What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
TS Eliot, Little Gidding,
Year's Eve 2008, my father, Peter Daniel Hudis, breathed his last. It was a
fitting time for his life to culminate. Dad had always loved New Year's. He
enjoyed singing "Auld Lang Syne," listening to the ships sounding their sirens
in the port and first-footing across the threshold with a lump of coal. He
loved the sense of adventure and freshness that each New Year of his long life
brought. After sitting with his body for some time, I left the ward, together
with my siblings. As we exited the hospital into the car park, the sky lit up
with celebratory fireworks. Church bells pealed through frosty air. It was the
stroke of midnight and a new year was beginning in joy and loud cheering. Never
before had I felt so strongly the words embroidered by Mary Queen of Scots while
in prison before she was beheaded-- " In my end is my beginning."
night was not my father's first encounter with Yama, the Lord of death. My
parent's love story was a remarkable one, not simply because it played out
against the backdrop of the London blitz, nor even because relationships
between Jews and Christians, such as theirs, were rare and frowned upon at the
time. At seventeen, shortly after meeting my mother, my father was
diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis and sent away to a sanatorium. There was
no cure for tuberculosis in 1942, and after some months, he was sent home to
die. But love healed what no medicine could. Sixty-six years, four children,
five grandchildren, many mountain peaks and a golden wedding anniversary lay
ahead before he did indeed die, as each of us must.
time in the sanatorium was a sojourn in the halls of death. He was given the
job of pushing the library trolley from ward to ward, a chilling experience that
offered him a weekly glimpse of what lay ahead of him, as he visited the wards
full of more advanced cases. This time in the hall of Yama, together with the
daily brushes with death he had experienced in London during the Battle of
Britain, made my father resolve to live his life in the cause of peace, raising
children who would advance peace in the world.
The Katha Upanishad
opens with the story of a youth, Nauchiketas, who, like my father, takes a
journey into the halls of death. Nauchiketas' father, in a fit of temper, gives
his son away to Death. Winning three boons from Yama, Nauchiketas takes Death as
a teacher of the ultimate meaning of life. Indeed, it is death that endows life
with meaning. In his short story "The Immortal," the existentialist author Luis
Borges explores the theme of physical immortality. The abyss of endless time
reduces life to meaninglessness and ennui, for without death there is no
freedom and no choice. Endless time, like a vast desert, engulfs the capacity
to choose. The value of anything I choose in this brief and mortal existence
rests on the fact that time is finite, so choice has value. My life has a
limited number of years, so if I spend those years with you, that choice has
meaning. My day has a limited number of hours. If I spend an hour with you, it
has meaning, because I chose this over other things. The finitude of our life,
the fact of our mortality, offers us the invitation to make meaningful choices.
as his teacher, Nauchiketas discovers faith, shraddha, not in the sense of
belief in theological postulates, but in Paul Tillich's sense of Ultimate
O brother, o sister
Don't waste this precious human life
On idle pleasures and futile cares!
Fame and wealth mean nothing when you die.
You can't bring with you even one needle.
This life will vanish like a dream
Or like the clouds before the rising sun.
Nobody knows when death will come
So take the Holy Name while you can
And do a little kindness every day
Yes, do a little kindness every day.
this short poem is a story of the great Jewish teacher, the Bal Shem Tov. One
day, the Bal Shem Tov was informed that one of his devotees, a merchant, was on
his deathbed. When the rebbe arrived, he found the dying man busy running his
business, instructing his sons about day-to-day details. The Bal Shem
approached the man. " I need your help. Remember your old friend who died a few
weeks ago? I saw him in a dream. There's a problem. He has a tear in his shroud
and can't enter the World to Come. Since you will be passing over yourself
soon, would you bring him a needle?"
" But Rebbe,
you know I can't!"
" If you
can't even carry a needle with you, why worry about all this?"
The grave of
the great poet TS Eliot carries a twofold inscription. In
my beginning is my end and in my end is my beginning. In
my beginning is my end refers to mortality, to the fact of death and
impermanence. As the Buddha said, all
compounded entities must decay. Strive on with diligence. Our body is a
compounded entity and so must die. Yet as we have seen, it is our very
mortality that endows our span on Earth with meaning. Choice is the gift of
Yama. In the halls of Yama, diagnosed with a fatal and incurable illness, my father
chose life and love. Having sought and found meaning in the jaws of death, he
lived his life with a passion and thirst for adventure and exploration and a
profound understanding of how to walk in ways of peace and guide his offspring
in these ways.
