Nicholas Bridgman holds two bachelor’s degrees from U.C. Berkeley in Rhetoric and Ecology. He currently lives in Southern California. His website is at http://www.nicholasbridgman.
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Richard Porter stretched his arms above his head, doing yoga poses with his 34-year-old Chinese instructor, Jianjin. They were doing the yoga in a park, just the two of them. Richard had heard great things in reviews of Jianjin’s yoga practice, so he hired him for one-on-one sessions. Richard wanted to learn everything he could from him, and he did not want to share him with anybody else. Private sessions may have cost a little more than doing yoga in a group, but Richard felt it was worth it. Already, he had learned more about not just stretches, but also peaceful living and mindfulness, than he would have learned in a group setting. This great learning, this transference of wisdom, would only continue to become more profound, the more Richard was around Jianjin.
Jianjin said, “Next let’s move into the Warrior II pose. Step your left foot to the side like this and hold your arms straight out at the shoulders.”
“This is a common pose, isn’t it? I always see people doing it.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Where does the name Warrior II come from?”
“There is a story in Hindu mythology, that a king held a ritual sacrifice but did not invite his daughter, Sati, and her husband, Shiva. Sati was so upset that she told her father, ‘Since you have given me this body, I no longer wish to be associated with it,’ and walked into a fire and died. When Shiva found out, he flew into a rage and threw a lock of his hair onto the ground, creating a warrior demon. He directed this demon to go to the sacrifice and kill Sati’s father. Warrior poses I, II, and III depict how the demon entered the sacrifice and attacked the king.”
“That is not a very peaceful story. Why do we do it in yoga?”
“Perhaps, but maybe the story is more peaceful than you think. To me, the Warrior reminds us of the certitudes of life. You can live a life of war, doing battle with others, coming to physical violence, doing violence, suffering violence. But in the end, all your struggles will come to one thing, death. Death is the certainty, the reward for a life hard fought. It does not matter if you died in war, in battle, by the gun of a domestic terrorist, drowned from not knowing how to swim, died at a young age in your twenties or at an old age from cancer, in your thirties from a heart attack or in your nineties from a botched hip surgery done by an irresponsible quack of a doctor. Or indeed, it does not matter if you are killed by a demon created by your daughter’s husband in a fit of vengeful rage. In all these cases, you will receive the final reward, to know exactly what happens at death. You will learn this, without doubt, as we all will, separately, individually. And at least you will know—even if all that happens is your eyes shut, your faculties turn off, and you completely cease to be, with no soul, no afterlife, no religion—at least you will know, what comes after death, as we all will one day know. We are all just struggling along, enjoying our lives, or perhaps suffering our lives, and yet one day we all will reach that one place of knowing, what happens when all this living is no more.”
“Wow, you got all that from the Warrior myth? I thought we just did Warrior because it feels good.”
“What you say is true too. It is good to feel good while we are alive. That may be a hallmark of a life well-lived, to be able to say at the end, ‘I was happy.’”
They went through a few more poses, and Jianjin finally said, “That is enough for today. The energy should be flowing nicely through your body now.”
“Thank you so much, I feel terrific. I’ll see you next week.”
“No, just a minute. There’s something else I would like to tell you. Would you be willing to meet for dinner tonight, say at 5:00 at the Thai Chinese Restaurant?”
“I…sure, of course,” Richard said, surprised by the invitation. “I’d love to. You say you have something else to teach me?”
“Yes, I’ll explain over dinner.”
“I’ll see you then.”
That evening, Richard met Jianjin at the restaurant and they ate a wonderful meal of Thai cuisine. About halfway through the meal, Jianjin said, “I wanted to explain to you further what I was talking about with the Warrior pose. See this meat, every time I eat meat I think of how an animal gave up its life for me. A cow died to produce this beef which sustains me. It could be seen as sickening, a murder of an innocent being. And yet perhaps it is not sickening, perhaps the cow giving up its life led it to gain even more by dying. Now it knows the answer to the mystery, it knows what death is. For all its struggles, all the tiny pens it was forced to live in, the taking of its milk, the branding, the cattle prods, the shock administered to it just before its death when it was turned into meat, it reaps the final reward, what we all will one day know, what comes after our struggles in life.”
