychological and physical tribulations of ten undergraduate students suddenly plunged into the chaos of South Asia. So I designed a course on the yoga tradition—something I could teach here, on the college’s Pine Lake campus, which is what I was doing this past January. Every weekday we read and discussed Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, practiced hatha yoga, and sat meditation. I felt okay, but the perpetual ache in my stomach remained.
Toward the end of the month, at my wife’s prompting, I scheduled an appointment with my family doctor. Worried about possible gallstones, he had me do a sonogram. The procedure was scheduled for the twenty-eighth of January, a gray Tuesday morning, tiny crystals of snow drifting in frigid air. I had the first appointment of the day. I remember that as I approached the main entrance to the hospital, a crow was perched directly over the doors; as I walked under him he looked down at me, cocked his head to one side, and made a low burbling sound. I was told by a nurse to sit in the waiting room at the hospital while the technicians set up their equipment. I have always disliked the antiseptic, institutional atmosphere of hospitals, and I was anxious to get the test over with so I could return home, where I had work to do to prepare for my spring classes. Only the day before, I had gone to the gym for one of my regular heavy workouts, and I was still basking in the endorphin boost that follows strong physical exertion; a hospital, with sick people being pushed through the linoleum corridors on wheelchairs and gurneys, was the last place I wanted to be.
As it turned out, the test didn’t take long, and within an hour I was home again making myself lunch, looking forward to getting my work done, when the phone rang. It was my family doctor, calling to discuss the results of the sonogram. I remember thinking it unusual for him to get back to me so quickly; unless the test turns up some serious problem, doctors commonly send the results through the mail. “Sandy,” he said, in what struck me as a weary tone, “this is Doctor Walker. I’m afraid I have some bad news.” I immediately recalled something my mother told me years ago, after my father’s death from bone cancer. She told me how they had learned of the diagnosis when the doctor called to report the results of a routine lab test. She said that when they hung up the phone, they knew immediately that nothing would ever be the same, that their lives had been shattered beyond repair.
In my case, the sonogram taken only a few hours before had turned up images of a tumor the size of a golf ball, lodged deeply in the interior of my pancreas. Surgery was not an option. There were also spots in my liver that indicated the cancer had metastasized. I asked the doctor what I needed to do. “Find an oncologist,” he bluntly replied. “Without immediate treatment you cannot expect to live more than a few months.” The unimaginable had come to me like lightning from a clear blue sky.
The first thing I did was phone my wife at work. I told her the doctor had called with test results and that I’d like for her to leave work immediately so we could discuss what he said. She made the necessary arrangements, and before ten minutes had passed, I was there to pick her up. I couldn’t find any words, though, so I simply drove. After a few minutes she whispered, “What is it, honey? What did he say?” I told her that I had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer—a bad one even as cancers go. That without medical attention I’d be dead within two or three months, that one way or another I most likely had little more than a year at best. Neither of us spoke, and after a long silence, she began to cry.
When we got home, we sat together and began processing what needed to be done, which turned out to be a lot of phone calls to various offices and clinics. We spent the remainder of the afternoon making some of those calls, which kept us occupied. But as evening approached and the sunlight faded into darkness, there was nothing to do other than sit together and cry. We went to bed early, holding each other close, declaring our mutual love, weeping at the meaningless suffering of the world and at what life had done to us, demolishing, so quickly and cruelly, all our dreams of a future together.
"I am dying, and what I don’t know about death has become a metaphor for what I don’t know about life."
Anthony Lane recently wrote for an essay published by the New Yorker:
In the cozier nooks of the well-furnished and relentlessly medicated West . . . we have told ourselves—or fooled ourselves—that life, far from hanging by a thread, is sitting comfortably, pouring itself a drink, putting on some Michael Bublé, and going nowhere in a hurry.
