Birth and Death
by Zenkei Blanche Hartman
former Abbess of the San Francisco Zen Center
There is a verse that’s on the han–the wooden block that calls us to the zendo. It’s also sometimes chanted just before bedtime in many Zen monasteries. It is an exhortation to practice and goes something like this:
‘May I respectfully remind you: Great is the matter of birth and death.
All is impermanent, quickly passing. Be awake each moment.
Don’t waste this life.’
There is a departing phrase that is very common in Japanese which is ‘O dai ji ni’ which means literally, ‘Take care of the great matter.’ The great ancestor Nagarjuna said, ‘In this world of birth and death, seeing impermanence is bodhicitta; is the mind of awakening.’ This was very true for me. This is what turned me toward practice. I was going along, living my life, when one day my best friend had a really bad headache. She went to the doctor the next day, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, went into a coma and died. Whoosh! Just like that. I was stunned.
Often we don’t think so much about birth and death until someone close to us – particularly a contemporary – or even someone younger than us, is suddenly dying, and then we get it that we are also impermanent. In that great Indian classic, the Mahabarata, there’s a passage where a great sage is asked: ‘Sir, of all of the things you’ve observed in life, what is the most amazing?’ And he responds: ‘That a man seeing all around him die, never thinks that he will die.’ That’s certainly the way I was until my friend Pat died.
I was in a really agitated frame of mind. And in all of my agitation and searching around what I wanted to know was ‘Well, if you know you’re going to die, how do you live?’ This is the important point of knowing that all of us die. It’s not just, ‘Oh sure, everybody dies; I’ll die someday.’ It’s that – we never know. We never know. The important part of that is that it encourages us to really pay attention to how we live now. Because how we live is the most important thing. It may feel like we’ve got plenty of time to figure that out later. “Later. I’ll get around to that later. Right now, I’m going to do this.” But the very encouraging part about noticing that everything changes and this also changes is the reminder in the ‘Gakudo yojin shu’ where Dogen-zenji says, ‘Ancestor Nagarjuna said:
‘The mind that fully sees into the uncertain world of birth and death is called the thought of enlightenment: bodhicitta. Thus if we maintain this mind, this mind can become the thought of enlightenment. Indeed, when you understand discontinuity, the notion of self does not come into being. Ideas of name and gain do not arise. Fearing the swift passage of the sunlight, practice the way as though saving your head from fire. Reflecting on this ephemeral life, make endeavor in the manner of Buddha raising his foot.’
‘To fear death, gentlemen, is nothing other than to think oneself wise when one is not. For it is to think that one knows what one does not know. No person knows whether death may not even turn out to be the greatest of blessings for a human being and yet people fear it as if they knew for certain that it is the greatest of evils.’
So, we can take this realization of impermanence when it comes to us and turn it into a powerful support for living the life we want to live. For living as we really want to be and not putting it off.
Death is the great mystery. We don’t know what it is. We don’t know what happens when we die. A monk asked a Zen master, “What happens when you die?” The Zen master replied, I don’t know.” The monk said, “What do you mean. Aren’t you a Zen master?” And the Zen Master replied, “Yes, but I’m not a dead one.”
The poet Mary Oliver says:
‘I want to be full of curiosity. What will it be like that cottage of darkness?’
And I feel the same way. I hope that when my time comes I can meet it full of curiosity and interest. What is it?
So, we don’t know. Suzuki-roshi said toward the end of his life ‘Things teach best when they’re dying.’ And I certainly am appreciating it that way with John. I think his teaching is becoming more and more clear and direct. And I think it’s really generous of him to actually share with us his experience as it’s happening and to encourage us to explore our feelings and fears around death. He is exemplifying the teaching about dana paramita (the bodhisattva’s perfection of giving) that a monk, being a mendicant, doesn’t give material things, a monk gives Dharma and fearlessness.
