Living In the Light of Death – September 2019 Dharma talk by Sensei Deirdre Eisho Peterson
Good morning, everyone. I hope you are settling into our full day of practice.
As you know, this fall we are going to be exploring a Zen perspective around death-and-dying. I have felt for some time that this was an area that our sangha was ready to explore, to work with in a deep way. Many of us are dealing with issues around aging, and as a sangha we have also experienced significant loss over this past year, the loss of close family members or of physical abilities. Mortality is something that is present for all of us, particularly as we grow older and the fact of death starts to become more real, less abstract. It can be an important, in fact urgent, motivation for practice, at any age. As The Buddha said: “Of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Of all meditations, that on death is supreme.”
An exploration of death-and-dying, such as we will be doing in the coming months, is not meant to be morbid or depressing. Rather, the intention is to bring death out in the open, not just lurking in the shadows, something we are always aware of but that we keep pushed away. So the series is to help us not turn away from this fact of existence that every living thing will face. And ultimately, it is meant to help show us how to live fully and completely now, here, today.
It’s important to remember that the Buddha’s spiritual journey begins when he first confronts mortality. According to the story, which you all know, the Buddha’s early life was as a sheltered prince. We are told that his father the king kept from him any unpleasant information. But the Buddha had a desire to know what was outside the palace walls, and we know what he first encounters when he leaves his sheltered existence: he sees a sick person, an old person, and a corpse. We can imagine that this profoundly shocked him, this sudden yet intimate contact with sickness, old age and death. We can imagine his shock when he comes to realize that this is in fact something that all people, all living beings, including and especially himself, will face.
Shakyamuni’s encounter with mortality is in fact each of our own journeys as well. When we are young, if we are fortunate enough to be heathy and don’t live in a war zone, we are living in our palace, where we have heard of death, but it doesn’t seem real in our own lives. Perhaps for others, but surely not for ourselves. Not this body. Our powers of denial are very strong. We know intellectually about death, but for ourselves, it often remains at a distance … a concept.
So: sickness, old age and death. The much-beloved Japanese poet Issa wrote: “All around my house …. pond frogs, from the beginning…. sang about old age.” So he is hearing the frogs as a reminder, a daily reminder. In the West it is sometimes called a memento mori (from the Latin, “remember that you will die”).
One of the most important things for us to see is that in Buddhism, old age, sickness and death are not just sobering facts of life: these are known as the Messengers. The Messengers. They are messengers for all of us. To come out of denial and complacency. It’s also important that we don’t forget the fourth Messenger – the spiritual practitioner that the Buddha sees, walking calmly and compassionately through the midst of sickness and suffering. The Buddha is inspired by the monk on his spiritual path, and realizes that he too must enter this path. To find his way to live in the light of death. And so must we. ~
The fact of our death is certain, but the timing is uncertain. Death could come in decades or in hours. This is true for each one of us, no matter our age. So an exploration of death and dying is also meant to encourage us to take care of unfinished business, whatever that may be, so that if death finds us sooner than we anticipated – and no matter what age death comes, it will be sooner than we anticipated – that we will able to meet it with some degree of equanimity, in part because we will have paid attention to what matters, which includes making peace with our life.
As Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara of Village Zendo writes in a verse on the arrival of death: “Oh! Time to go? So soon? I knew the time would come, but now? I thought there’d be more time. Oh what needs to be done? What have I left behind? Will be I be safe? Will I be happy? Will I be?” ~
I’d like to look at one of the teachings of the Buddha about this. This is from a sutra known as the Pabbapotama Sutra, from the Discourses of the Buddha, and the chapter is called the Simile of the Mountains. In this discourse the Buddha is having a discussion with King Pasenadi. It goes like this:
King Pasenadi approached the Blessed One (the Buddha) and having bowed down, sat to his side.
As the king was sitting there, the Buddha said, “Well, great king, where are you coming from?” The king replied, “Just now, Lord Buddha, I was engaged in the sort of royal affairs typical of noblemen intoxicated with sovereignty, obsessed by greed for sensual pleasures, and who rule having conquered a great sphere of territory on earth.”
