Living in the Light of Death
Study Series – Autumn 2019
Red Rocks Zen Circle
The Buddha said that of all
the contemplations, that on death was supreme.
And so in the fall of 2019, our sangha in Sedona, Arizona, began a three-month
study series on illness, aging and mortality.
Our discussion guide included traditional teachings from the Buddha as
well as teachings from contemporary Buddhist teachers such as Suzuki Roshi,
Thich Naht Hanh, Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Larry Rosenberg, Christina Feldman, Sallie
Jiko Tisdale, Norman Fischer, Blanche Hartman, Joan Halifax, Ezra Bayda and
Steven Levine. We offer bows of
gratitude to these teachers for their wisdom and compassion, illuminating the
path for all of us.
-Sensei Deirdre Eisho Peterson
The Buddha and the Divine
When the Buddha first went
out beyond the palace walls, he encountered the four “divine messengers” that
were to change his destiny. The first
three were the old man, the sick man, and the corpse, which taught him the
shocking truth of old age, illness and death;
the fourth was a wandering contemplative, who revealed to him the
existence of a spiritual path, a path cultivating wisdom, equanimity and
– Bhikku Bodhi
The Five Remembrances of the
- I am subject to
aging. Aging is unavoidable.
- I am subject to
illness. Illness is unavoidable.
- I am subject to
death. Death is unavoidable.
- I will grow
different, separate from all that is dear & appealing to me.
– I am the owner of my actions and heir to my
actions. Whatever I do,
good or for ill, to that I will fall heir.
From Thich Naht Hanh: The Five Remembrances
help us make friends with our fears of growing old, getting sick, and dying. They
are also a bell of mindfulness that can help us appreciate deeply the wonders
of life that are available here and now.
In the Five Remembrances, the
Buddha is using the tool of “Relative” truth, the truth of Form. But the Buddha is well aware that in Absolute
truth, or Emptiness, there is no birth and death. When we look at the ocean we see that each
wave has a beginning and an end. A wave
can be compared with other waves and we can call it higher or lower, but if we
look more deeply we see that a wave is made of water. If the wave does not know it is water, it
would think, “Someday I will have to die.”
This notion will cause the wave fear and anguish. We have to help the wave remove the notions
of a separate self if we want the wave to be free and happy.
From Insight teacher Larry
Rosenberg: The truth is that we are aging from the
moment we are born, that we have no idea when we may grow ill and when we will
die. Not one is guaranteed even one more
breath. Death will take all our
acquisitions away, including our sense of everything we identify as self.
We harbor a huge amount of
unfelt fear about sickness, aging, and death, and that fear robs us of
vitality, partly because we expend so much energy avoiding and repressing
it. Bringing up this fear and facing it
is a great enhancement to our lives.
Really facing death enables us to appreciate and make the best use of
our life in a whole new way.
Finally, of course, Buddhist
practice is about liberation and awakening.
It is about coming to the deathless. The attachments we form when we
live, and that we will have to let go of when we die, are actually what make us
suffer while we are here. The Buddha was quite clear on this subject: clinging
to things, especially to a sense of self, is what creates suffering. The
knowledge that we have to let go of our attachments in death might enable us to
let go of them now and save us a great deal of suffering. The shining light of death can liberate our
life now. It would be cruel just to open people up to the realization of their
transience without giving them a way out.
The teachings offer us a way to move beyond impermanence to the
Kisagotami’s Mustard Seed
The infant son of Kisagotami
died, and she nearly went mad from grief.
She carried the corpse from house to house, begging for medication to
make her son well. Finally she came to
the Buddha. He told her, “I will give you
medicine for your son if you bring me a mustard seed from a house where no one
has died.” As Kisagotami went from door
to door, she saw that at every house someone had died, that every home had
known death. She returned to the Buddha
saying, “Now I see that death happens to everyone. Impermanence is the universal law.” She buried her child and became a disciple of
Insight teacher Christina
Feldman commentary: Each of us holds within us a personal story
and a universal story. Our personal
story, born of all that we have experienced and felt in this life, is unique to
us. But when we understand that our personal story holds within it the
universal story of all human beings, then we have the radical possibility of
dissolving the boundaries of “I” and “you”, of “us” and ”them.”
Kisagotami came to understand
that she was not alone in grief. She
began to accept that which was felt so deeply unacceptable. By acknowledging this she embarked upon a
path of seeking an unshakeable inner freedom.
So much of the path of
liberation is woven into the story of Kisagotami. When our worlds crumble & certainties
dissolve, we face a choice – to turn toward those moments with compassion, or
to flee. Our own experience tells us that flight inevitably means that we find
neither healing nor freedom.
