The Other Shore
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
When you break through the
surface of awareness in meditation, you may feel as if you have been cast
adrift in a shoreless, seething sea – the sea of change, the ocean of birth and
death. Only after years of inward traveling, when the senses are closed to the
outside world and you are miles deep in consciousness, do you catch sight of a
farther shore, beyond change, beyond separateness, beyond death. Suddenly, when
the mind is still, the words of the Gita on which you are meditating open up
and take you in, and the sound of them reverberates through consciousness as if
you have found the pitch to which every cell vibrates:
You were never born; how can you die?
You have never suffered change; how can you be changed?
Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial,
You do not die when the body dies.
When this happens, no matter what the rest of the world may say, you know for certain that you have been born into this sea for no other purpose than to reach its other shore, which is our real home.
Not long ago, walking on the beach one morning after a storm, I was surprised to find the sand littered with creatures not much bigger than an old-fashioned silver dollar. They are called, I am told, velellas, “little sailors,” for they have a disklike body that floats on the sea and an upright fin that catches the wind. They go where the wind and currents carry them; they have no other power of motion. And the sail is set; they have no choice of direction. Halfway in evolution between organism and colony, they have no fixed life span. They might have drifted on the ocean for years, with no reason to care which direction they were carried in, until a California squall swept them by the thousands onto the nearest shore. In the water, I thought, they must look beautiful, a miniature blue armada with translucent sails scudding before the wind. Now their fragile bodies covered the beach, and whether they were jellyfish or floating colonies or some even lower order, they had passed from this life.
“So many! I had not thought death had undone so many.” Even with such simple creatures the theater of death opens for me. The beach seemed like an Elizabethan stage, where a tragedy is not considered complete until the boards are covered with bodies. But in this drama there was no antagonist. I could not blame the sea; its nature is to move. I could not blame the wind; the winds of change have to blow. And there was no question about their direction: all creatures have the same destination; all are going to the same land. But I thought to myself, “If only they had been able to set that sail!” They could have sailed in the teeth of the wind – against the current of life, as the Buddha says, all the way to a farther shore.
It is our blessing as human beings to have sails that we can set as we choose. No other creature has this capacity; it is our precious legacy. And two great saints from East and West, Sri Ramakrishna and Saint Francis de Sales, encourage us with almost identical words: “Set your sail for the other shore.” The wind is blowing; we have no choice but to move. But we have a sail that can be set, and we have testimonies like the Katha Upanishad to give us the goal, the direction, and the charts. The rest is up to us.
Today I went to a hospital. As I walked down the corridors, people were dying – not just the old but the young as well. Some of them might have been born here a few years before; soon their bodies would expire here. How quickly it all passes! Time, Shankara says, is a wheel with three hundred and sixty-five spokes, rolling down our lives. We may run fast or slow, but every body is overtaken by that wheel.
The friend I had come to see was dying of lung cancer. I sat beside her silently, holding her hand and repeating my mantram in my mind, until her body gave up and ceased struggling to breathe. Within a short while it was over. As I walked back along the long corridors, it seemed to me that I was seeing the same scenes that launched the Buddha on his search for the Eternal twenty-five hundred years before. There was disease, of course. There was old age, decrepitude, decay. And there was death, waiting for us all.
I wanted a long, fast walk. Across the street was a vast new shopping center, with covered arcades that offered protection from the summer sun. Inside I saw hundreds of people, old and young, wandering from window to window – looking at things, calculating, longing, buying, unmindful of what was happening on the other side of the street. How easily we can be bought! Nachiketa was offered the fulfillment of all worldly desires; our lives can be purchased with foot-long candy bars, stuffed toys, decorated T-shirts, and video games.
In my grandmother’s language, I spent an afternoon with Yama today. He stood in that hospital at the end of a long, long corridor, waiting. Many of those in the hospital beds would reach him soon. The staff, the visitors, the shoppers across the street, probably had farther to go. But in time, everyone had to go down that corridor and meet Death. And there was nothing threatening in his face. “I carry out my function,” he seemed to say. “If you choose, you can pass me by.”
To me, this is a very personal message. The gift of immortality is not the birthright of just one or two. There is something of Nachiketa in all of us; that is the glory of our human heritage. So his story concludes with a blessing intended for us all:
Nachiketa learned from the King of Death
The whole discipline of meditation.
Freeing himself from all separateness,
He won immortality in the Self.
So blessed is everyone who knows the Self!
May each of us realize that blessing, and live in that presence within us which death can never touch.
This excerpt is from the book Essence of the Upanishads.