And the Buddha said, “What do you think, great king. Suppose a man , trustworthy and reliable, were to come to you and on arrival would say: If it please your majesty, you should know that I come from the east. There I saw a great mountain, as high as the clouds, coming this way, crushing all living beings in its path. Then a second man was to come from the west …. A third man from the north … and fourth man from the south. All saying that they saw a great mountain, as high as the clouds, coming this way, crushing all living beings. – oh great king, if such a peril were to arrive, what should be done? Because I inform you, great king, I announce to you, that aging and death are rolling in on you. When aging and death are rolling in on you, what should be done?”
This is of course the great question, perhaps the most important question of our lives. And the king and the Buddha proceed to have a discussion about the importance of Dharma, of right conduct and of practice, in the face of this great mountain, crushing all in its path. ~
So we are calling our inquiry this fall “Living in the Light of Death.” Because as much as we might try to ignore mortality, it is always there. As the English poet Andrew Marvel wrote: “At my back, I always hear time’s winged chariot drawing near.” At the same time, and paradoxically, a very important fact is expressed in the ancient Hindu text called the Mahabarata, when as part of a wisdom dialogue, the question arises: ‘What is the most wondrous thing?’ And the response: ‘That men live every day as though the Lord of Death will come for others but not come for them.’ So this is the paradox … that we know, and we don’t know.
The Zen teacher Sally Jiko Tisdale, who will be hearing a lot from during our series, puts it this way in her book, Advice for Future Corpses: “We talk about dying as a remote idea, we imagine what we would like our dying to be like, and do this casually over a few beers, on a summer evening when the air is sweet and our healthy child hums quietly at our feet. We talk about dying when to die seems like a complete impossibility and so can be considered.”
So these two aspects: that we see, out of the corner of our eye, that death is there. Yet we often live as though death will not come for us, as though we have limitless time. Perhaps death will come for other people. But for me? Surely not. If it must be so, surely later. No matter how old we become … and most of us are considerably older than countless generations ever lived to … yet the end of our life still feels far off in the future. It still feels abstract. We are shocked when we get intimations of our own mortality.
Some of that is because our minds endlessly conjure a future. I have plans! I have plans tomorrow, and next week, and for the holidays. This allows us the comforting illusion that the future will continuously unfold. The ego, the sense of a fixed “I” moving through time, always has plans. Sometimes I wonder if our inability to truly look at our own mortality is some kind of adaption that has had evolutionary benefits. Some kind of coping mechanism. But the difficulty with this is that it can prevent us from living fully today, from appreciating our life, and from doing the important work of healing that we all need to do. So that if death comes sooner than we anticipate, we will not have put off the important work.
Sally Jiko Tisdale, who I mentioned earlier, wrote her book after her own teacher, to whom she was quite devoted, dropped dead of a heart attack on the street. Jiko is a nurse and has seen plenty of death, but her own teacher’s sudden death shook her deeply. Maezumi Roshi, the founder of our White Plum lineage, died suddenly and unexpectedly, during a visit back to Japan in the mid ‘90s.
In her book, Jiko quotes Katagiri Roshi, with something he wrote at a time that he himself was dying. “Life,” he wrote, “is a dangerous situation. The china bowl is beautiful because sooner or later it will break. The life of the bowl is always existing in a dangerous situation.” Jiko that writes that such is the precarious beauty of our own lives. She writes, “One of the central ideas of our lives is that there will be tomorrow. But if we are aware of our dangerous situation, there is no tomorrow. No next year. Only this. Of course we plan anyway, there’s no other way to live. The trick comes in planning next summer’s vacation while knowing that next summer is not promised to anyone. This impermanence is the key to our pain and to our joy. What a radical acceptance of things as they are!”
Here’s a question for us to consider, given our dangerous situation: if today was to be my last day …. Am I at peace with what I have done with my life, with how I am living right now? Do I appreciate this life I had? Truly appreciate? Can I forgive the past, and who I may have been in the past? Can my heart hold it all – the past, the things we never got to, the leaving, the acceptance of the mystery of this life that will remain veiled?
So … what would be a Zen perspective on death? Different teachers have helped us to look at death in different ways.
On the level of practice in our ordinary lives, the teacher Larry Rosenberg of Cambridge Insight Meditation offers some important suggestions.