Impermanence is the law that
governs all experience. We live with our
feet on shifting sands that can crumble beneath us in a moment. Loss and separation reveal to us, so poignantly,
that as long as we are misaligned with this truth, we will live in a state of
argument with our lives. The Buddha’s teachings of impermanence and equanimity
show us how to live in this world of uncertainty without being shattered. None of us can control the world of
conditions that are intrinsically unstable.
But we can learn to cultivate an inner equanimity that allows us to be a
full participant in this life without our hearts being hostage to
Session 2: The
- I am subject to
Aging. Aging is Unavoidable
- I am subject to
Illness. Illness is Unavoidable.
I am subject to Aging.
Aging is Unavoidable.
“Not wanting things to
change.” If we think like this, we must suffer
When we think that the body is ourselves or belongs to us, we are afraid
when we see it change.” — Ajaan
From Larry Rosenberg: Just to spend
some time every day with the Remembrance on aging would be instructive, to see
it and really penetrate it. I am talking
about being aware of what your body is going through. I’m talking about knowing that you – like
everyone and everything else – are subject to the law of impermanence, and that
law includes not just your eventual death but gradual changes along the
way. I’m talking about forgetting the image
that you think you project, and knowing what is actually happening to you.
Self-images are a problem. We all have them, and most of us aren’t aware
that we do. We spend enormous time and
energy and even money creating and protecting them, trying to keep them intact
while our daily experience is chipping away at them. One day we come to realize
that the pictures we have in our head of ourselves are way out of date. But practice is about moving beyond all
images. It is about being intimate with
the raw experience of your body, its moment-by-moment experience. Not the image
we have of the body but the body as it is right now, the sensations evident
I am subject to Illness. Illness is Unavoidable.
“Though my body is sick, my
mind shall not be sick. Thus must you
train yourself.” — The Buddha
From Larry Rosenberg: The dharma
attitude toward illness is quite radical and very much in contrast to the attitude
of our culture It isn’t that we want to get sick. But when the body does grow ill, that is considered
a wonderful occasion for practice.
Illness, for one thing, is an
immediate reminder of the unpredictability and impermanence of everything. In the view of dharma, the human body is an
impermanent phenomenon like any other, one that not only will come to an end
but also is constantly changing in unexpected ways. We have control over some conditions that
affect the body but not others, and part of wisdom is to know that. We need to take care of our bodies, but in a
profound way we don’t really own them, except in a conventional or legal
There is sickness and there
is health. The problem is that we attach
to these classifications as self: we see
them as who we are. They separate us
from experience and keep us from being intimate with our lives. So there is sickness and there is health, but
more specifically, there is always just how we are right now. That is what we practice with.
Pain is a part of life and an
important part of practice. Instead of
trying to run away from physical pain, we actually focus on the pain
itself. And when we are concentrated on
physical sensations, the momentum of the thinking process is dramatically
slowed. Although we want to get rid of
the pain, it is important to try to just be with the sensations. It is this intimacy that has transformative
What you may come to see is
that pain is a dynamic activity. It is
not solid. It can sometimes even be felt
as deep vibrations, more like a stream of energy. This is another way of seeing its essential
emptiness. It is not a substance with a
core, but rather a process. Once you
fully enter into pain, there is no “me” to suffer. There is just sensation, which is observable
and therefore workable.”
From Zen teacher Sally
Jiko Tisdale: Statues and paintings of the death of the Buddha
are invariably images of stillness and serenity. He lies on his right side, his robes neatly
arranged, face composed in a quiet near-smile. But the prince who was surprised
to discover that sickness existed died from food poisoning in a public place.
His illness would have meant vomiting, cramps and bloody diarrhea. His followers gathered around him and he told
them not to turn away. “Look,” he said. “You too. This too.” This comes to you and you and you. This
is part of our nature, this is part of our life, of what it means to be
human. Why would you turn away?
The Buddha’s dignity had everything
to do with understanding that compounded things always dissolve. Dignity is an expression of this greatest of
freedoms: to not be disturbed by what
happens to the body.
We know that serious illness
means we will need help, that illness is a visible state and privacy is largely
sacrificed. Here we see one of our biggest
double standards: it’s ok for my elderly
grandmother to need help going to the bathroom …. But I won’t let you help ME
to the bathroom …. That’s different. I am beginning to accept that sometimes I
need help, and to not see it as a reflection on my worth. I see that autonomy isn’t necessarily
physical. True self-determination, as
refugees and prisoners show us every day, is the freedom to live, however
confined, in a spacious mind.
We may say that we admire how
people who are ill are conducting themselves with dignity. But that’s because
the most desperate times are taking place behind closed doors. We value the stoic exterior because it spares
the witnesses. We like distress to stay hidden. We want death to look nice as
much as to feel nice. Do you have the
urge to make death special — transcendent, or spiritual? But death is often messy. One of the marks of maturity is the willingness
to be seen exactly as I am. We may become more transparent to ourselves as well
as to each other. With this growing
authenticity comes a deepening of intimacy with each other. We are no longer appearances banging against
each other but real people looking at each other. Authenticity and intimacy go together; intimacy
and loss go together. You can’t have one
without the other. Knowing one’s self
makes it possible to be seen by others, and makes it possible see each other,
however we are. Broken, vulnerable,
afraid. Ready. Not ready.
