September 7, 2010

Zen and the Art of Life and Death.

Life is very short. Do not waste a second night or day.~ Zen Chant

I don’t plan on dying.
I just don’t see the point. The idea of dying is bad enough but planning on it is down right depressing. It’s not that I don’t believe I’m going to die, I just don’t know how it will happen. Hopefully it will be something interesting like being eaten by a great-white shark while surfing or maybe I’ll be frozen while climbing Mount Everest. My Shurpa guides who I bravely saved, will take bits of me for sustenance and leave me to the snow leopards and vultures.

If that seems strange, you should know, that in Tibet, Sky Burial is a traditional way of disposing of the dead. The corpse is cut up and placed on a mountain top where the elements and animals will cycle it back into the world. The body is just an empty vessel to be discarded. It’s not callous so much as practical. Not many places to bury the dead on a mountain top I suppose. And besides the dead person doesn’t care because, well, they’re dead.

But that’s just me and I wonder if I am numb to the idea or if I’m excited by the prospect of a final adventure. Either something will happen or it won’t. And if it doesn’t at least we’ll be unconscious.

Remnants of a Tibetan Sky Burial

My religion is to live and die without regret.
Know emptiness. Be compassionate.
Strong and healthy, who thinks of sickness until it strikes like lightning?     Preoccupied with the world, who thinks of death, until it arrives like     thunder? ~ Milarepa

It took awhile before I really started to understand death.

My great grandmother escaped from Germany and fled to the U.S. only to be kept at Ellis Island with an eye infection. She could still see the Statue of Liberty so close, but out of reach. It was not until a year later she snuck into the U.S. through Canada; she grew old and hardened on the plains of North Dakota. I remember her house smelled funny, she had no television and always had disgusting hard candies in a bowl. But she told good stories, of suffering and hardship. She was kind and had no regrets. I was 10 when she died. I didn’t recognize her in the coffin and didn’t believe it was her. I kept trying to poke the body. She was gone and I didn’t get to see her leave.

The real tragedy is not that someone has passed on, but the suffering that passing causes those they leave behind. The Buddha taught that life is suffering. There’s no way around it. Like it or not, suffering is going to happen.

I’m 14, walking my basset hound on a cool fall day. He breaks away from his leash and dashes into traffic. A car slams into him and drags him beneath it. I run and scoop him up. He bites me but I hardly feel it. We drive to the vet, but there’s nothing they can do. I leave with a blood soaked shirt and without my dog. He was gone and I watched him leave.

When someone dies it feel like they take a part of us with them, though not always as literally as a chunk out of your hand. It took months for the dog bite heal. By then the pain had faded but the scars remained. Time heals all wounds. So they say…

I had many friends die in high school. Like most kids, we didn’t talk about it. We tried to ignore it because if they could die so could we. You move on, you bury your pain, because that’s how you become a ‘man’.

I’m 25 living in a Zen Buddhist monastery. My best friend for the last five years is 50-year-old monk Bruce. We both joke and laugh, despite the surly stares of the other sullen monks. Bruce has completed more Koans than most of the monks in the monastery combined. He does yoga every morning and we go to NBA games on the weekends and roller blade together. He broke his arm once, but even then he laughed it off. One Sunday he wants me to go hiking. He plans to finally visit Europe and he is excited about his new hiking shoes for the trip. At the last minute I tell him I can’t go. Bruce goes hiking without me and has an aneurysm. He died looking at the sky and smiling

I never saw the body, just a jar of ashes. Bruce did get to go on a trip, just not with his new hiking boots. He was gone.
I felt nothing.

I left the monastery and got a job at a fortune 500 company. My CEO was into Buddhism and we talked a lot about it. But we didn’t practice, working mindless sixty-plus hours a week. Our only reprieve was the typical vices the corporate world provided. I wouldn’t say I sold my soul, but I definitely leased it. After a few years I was completely numb.