But this was not me; I harbored no such ideas about life “sitting comfortably, going nowhere in a hurry.” Quite the contrary. In the years previous to receiving this call from my doctor, I had worked as a volunteer for hospice, offering company to dying patients in the lonely, disinfected rooms where we house our elders. For eight of those years I had been teaching a class titled “Near Death Experience” in which we read books explaining what it means—both physically and psychologically—to die in contemporary America, and every student in the class served as a hospice volunteer. I had for years been an avid consumer of books on death and dying, everything from Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die, with its unsparing, meticulous descriptions of the mayhem that rains down on the body in its final days (one of my friends called the book “death porn”) to Atul Gawande’s gentle, soothing voice in Being Mortal and Paul Kalanithi’s heart-wrenching account of his own dying at age thirty-five, movingly narrated in When Breath Becomes Air. These and countless other more obscure titles. I read them all, to the point where my family routinely joked about my obsession with the literature of death.
They were right: I was obsessed with death. It was an obsession that found its roots in my undergraduate years, when I first encountered existentialist authors like Sartre and Camus. The obsession matured throughout the decades of my long engagement with Buddhism, a tradition that tends, like many other religions, to see spiritual work as preparation for death. This is of course obvious in the case of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but the message is communicated, one way or another, throughout Buddhist teachings, where meditations on death are commonplace. The years I had lived in India also contributed to my fascination. In contemporary America, we hide death; in India, death is everywhere visible. In Banaras, a city where I lived for years, corpses of animals lie in the streets alongside the occasional beggar who simply expired where he or she had been squatting with his dented aluminum bowl. Banaras is considered by many Hindus to be the ideal place to die. In the back alleyways leading to the Ganges River, there are hotels filled with emaciated men and women waiting to be taken up by the great god Shiva. Those not fortunate enough to die within city limits are brought there by relatives and carried through the streets on bamboo biers to be cremated on the banks of the river. As the pallbearers wind through the narrow alleys leading to Manikarnika—a concrete platform overlooking the river where the cremation fires burn night and day—they keep up a steady chant of Rama Nama Satya Hai! “The name of God is Truth!” In the neighborhood of Assi, I could hear these funeral processions from where I sat in my room, bent over my desk, studying or translating. Smoke from the cremation fires billows upward over the city and perfumes the air with the acrid smell of burning human flesh and hair. In those days, living far from “the cozier nooks of the well-furnished and relentlessly medicated West,” I considered myself on familiar terms with death, just as I did on that day in January, only a few months ago, when my doctor called to deliver the “bad news.” It struck me, then, that what I knew about the death of others had nothing to do with my own death. I was like a scholar knowing litanies of Buddhist doctrine but not being able to assimilate them existentially. This was a death far more real than anything I had encountered in books, Buddhist or otherwise, or when sitting with my hospice patients. This was a death suddenly pressing in on me from all sides, leading me down a blind alley that ended, or so it seems—with the loss of everything about my present self and world.
That call set in motion several days of frenetic activity as I phoned one specialist after another in an effort to set treatment in motion as quickly as possible. It was hard to focus on all the bureaucratic details, to talk with all the functionaries, only to be placed on hold, again and again, with the phone pressed to my ear, listening to some insipid music, the pain in my gut an ever-present reminder of what was at stake. But making these contacts, I discovered, was entirely my responsibility. No nurse or doctor or hospital bureaucrat was going to do it for me. I remember blurting out to one poor secretary, when she told me that none of the resident oncologists presently had any space in their schedule: For you and the doctors this is just another day at work, another anonymous patient; but for me time is running out. I’m dying! The poor woman was clearly flustered. After a moment of shocked silence, she promised, in a voice filled with urgency and compassion, to do whatever she could to help me find a doctor. There were also, during this first week, endless discussions with insurance providers. The problem was that I had not only to find a local oncologist but also to schedule an appointment with a specialist at Dana Farber, a state-of-the-art cancer treatment center four hours away in Boston where I could get a second opinion. This required clearance from my HMO, which in turn required jumping through one flaming hoop after another. Eventually I was granted permission to schedule the appointment, and my wife and I made the drive to Boston. I don’t know what we expected or hoped for, perhaps some magical cure that only these elite, Harvard doctors could deliver. Instead, we were told only that the original diagnosis was correct, and the chemotherapy prescribed by my oncologist was the gold standard. The long drive to Boston turned out to be pointless.