‘If, when I die, the moment I’m dying, if I suffer, that is all right you know. That is suffering Buddha. No confusion in it. Maybe everyone will struggle because of the physical agony or spiritual agony too, but that is all right. That is not a problem. We should very grateful to have a limited body like mine or like yours. If you had a limitless life, that would be a real problem for you.’
So, Mary Oliver says it in a very nice way.
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 the grass;
The one who is eating sugar out of my hand;
Who’s moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down;
Who’s gazing around her with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes 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’ve 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?
Actually, I like to say, ‘What is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life that has been given to you?’ You know, life is a gift. When he was alive, Suzuki-roshi said something like, ‘Just to be alive is enough.’ And I didn’t understand that. But then in 1989 I had a heart attack and that was my true birthday..
I left the hospital not having died, and as I was walking out, I thought ‘Wow, I’m still alive.’ ‘I could be dead.’ ‘Wow, the rest of my life is just a gift.’ Then I thought, ‘My whole life has been a gift; pity I didn’t notice it before.’ This is the thing I want to teach. Life is a gift. How will you use it? How will you fully appreciate it? It’s not just a gift after you’ve just dodged a bullet, you know. It’s a gift from the “git-go.” So, how will you fully appreciate this gift?
Whatever can help you to truly appreciate the gift of this life and live it with gratitude – Gratitude is just a wonderful thing and it’s available to all of us. So, what is it you plan to do with this one wild and wonderful life that’s been given to you? And how will you keep alive your awareness of the uncertainty of life in a way that doesn’t intimidate you but that keeps encouraging you to practice as if your head were on fire? To practice because it matters. How you live this life matters. Thich Nhat Hanh in Teaching of the Buddha quotes the Five Remembrances.
‘I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death. All that is dear to me, and everyone I love, are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.’
Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to comment:
‘The Five Remembrances help us make friends with our fears of growing old, getting sick, being abandoned, and dying. There are also a bell of mindfulness that can help us appreciate deeply the wonders of life that are available here and now. But in the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara teaches that there is no birth and no death. Why would the Buddha tell us that we’re of the nature to die if there’s no birth and no death? Because in the Five Remembrances the Buddha is using the tool of relative truth. He is well aware that in terms of absolute truth, 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 more or less beautiful, higher or lower, longer lasting or less long lasting, but if we look more deeply we see that a wave is made of water. It would be sad if the wave did not know that it is water. It would think, ‘Someday I will have to die.’ ‘This period of life is my lifespan and when I arrive at the shore I will return to non-being.’ These notions will cause the wave fear and anguish. We have to help it remove the notions of self, person, living being, and lifespan if we want the wave to be free and happy.’
So, this is the Buddha’s teaching: to relieve us of the notion of a self, a person, a living being and to see that there is no separate, substantial thing that we can point to and say, ‘This is me.’ It is simply the ongoing arising and passing away, moment after moment of forms, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. But there’s nothing else beside that we can say, ‘This is me’ – some separate, substantial thing. This body, this life, this wave, gives us an opportunity to experience life fully. But, just as the wave returns to the ocean, we will return to something. But, we don’t know what. But, if we think the end of this life is the end of life – the end of this body is the end of life – we simply don’t know.
Life will continue. When this body is no longer continuing, life will still continue. And our actions – the effects of our actions – is what is connected with this body that will continue. Actions have consequences. Actions have results. Actions of body, speech and mind. And so, there are various teachings in Buddhism about actions. Dogen-zenji writes about the Four Methods of Guidance of a Bodhisattva. The first is giving. The second is kind speech. The third is beneficial action and the fourth is identity action or cooperation. So, this giving, this generosity, comes up in a lot of these kinds of lists that are reminders of how we live our life if we’re awake.