From Zen teacher Ezra
Bayda: Aging, especially with the difficulties that
may arise, can present us with an essential choice point. Finally realizing
that we don’t have endless time, our priorities can shift, and we can begin to
live in the phase of life that can be described as the “natural
During this phase we can
learn to see our difficulties no longer as obstacles, but rather as part of our
path toward self-discovery and inner freedom.
We can devote this time to a deeper inner quest – the essence of
monastery life. We can prioritize having
fewer distractions, leaving more time for prayer, meditation, reading, writing,
and being in nature. Consequently we can begin to appreciate the positive
qualities of getting older. We then have
the possibility of focusing on this stage of life as a period of renewal,
including cultivating the ability to see life more clearly, to live more from
kindness and gratitude, and to become less caught in our attachments.
When I became extremely ill, I
didn’t want my nausea or illness, or my sense of loss. I wanted them to
disappear. Thus “my suffering” arose. But once I understood that my illness was my
spiritual path, it became clear that real healing was not about the body’s
getting better or about having all the suffering disappear. It was about being willing to let all of it
What is required for real
healing is not to push away our pain, but to acknowledge it, experience its
texture as best we can, and allow it to penetrate to the open heart. This kind of healing does not come from doing
battle with ourselves. It comes from a soft effort born of the understanding that
there is not an enemy. As understanding
deepens and we become more willing to allow life to just be, we find the essential
Mindfulness of pain is the
ability to observe the sensations of pain without identifying with the pain. We can change our relationship to pain by
opening up to it and paying attention in a new way. When you realize that you can rest in
awareness, the pain may still be there, but now we are cultivating equanimity
and wisdom. We can ask the question, “Is awareness in pain?” Through meditation, we see that answer is
“no.” We may begin to see pain as an
impermanent, ever-changing flow of sensations. There is an awareness that the
sensations are not pleasant. But the
thoughts that go with it – “my pain is killing me”, “my life is over” – and all
the emotions and dramas that go with it, are seen for what they are: just thoughts. In that seeing, they lose their power over
Session 3: The
I am Subject to Death;
Death is Unavoidable
From Larry Rosenberg: People often
ask why we would want to be reminded of death. The Pali word anusaya refers to the latent tendencies
that we all have, one of which is our fear of death. It lives in our consciousness and weighs us
down, having quite a bit of influence on us, as it shows up in smaller, more
tangible fears. It is a chronic form of
constantly fed by things we see and hear:
when someone we know dies, when we see a dead animal in the street, when
we hear that a friend is seriously ill, or see a friend after some time and
notice how much he has aged. The way of
Buddhist practice is to flush out these fears, to stop talking about these
matters in a whisper. It’s exhausting to
live that way, as it requires a huge amount of energy to hold that kind of fear
As we work with this subject,
we may find that we’re not really afraid of dying; we’re afraid of the idea of
dying. This sounds like an overly subtle
distinction, but it’s an important one.
When death actually comes it will be a moment like this one, an
experience we will try to stay awake for. Our body and breath will feel a
certain way, particular things will be coming up in our mind. But right now, looking ahead to death, we
have elaborate ideas about dying, which probably bear little relationship to
the experience we will actually go through.
In the practice of death
awareness, what we are trying to do is arrive at a place that is beyond
thought, because it is thought that creates so many of our problems. We don’t actually know what lies beyond
death. Death is the great unknown, and
thought – which is an expression of what is known – cannot know the
unknown. We call it the unknown because
we don’t know.
When we are ready to face
mortality, the practice of death awareness can be invaluable. We are priming the pump, flushing out fear,
inviting it to appear so that we can get to know it in an intimate way. And what we invariably see about our fears is
that they are impermanent. However
difficult they may seem, they have a limit life span: they arise, exist for a while, and pass
away. The energy of fear is there, but
it is not me or mine. It is not self.
Once we have seen that, we
take a great deal of the power out of our fears. We’ve seen that our fears are observable and therefore workable.
It is in that way that these
reflections enhance our appreciation of life.
They remind us of how precious life is.
They let us see life in all its beauty, because we are acknowledging
that it will end. We have voluntarily
walked into the house of death, and we see that we have been living in a kind
of fool’s paradise. We have been
pretending that life will go on forever.
We know in our heads that we
will die. But we have to know it in our
hearts, to let it penetrate our bones.
Then we will know how to live.
To do that we need to be able
to look at the fact of death with steadiness.