In the following weeks I became a regular customer at the cancer clinic in our local hospital. I quickly learned to see my body as nothing more than an object to be pushed and prodded and trundled in and out of a succession of sterile, fluorescent-lit examination rooms, where “it” became the subject of detached, scientific analysis that had nothing to do with me as a person, with my delights and passions and disappointments, all those memories of my childhood, the years in India and graduate school. None of this was relevant because I was no longer a person; I had morphed into a diseased organ. This was war, and the doctors were fighting on my side, focused on a single task. The tumors must be forced to submit. I had a biopsy taken; the surgeon inserted a long needle through a spot just below my ribs, pushing it deep into the dark, intimate recesses above my abdomen. It was nothing short of a violent invasion, though you wouldn’t know it, for everyone from the attending technicians to the surgeon seemed to be in an upbeat mood. When the needle reached my liver, the surgeon let it rest there for a moment before piercing through the surprisingly resilient skin (a profoundly alien sensation) and setting his little blades twirling so as to extract a sample of tissue. During these first few weeks I also had a rubber bulb installed under the skin in my chest, connected via a tube to an artery in my neck. Since then this “port” has facilitated the insertion of a series of needles used to extract blood for lab tests or to pump into my bloodstream a biweekly cocktail of poisonous chemicals that will, theoretically, slow the growth of the tumors and so buy me a few more days or weeks among the living.
At the moment of this writing the chemo seems to be working, as there are indications that the tumors are shrinking. There is, however, no cure for stage 4 pancreatic cancer. It is a terminal diagnosis, though for the majority of patients the endgame can at least be postponed. With the proper chemotherapy the tumors will usually stop growing and begin withering away until they reach what the doctors call a “plateau.” At some point, inevitably, the dying tumors will adapt to the chemo and begin swelling again. No one knows how long it will take before all this plays out; it could be a matter of days or weeks or months before the chemo no longer works. People with pancreatic cancer sometimes live as long as a year or even more. Such miracles are rare but not unheard of. Nevertheless, at some point the tumors almost certainly will start to swell and grow again, and chances are very great that this will come about in the not too distant future. In the meantime I must live with the biweekly chemo treatments.
The side effects of the lethal poisons being infused into my bloodstream are debilitating. I’m constantly fatigued, so much so that while sitting or lying down on the couch, I regularly slip into a sort of trance state defined by the slow, steady rhythm of my breathing. For as long as it lasts I am simply erased. Left with no purpose in mind, nothing whatsoever to think or do, I just sit quietly, wearied beyond belief but somehow at peace. Even my own dying no longer matters. The experience is similar to certain tranquil meditative states I’ve known. In this sense it is familiar, but in in another way it’s unlike any meditation I’ve done in the past; at those times there was always some trace of self that remained, but in these trance-like states I am swept away by a level of acceptance unprecedented in my experience. I may remain like this for only a few minutes, or for half an hour or more; it always comes as a blessing, a taste of something infinitely deeper. To leave this immense silence behind, to rise and stand and once again face the reality of my dying on other, more quotidian terms, then requires an immense effort. I shuffle from one room to the next like a stereotype of the old, sick man I have in fact become in only a few months.
The devastating weariness and its attendant symptoms, however, are only one side-effect of chemotherapy. There are also problems with my sense of touch and taste. My tongue is now perpetually numb, buzzing and tingling with what feels like an electric current; my mouth coated with a foul, chemical taste. All food is, for me, tasteless cardboard. I force myself to eat because I must, in order not to lose another pound, in order to live another day. In the first month of chemotherapy, before they lightened my regimen, I could not put a spoonful of food in my mouth without retching. I have lost almost forty pounds, dropping from 186 to 148. As the fat leaves my body, my muscles begin to wither, my skin begins to wrinkle and sag. Crimson blotches spread over the back of my hands and wrists.