You know, in the Six Practices of a Bodhisattva, the first one, again, is generosity or giving. As I mentioned, one teaching is that a monk doesn’t give material things because a monk is a mendicant. A monk gives the dharma and a monk gives fearlessness. When I first read that I thought, ‘I’m a monk and I don’t know anything about fearlessness. Oh.’ So, I’ve been studying. I read that about twenty years ago. I’ve been studying what is fearlessness? It doesn’t seem to be never experiencing fear. I don’t think that’s what it is. It’s maybe not being overwhelmed by fear. Being able to be with fear and see it arise and subside. I think again that John is being a monk. He is showing us how not to be overwhelmed by fear of dying; by being with us, among us, not going off somewhere to hide out, but being right here with us, teaching and eating and playing and loving and hugging and whatever – being John.
We had a little ceremony here yesterday morning to give him a new okesa that we had sewn for him. So he was over here yesterday. We had this ceremony and then he came over and he was doshi for evening service and then he went over to the jail to do something over there and then he went to a meeting about a project called ‘Coming Home.’ The Buddhist Peace Fellowship is trying to develop some way of helping people when they get out of prison to find a way to re-enter life in society and I think the project is called ‘Coming Home.’ So, he went to a meeting about that.
So, we can see John is still living his life in the middle of his dying and we can learn from that – that we can do the same. Actually, that’s what we’re all doing, you know. We’ve all got a terminal diagnosis right, the minute we’re born? But, what we do between the time we’re born and the time we leave, that’s the important thing. So, that’s what I would like to leave you with. Take care of your actions and recognize that when the wave subsides, it’s still the ocean. Talking about how to live, Dogen-zenji says:
‘There is a simple way to become a Buddha. When you refrain from unwholesome actions, are not attached to birth and death, and are compassionate toward all sentient beings, respectful to seniors and kind to juniors, not excluding or desiring anything, with no designing thoughts or worries, you will be called a Buddha. Do not seek for anything else.’
So, what is this ‘practice as though your head were on fire’? Well, that’s what we think we’re doing here. But, you know what? Sometimes it feels to me like people have forgotten their heads’ are on fire. Sometimes people seem to have forgotten that birth and death is the great matter; that what we do each moment makes a difference. And, so it really concerns me when it looks like someone is following the schedule here because they ‘have’ to. I like to think that people come here because they want to follow the schedule and really practice zazen every day and study and learn how to live their life so they can make the most of this life; so they can actually give all they have to give while they’re here. You know, Master Seung San said, “Forget about ‘zen mind.’ We don’t know anything about zen mind. Just meet each person with the thought ‘How can I help you?’ Everyone you meet, just meet them – ‘how can I help you?” Knowing that you are connected to everyone; knowing that you are all water, just different waves in the same ocean. Meet each person with an open heart and with generosity. This is how we can make a difference in our world.
The world we live in is not made up of actions that other people do as much as it is primarily the result of our attitudes and our actions. And when we live a life of kindness; when we live a life of compassion; when we live a life of generosity, 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 and do. It’s wonderful when people meet us and want to live that life together with us in that way. But whatever someone else does, it does not impede us in, for example, the Four Methods of Guidance: generosity, kind speech, beneficial action and cooperation. These are guidances for our life that don’t depend on other people. They depend on us. So, when you truly realize ‘this life is precious and I don’t know how long it will last’ – as Kobun Chino said,
‘When you realize how rare and precious your life is, and how it’s completely your responsibility how you live it; how you manifest it; that’s such a big responsibility that naturally such a person sits down for a while. It’s not an intended action. It’s a natural action.’
So, that’s what our zazen is–it is sitting down for a while and coming to rest here in this body and mind and generating the heart of generosity, kind speech, beneficial action and identity action. 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 and again? Our actions are what are important. Our actions of body, speech and mind are really our only possessions, Thich Nhat Hanh says. So, allow your awareness of impermanence to be the mind of awakening; to be an encouragement to wake up to ‘things as it is’ and find out how you want to live this life. Someone once asked Suzuki-roshi, ‘Roshi, what’s 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 to not forget gratitude; to really appreciate this life that you have and to use it well.
© Zenkei Blanche Hartman, 2006