The Last Word: A Zen Meditation

The Last Word: A Zen Meditation September 3, 2018




One day Deshan came into the hall carrying his bowls. Xuefeng stopped him, saying “Why are you carrying your bowls, venerable? The bell hasn’t sounded, the drum hasn’t been struck. Saying nothing, the old teacher, returned to his room. 

Later Xuefeng mentioned this to Yantou. Yantou responded, “As great as he is, the old master does not yet know the last word.”

Hearing of this Deshan sent for Yantou and asked, “Do you not approve of my teaching?” Yantou put his lips to the master’s ear and whispered his meaning. Deshan had nothing more to say.

The next day, however, at his formal talk Deshan was especially eloquent, pointing toward the fundamental matter of life and death. Laughing, Yanto stepped forward, rubbed his hands together, and declared, “From now on, no one under the heavens can outdo our teacher.”

Gateless Gate, Case 13 (my paraphrase)

People have a thing for the last word. It’s a rare person who is content to say her piece and settle into silence. Social media is littered with assertions of one sort or another followed by comment piled on top of another comment as two or sometimes more vie with the other for that last word.

Me, I suspect several things coalesce into this phenomena. Legitimately we are the wordy animal. Language is our medium, something we need for survival, and also something we have come to delight in. We live and breath and take our being within language. But, no doubt mixed up in the specific of that last word too often it is the individual ego on ugly display. Language, great as it is, is not, if you will, the last word.

Now, there are other aspects to that last word. One is the coda to a life. We put a lot on the last words that someone utters, whether justly or not. Certainly such words can carry a lot of meaning. I think of Steve Jobs, whose last words appear to have been, “Oh wow, oh wow.” Others seem banal or not precisely on point. So, sometimes it feels an invitation to some hidden meaning, like Carl Jung’s “Let’s have a really good red wine tonight.”

Others, like William James like to offer advice, “These then are my last words to you. Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.” Probably that’s a first rate example of why I’m especially fond of Karl Marx’s last words, “Go on get out. Last words are for fools who have not said enough.”

I understand that Gandhi prayed that God’s name would be his last word. I think about that one a lot.

Of course, some, possibly all spiritual traditions collect the last words of their saints and sages.

With our heroes there’s also some picking and choosing along with a little editing here and there.

Jesus’s last words as captured by the gospel writers are each a bit different. Luke says he said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (said to a thief, and for which there’s a lovely midrash where a Japanese Zen priest was told by an Orthodox Christian priest that this line should read “Today you are with me in paradise,” and probably finally, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” John, whose composition at least three generations after the events and so the farthest out of any of the canonical gospels has Jesus say “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother,” “I thirst,” and “It is finished.” The words I find most compelling, haunting, of them all is reported by both Matthew and Mark, generally believed to be the closest of the texts to the actual event, where Jesus says “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?”

For some like Guatama Siddhartha, who lived far enough ago that his admirers have had a lot of opportunities to work them over, his last words are in fact whole sermons. Actually there are two different versions of those last sermons. The people who follow the path of the elders had one, while the people of the great way had their own.

Among my favorite last words would probably be Zen master Linji looking at his successor and muttering “Who knew that my dharma would be destroyed by this blind donkey.”

Zen. Returning to that koan related at the beginning between Deshan, Xuefeng, and Yantou. It takes place early in the ninth century. The abbot Deshan is probably in his eighties. He is famous as someone who was not trapped by words, often preferring a direct encounter, on occasion using a stick to prod his students to the depths. Xuefeng is probably forty and the monastery’s head cook. Yantou was Xuefeng’s close friend, maybe even his brother. And while younger in the flesh, Yantou was considerably more mature on the way.

Perhaps a reminder is in order. Despite what one might read on the interwebs, despite what the self-anointed like to say, a koan is not a non sequitur designed to rattle someone into some transrational state. A koan is a direct pointing to an aspect of the real together with an invitation to stand in that place. It is a last word of an entirely different sort.

Where are we when we let go of gain and loss, and simply surrender into the moment? What is the whisper? Why the eloquence? What about the silences as well as the words? And that laughing and chortling.

And. What about our dying? Many years later Yantou’s monastery was invaded by bandits. One of them stabbed him, and Yantou’s dying scream was said to be heard ten miles away.

What about that last word?

Here we’re invited into what might also be called the last koan. Here we can see a place that includes the bell and the sounding board, that includes a time to eat and a time to sit and, well, a time for everything under the sun. Here our lives unfold a continuous mystery.

Here the connections are revealed. And, we come to a place where that word connection is meaningless.

And with that each of us has a last word. Banal? A glass of wine? Wise pointing? A scream? Perhaps no word at all, just a gasping out of our breath into the aethers.

Here we’re invited into the heart’s healing. Here God’s name is on our tongue. Here the possibilities of the silent and spoken are all revealed.

Still not clear? Well. The Sufi teacher Elias Amidon observed “When Robert Kennedy lay dying from an assassin’s bullet, his blood spreading across a kitchen floor, he opened his eyes and asked, ‘Is everyone all right?’”

And one more. When he compiled the Gateless Gate, the master Wumen appended a verse of his own to each of these stories. Perhaps this might be helpful…

When you understand the first word
You realize the last.
First and last –
In fact it is not one word

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!