“This very body, the body of Buddha.”
"I considered myself on familiar terms with death."
Along with its physical side effects, the treatment I’m now enduring has had other psychological or spiritual consequences. The tranquil states I just described appear to be one such consequence, not at all unpleasant. Another entirely unanticipated development, perhaps related to these “states,” has also been enormously helpful in these otherwise dark times. The chemo—or the illness (it’s impossible to know which)—is sapping me, day by day, of my allegiance to the ego’s motives and concerns—motives and concerns that I now clearly see have defined me throughout my adult life. The ego’s constant strategizing, its need to assert control and shape circumstances on its own terms, its delight in accomplishment and despair in defeat—all of this is increasingly remote from and irrelevant to my present situation. The Persian poet Rumi advises us to “hatch out the total helplessness inside,” and that is what I’m doing, or what is being done to me. None of the ego’s formidable powers has anything of value to offer me now; they are up against a power far beyond reckoning. Moreover, insofar as the ego’s motives and concerns are bound up with the ego’s insatiable thirst for more—more reading, more writing, more time with my family and friends, more life—they issue a promissory note that will never be cashed because I no longer have more time, even in my imagination. But this makes no difference to the ego; the ego keeps on churning out desires for more that make it hard to find peace with the future I no longer have. And yet, as the world slips through my fingers, becoming with the passing days ever more tenuous and insubstantial, everything about it has at the same time become frightfully precious, every tiny detail—the meadow in front of our house with its tall grass rippling in the breeze, the bright yellow buttercups and dusty blue forget-me-nots, the mournful song of the doves at twilight—is more vivid and compelling—more real—than ever before. It is just like my lucid dream experience: this new reality is unlike anything I could ever have imagined. It’s as if the world is reaching out to me with the arms of a lover to draw me into itself, to erase all that I have been in the strength of its embrace.
Much of this may sound odd, or perhaps sad, to healthy people still immersed in worldly affairs and in their dreams and plans, hopes and expectations. I know this is true because not very long ago I was one of those people, confidently looking toward the future. I well knew, from my hospice work, my study of Buddhism, and all my other reading that I was in denial, but it was the sort of denial that all of us habitually indulge. For all I know we may need to live this way; to confront the truth squarely on its own terms may not be possible for anyone other than saints and buddhas. But for me things have changed. In facing my own imminent death, all the attitudes and techniques that I honed over the years in my search for the approval of others have become useless, or worse. The thread of imagination that connected me to the future has abruptly snapped, and in order to avoid sinking into despair at the devastating loss I face, I’m called upon to go beyond the ego into an unknown and forbidding territory: the realm of the non-future. In my inexorable physical decline, I move ever closer to the cottage of darkness, to the jaws of the leviathan, to the nothingness that has been buried inside me and largely ignored all these years. In leading me inevitably toward this nothingness, my illness has become something very like what Tibetan Buddhists refer to as a “wrathful deity.”
This wrathful deity has come to me out of compassion, to teach me hard lessons that all of us must eventually master. It is teaching me that the redemptive power of death will be revealed only when the ego with its demands for authority and control are swept away, along with the accompanying fear and dread, by an act of unequivocal self-surrender. As Laurens van der Post wrote, speaking to us out of his own experience of dying: “[G]one at last are all the special pleadings, evasions and excuses that men use to blind themselves to the whole truth of themselves, discovering in the process their portion of the estate of aboriginal darkness to which they are the natural heirs and successors.”
The fact is, the ego relies in large part for its continued sovereignty on fantasies of future accomplishments or future pleasures. My ego thrives in conjuring up visions of retirement in the company of my wife and children, in looking forward to grandchildren, to continued social engagement with friends and colleagues, to continued work on a house I’ve been building in the hills outside of town. But my illness has revealed these hopes and anticipations for what they always were, the workings of an overactive imagination. The future was always a dream, and now the dream has ended, and I am left with the only thing I ever really had: the present. I live in a world where all the games of success and failure no longer have any appeal. As King Lear tells Cordelia,
[We’ll] hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins; who’s in and who’s out—
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
in a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by th’ moon.
