Thursday, February 28, 2008

Thinking about my brother

Thinking about my brother Michael’s life, I am reminded of the book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor and psychotherapist, believed unconditionally in the meaning of life and he described three ways in which this meaning could be realized.

The first way is by accomplishing or creating something. Michael’s creativity blossomed over the last two years of his life and stayed with him until his final days. His unique vision could turn a photograph of a washing machine into a work of art and a subject for poetry. Wherever he happened to be – in Japan, suburban New Jersey, or New York’s East Village – he paid attention to things most people would pass by and showed they were worthy of notice. Above all, he was in search of the authentic – in the world and in himself. In photographing people, Michael captured their essence. He approached his subjects humbly, without artifice, and they responded by revealing their inner natures. In his blog, Michael revealed himself in the same way and touched readers all over the world. Michael had to stop taking pictures when his cameras became too heavy for him, but he continued writing until the night before he moved to the hospice. His last blog entry was the moving poem “Fatigue” in which he said “I see the steady progress of death…But, blessing of blessings I can still feel the life spark.”

The second way of finding meaning in life is by appreciating something – a work of nature or culture or a person. Back in 2005, Michael said, “Sometimes, I look upon this disease as a blessing because it has forced me to appreciate things in my life I used to take for granted. Simple things. I still take these things – time, friends, the physical ability to pursue my livelihood, interests and hobbies – for granted. But now, I often catch myself in the act, slow down a bit, and appreciate more. I see the joy in just being able to enjoy a cup of tea. Or having an especially rewarding workout in karate class. Or not feeling guilty about doing absolutely nothing on a Saturday afternoon.” Toward the end of his life, Michael wasn’t taking anything for granted, but what he appreciated above all were love and compassion.

The third way of finding meaning in life is through suffering. Frankl says that when a person is confronted with a terrible fate that cannot be changed, just then, he is given a last chance to actualize the highest value, to fulfill the deepest meaning, the meaning of suffering. The way in which he accepts his fate, the courage he shows, the dignity he displays, is the measure of his human fulfillment. I was with Michael when his doctor told him there was no more that medical science could do for him. Afterwards we went to lunch in a favorite Japanese restaurant where Michael ordered his usual soba noodles. We didn’t talk much. We drank tea. That night, Michael wrote a powerful blog entry. He said, “I need to live this, and to know that I'm living it. I need to be aware. This is important.” The attitude Michael took towards his suffering – his acceptance, courage, and dignity – inspired everyone who came into contact with him. Even those who knew him only in his final days were stirred by his spirit.

Michael’s life was rich with meaning and in living his life the way he did, he taught us all a lot about the meaning of our own lives.

I’d like to close with one of Michael’s poems. It’s called “Reminder to myself.”

Living life to its fullest isn't about
checking off thrills from a list;
It's about being fearless in following my dreams,
courageous in accepting
that some will go unfulfilled
and taking the time
to savor
something as
as a cup

of tea


Messenger19 said...

I like this bolg. Thank you. Very deep.
You might be interested in the book by Takamori called YOU WERE BORN FOR A REASON
It's talks about Frankl a little bit, too.


east village idiot said...

I won't ever forget all that I learned from Michael's photography and posts. Knowing him as I did - via his blog posts - and then to follow his journey to the end of this life and into the next one has been a gift for me. I think of him often. thank you for sharing his poem with us. I intend to save it.


Anonymous said...

This is the most beautiful testimonial to him. I appreciate that we can have this forever as a reminder of how loved he is.

I have sent it to many people who will be using it as inspiration.

Thank you for putting this on the blog.

Love Lisa

Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Nancy.

"Above all, he was in search of the authentic." Yes, those words sprung out of your post -- that is what struck me about your brother.

Perhaps there is a fourth way that Michael was also on: a way of completely giving up the search for the authentic; a way of accomplishing nothing, appreciating nothing, and digging out the root of suffering by simply -- without artifice -- blocking, kicking and punching... or, as the ultimate backward step, simply sitting.

I have tended and still tend to be, much too wordy. I deceive myself sometimes with my own words. I have written things on this blog that offended, if not Michael himself, then certainly some of his relatives. Probably they needed a punchball as grief turned to anger. But anyway I apologize if I caused undue offence. Unswervingly, always, Michael had time for my verbage, and encouraged me to continue.

It takes a fraud who knows he is a fraud to know a fraud who knows he is a fraud. That is how I knew Michael and that is how he knew me. Ordinary frauds go around the whole time seeking to accomplish, appreciate, or experience something. Your brother's search for authenticity, as I recognized it, included those three ways, but also went beyond.

