No-one enjoys funerals―except perhaps those who might have disliked the dead person and those who stand to gain something from his or her will―but funerals provide us with much needed and excellent opportunities for introspection, especially if we are confronted by the stark reality of the corpse, and are unable to turn away from it. A funeral puts us in a situation which, far from being morbid―as many people suppose―might yield tremendous insights, and quite possibly change our lives in ways unimagined. It might even be said that death is the key to life.
I have just returned from the funeral of a young man who went into the hospital for a minor operation on his ear in 1984; the operation went wrong and his brain was starved of oxygen, with the horrifying result that he was left disabled thereafter, unable to do anything for himself, or even to speak. Why this terrible misfortune befell Tai―for such was his name―we cannot say, and we must be careful not to casually and callously dismiss it as "his karma", as if we know, for we really do not know. What we do know, however, is that he didn't want or try to be, like that; it happened to him. One day he was young, healthy, and handsome, with everything going for him, and the next day, his life had changed forever, and he had become a prisoner in his body, wanting both to live and to die, but caught between and unable to do either.
Two years after this happened, his condition came to the notice of someone named Jacquie, who responded to his needs, and not only took care of him as normally only a mother would, but fought and contended with the hospital authorities until they finally but reluctantly agreed to pay ongoing costs for Tai's hospitalization; this was no minor victory, as the hospital had refused, and continued to refuse, to accept responsibility for negligence. Jacquie's loving care for Tai touched many people, and caused some to remark that they must have had some strong bond from a previous life. I can't say much about that, but am full of admiration for her tireless efforts with Tai. He responded so well to her that he even made an attempt to write short notes to her, the first one of which, though hard to read, of course, said: "Chet roi," which is Vietnamese for "Dead already," probably meaning that he was as good as dead, and, therefore, there was no point in taking care of him. This did not discourage Jacquie, however, and for seven long years she bestowed her love and care on him, and the Vietnamese that she had previously learned came in very useful in facilitating communication with him.
Tai's struggles in this life are now over; ours, however, go on, and if we can learn something from cases like this, to apply in our own struggling lives, Tai's suffering might be seen as not entirely in vain, and he might be regarded as our teacher. "Teacher?" you might say. "In what way?" Well, let me explain.
Although many of us do not approve of gambling―observing how it causes so much misery―and would never enter a casino, play cards or mahjong for money, bet on horses, and so on, we are all inveterate gamblers, even so, for the simple reason that life itself, day-by-day, and even moment-by-moment, is a gamble. Everyday we run countless risks, from operating dangerous machinery, working with toxic substances, dealing with unpredictable human beings, to the hazardous venture of crossing the street. We have grown so used to the dangers inherent in these and countless other activities, however, that we no longer think of them; but this does not mean that they are not there.
You might be the best driver in the world, but that is not a guarantee of safety on the roads, as there are just so many variables involved, and not just the competency of the driver or the road worthiness of the vehicle. And, though in other ways we might distrust other people, we willingly and unhesitatingly commit our lives into the hands of complete strangers like taxi drivers and others, on the assumption that it will be alright. Looking back, I must say that I have led a charmed life so far, as during my many years of traveling the world, I have been with some very bad drivers (including a monk who once drove me around Canberra, and whom I told that, though I didn't mind visiting people in the hospital, I did not want to be taken to stay there as a casualty), and have never been in any kind of car 'accident'. It would be impossible to compute how many times I―or anyone else for that matter!―could have died on the road!
We set off on journeys, long and short, and make plans about what we will do when we get to our destinations, as if we have already arrived; the fact that we have done so until now does not mean that we always shall. Again, it's a gamble, and "there's many a slip between cup and lip."
Of course, if we were to worry about all the things that might happen to us, we’d probably never get into any kind of vehicle, but that would be quite impractical, so we take risks, which is what I mean by gambling.
But there are infinite other forms of gambling, and who would deny that marriage is a gamble? And even before that, falling in love is a risk-fraught matter, as the first flush of love―which knocks some people off their feet―is usually only very brief, and is hard to sustain. The high divorce rate in Western society is clear evidence that the turning of the 'roulette wheel' of marriage doesn't always come up with what people hope for, and often ends in bitterness and rancor.
Then, perhaps an even greater gamble, over which people have less control than over their marriages, is having children. It is impossible to know what might become of them, and, having got them, they cannot be returned to the store for a refund. No matter how hard parents try to raise their children well, explain to them about the right and wrong of things, set them a good personal example, and provide them with a good education, it is not sure that they will respond in the way hoped for.
Yes, life, right the way through, is a gamble, but, if we understood this, and how there is no choice but to participate in the game, we would be better prepared to take the risks, and be more philosophical about it when we lose or do not succeed to the degree we had hoped to. And, if it seems that Death eventually catches us out, it will still have been worth playing the game, because from beginning to end, there are opportunities, not only to learn things, but also to improve things for ourselves and for the players who will follow us.
So, Gamblers, throw your dice, and do not be disappointed if it doesn't come up six; there are times when even a one might be appropriate, and any situation, if examined intelligently, might be seen to hold something positive.
[This article is
dedicated to the late To Van Tai of Melbourne].