We can’t just glance at is casually.
All of our training in dharma practice is preparation for such deep
seeing: taking the refuges and ethical precepts; working with the breath to develop a calm and
concentrated mind; working with
sensations, as well as with small fears and progressively larger ones;
developing mindfulness in everyday life.
All of these steps work together to build a mind that is strong enough
to look at the fear of death.
As a more formal death
awareness practice we will use the nine-part meditation adapted from the
teaching of Atisha (980-1105), a great Indian Buddhist sage. The practice is divided into three general
-the inevitability of
-the uncertainty of when you
-and the fact that nothing
but the dharma can help you at the time of death. Each category has three contemplations.
With a calm and steady mind,
we can direction our attention to these contemplations with precision and
focus, despite the mind’s tendency to want to escape by drifting in thought or
turning to fantasy. We just stay
attentive to our experience and allow the truth of the contemplation to affect
us. We experience it not just with our
thinking mind but with our entire being.
Probing these statements deeply can help us uncover the workings of the
natural law of dharma in our own bodies and minds.
Session 4: The
Nine Contemplations, Part One
Atisha’s Nine Contemplations (from Larry Rosenberg)
- The Inevitability
1. Everyone Must Die
No one escapes this
inevitable law. Death is a logical
consequence of birth and begins to work on life at the moment of birth. There are no exceptions. Differences in wealth, education, physical
strength, fame, moral integrity, or spiritual maturity are irrelevant.
Reflection from Roshi Joan Halifax: Look at your life. What are you doing right now that will help
you die? Please consider this and
observe your response to this question. Watch
what the mind does to escape this every simple fact: death is inevitable. Can you face this truth? Can you feel it in your body, your blood,
your bones; can you know it in your breath?
2. The Remainder of Your Life Span is
Our movement toward death is
inexorable. Death comes closer with each tick of the clock. Every breath brings us closer to death. We
have only a finite number of breaths in our life, and with each breath we use
This is part of the real
depth of breath awareness, the place where it can take us. We start out thinking that we’re watching a
simply physical function, but the more that we do it, the more we realize the profound
phenomenon we’re observing. Each
inhalation is a tiny bit of life, allowing us to live. Each exhalation is a letting go, a
releasing. At some point we will exhale and
not inhale again, and our life will end.
Reflection from Roshi Joan
As you consider that your life span and that of all living beings is
ever decreasing, notice what comes up in your mind. If the mind attempts to divert you, call
yourself back to this truth that your life is limited. See it clearly. Perhaps appreciate what you have now, and
that there may be no tomorrow.
In light of your life’s ever-decreasing span, what are
you doing with this precious life now to live life fully and to support a sane
and gentle death? Do you appreciate this
life? Are you able to help others? What
will give meaning to your life and the lives of others in the light of life’s
briefness? Please ask yourself these
questions as you remember that your life grows shorter each moment.
3. Death will come regardless of whether or
not we have made time to practice the dharma.
This contemplation focuses on
the fact that our major reason for contemplating death is to spur us on to
practice. It is letting us know that
time is precious and we have little of it.
We all spend countless hours sleeping, eating, hanging around. Not that these things aren’t important. But we have to ask ourselves how we want to
spend what precious little time we have.
What is needed for most of us
is a shift in attitude and priorities.
Do we dare to fully practice, to commit ourselves to practice, right
now? That includes daily sitting
practice, all-day sittings or longer retreats.
But the whole of our lives is a wonderful field for practice. Can we use
it? To what will we give the days of our
Reflection from Roshi Joan Halifax: Life is short, and most of us will meet our
death without having strengthened our awareness of our true nature, our Buddha
nature. How much time do you now spend
training and stabilizing your mind? How
often do you turn your mind toward the commitment to prepare for death? When death comes, do you think that you can
negotiate with it for more time? Up until the time that it comes, if we are
wise, we will be mindful of death.
Session 5: The
Nine Contemplations, Part Two
Atisha’s Nine Contemplations (from Larry Rosenberg)
- The Uncertainty of Time of Death
life expectancy is uncertain.
This contemplation really
just reflects the law of impermanence. A
corollary of that law is that change happens in unexpected ways. It would be one thing if all phenomena
changed predictably. It might still be
difficult, but at least it would have a pattern. But that the truth is that life can snatch
the rug out from under us at any time.
It isn’t just death that is
impermanent, but also life. We all want
permanent things, but nothing is permanent.
We would spend our time more wisely by contemplating and absorbing the law
of impermanence rather than trying to repeal it.
No matter our age or
circumstances, it is often true that when death comes, it is still unexpected.
Reflection from Roshi Joan Halifax: Think of the many beings that died this
day. How many of them really thought
they were going to die today?
Death can come at any time – this afternoon, or
tomorrow morning, or in your sleep. We
try to avoid the sense that death can come at any time, but the timing of death
is unknown to us all.
