Okubo

I had heard from Connie Jones (Secretary of the High Energy Physics group) that Prof. Okubo had written a paper with a Japanese colleague. I helped her put it on the arxiv. She wanted me to help him with publishing it.

Okubo left a copy of it in my mailbox. I read it and left a message with Connie that I would like to talk to him. He came by. We discussed the paper, on certain non-associative algebras. Then he said somewhat uncharacteristically that he was very sick. And in pain.

I knew he was ill of course, just not how seriously. He said it was cancer. That this is probably his last paper. I happened to have a copy of the Bhagavat Gita on my table. I pointed to it and said that reading Sanskrit poetry helps me in difficult times. I don’t remember the exact words he said in reply ( he often mumbled). But it was to the effect that there used to be many Sanskrit scholars in Japan.

We started to talk about the spread of Buddhism from India to China and then to Japan. He corrected something I said: Buddhism got to Tibet directly from India and not via China. It was a somewhat intellectual discussion, with no direct reference to his personal beliefs.

Then he said “it is Ok. Whatever happens is OK”. I understood that to mean he was being stoic. Then he touched his stomach and said the pain is too much. He has to go. I said good bye and he left.

I was never close enough to him that he would have a personal conversation with me. It was unusual for him even to say he was ill. My attempts to draw him into a deeper conversation usually did not succeed. Still, in hindsight, I understand that he was saying goodbye to me in his own way.

He was always dignified and, at least with me, very reserved. But he generally got his point across in very few words and with subtlety. I learned to understand him. “That is surprising” meant I was wrong. “Oh boy” meant I was completely off the mark. “You must publish it” meant I was right. That was rare.

He maintained that dignity and reserve to the end. I heard while I was away in India a couple of months later that Prof. Okubo had died. Remarkably, his friend Nambu died within two weeks of him.

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The Gita says it is wise not to mourn for the departed or for the un-departed. For, death follows birth as surely as birth follows death. The soul is eternal, unchangeable. That which has no beginning has no end either. Fire does not destroy it; water does not dissolve it.

I have always had trouble believing that there is such a thing as an individual soul that somehow carries the memory of this life to the next. But if the soul is the universal indivisible One of Advaita Vedanta, I see no reason against it. Ayam Atma Brahma. What happens in death is simply that you dissolve back into the One. You don’t have to believe in personal Gods. You were That before and indeed, during your life. It is an abstract, difficult concept to grasp. But quite plausible.

Faith is especially hard for a scientist. But faith makes it easier to face death. The fear of death is the root of all other fears. The truth is, we mourn for people we love partly because we are afraid to face our own mortality. If you could believe that death is not the end, it would make it easier to face not just that primal fear, but all the secondary fears as well.

But not having faith, one can still live as if it holds true. What you believe about death matters mainly because it affects how you lead your life. Pretend that you will have to return some day to live again in the world you helped create. The purpose of life should not be that others will remember you well after you are gone. So much trouble is caused by people wanting to leave monuments to themselves. Instead, learn to sit quietly in a room (Pascal). Do not let the world trouble you. Nor cause trouble to the world.

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