My dad passed away a couple months ago. As so often happens, the funeral became a kind of reunion—people from different parts of my dad’s life converged, joined by this one connection. Many of those in attendance were people I’d known well as a child but hadn’t seen in decades.
One man, close to ninety years old, was someone I hadn’t seen for probably thirty-five years, not since I was a teenager. After the service, we reminisced about my dad and about the times I used to visit his ranch as a kid. Later, as the reception was winding down, he came up to me, shook my hand, and said flatly, “Well, we’ll never see each other again.”
I laughed a little when he said it, and he kind of smiled, but it wasn’t funny. It also wasn’t sad, or bitter. It was a fact, one that he saw more clearly than I did. At nearly a century old, he has already attended a lot of funerals. He’s had this conversation before. Everywhere he goes, with everyone he meets, he’s saying goodbye.
This brief exchange sticks with me. Buddhist teachings invite us to have this kind of unflinching clarity about sickness, old age, death, and change, but for most of us, most of the time, it’s an abstraction.
The fact is, if we live long enough, if we witness enough change and experience enough loss, we might reach a maturity that looks a lot like what Buddhism calls wisdom. None of it is specific to Buddhism; none of it requires some special insight. It’s wisdom in the most ordinary sense.
And this is where practice comes in. We can accelerate this maturity, this profound letting go, by seeking out the things that, if we wait long enough, eventually find us wherever we are. We can choose to be with the process of dying; we can stay close when our loved ones are sick, instead of looking away. We can look in the mirror every morning and witness, in real time, the aging process. We don’t need to embrace any of it—that isn’t the point. We just need to not blink.
When we make those choices, we come to see this simple truth: we too are always saying goodbye. Impermanence isn’t just some idea. It’s perhaps the defining reality of our lives. We can go big and say, well, maybe that person you meet on the street won’t be alive tomorrow—and if we do, we’re not wrong. But more realistically, there’s the simple opportunity to acknowledge that no matter how healthy that person is, no matter how long they live, if you meet them again tomorrow, they won’t be the same. And neither will you. This scene doesn’t repeat itself, and neither do the actors in it. This moment, whatever it is, is a one-shot deal.
Before the funeral, the last time I’d seen that friend of my dad’s was probably in passing—maybe he’d come through town and dropped by for a couple minutes to say hi to my parents. Or maybe it was somewhere else. I have no idea. I would have been an awkward teenager, probably avoiding everyone; realistically, whenever it was that we met, we only exchanged a few words. Neither of us could have guessed that we wouldn’t meet again for more than three decades. Neither of us would have considered that we may never meet again. It was just a casual hello, nothing special.
But what if we had? What if he had turned to my sixteen-year-old self and said, “You know, we’ll probably never meet again”? Maybe I couldn’t have heard that back then, but I’d like to think I might have at least chewed on it for a while. You never know. I might have saved myself some time.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.