Can we live each day as if it were our last? Can we listen to one another, relate to one
another, as if there is no tomorrow?
5. There are many causes of death.
Today we think we can find a
cure for almost everything. But the fact is that we eliminate one illness or
disease, and another comes up. And then we have war, murder, suicide, car
accidents, accidents of any kind, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes,
falls, drownings. To be alive, then, is
to be subject to any number of causes and conditions, some of which come upon
us unexpectedly and have unexpected results.
As Nagarjuna said, “We
maintain our life in the midst of thousands of conditions that threaten
death. The candle flame of our life is
easily extinguished by the winds of death that blow from all directions.”
At about this time in the
contemplations, we may begin to feel that these contemplations are completely
morbid and depressing, and that to contemplate them is senseless. And of course, there are many wonderful
things in life. But seen correctly,
these facts make life more precious.
They show us that every moment is a gift.
The point of these contemplations
is to correct an imbalance. We all live,
too often, as if these facts of life don’t exist. These contemplations of death are intended to
wake us up. They awaken us ultimately to
the joy and beauty of a life free of craving and grasping, a life where we can
see through the illusion of being young and healthy forever and drop it.
6. The human body is very fragile.
On the one hand the human
body is enormously resilient. On the
other hand, the body is terribly fragile, and death can come quickly.
The import of all three
contemplations in this category is the same.
It isn’t to scare us, though fear may come up. It isn’t just to make up more careful, though
it may help us take our days less for granted.
The point is that we all tend to see life following a certain
pattern. We imagine youth, a long period
of adulthood, a serene old age, at the end of which we peacefully expire. But this is just an idea, an image. Death isn’t waiting for us at the end of a
long road, it is with us every minute.
The intention of these contemplations is to make that fact vivid, and
help us see things as they really are.
Session 6: The
Nine Contemplations, Part Three
Contemplations (from Larry Rosenberg)
- Only the practice
of Dharma can help us at the time of Death
7. Our wealth cannot help us.
The last set of contemplation
is a very rich one for dharma practitioners.
It is in some ways a close examination of “I shall grow different,
separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.” It can be an effective, if difficult,
“Wealth” is a kind of
shorthand. We probably all have some cherished things. But we will have to give them all up, and
none can help us at the moment of death.
One can’t help but think of the
wealthy young man in the Bible who approached Jesus, and asked what he could do
to find eternal life. And Jesus, seeing
clearly what was holding this young man back, said, “Give up all that you have
and follow me.” The young man walked
sorrowfully away. But sooner or later we
will all have to do this. It is just a
matter of time. We are clinging to
things that can not last.
Reflection from Roshi Joan Halifax: Imagine yourself on your deathbed. Much of our lives are about attachment and
accumulation. On the threshold of death,
what good are these things to you? In
order to die in peace, you will have to let go of everything. Do you cling to things that make up part of
your story, part of your identity? On
the in-breath, consider this question.
On the out-breath, know what it is to release the breath and attachment
to all that you possess.
8. Our loved ones cannot help us.
This contemplation is the
most difficult for most of us. We can
see that our possessions, or our titles or position in the community, might
have some ego in them. But we think our
human relationships are not tainted in this way. We believe we have some relationships that
have a certain purity to them. That may
But it is also true that our
friends cannot help us when we die. They
may be there (and they may not; we don’t know how that will go.) They may comfort us. But in the end we will say good-bye. We have to die alone. Strong attachments only make matters worse;
our departure will be marked by torment.
Grasping and peace don’t go together.
We come into the world alone and we must leave it alone.
Reflection from Roshi Joan Halifax: Since family or friends will not be able to
stop death from taking you, what really is going to help at the time of your
death? Look at this deeply.
9. Our own body cannot help us.
We are really getting close
to home. We have said good-bye to our
“wealth” (our possession, our titles, our accomplishments) and said good-bye to
our friends and family. Now we must say
good-bye to our own body.
Throughout our lives, our
body has been our closest companion. We have spent hours washing and cleaning
and clipping and grooming, taking care of the body in all kinds of ways. We have fed it, exercised it, rested it. We might have had different attitudes towards
it, sometimes loving it, sometimes hating it.
But now this closest companion, which has gone through everything with
us, will no longer be here. It will no
longer take in oxygen. This body that
for so many years was so full of vitality will be lifeless. It will be a corpse. It will eventually decompose. This is the nature of bodies. Our bodies are of the same lawfulness.
Reflection from Roshi Joan Halifax: At this moment can
you feel your dependence on your body, your attachment to your body? Can you see how holding on to your body at
the time of your dying might torment you?
Abiding in your inbreath, abiding in your outbreath, remember that even
your body can not help you at the time of death.