Richard took another bite of the beef in his dinner, thinking over what Jianjin said. They finished eating their entrees and the waitress brought some ice cream for dessert. Jianjin continued, “Death is like this ice cream we are having now. Death is the dessert, the sweetness we have been waiting for throughout our entire meal. It is a delicious prize that we have come to deserve, by going through our broccoli and beef and salad and the tougher parts of the meal to digest. Now we taste our dessert, and it makes the whole meal more meaningful. It is the final treat of a meal well-consumed, a life well-lived.”
“That’s beautiful, what a great way you have of looking at things. It makes me a little less scared to die. If life is so beautiful, maybe death will be just as beautiful itself.”
“I haven’t died yet of course, but I believe this is so,” Jianjin said, taking the bill from the waitress. He took out his wallet and counted out $27 to pay for the meal.
“Oh you don’t have to pay,” Richard said. “You’ve already helped me so much with your teaching, how could I expect you to pay for my meal as well?”
“Not at all, I’m happy to treat you. I learn from my students almost as much as they learn from me sometimes. Why shouldn’t I treat you?”
“Well thank you so much, I really appreciate this.” They stood up to leave, and Richard said, “Thank you again, Jianjin, you have taught me so much. I look forward to continuing working with you.”
“I do too, but let’s not think ahead too much. One never knows when one’s time to die will arrive. One can only prepare for it by living well, but the final answer of this life will happen inexorably, justly, at a moment’s notice.”
Richard walked down the street, and Jianjin went the other way, heading down a dark alley to cross over to the next street. He walked still thinking about how pleasant it was working with Richard, how telling him about death and yoga re-shaped in his own mind what he thought about these things. He had gained a clarity by teaching, by instructing, these ideas, and now they made more sense to him in his own mind.
But before Jianjin could even finish thinking about this, a man appeared out of the alley and pointed a gun at his head, saying, “Give me all your money.”
Jianjin said, “I hardly have any money on me, I just came from dinner and I spent most of my money on a meal for my friend.”
“Don’t play games, just give me what you have.”
“Forget it, I’m not giving anything to you, I don’t have to. You are being unreasonable, expecting me to hand over my wallet to you. First, I hardly have anything worth stealing, and second, you shouldn’t be attacking me just to steal from me. Why should I do anything for you?”
“I’ll shoot you, damn it. I’ll shoot. Just give me all your money, or I’ll kill you, I swear.”
“I’m not scared of you killing me, you’ll be doing me a favor. I’ve always wanted to know what happens when we die. I’d rather find out than let a fool like you get away with robbery.”
“You’re the fool, you’re the one who wants to die. Well I’ll do it, I swear, I’m not joking.”
“So go ahead then.”
The man fired the gun and killed Jianjin. He bent down and removed his wallet, cursing to find all it had was $20. He had taken Jianjin’s life for only an hour’s wages.
The next day Richard heard about Jianjin’s murder. In the news, there was a police report saying a witness had seen the murder from a window above the alley, describing how Jianjin had refused to give over his wallet. Richard felt terrible, thinking, “Jianjin wanted to know what happens after death, well now he knows, now he knows. If only he could tell me. But I’ll know soon enough myself, we all will, it’s the reward for lives well-lived. Maybe Jianjin was right, at least he didn’t give up his honesty, at least he died with a sense of justice, not giving in to those who would take his life before doing what is right. Maybe he didn’t lose so much after all, maybe he gained, just as the rat grabbed by a hawk gives his life to maintain the natural cycle of predation. He has lost his life to gain knowledge of death, and all is as it should be with the world.”