He says that one of the best places to start a death awareness practice … is with our own breath. He writes, “we have only a finite number of breaths in our life, and have no idea what that number is. With each breath we use up another. Each breath brings us closer to death. Each inhalation is allowing us to live, and each exhalation is a letting go. At some point we will exhale and not inhale again, and our life will end. So sitting right now, we can contemplate the breath in that way, releasing each exhalation with no certainty or even expectation that there will be another breath.”
Larry Rosenberg also reminds us the vital importance of our practice. As he says, “We will die the way we lived. We train ourselves to be awake, to see our thoughts, to not be carried away by thoughts. We train ourselves to be with bodily discomfort, to be with a mind that is confused or frightened. Knowing these various mind states, which all of us experience on the cushion, is training for our end of life situations. “
He also points out: “One thing we may find as we begin to penetrate this subject is 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 like any other, which we will try to stay awake for. Our body and breathing will feel a certain way. Right now we may have elaborate ideas about dying, which probably bear little resemblance to the experience we will actually go through.”
So these are helpful words for us.
Then we can also look to the Zen wisdom teachings from the standpoint of the Absolute, from the standpoint of emptiness.
Zen would remind us that our sense of ourselves as a solid self, this fixed self that we so often take ourselves to be … that fixed self doesn’t exist, and never really did exist. We can taste that sometimes in zazen. The teachings tell us all things are empty of a fixed self, but filled with the inter-connected, fluid, changing relationship with all things. If a fixed thing was not born, a fixed thing does not die. We all were given a name at birth, and we acquired a social security number and a personal history. Zen would not deny that, because of course that is our experience. But Zen would ask us to look deeply at what seems to die: that infant born so many decades ago … is that really what will die?
Zen would also remind us that living and dying happens in every moment. When we pay attention, we see that each moment passes away, just as Larry Rosenberg reminded us that each breath passes away. The words I spoke a few seconds ago are in the irretrievable past, back with the pharaohs and the dinosaurs. Each moment arises, completely fresh and unique, and it passes away. Our entire life has been composed of this. Instant after instant after instant.
Zen Master Dogen speaks to this in Genjokoan, which we studied last year. You may recall the passage on firewood. Dogen writes: “firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that ash is future and the firewood past. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after is it ash, you do not return to birth after death. Birth is an expression complete this moment. Death is an expression complete this moment. “ So each moment, fully complete.
So as I understand this passage …. Each thing is fully itself in each moment. A baby is complete in each moment. A corpse is complete in each moment. The baby does not become the corpse, with some years of life in-between. Each moment, whatever stage of life we are in, stands complete. I find this a wonderful affirmation of the wholeness of each moment. When I am sick …. fully sick. Dogen would say that sickness does not turn into wellness. When there is sickness, there is fully sickness. When there is wellness, the sickness did not turn into wellness …. The wellness is a state that arises and is complete.
There is a koan in the Blue Cliff Record that speaks to this, and it is one of the most important of the koans. Tao Wu’s Condolence Call. It begins like this: Tao Wu and a monk went to a house to make a condolence call. The monk tapped the coffin and said, “Alive or dead?” Tao Wu said, “I won’t say alive, and I won’t say dead.” The koan continues from there, but this exchange is the heart of it. We can imagine this monk. This is not a casual conversation. This is a monk who really, really wants to know about life and death. Tapping the coffin, and asking, alive or dead. What does he mean with that question? Isn’t it obvious that what is in the coffin is dead? And why does the master refuse to answer, only responding that “ I won’t say?”
Perhaps the master sees that the monk is caught in our conventional view, that a fixed being moves through birth, life and death. The master won’t say dead or alive because he wants the monk to look deeply for himself, to look through his wisdom eye, beyond the dualities of alive and dead. He wants the monk to see that what we call alive is not what we call before, followed by what we think comes after, called dead. Rather each moment, every moment is full and complete.
The pointer to this koan says, “Secure and intimate with the whole of reality, one obtains realization right here.” That phrase “intimate with the whole of reality” is a very good pointer for this koan, and for us today during our zazenkai. So let’s continue to sit strongly, letting each moment be complete, letting each moment arise and pass. And we’ll continue looking deeply into the Great Matter of Life and Death during our study series in the weeks ahead.
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