Can you understand how others may feel who are facing
their deaths? Why there is so much fear, so much clinging to life, even anger
in anticipation of giving up life? Can
you feel compassion for yourself and for others?
What is really important for you in light of this
truth that we cannot hold onto this body when we die? What can you do to prepare yourself to face
your death and to skillfully help others to face theirs? What can you do to make it possible to really
be present for yourself or another who is facing the loss of everything at the
moment of death?
These are the nine
contemplations: Everyone must
die. The remainder of your life span is
decreasing continually. Death will come
regardless of whether we are prepared for it.
Human life expectancy is uncertain.
Death has many causes. The human body is fragile and vulnerable. Our
friends cannot help us from death. Our
material resources cannot help us. And
our own body cannot help us at the time of death. —- Consider
After death awareness
practice, you may wish to remember this practice with those you meet, to know
that everyone you see will die, that everyone is our brother and sister in
Carlos Castaneda was once
asked how we could make our lives more spiritual, and he said: “Just remember that everyone you encounter
today, everyone you see, will someday have to die.” That knowledge changes our whole relationship
to all the people we will encounter.
Life is a great teacher, and
death is a great teacher as well. It can
teach us how to live. ~ ~ ~
Dharma, Death, and the Poetry
of Mary Oliver
This Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
The one who has flung herself
out of the grass,
The one who is eating sugar
out of my hand,
Who is moving her jaws back
and forth instead of up and down-
Who is gazing around with her
enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale
forearms and thoroughly washer her face.
Now she snaps her wings open,
and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a
I do know how to pay
attention, how to fall down
Into the grass, how to kneel
down in the grass,
How to be idle and blessed,
how to stroll through the fields,
Which is what I have been
doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I
Doesn’t everything die at
last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan
With your one wild and
October (excerpt) by Mary Oliver
Look, I want to love this
As though it’s the last
chance I’m ever going to get
To be alive
And to know it.
Sometimes in the late summer
I won’t touch anything, not
The flowers, nor the
Brimming in the thickets; I
From the pond; I won’t name
the birds or the trees;
I won’t whisper my own name.
The fox came down the hill,
glittering and confident
And didn’t see me — and I
So this is the world.
I’m not in it.
It is beautiful.
Landscape (excerpt) by Mary Oliver
Every morning I walk around
The pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
Ever close, I am as good as
Every morning, so far, I’m
alive. And now
The crows break off from the
rest of the darkness
And burst up into the sky –
All night they had thought of
what they would like
Their lives to be, and
Their strong, thick wings.
When Death Comes by Mary Oliver
When death comes
Like the hungry bear in
When death comes and takes
all the bright coins from his purse
To buy me, and snaps the
When death comes
Like the measle-pox;
When death comes
Like an iceberg between the
I want to step through the
door full of curiosity, wondering
What is it going to be like,
that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon
As a brotherhood and a
And I look upon time as no
more than an idea,
And I consider eternity as
And I think of each life as a
flower, as common
As a field daisy, and as
And each name a comfortable
music in the mouth,
Tending, as all music does,
And each body a lion of courage, and something
Precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to
say: all my life
I was a bride married to
I was the bridegroom, taking
the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want
If I have made of my life
something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself
sighing and frightened,
Or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply
having visited this world.
Poetry from Japanese Masters
Zen Death Poems
- Ji Sei is
the practice of writing death poems. This
type of poem is not the summary of a life; rather it is an emptying of body,
The snow of yesterday
That fell like cherry
Is water once again.
Empty-handed I entered the
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going-
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
Kozan Ickikyo, year 1366
On a lotus leaf
Senryu, Edo period
One day you are born
You die the next
Autumn breezes blow
Rise, let us go-
Along the path lies
The clear dew
Coming, all is clear, no
doubt about it
Going, all is clear, without
What, then, is it?
Hosshin, 13th century
I cleansed the mirror
of my heart – now it reflects
My storehouse burned down-
Now nothing stands between me
And the moon above
Mizuta Masahide, year 1727
And, from Zen Poet Ryokan (19th century,
Where did my life come from?
Where will it go?
Meditating by the window of
my tumbledown hut
I search my heart, absorbed
But I search and search and
still don’t know
Where it all began
How will I ever find where it
Even the present moment
Can’t be pinned down
everything is empty:
This I only exists for a
moment in that emptiness.
How can one say anything is
or is not?
Best not to hold these little
Let things simply take their
And so be natural and at your
From Stephen Levine
Gratitude is a way of seeing,
a way of being.
From Norman Fischer
Gratitude is a natural fact,
it comes to us without our creating it.
At the same time, we need to cultivate it, we need to open ourselves up
to be able to receive it as a gift.
