Reaching Out a Hand: Birth, Death, and Raw Zen

Recently a Zen student who had been working with one of the koans in the Mu series, “Explain mu to a baby,” send me an email during his duty-day as a chaplain.

He’d just walked out of a hospital room where a woman lay in bed, holding her still-born infant daughter.

Our Zen practice, whether of the just-sitting shikantaza or koan frames, is about authentically negotiating the Way in each a specific dharma situation (aka, daily life). Even the really raw and painful ones like this.

So I reframed the koan for him: “Explain mu to a woman holding her dead baby in her arms.”

In such a crushing situation, to drift even slightly into preaching, philosophizing or proselytizing not only misses the point, but is offensive to all involved.

And not to be intimate with the matter at hand, the truth of this moment – a mother and a dead baby – also is a betrayal.

How to respond?

I’m reassured to report to you that this student hit the bulls-eye.

Today as I reflect on this, I remember a similar tragic event from long ago when Katagiri Roshi was alive. The sixteen-year-old daughter of one of my fellow Zen students died suddenly from blood poisoning. We had a memorial service in which Katagiri Roshi offered some dharma words that so penetrated my heart that they’re still fresh twenty-seven years later.

I’ll offer them to you now and leave this post at that:

Dharma Words:

Life: Where do you come from?
The flower of the iron tree gives forth its fragrance.

Death: Where are you heading?
The clouds disperse and the moon clearly appears.

(to the deceased): You had sixteen years of life as brief as the sound of a finger snap; as swift in passing as a flash of light.

One day, as people turned to go east, you chose to go to the west without looking back at those whom you left behind, lonely.

One day, even though people reached out to help pull you from life’s quicksand, in reaching out to them, your hands did not meet. At this time, you learned of your own great loneliness.

One day, your life was unexpectedly supported by the warmheartedness of other beings. In knowing of their love and warmth you could become aware of how you and these other people were somehow linked together by many ties originating in the remote past. For you, they were no longer “others,” but friends – boys and girls with whom you could make promises of walking together, hand in hand, in the mountains or by the rivers.

Now you have the opportunity to reach out, take their hands and invite them to walk with you. In doing so – with your mother, your father, your friends – even with a tiny flower in the mountain – you do so with the realization that it is within the Spring-like warmth and radiance of the heart that all things – sadness, joy, love and hatred – are melted away to become fertilizer for the growth of new life.

Can you speak to us a single word about the world as you see it here and now?

And ancestor says: “When the mind has been extinguished, even fire is refreshing.”

But I want to say:
“Life and death, coming and going.
Both are extinguished.
Fire is hot of itself;
breeze, cool of itself.”

(originally published in Udumbara: Journal of Zen Practice)

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