Living in the Light of Death

Study Series – Autumn 2019

Red Rocks Zen Circle

Sedona, AZ

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

Session 1

The Buddha and the Divine Messengers

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 compassion.   

– Bhikku Bodhi

The Five Remembrances of the Buddha

  • 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,

     for good or for ill, to that I will fall heir.

                                                                   -Upajjhatthana Sutta


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 deathless.

Kisagotami’s Mustard Seed (Traditional Story)

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 the Buddha.

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 conditions.   

Session 2:  The Remembrances

  • 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 Chah

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 each moment.

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 sense. 

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 power.

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 monastery.” 

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 just be.

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 ingredient: Kindness.

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 us.

Session 3:  The Remembrances

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 anxiety.

Anusaya is 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 down.

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 topics: 

-the inevitability of death; 

-the uncertainty of when you will die;

-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 of Death  

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 Decreasing Continuously.

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 up another.

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 Halifax:  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 lives?

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 

4.   Human 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

Atisha’s Nine 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, contemplation.

“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 be true. 

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 these truths.

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 death.

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.        ~   ~   ~

Session 7:   Poetry

Dharma, Death, and the Poetry of Mary Oliver

This Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

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 prayer is.

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 have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

October (excerpt) by Mary Oliver


Look, I want to love this world

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 blackberries

Brimming in the thickets; I won’t drink

From the pond; I won’t name the birds or the trees;

I won’t whisper my own name.

One morning

The fox came down the hill, glittering and confident

And didn’t see me — and I thought:

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 dead.

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 – as though

All night they had thought of what they would like

Their lives to be, and imagined

Their strong, thick wings.

When Death Comes by Mary Oliver

When death comes

Like the hungry bear in autumn;

When death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

To buy me, and snaps the purse shut;

When death comes

Like the measle-pox;

When death comes

Like an iceberg between the shoulder-blades,

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 everything

As a brotherhood and a sisterhood,

And I look upon time as no more than an idea,

And I consider eternity as another possibility,

And I think of each life as a flower, as common

As a field daisy, and as singular,

And each name a comfortable music in the mouth,

Tending, as all music does, toward silence,

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 amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

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.

Session 8:  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, self, life.

The snow of yesterday

That fell like cherry blossoms

Is water once again.

                   Gozan, year 1789

Empty-handed I entered the world

Barefoot I leave it.

My coming, my going-

Two simple happenings

That got entangled.

                   Kozan Ickikyo, year 1366

Like dewdrops

On a lotus leaf

I vanish

                   Senryu, Edo period

One day you are born

You die the next


At twilight

Autumn breezes blow

                   Chikamasa, 1481

Rise, let us go-

Along the path lies

The clear dew

Fujo, 1764

Coming, all is clear, no doubt about it

Going, all is clear, without a doubt

What, then, is it?

                   Hosshin, 13th century

I cleansed the mirror

of my heart – now it reflects

the moon

                   Renseki, 1789

My storehouse burned down-

Now nothing stands between me

And the moon above

                   Mizuta Masahide, year 1727

And, from Zen Poet Ryokan (19th century, Japan)

Where did my life come from?

Where will it go?

Meditating by the window of my tumbledown hut

I search my heart, absorbed in silence

But I search and search and still don’t know

Where it all began

How will I ever find where it ends?

Even the present moment

Can’t be pinned down

Everything changes, 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 thoughts

Let things simply take their way

And so be natural and at your ease.

Session 9:  Gratitude

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 that.

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 Hartman

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 will last.

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 again? 

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.

Session 10:   Life Review

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 feelings.

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.”   

Session 11:  Perspectives

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 the unknown. 

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 freedom.

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 Original Self.

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 deepest fears. 


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.    ~   ~   ~

For reflection:

-What are your beliefs about an after-life? 

-Are they beliefs from your upbringing and family, or from your own spiritual practice, or from other sources?

-How strongly do you hold these beliefs?

-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 feel important? 

-Is it important to you that something of you remain or continue, either in a spiritual afterlife, or as a legacy here?

-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 loved ones?

-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.