Most religious practice has
to do with cultivating gratitude. When
we do zazen, as Dogen tells us, we are not examining ourselves or trying to
make personal improvements. We are
sitting within Buddha’s heart, releasing ourselves to that aspect of ourselves
that deeply belongs to the universe and is grateful for it. The same is true when we bow and make
offerings and chant.
Gratitude is something very
profound, it takes us to the edge of time and space and beyond. To be grateful for life as it truly is …. is
also to be grateful for death as it truly is.
Our dualistic mind divides the mystery of life and death into two parts,
one called life and one called death.
But in the light of gratitude, we know that things really aren’t like
In Buddhist funeral services
we always say, in true reality there is no coming or going, no increase no
decrease, no birth and no death. This is
a deep expression of our gratitude for existence as it is.
With this understanding we
don’t see impermanence as a threat or a tragedy. We don’t see aging and dying as necessary
evils that we must brace ourselves to endure, but rather as fruitions that we
try to enter with calmness and appreciation.
Through our practice of gratitude we can go forward with our lives, come
what may, whether it is suffering or joy, arriving or leaving, in the spirit of
gratitude. We do this not only for
ourselves, but for and with everyone.
From Roshi Zenkei Blanche
Our experience of our own
life is largely the result of our own attitudes and actions. When we live a life of kindness and
compassion, we get to live that life.
What could be better? It doesn’t
depend on what other people say or do.
It depends on what we say or do.
It’s wonderful when people
meet us and want to live that life together with us in that way. But whatever someone else may do, it does not
impede our own practice. This is vitally
important when we realize this life is precious and we don’t know how long it
Zen master Kobun Chino said,
“You come to realize how rare and precious your life is, and that it is
completely your responsibility how you will live and manifest that life. In fact, it is such a big responsibility that
a person naturally sits down for a while.
It’s not an intended action, it’s a natural action.”
So that’s what our zazen is:
sitting down for a while and coming to rest here in this body and mind, and
generating the heart of gratitude and compassion. Sitting down and observing what comes up in
my mind that hinders me from living the way I want to live. Can I return to my intention again and
Our actions are
important. The teachings tell us that
our actions of body, speech and mind are really our only possessions.
So allow your awareness of
impermanence to be the mind of awakening, to be an encouragement to wake up and
find out how you want to live this life.
Someone once asked Suzuki
Roshi what was the most important thing.
And he said, “To find out what’s the most important thing.” So, how will you find out what’s the most
important thing for you?”
I urge you not to forget
gratitude – to really appreciate this life that you have and to use it well.
Life Review – Honoring and
Healing The Past
From Stephen Levine’s “One
Year To Live”
The life review practice is
to release the past to make room for the future.
Reviewing our life story,
with an intention to both honor and heal the past, can take a few weeks or the
rest of our lives.
The life review practice is a
matter of focused reflection. We look
back at our life, not as if we still owned it but as though were about to give
it up. A recollection of the past as
though this might be the last sip of that old wine, the last time to appreciate
a life so full of our very human experience.
It is a healing contemplation.
In some ways a life review is
not so much a contemplation of events gone by as it is an inventory of residual
The life review is not meant
to be a process of rehashing the past by the rather dull, depressed light of
old mind. Rather it is a regathering of
awareness to illuminate the past with a new mercy.
The Life Review Process
Sit quietly for a while and bring
to mind someone from your past whose kindness touched your heart. Envision yourself speaking to that person,
with softness in the body and in the mind.
Tell them what they have meant to you.
Send your gratitude to them as though your hearts were connected. Thank them, and when the conversation ends,
bid them farewell.
Bring to mind, without haste,
the friends, teachers, parents, ancestors, comrades, loves and even pets with
whom you feel a kinship. Tell them how
you appreciate their care and kindness. Send
gratitude and when it is time to depart, say good-bye as if you might never be
this way again.
Let the practice expand to
include not just people but moments from the past for which you feel gratitude.
Just as everyone has things
to be grateful for, there are events that we may wish had never happened. And they left memories that still seem
unresolved, surrounded by, and often associated with states of remorse, guilt,
self-recrimination, frustration or anger.
These painful memories call out for relief. They are the crux of our unfinished business.
These are the memories to which we may try to send clarity and forgiveness.
This does not suggest that we
attempt to force forgiveness or gratitude.
Simply touching a difficult memory with some slight willingness to heal
begins to soften the holding and tension around it. Eventually, perhaps, we will be able to send
gratitude into our whole life, not for being wholly pleasant but for being the
teaching that brought us to where we are now.
When you feel ready, you may
wish to bring to mind someone who caused you pain. It is best not to choose the
worst offender. Easy does it. Just for this moment, as an experiment in
healing, touch them with the possibility, no matter how slight, of forgiveness.
Keep the body soft as you explore this.
If you choose to embark on
this process, take it slow and easy.
