On remembering and forgetting
September 11th is a difficult day. In addition to being the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in 2001, September 11th is tough for me because it’s also the birthday of my friend David Harris, who died in August of 2008. He would have been twenty-eight years old.
Dave was my friend in college. We bonded over our shared interest in Buddhism and social justice work, which is a tricky and unusual overlap. My junior year of college, we both went to India on the same study abroad program, a Buddhist studies program which brings students to Bodh Gaya for four months. We grew close in India. After he graduated from college, I flew out to visit him in Portland and stayed over at his house.
A few days after I visiting him, Dave quit his job and embarked on a solo hiking trip in the forests near Portland. He had left me a phone message thanking me for coming. I didn’t call him back. While he was hiking, a falling tree branch hit him and broke his neck, killing him instantly. I found out that he’d died through Facebook, which is the worst possible way to find out your friend has died in the history of… ever. I’d never met his family, so they didn’t call me with the news. And since I didn’t know his family, I wasn’t invited to the funeral. I flew out to New York for the big, public memorial service that was held, but I never felt like I had anything near closure.
My grandfather died around the same time, and I cried then, but this was different. My grandfather was old, and his death made sense. But Dave’s death made no sense. Grief is always terrible, but senselessness creates its own kind of shock. It’s hard for me to describe my emotional state after Dave died. How is it possible to feel closure about a death that is so random? It’s been years since Dave died and I have never “made sense” of his death. When other people bring up karma, reincarnation, souls or spirits in relation to Dave dying, I think that’s all bullshit.
Recently I read an article in the New Yorker about the new September 11th memorial in New York City. It seems like the memorial isn’t doing a good job of helping people to hold or process their emotions. Part of the problem might be that the museum and memorial are trying to impose or instigate a specific, pre-approved kind of remembering. We are allowed and encouraged to remember the deaths of 9/11, but only in a certain way. Only in an American way.
It’s clear to me that remembering people who have died is a basic human impulse, and I really appreciate how Japanese culture deals with death. When someone dies, the family calls a priest (that’s me and my teacher) to come and chant beside the body. The whole family gathers while the priest lights incense and chants the last instructions of the Buddha before he died. The next day is the funeral. A week after the funeral the family gathers again to hold a “Seven Day memorial.” A priest chants, and then everyone gathers together for a meal. The same kind of memorial service takes place after 49 days, a year, two years, and so on until seven years after the death.
People don’t usually cry at Japanese memorials. There is no public sharing of stories about the person who’s died. I was surprised by this in the beginning. But now I understand that the real purpose of these memorials is not to express emotion but to remember and commemorate someone who has died collectively, in a ritualized way that everyone is familiar with and everyone recognizes as being appropriate. I feel grateful that I can participate in these kinds of ceremonies. We don’t have this same tradition of ritualized remembering in America, and I think it’s a shame. Japanese Zen gets a lot of bad press for being “funerary Zen,” but there’s clearly value in helping people process loss.
I often wonder why we feel compelled to remember those who have died. What is it about remembering? Do the dead “want” to be remembered? Or is it just us, the living ones, who want to hold on and not let go?
Remembering goes hand and hand with forgetting. Sometimes remembering is a compulsion we can’t control, and sometimes it is active defiance against forgetting. Dogen famously wrote in Genjo-koan, “To study the Buddha-way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by myriad things.” For Dogen, forgetting the self is obviously a good thing, but I can’t even begin to understand what it would mean to forget myself. At least within Japanese culture, forgetting the self implies detaching from our ego and thinking of others. That’s part of it, clearly. But not all of it. How do we forget anything? If we forget something, does it stop existing? Where does it go? I can’t will myself to forget myself. I think my ego wants to be remembered, just like the dead want to be remembered, and just like we want to remember them.
It’s been almost seven years since Dave died, which is about the time when the dead stop needing memorial services in Japan. They rejoin the cosmic whatever and become ancestors. It’s an appropriate time marker I think. Seven years is also the amount of time it takes for all the cells in the body to die and regenerate. So maybe seven years is the amount of time it takes to create a new body that doesn’t miss someone so much.
About a year after Dave died, I ran into his best friend Michael on campus. Michael was handling the whole thing a lot better than me. “You know,” he said, “I think if Dave could talk to us, he would probably say, ‘It’s okay.’”
After Dave died, I remember someone telling me that I had to be strong, “Because Dave would have wanted us to be strong.” I remember at the time thinking this was utter nonsense. Dave was strong, but he was also into tenderness and vulnerability. He often talked to me about how he was tired of the tough-guy misogyny in the hip-hop community. He loved hip-hop though, and he loved the black community. He also loved meditating, and he loved love. I remember once in India, him telling me a story about how “Jesus Christ lost himself in love.” He was 100% sincere when he told this story. And then he got super drunk and lit a bunch of illegal fireworks in the street. That was Dave. He could freestyle rap or play bass in a jazz band, and then step off stage and say the corniest New-age shit you could imagine.
I don’t think Dave would have wanted, or expected me to be strong. But of all the people I’ve ever met, Dave would have had a good handle on his own death. If Dave saw his death coming, I think he would have said something like, “It’s okay.” Not me, though. I’m a mess, and I still don't understand what it means to forget.