Join me in saying goodbye to one of my favorite professors, who unknowingly had a profound impact on my recovery and my life.
“Having been born in this life as we have been,
we now face death.”
That was the very first statement Dr. Dan Perdue made to the religious studies classes he taught. He would go on to explain that, no matter the differences between the many religions of the world, what they all have in common is that they are concerned with what happens to us when we die. His specialty was Tibetan Buddhism, but he also taught general survey classes on eastern religion. He was one of the most interesting, wise, and challenging professors I ever had, and though he never knew it, his classes had an indelible impact on my life and played an important role in my recovery.
When I heard that Dr. Perdue had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year, I and many others wondered how he would face his death. Though he had devoted his academic career and spiritual practice to such questions, no one wants a fatal diagnosis, especially at the age of only 63. As a man who had taught classes the world over and developed many close friendships here in Richmond, he sent out mass emails in August to update everyone on his condition. A friend forwarded me the first one, and I mistakenly thought I had gotten on the mailing list for future emails.
Following his passing on November 18, I re-read the first email and realized he had stated he would send out another. And so it happened that I didn’t read his second email until the day before his memorial service, billed as a Celebration of Life.
I was surprised and touched by what I read. The jovial man whom we all thought incapable of anything but a gentle, happy disposition shared that, in his late twenties and early thirties, he had struggled with substance abuse and depression. He wrote:
I think I did not adequately value my life. I reckon that I wasted nearly a third of it/about 20 years… On many days, especially between the ages of about 27 to 33, I thought of suicide… In time, I gave up on the idea of suicide, but I sort of symbolically threw myself against the wall, drinking and smoking too much and practicing unhealthy habits. Perhaps seeing the scope of what was to come for me, one day completely out of the blue, Kensur Yeshi Thupten said to me, “Toenyoe, happy people don’t drink and take drugs.” But I did. It was a sort of petit suicide, day by day for years.
During his service, someone shared what many of us had all thought at one time or another – a suspicion that Dr. Perdue was actually a bodhisattva, so committed he was to teaching, to the Dharma, and how he built friendships everywhere he went. His apparent struggles with depression and substance abuse made the accomplishments of the second half of his life, as well as his demeanor and attitude, all the more impressive.
Yet I was touched on a much more personal level to hear of the suffering my professor endured, because when I took my first class with him in early 2004, I was suffering immensely.
My eating disorder was arguably at its worst. Truly, I probably should have been in a hospital instead of a dormitory. I was near my lowest weight. I wasn’t sleeping well, and it was in those quiet moments trying to fall asleep at night that the mental chaos and physical pain anorexia had wrought was hardest to escape or ignore. I was miserable, unable to think or function well from the malnourishment. I often thought of suicide. This is not something I have often shared publicly, but in the wake of Dr. Perdue’s last testament, I see no reason to censor this fact.
And so it was that as he began his lecture on eastern religion and the nature of suffering as he always did, there is no way that Dr. Perdue could have known about the Hell I was living in.
“Having been born in this life as we have been, we now face death.”
As he began the introduction to Buddhism, he started with the first of the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, or dukka (dukka is also translated to mean anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction, among others). The truth of suffering is that we all suffer.
We all endure hardship.
We all get sick.
We all experience loss.
We will all eventually die.
It’s in our nature to try and minimize displeasure and to maximize comfort – human nature is hedonistic on a very basic level. We all put on coats to avoid the discomfort of being cold, for example. If there is one thing that every living thing has in common, it is our capacity to experience suffering.
Perdue went on to explain that, as Buddhism understands the world, there is nothing in our fragile lives that cannot result in suffering – even things that we enjoy or are inherently pleasurable. He offered the examples of ice cream or even sex. Even things that bring us pleasure, done in extreme excess, may result in some mental or physical pain.
I was intrigued. I had never contemplated the world in this way, and one of the support groups I had started attending had a spiritual component that had become a giant roadblock. Others in the group who had a belief in God sailed through it, but my agonistic and at times atheistic disposition seemed incompatible.
Contemplating Dr. Perdue’s words, I slowly began to wonder if there was anything that we could experience in this life, in this world, that we could indulge in that would never result in suffering. If it could be identified, then maybe it could offer me some direction – something bigger, greater than myself that I could take refuge in.
I continued going to the group and attending his classes. Buddhist teaching and recovery programs were not so different: both emphasize, in varying capacities, the practice of compassion towards oneself. While I can only speak for myself, as far as I am concerned, without loving and forgiving oneself, there is no recovery. And self-forgiveness requires that we love ourselves unconditionally. Similarly, a central part of Buddhist practice is learning that compassion, practicing it inward, and then turning it outward. One day, it hit me so hard that I wondered how I never saw it before. I realized that there was something we’re all capable of experiencing and indulging in that will never cause us to suffer.
Unconditional love. Or, to put it another way, love without condition. This means we love others without wanting or expecting anything, including love, in return. This initially feels contrary to human nature, since there isn’t always an immediate or obvious benefit. Sometimes people mistake this idea of love without condition as a circumstance which might allow or encourage someone to stay in an abusive relationship, or to be taken advantage of. This is not the case.
Rather, it allows us to approach individuals and situations with the compassionate understanding that we all suffer. Just as Dr. Perdue had no idea the immense suffering I was experiencing in that first class with him, any person you encounter has their own burden. The positive regard he had for every one he encountered, though, created a circumstance where his compassion and love of life was infectious. He once said that, while he had never had any children of his own, the university gave him more children every semester.
After describing his substance abuse as a petit suicide, Dr. Perdue concluded his email with the following:
…Let me just say what I say at the beginning of the Asian Medical Systems course, “Don’t do as I do. Be smarter than me.” I have never been a model of health or how one should use a good life.
So, please use your life well. It truly is like having a bucket of gold dust with a little hole in the bottom. I know that we tend to see the value in something more, when we are about to lose it. Maybe that’s why I’m saying this stuff to you. But, I have understood the truth of the value of life for a few years now. When I look back over my life now, I see it as one of extraordinary value… How lucky I was! … It will be hard to equal the value of this life.
I cannot help but get a little choked up every time I read that last sentence. If it was not for Dr. Perdue’s class, it’s impossible to say how my recovery would have gone. Ten years since that first class, I only wish now that I could express my gratitude to him.
Despite many hardships, I find myself agreeing with his final sentiment. Though I (hopefully) still have many years, it truly will be hard to equal the value of this life.
Thank you, Dr. Perdue. I’ll see you on the other shore.
You can read Dan Perdue’s full obituary here.