I enjoyed being numb. At night I went home to a nice empty house at the edge of the mountains and a full glass that kept becoming emptier. I had a pet rabbit named Newman. He was house trained and watched TV with me. He loved the History Channel, especially the World War Two shows. He was a funny rabbit and my last real friend.
We were both becoming a bit pudgy. I let him go outside the fenced in yard to hop around and eat grass. Even the cats were afraid of the giant twenty-pound rabbit. He once head-butted a black lab and the dog ran away.

The Author and Newman

I fall asleep and have a horrible vivid dream. Death is at my door. I wake up and pull myself off the couch and run outside, knowing what I would see. White fur matted with blood was everywhere. It looked like a hell of a fight, but Newman had lost this one; he was eviscerated and half eaten. Massive clawed-tracks lead away from his body into the darkness.

I found out later that he wasn’t the first pet to get eaten by a mountain-lion in the area, but he was mine. As I buried him beneath a tree, something snapped and darkness washed over me. The first and last time I hunted was when I was a Boy Scout and shot a rabbit. At the time it was a horrible feeling and was one reason I became vegetarian.
I got a gun and decided to kill the mountain lion. I tracked him at night, baiting him with bloody meat. I stalked him for a week and came to know him, like my own shadow. I wasn’t hunting an animal anymore, it was something much bigger. I enjoyed it and let the thirst for revenge take over. One night as I sat  in the dark, emotions flooded back. I sank into the dirt and sobbed. I finaly got up to leave, when I saw two large glowing eyes staring at me. I aimed and could feel the big cat breathing like it was a part of me. We stared into each others eyes and I knew I had a choice to make, something had to die.

I looked at the eyes, watched them blink and took a deep breath. I turned and walked away.

Only the idea of death makes a warrior sufficiently detached so that he is capable of abandoning himself to anything. He knows his death is stalking him and won’t give him time to cling to anything so he tries, without craving, all of everything. ~ Don Juan

I signed up for a two-week retreat at the Zen Center. It was good to be back after all of those years. There is an inscription on a Zen gong:

Birth and Death is a grave event;
How transient is life. Every minute is to be grasped. Time waits for nobody.

Kanzeon Zen Center

The gong rang through the zendo. I knelt down on my old cushion in the same place I had sat next to Bruce every morning for years. The hall filled up but no one sat  next to me. I looked at the empty space, the last one in the zendo and realized that somehow Bruce was still there. He was still a part of me and this place he loved. Bruce hadn’t gone anywhere. It was me that had been lost.

The gong rang. We chanted.

Life is very short. Do not waste a second night or day.

My Zen master, Genpo Roshi, walked into the zendo. He looked at me and raised an eyebrow, but didn’t smile.
Roshi sat down and began to speak about loss and suffering. He talked about how he had recently lost someone that had opened him up on a profound level. The zendo dog, a small black Shit-Tzu, had died unexpectedly and Roshi was deeply distraught by the loss of his little friend, more so than any death in the past. It wasn’t that this was more or less tragic, it just was that he was experiencing it in such a deep and new way. He looked at me, with tears in his eyes, and smiled. I nodded and understood. The loss of his little black friend and my little white one were the same.

Life is continual cycle of loss. Black and white. Death and rebirth. Nothing is permanent. It doesn’t matter how enlightened you are, if you can’t exist fully in the moment, allowing yourself to be filled with both joy and suffering, allowing yourself to be fully human, you might as well be dead. It’s an endless learning experience, and ongoing enlightenment, where we interact with the world and those around us. How we choose to engage our lives and deaths is the important thing. And this is the lesson, the sacrifice the dead teach me. I’m just glad that I learned  it while I’m still alive. The best way to honor them is to live, be fully human, be vulnerable, but don’t be afraid. Where the dead go doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we’re still here. And in some ways they are still here with us.

If you haven’t wept deeply, you haven’t begun to meditate. ~Ajahn Chah

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