Helen Luke has written about these lines: “Surely in all the world there could be no more profoundly beautiful, wise, and tender expression of the essence of old age, of the kind of life to which one may come in the last years if one has, like Lear, lived through and accepted all the passion and suffering, the darkness and the light, the beauty and horror of the world and of oneself.”
I wonder sometimes if the lesson this dying is teaching me is something like what Prince Gautama learned toward the end of his six years of asceticism, so perfectly depicted in that forbidding statue sitting in the museum in Lahore. It must have seemed to him that in abandoning his wife and child and his life in the palace he had lost forever all the things that previously made life worth living. The weight of this loss must have, for some time at least, not only deepened his meditations but also brought him to despair: it was certainly a catalyst for the extreme ascetic practices that almost killed him. What is of concern to me now—and what eventually seems to have concerned the prince, as well, judging from his later teaching—is not so much what has been lost but what “comes to birth only in a heart freed from preoccupation with the goals of the ego, however ‘spiritual’ or lofty these goals may be.” With the passing of the final weeks and days of my life, I am learning the hardest of lessons: to no longer want more than what I am given, and to allow what I have been given to guide me through the purifying flames of love and grief into the brilliant darkness of unknowing. Unlike Prince Gautama, though, I don’t think I would ever have been desperate or vulnerable enough to open myself to these lessons were it not for my illness.
Dying casts a brutally honest light on all that has gone before, and of all the things that have gone before, the spiritual goals of the ego are especially pernicious. All the old attitudes that drove me to write and study and meditate appear, from my present perspective, as tainted with ego. Anything that has to do even peripherally with the ego’s need to turn Buddhist teachings into a vehicle for self-improvement has now become a cause for pain, for the self and its unrelenting efforts to turn everything to its own purposes are precisely what keeps me from finding freedom inside this prison of necessity. I desperately require, now, only what is outside the realm of self-interest, outside the purview of “those packs and sects of great ones/ That ebb and flow by th’ moon.” In my present anguish, I seek an innocence and simplicity that has nothing to do with the powers that have carried me this far. The compulsion to resist and revise the circumstances of my life, if only in the subtlest of ways, appears to me as nothing more than the perpetuation of a vain, arduous struggle pitting my will against insurmountable forces of nature, forces entirely outside my control that are pushing me into the black sack of death that is at once the source and conclusion of all our dreams of power and the “mystery of things” in which we live and move and have our being.
A week before he died, Thomas Merton wrote of an experience of deep peace that spontaneously seized his soul. He was standing in the garden of the Three Stone Buddhas in Sri Lanka when, without warning, he “was jerked clean out of the habitual half-tied vision of things…” Merton went on in his diary to say that overcome by this peace beyond understanding, he had “seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything—without refutation—without establishing some other argument.” He was, in short, outside the realm of all those healthy souls still vying to occupy the center stage in whatever world matters most to them.
If I am to find a way to die in peace, it will only come through release from “the habitual half-tied vision of things” that is permeated with self-interest and delusion, with ideas of right and wrong, and this release will be found not simply in acceptance. I need something more than mere acceptance. I need to find my way to unconditional love, which is the only kind of love capable of embracing the immensity of my loss. In the absence of unconditional love, I face an unrelenting battle leading to certain defeat, a pointless, blind rage against the dying of the light of this ego-driven consciousness. My illness—this sliding into death that undermines my identity as an individual—compels me to search for a redemption consummated in what Helen Luke called “the joy which comes only when we no longer seek happiness.”
