The Red Coat and the Teaching of Impermanence
by Reginald A. Ray
The Buddhist teachings on impermanence are usually considered primarily as an antidote to our attachment to samsara. But, as the following story suggests, when impermanence is deeply experienced it can give rise to genuine love for others and a sense of sacredness in our human existence.
Many years ago I knew a young woman who loved beauty. She was a quiet and shy person, perhaps because of much suffering in her childhood. But as a result, she had a tender regard for all those in pain and exceptional awareness, so that she could see exactly what was going on in other people, even if buried under layers of conditioning and pretence. She was so simple and unpretentious that most people who met her had no idea of the depth of her inner life.
My friend was striking, in fact, quite beautiful. Her eyes were extraordinary-dark, clear and highly intelligent. She loved clothes that were elegant and well-made, and she always made herself up with care. When she was dressed in one of her few beloved outfits you could-at least I could-feast your eyes on her for hours.
One of her favourite pastimes was leafing through catalogues, finding things of unusual beauty and imagining what it would be like to wear them. As she didn’t have much money, this was generally window-shopping, but it gave her much pleasure nonetheless.
One day, a few years into our friendship, she told me that she had not been feeling well. Fatigue and pains of unknown origin and significance had been growing lately. As was her way, humble, patient and a little too enduring, she waited some time before consulting a physician. But when she did, it turned out that she was very ill with a degenerative disease that at that time was not treatable. She received this news with a combination of acceptance and sorrowful resignation. She was not afraid of dying but she was terribly sad, for she was young and she felt she had only just begun to live her life. How could she so soon leave the beauty she saw all around her? How could she miss the experiences of marriage, children and family?
Still, as her health deteriorated she did not lose her love of beautiful clothes. In her last months in the hospital, she continued to receive her clothing catalogues and roam through them as if through paradise. When I would come to visit, which I did about once a week, there would be a little stack of catalogues on her bedside table. In each one, the corners of certain pages were turned down, marking a dress, a shawl or a jacket that she wanted to show me. She told me that she had been through many more catalogues and had saved “only the best ones” for me to see.
In the beginning, I would look at her prize discoveries somewhat perfunctorily, attempting to feign an interest that I did not feel. But as the weeks wore on, I gradually began to see them through her eyes. I found myself admiring the beautifully scalloped collar of a jacket, the gently flowing lines of a very feminine blouse, the outrageous burst of colour of a certain scarf, the delicacy of a sterling silver pin. I looked forward to leafing through newly arrived catalogues with her, delighting in whatever was perfectly fashioned, stunning and luscious. Together, we imagined how she might look in this or that outfit.
And then one day, we both discovered the red coat. It was in an otherwise unexceptional Bloomingdale’s catalogue. A spring offering, it was calf length, deep red with large black buttons, and made of a light suede. It appeared elegant and beautifully tailored, with a gently moulded collar, soft shoulders, and rounded lines throughout. We could both see that this was her coat. It had been made for her. We admired it, imagined it on her, and talked about what it could be worn with and on what occasions. The next time I came to visit her, she told me that, in spite of her limited funds and medical bills, she had ordered the red coat.
We both awaited its arrival with anticipation. One day I came in to find her sitting up in bed, her eyes glowing with anticipation. There on her bedside table was a box marked “Bloomingdale’s.” She had been waiting for me so that we could open it together. She handed me the scissors she had placed neatly by the box and I cut through the wrapping tape. She lifted out the coat, a deep, elegant Chinese red far more striking and beautiful than the catalogue picture. “Let me try it on for you.”
By this time she had become very weak, and I had to help her out of bed. Young and beautiful a few months before, she now looked like an old woman. Her skin was grey and wrinkled, her hair had lost its sheen, the classical definitions of her face were now puffy and misshapen. There was something heartbreaking in this worn and haggard woman, near death, trying on this new coat so that I could “see how she looked.”
As she shook out the red coat, the physical pride and presence of her former person animated her briefly. Over her wrinkled, sweaty nightgown she slipped the red coat. And I promise you, for one moment, she was the most beautiful woman in the world. I know that she felt it too. For a moment, she admired herself in the small hospital mirror and I could now see, perhaps for the first time, that it was the beauty of the red coat that held her attention and that gave her brief joy. I finally understood that all those years it was not her own beauty at all but the beauty of the wonderful clothes she wore that brought her such happiness.
And then the red coat was hung in the closet at the foot of her bed, never to be worn again. Now she got out of bed only to visit the bathroom; the effort was so great it was unthinkable to add the extra step of putting on the coat. But each time I would visit her after that, she would ask me to open the closet door so that we could see the coat hanging there. And then she would ask me to take it out and hold it up for her so that we could admire it together one more time.
Not long after, she died. I was not with her in her final moments, but when I heard that she had died, I thought of her and of the elegant red coat, hanging in the closet at the foot of her bed, which had brought her such happiness in her final days. I remembered how beautiful she had looked when she had put it on for me that one time.
Later the day she died, a female relative of hers and I were in the hospital room packing up her belongings. When we came to the red coat the relative commented, “What a waste that she spent money on a coat she never even wore!” But she did wear it and perhaps with more elegance and flair, for that one moment, than such a coat has ever been worn. If that is a waste, then it must mean that everything in life is a waste, which in a certain sense it may be.
A few weeks after she died, recalling the moment when she put on the red coat, I realised something about her life. Her beauty, her love of elegant clothes and the devotion with which she made herself up were her generous and selfless gifts to all of us who knew her. I also realised something else, about how brief and fragile, and also daring and fearless, life can be. How bold and brave to put on such a red coat in the face of death, to delight in it even if for only a moment, when everything is slipping away into darkness. But maybe that is what we all do, all the time, without knowing it.
It is said that the Buddha taught 84,000 gates to the dharma, to ultimate reality. For me, the experience of my friend and her red coat was one of those 84,000 gates. As long as my friend was firmly in the land of the living, I took her existence for granted. I didn’t really look at her. Instead, I experienced her through the veil of my own self-satisfied concepts and I was unable to appreciate who she was, in her own right. Yet when I realised that our time together was limited and our friendship would soon meet its end, only then was the veil stripped away.
In that moment, I saw my friend with a new and shocking nakedness. I discovered a love and appreciation for her that had nothing to do with my own personal values and preconceptions. Somehow the experience of impermanence momentarily shattered my habitual grasp on things and I was able to experience the beauty of what she was, of what is, and its sacredness. I came to a deeper understanding of why Buddhism, in every school and orientation, has always placed such a premium on realising impermanence: while it is the thing we human beings most dread, it is the most compassionate gift life has given us and our greatest resource. For, as is said in another context, only those who are fortunate enough to find their life slipping away, have any hope of finding it.