In the Katha Upanishad, Nauchiketas
first has to make a very important choice--to choose his three boons. His first
boon is the one any child in his position might ask for. He wants his father to
be happy and reconciled with him. For his second boon, he asks to learn
specific rituals that will lead to Heaven. But for his final boon, Nauchiketas
asks Yama to answer the ultimate question. What happens when we die? Yama tries
in every possible way to put the boy off. He offers him fabulous wealth,
luxuries, vast lands, even kingship. But Nauchiketas points out that all these
things are impermanent and here, in the Halls of Death, have no meaning. He
insists upon the boon he has chosen--to know the meaning of death and hence of
answer Death gives is simple. There is a fundamental choice in life--a choice
between the good and the pleasant. By choosing his final boon, Nauchiketas has
already made this choice. We make this choice in a big way once in our
lifetime, by choosing to step on the spiritual path. Having made this choice,
we will be held to it. If we step off the path, we will be guided back. But we
also face this choice in myriad small ways throughout each day. It takes
constant discrimination to choose the good, to examine each possibility and
ask, "Does it benefit?"
In my beginning is my end leads us to
question, as Nauchiketas did, what happens when we die. Who is it that dies?
Who am I? In my end is my beginning
is the answer to this question. Yama says to Nauchiketas,
The self is never born, never dies. He
sprang from nothing, and nothing sprang from him. He is the Unborn, the
Eternal, the Abiding, the Ancient one. He is not slain when the body is slain.
As Jesus said,
Whoever wants to save his life will lose
it, but whoever loses his life for Me will find it. If we understand that
when Jesus says 'for Me' he refers to the Eternal Self, he is clearly saying In my end is my beginning. We let go of
our clinging to this temporary life, destined to end in death, and enter into
our true identity as the one who is never born and never dies.
Smaller than the smallest, greater than the
greatest, the Self abides in the heart of every being.
All the endings in life are so painful
for us. Birth is a joyful occasion, but it ends our womb life in pain and
struggle. Weddings too are seen as joyful occasions, yet many tears are shed at
weddings, because the new beginning also brings an ending. The dawn of a New
Year brings the Old Year to an end as we realize that all it held is just a
memory. Death is perceived as a
sorrowful event, yet it is a birth into a new reality.
Our experience of pain in endings comes
from our deep-rooted identification with temporary things and our ephemeral
body. We forget, again and again, That which abides in the heart of everything.
Knowing the Self, bodiless among bodies,
the abiding among the ephemeral... the wise man does not grieve, says Yama.
before you die and be resurrected now! These profound words from Rumi
remind us that we do not need to wait for our bodily death to find the new,
transcendent beginning contained within our ending. Every day, life offers us
fresh invitations to transcendence. For some, as for my father, a
life-threatening illness evokes meaning and transcendence, calling upon us to
let go of our identification with that which dies. Or perhaps the death of a
friend of similar age comes as a reminder that we too will die--unless we enter into
That which does not die. I always enjoy my birthday, a few days before the
winter solstice, as an occasion to gather with friends and experience warmth
and light on a dark evening. Yet with each birthday, life's ending draws
closer. So a birthday brings a very special gift, a card from the cosmos saying
At the ending
of each day we enter into sleep, the little death. In the sacred moments
between waking and sleeping, we have a unique opportunity to direct our minds
towards the Dweller in the heart. We sleep, but That does not. The Self remains
ever wakeful, conscious and aware. And as day dawns, we are resurrected from
the sleep state to the waking state. The sun rises, calling us not just to wake
up, but to Awaken. That radiant being in
yonder sun, soham asmi--I myself am that, as Isha Upanishad says.
death offer invitations, yet it is up to us to respond. The practice of
meditation helps us learn to read the invitation and gain the skills to respond
through moment-to-moment awakening. In our meditation, we are choosing to die
before we die. We let go of our activities and set aside time to do nothing. The
past and the future keep beckoning us, with all the agendas and notions that
make up our temporal identity. Yet we bring ourselves back, again and again, to
this moment, this breath. We see that each breath dies into the next as day
dies into night and night into day. With each day, with each sitting, with each
conscious breath, we die before we die and are resurrected now. As Nauchiketas
leaves the halls of death alive, awake and enlightened, we awaken, moment by
moment into the new beginning that is beyond all endings. In this body, in this
life, without any fanfare or grandiose experiences, but with ease, gentleness
and simplicity, we pass beyond the sphere of death into the immortality that
was and always is our true nature.
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
TS Eliot, East Coker, Four