There’s a Buddhist story where the sage tells her pupils about a master craftsman who creates artisan carriages.
She describes the carriages in detail, from the quality of the polished wood to the smoothness of the wheels.
But what happens, she asks, when you remove the seat? Unhinge the sides? Hide the wheels? Look at what remains: is it still a carriage?
The lesson is designed to raise questions about what constitutes the whole. What is the function of the separate parts? What makes a carriage whole?
When is the carriage not a carriage?
The questions are intended to be provocative rather than answerable, and I wondered, when is a person not a person?
The query arises as I consider my step-father, who died this week.
Physicians in the 19th Century considered a person “dead” when the heart ceases beating. Is a person no longer a person when the heart stops?
In our current century an individual’s heart can stop beating while machines pump blood, keeping him vital: the heart can be removed and replaced. And the individual is considered alive.
Today we look to the mind as the keeper of the person’s flame.
If neurons cease firing an individual might be classified as “brain dead,” for which there is likely no recovery, in terms of mindfulness.
When is a person still a person?
When we consider the carriage, now a hunk of wood–a carriage stripped of its pieces–we no longer consider the item a vehicle. It no longer looks like a carriage and no longer serves the function of a carriage.
But at what point does the carriage not constitute a carriage? When there’s only one wheel? When the carriage can no longer carry us?
Some folks–including members of my family and friends–believe that, although a person might lose the function of a heart or brain, he continues to be a person.
Some cultures, including many American Indian communities, believe the “dead” person continues to be present, even in her buried state, and that the remains should never be removed.
My training as a social scientist invites me to reduce the carriage and person to its functioning bits: wheels and hearts. This allows the researcher to examine each part, separated from the whole.
My upbringing as a member of a family and a community urges me to consider the whole entity, regardless of the missing parts.
That’s because we can imagine the whole–remember the person–who continues to live in our memories, long after the ashes have blown away.