As it says at the end of the Heart Sutra...

Gate. Gate. Parqate. Parasangate.

Gone. Gone. Gone beyond. Completely gone beyond.

Bodhi svaha.

The awakening of Buddha!

Mike Cross said...

After writing the above comment on the spur of the moment in a public library in France, I ordered the book by Victor Frankl which arrived yesterday together with his autobiography, which I read yesterday in one gulp.

After reading the book yesterday, being asked again by Frankl the question I so often asked myself as a youngster, the question about meaning, I want to express the following:

The freedom I want, in order to breathe in, is exactly the same freedom I want in order to breathe out.

The freedom I want, in order to breathe out, is exactly the same freedom I want in order to breathe in.

This morning I am struck afresh by the meaning of this simple and unceasing truth.

The Buddha's wisdom is not something. The Buddha's wisdom is a bit of nothing.

We all tend, all of us, to be after something. Michael was like that and I also am like that. But aside from this tendency, Michael had another tendency which has to do with the desire to strip away the something, to strip away the something which is like a lens cap.

Mike Cross said...

This comment came to me last night in a dream... So here goes:

I have read two Viktor Frankl books I ordered -- his autobiography and his Search for Meaning. I enjoyed reading the books -- thank you for the pointer.

In the view of Viktor Frankl, a man should always say Yes to life, fearing only his God.

But Michael in the poem quoted here uses the word fearlessness. Michael did not strike me as a God-fearer.

Michael's way, as I see it, involves what Master Dogen called "learning the backward step" - i.e. learning to leave behind even our attachment to life and the fear that goes with that attachment, learning to leave behind even our own views and expectations... learning to leave behind everything, even myself.

Yes, you can see this way of Great Emptiness as a way of affirmation, a way of meaning, a way of enjoying tea. But more than that it is a way of negation, a way of sitting-zen without any Zen paraphernalia, a way of seeing with the lens cap off, a way of smashing an empty tea cup.

With this in mind, I am going to do an off-the-cuff translation of the Heart Sutra and dedicate it to Michael. I will post it below.

Mike Cross said...

Michael Thaler, being awake to unreality, truly endeavoured to see and to portray life as it was, lens cap off, stripped of the pretence with which people, in our small and pathetic search for meaning, would like to imbue it. The following is an interpretive translation of the Heart Sutra, translated specifically with Michael in mind and dedicated to his memory.

The Heart Sutra of the Transcendent Accomplishment of Unobstructed Seeing

When Bodhisattva Viewing Freely went deeply, one foot after the other, to the far shore of unobstructed seeing, he reflected that reduction of human existence to five separate elements is totally futile. He has gone beyond all suffering and evil. Nancy, dear! The forms and colours he edited are nothing but emptiness, and emptiness is nothing but those forms and colours -- the photos are emptiness itself, and emptiness is just the photos. The same applies not only to form and colour but also to the other four elements: feeling, ideas, patterns of doing, and consciousness. Nancy, dear! All these things that really exist are manifesting themselves as they are -- bare, raw, empty, devoid of meaning. They are neither arising nor ceasing, neither tainted nor pure, neither growing nor diminishing. Because they are devoid of meaning, there is no separate element of form, and no feeling, ideation, doing, or consciousness. There are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or sense centre. There are no sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile or kinaesthetic sensations. No vision nor any other sensory sphere: no sphere of proprioceptive consciousness. No ignorance nor ending of ignorance nor any other causal process: no aging and death and no end to aging and death. No suffering, accumulation, cessation, or Way. No wisdom and no attainment. Because there is nothing to attain, the bodhisattva relies on the transcendent accomplishment of unobstructed seeing. Therefore his heart and mind is free of attachment. Because he is without attachment, he is without fear. He has left far behind all his former dreams, which were upside down, and finally arrived at the peace of nirvana. The buddhas of the three times rely on the transcendent accomplishment of unobstructed seeing and so they attain the supreme integral truth of full awakening. So remember: the transcendent accomplishment of unobstructed seeing, prajna-paramita, is a great and mystical invocation. It is a great and luminous invocation. It is an invocation which is supreme, but without prejudice or bias -- it is equality without equal. It can clear away all discontent. It is truly real, not empty. Therefore we invoke the spell of the transcendent accomplishment of unobstructed seeing -- prajna-paramita. We invoke it as follows:

Gate. Gate. Paragate. Parasangate. Bodhi svaha!

Gone. Gone. Gone beyond. Gone completely beyond.
Praise be to the awakening of a buddha!

The Heart Sutra of Unobstructed Seeing