last being

There’s an old saying, “The poor farmer makes weeds, the mediocre one makes crops, and the skilled farmer makes soil.”

from Opening the Hand of Thought by Kosho Uchiyama

Not being last has become a deep question for me.  I haven’t fully grasped it or refined my thinking into it.  Just a warning that this post is a working on progress.

Growing up I had a sense that there were two categories which measured performance: First and the Rest.  Later I was taught to say supportive things like, “Well, if you’re going to be last, be the Best Last!”  I don’t think the kids to whom I imparted that piece of useless wisdom bought it because… frankly, kids are good at spotting a BSBB… bullshit brain baffler.

Not being last has been a driving force for me in my career, my limpid athletic endeavours, everything.  Then some unknown time ago, I began to feel this drivenness more as a puzzle than an imperative.

Standing at the early-registration table for a conference on mindfulness, I was jostled aside by another registrant who indicated she had got there first.  I smiled and said, “It’s ok.  As long as we’re not the last.”

“If you’re going to be last, then be the best last,” she responded sharply.

Never one to resist a teaching moment or a red cape, I snorted oxishly, “There’s only four of us here.  If we were the last, what would happen to this conference?”

Kyle responded to the initiating post on this topic, Only when we see ourselves as seperate (sic) from first and last do first and last occur. First and last are no different.

Perhaps.  In historic reality, first and last are distinctly – extinctly – different.  There are consequences to being last.  I think about the Do-Do bird.  The dinosaurs.  The recent extinct species in North America.  What made them the last of their kind?  In the race to survival, what failed for them?

The answer might be as simple as the fact that something didn’t get passed on.  Some crucial factor or teaching about adaptation wasn’t cultivated.  All beings are vulnerable to this system failure.  I suspect, even Bodhisattvas are capable of becoming the last being.

So, in that first moment of our Bodhisattva-hood, what is required of us to not be the last?

Thank you for practicing.


with thanks to Zendotstudio for reminding me to return to Uchiyama.

3 thoughts on “last being

  1. Not sure if the first/last thing works for extinction – those that make it aren’t really the ‘first’ to arrive at some evolutionary endpoint, they are actually the last to remain, thriving or not, in their environment… and good for them!
    In this sense, being the last is definitely a very precious, sacred gift… the race to survival has more to do with the space time that we occupy than the inherent ‘winningness’ of our genes… life is change, the universe is in constant flux, we, and the dodo, are just a teeny tiny part although we definitely can and do play a more causal role.
    In some ways, the bodhisattva vows are also all about offering to be amongst the ‘last’ (wo)men standing for the good of all beings… for as long as suffering endures.
    Perhaps as I have very little experience with being first, I’ve never really understood the point, you do your best on the journey and our journey, the earth’s journey, is essentially cyclical – no beginning, no end therefore no first, no last… what’s that lovely line in the Desiderata – there will always be greater and lesser persons than yourself – or something like that 🙂

  2. I wonder (seriously) if it’s possible to put down “first” and “last?” I mean, of course it’s possible. Really, I think I’m asking about what that would be like. Just to be present without adding anything to it. Don’t get or give much of that in my life.

  3. Thank you both for your insightful comments!

    @dragonfly – Thank you! Your comments about “first-last” are very instructive. I had not thought of it that way. An ah-hah moment, indeed! Being willing to be among the “last” is exactly what raised my ruminations about how we can keep a critical mass of bodhisattvas to meet this challenge of “saving all beings.” As someone who mentors aspirants to my profession (and in sangha), I wonder about what it is I need to “transmit” to help them cultivate resiliency on their path. Especially when (I believe) what we try to transmit is via our way of being. So ultimately (as I write this) it is very much about how I can cultivate my own way of being, I guess.

    @Barry – I understand better now. Your earlier comments created a windstorm of thoughts so I chose to sit with them rather than respond. Yes, I need to put down these concepts and respond simply to what is right here, right now. “How can I help” applies to me as well.

    Incredible evening in sangha tonight. We listened to Martine Batchelor’s talk from Upaya ZC on compassion. Lots of reference to Korean Zen! 🙂 In council, we shared about the misperception of our action as weak-willed or sentimental when we respond to a “perpetrator’s” pain with compassion. An interesting challenge to the bodhisattva-in-training!

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