To go beyond happiness into joy means to be free of myself, and for that I need both unconditional love and its handmaiden—forgiveness. Forgiveness given freely by myself to myself, and as much as possible forgiveness offered to me by my family and friends. Forgiveness for the stream of self-deceptions necessitated by all those years of searching for happiness by judging and condemning and putting myself above others. I need also to forgive those others for the ways in which they have sought—most often without any conscious realization—to deceive me by making me into an instrument for the realization of their own selfish desires. Such forgiveness is impossible when my attention is absorbed by the machinations of an ego still bent on fueling its dreams of power. To truly forgive myself and others I must go beyond the ego and surrender to the darkness within, to the hidden, sacred miracle of life and death, and to the prison of necessity within which that miracle is made manifest to each of us in a different guise. This kind of total self-surrender entails precisely what the ego finds most difficult: patience in suffering, prayers for humility, delight and wonder at the simple enchantments of nature, in the telling of painful old stories, the sharing of memories now cast into the bright light of my dying.
Love in this context is not at all abstract; nor is grief. They are an all-consuming necessity. Between or within the two of them lies the realization, or belated acknowledgement, that I am dependent on others for my very existence and for whatever meaning and value I have managed to discover in seventy years of living. In other words, what I most need now is all that is not me.
Helen Luke writes, “There is no private salvation; exchange with the other is the door to the final awareness of the unity of all in the love which is the dance of creation.” I am now, more than ever before, aware of just how inextricably interwoven we are, how we carry within us the people and places we love and also all that we judge and reject and fear. Over the span of a long life, the weight of these judgments and fears becomes a dreadful burden. My adult persona, forever alone and in thrall to its self-centered needs and desires, forever rebounding between what is acceptable and what is not, will never allow me to live out these final days in peace, much less to face death with equanimity. For that I need a renewed innocence and simplicity, one that is capable of accepting the love and forgiveness and simple kindness of my family and friends and capable, as well, of offering love and forgiveness and kindness in return. In order to live what is left of my life and die in peace, the wrathful deity of death is teaching me to give myself over to the human community and to a felt kinship with the nonhuman world, a world to which I have always belonged while never fully appreciating the significance of that belonging, a world where this failing body of mine is, like all bodies, a tiny, fleeting shadow in the immensity of creation. In only a few months the gestalt has shifted, and after a lifetime of study and practice of Buddhism, I am only now learning, here in this prison of necessity, to release my grip on life and so to love life as it is, in all its beauty and horror, to give myself over to the embrace of those infinite others, human and nonhuman—the earth in which we are rooted, teaming with beetles and grubs and worms, the grass and flowers and trees, the robin building a nest outside my window, the hawk circling high overhead, the clouds, wind, rain, and sun—all of whom have nourished and sustained me throughout this long journey home. They are in me, and I am in them. We are inseparable.
For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.
The grass withereth, and flower thereof falleth away.
"I am only now learning, here in this prison of necessity, to release my grip on life and so to love life as it is, in all its beauty and horror."
In the winter of 2020 a renowned scholar of Asian religions, lifelong meditator, and novelist accustomed to vigorous health received a terminal diagnosis. By summer his cancer had run its course. In the short time in between, C. W. “Sandy” Huntington faced his own impending death, leading him to reconsider the teachings and practices, as well as philosophy and literature, he had spent a lifetime pursuing. In this, his last book, you’ll join Sandy as he traverses the gap between knowledge and true wisdom.
“Sandy Huntington urges his readers to face up to life’s fragility as well as its many gifts. Written with elegance and verve, What I Don’t Know about Death is a deep meditation on what it means both to wake up to and to let go of life. Drawing on his lifelong engagement with Buddhism, Huntington remains a consummate teacher who demands intellectual honesty, humility, and compassion from his readers no less than from himself. This book is an intellectual and spiritual offering to Huntington’s students, past and future.”—Leora Batnitzky, Ronald O. Perelman Professor of Jewish Studies and professor of religion, Princeton University
“What I Don’t Know about Death is a deeply personal, intellectually rigorous, and philosophically profound exploration of death, and in particular of Sandy’s own death, which he faced with exemplary grace, honesty, and clarity as he wrote this book. This is a gift of remarkable beauty that can open our hearts and minds to this most difficult topic. Read it and weep, with tears of grief, gratitude, and illumination.”—Jay L. Garfield, Smith College and the Harvard Divinity School
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