Just saw on my Facebook feed a video clip by someone named Jason Silva. I know nothing else about him. A bunch of clips appear unsolicited on my Facebook feed every day. I might listen to a sentence or two, but almost always, I quickly move on. What caught me this time was his mention of a Mexican belief about three deaths. Whether it is actually a Mexican thing or is not, I cannot say. But I do think it speaks some authentic truth.
The first death comes when a person realizes they are mortal, that they will die.
The second is physical death.
The third is when a person’s name is last uttered by someone.
Mr Silva launched from there into a bit of a rant against that good night.
Mr Silva’s rant was perhaps not quite up to Dylan Thomas’ rage, but that’s a harsh comparison. It was, I thought, a pretty good litany of resentment in the face of the fact – and a rejection of anything other than the burning desire to continue.
It is a harsh truth. One most of us would rather not face head on.
Reminded me of that time someone, a first time visitor, came to me after one of our Zen meditation groups and asked, “Why are you trying to kill me?” Unpacking this it turned out he was referring to how in our evening meditation liturgy we recite the five remembrances from the Upajhatthana Sutta.
- I am subject to aging. There is no way to avoid aging.
- I am subject to ill health. There is no way to avoid illness.
- I am going to die. There is no way to avoid death.
- Everyone and everything that I love will change, and I will be separated from them.
- My only true possessions are my actions, and I cannot escape their consequences.
The visitor, it turns out, was a believer in the power of the human imagination, so much so he was of the view that if one thinks something it will happen. It was my unfortunate task to inform him that whether he thought about it or not, he was destined to die.He did not return to our little Zen community.
We don’t deny death. We don’t turn away from death. Actually, one of the traditions of Buddhist practice is meditating in graveyards.
But, here’s a deal for everyone. We. And. All. Things. Die.
Or, as it is put in more Buddhist terms, all things made of parts will come apart.
And, at this point in my life, what it immediately brings to mind is case 47 in the Wumenguan, the Gateless Gate anthology of koan, “Toushuai’s Three Barriers.” For me it is the epitome of Zen practice. It goes like this.
The priest Toushuai set up three barriers for those who walk the way.
Making your way through the brambles and weeds you give yourself fully to the quest to find your true nature. Right now, dear one, where is your true nature?
Once you realize your true nature, you are free from birth and death. At that last moment as your eyes fall, how are you free from birth and death?
When you are free from birth and death, you will know where to go. So, when the parts that make you all fall apart, where will you go?
It is possible to see these questions as progressive. First, you start with the quest. Then, seeing into the depth of practice, you know what to do as you die. And, as you know what to do as you die, you know what to do after you die. Of course, as with so much of the Zen way, that would be a tad too simple, or, more correctly, too complicated.
I recall one teacher who said if you figure out Mu, she would give you all the rest of the “answers” to the koan curriculum. What I understand she meant is that there is a sense in which to answer one, particularly one like this, you have indeed touched them all. There is, however, as it turns out, always a bit more to do.
Still, in one sense, by resolving that first question, all is revealed. You notice there’s a problem. You determine to resolve it. And you embark on the great way. In Zen it means learning how to sit, what we call Zen meditation. We learn a posture, we learn where to put our minds. My little summation is sit down, shut up, pay attention.
The problem with that is it sounds like there’s a step and then another, which is true, but only from one angle. It is actually an invitation into something. And just to tip my hand, it’s an invitation into seeing how all things arise independently, and they are all one thing.
Or. Not one. Not two.
With the first barrier we are given a pointer about the real nature of practice. Here the old Soto school counsel to sit down and become Buddha may help clarify the koan point. Okay, or the koan point might help clarify Dogen’s advice.
When we attend to the great matter, we begin to see how the world is not the way we usually think it is. Just look, just look, and in that the koan is resolved.
Of course then there’s more. Then there’s that second barrier, our own dying. From one angle pure speculation. Unless, that is, you’re dying. And, from one angle already noted, who isn’t? From that place. From this place? Where is your true nature?
And finally, the question that I’ve notice traps people a bit more often than the other two, the barrier that people sometimes like to linger at for a while.
After you’re dead? What is that supposed to mean? Heaven? Hell? The next round?
For all of it, one pointer. Here.
Life and death. Raging. Loving. Grasping. Letting go…
Mary Oliver sings of one angle on this mystery…
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Only one angle. But a critical one…
Know this gate, walk through this gate, and living and dying are resolved…
Not one. Not two.