Don’t rush over to the heaviest memories. Build a foundation of gratitude and
mindfulness before exploring the possibilities of offering and requesting
forgiveness, even if just done in our own hearts.
The fear we have of death can
often include a fear of punishment. The
life review can dispel much of this fear by allowing us to take Judgment Day at
our own pace. As we work to let go of self-judgment, a sense of love and compassion
for ourselves can arise. The fear of Judgment Day diminishes. Letting ourselves be forgiven is one of the
most difficult and important healings we will undertake.
Part of truly preparing for
death is the eventual letting go of our story line and looking back on our life
with equanimity and a sense of completion.
We may even wonder, as we watch the pictures on our old screen, ‘Whose
life was that anyway?’ A figure in the
Indian epic the Ramayana, as he sits beside the river preparing to die,
reflects back on his life, saying “It’s like something I dreamed once, long
ago, far away.”
The Buddha always told his
disciples not to waste their time and energy in metaphysical speculation. When he was asked a metaphysical question –
such as what happens after death — he remained silent. Instead, he directed his disciples towards
practical efforts to relieve suffering in this life.
Sallie Jiko Tisdale quotes
the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker:
Becker believed that we
humans succeed so well at repressing the fear of death that we may deny the fear even exists – yet its
energy remains, driving us on to create a network of belief in which our short,
fragile lives will have meaning. We call
these networks by various names:
philosophy, psychology, science, culture, religion, art. Repressed, anxious, but refusing to
experience the anxiety completely, humans create civilization.
From Larry Rosenberg:
We don’t know what lies
beyond death. Death is the great
unknown, and thought – which is an expression of what is known – cannot know
From Norman Fischer:
Our lives come and go in an
instant. And yet, at the same time,
everything is here in the present moment where I am.
From Uchiyama Roshi:
We are all, without
exception, universal. We are in deep
connection with everything, and everything is coming and going with remarkable
Where do we go after
death? Back to the universal life. When we’re born, we come from this universal
life and when we die, we return to it.
That’s why the Japanese refer to the recently deceased as shin ki gen (“one who has returned to
the origin.”) This universal life is the
From Suzuki Roshi, in Zen
Mind Beginners Mind:
I went to Yosemite National
Park and saw some huge waterfalls. The water comes down like a curtain thrown
from the top of the mountain. The water
does not come down as one stream, but is separated into many tiny streams.
I thought that it must be a
very difficult experience for each drop of water to come down from the top of
such a high mountains. And it seems to
me that our human life may be like this.
We have many difficult experiences in our life. But at the same time, I thought, the water
was not originally separated, but was one whole river. Only when it is
separated does it have some difficulty in falling. If is as if the water does not have any
feeling when it is one whole river. Only
when separated into many drops can it begin to have or to express some feeling.
Before we were born we had no
feeling; we were one with the universe.
After we are separated by birth from this oneness, then we have
feeling. When you do not realize that
you are one with the river, or one with the universe, you have fear. Yet whether it is separated into drops or
not, water is water. When we realize
this fact we have no fear of death anymore.
How glad the water must be to come back to the original river.
From Thich Naht Hanh:
One day, as I was about to
step on a dry leaf, I stopped. Looking
closely, I saw that the leaf was not really dead; it was merging with the moist
soil and preparing to appear on the tree in another form.
Everything is pretending to
be born and pretending to die, including the leaf that I almost stepped on. When
conditions are sufficient, the body reveals itself, and we say the body is.
When conditions are not sufficient, the body cannot be perceived by us,
and we say the body is not. The day of our so-called death is a day of
our continuation in many other forms.
Touching this truth is a deep practice, and brings us relief from our
If we look up in the sky, we
may see a big white cloud. But even when
the cloud is not there, it continues as snow or rain. It is impossible for the cloud to die. It can
become rain or ice, but it cannot become nothing. The cloud does not need to
have a soul in order to continue. There’s no beginning, no end. There may be dissolution of my own body one
day, but that does not mean my death, only continuation. ~
-What are your beliefs about
-Are they beliefs from your
upbringing and family, or from your own spiritual practice, or from other
-How strongly do you hold
-How do these beliefs
manifest or operate in your life, your actions and attitudes?
-How would it feel to release
these beliefs, and “not know”?
-Is the notion of legacy
important to you? If so, why does it
-Is it important to you that
something of you remain or continue, either in a spiritual afterlife, or as a
-Is it important to you to be
remembered by others? Is it important to
be remembered in 5 years …. 20 years …. 50 years?
-Is it important to you that
there be a physical location for your remains – a cemetery, or mausoleum, or
having your ashes in certain locations?
Do you feel this is important primarily for you, or for your surviving
-If you were to have an
epitaph on a tombstone or grave marker, what would you like it to say?
My legacy –
What will it be?
Flowers in spring,
The cuckoo in summer,
Maple leaves in autumn.