Zen practice and life and death

Posted on: Tue, 05/29/2007 - 02:40 By: Tom Swiss

It turns out that my stay coincided with a sort of "day off" here; got to sleep in to almost 7am, no morning service or zazen. Breakfast, like dinner last night, was formal; a whole thing about how you unwrap your bowls, pass and serve the food, and clean and re-wrap. It's curious to me that the food is eaten very quickly. I have heard this is a Rinzai thing, don't know if it's the same in Soto zendos. But if I were designing a eating ritual I'd slow it down to encourage mindfulness.

The chanting is done very quickly also; though I was given a book to follow, I was quickly lost. Okay, though, they seem to be practicing good forbearance on me here.

But it does make me wonder what the hurry is. "Hey, hurry up so we can get back to zazen!", or something? Except that we rush through a meal then have free time until the next scheduled thing. Maybe monks value that free time.

Anyway, it's cool. Zazen last night two sessions of about 30 minutes, with a short rest and stretch in between. Longer than I've sat before (at least, discounting a few extraordinary circumstance of altered states of consciousness).

Today, after lunch (informal, nice discussion - turns out the head monk here, a Russian fellow, used to do Judo and has studied acupuncture, so we had some budo and some healing talk), took a little hike up into the woods. Sat zazen by the stream for a while, watching the water eddy around the rocks.

I've written about the precepts, about the Noble truths, about magick and mysticism, since I've been here, but I haven't much touched on the big one, the thing so many people turn to religion for comfort regarding: death.

The most popular way to deal with death, of course, is to deny it. "I'm going to Heaven when I die" - never mind that, as Mark Twain pointed out, the popular notion of Heaven sounds like a dreary, awful place. Or, "I will be re-incarnated when I die", an increasingly popular one here in the West. especially among Pagan folk.

Re-incarnation is sometimes argued as being "natural", the way of the seasons, and so as something that should be embraced by Pagans. As the chant goes, "Hoof and horn, hoof and horn / All the dies shall be re-born / Corn and grain, corn and grain / all that falls shall rise again." But when the corn falls, are the stalks that rise again the next spring the same plants of corn? Am I the same as my grandfather? And if I and my brother - the last, so far, of his descendants - don't have kids, then what? Immortality through reproduction seems an unsatisfactory sort.

Let's go back to the stream. Sit near some rocks in it's flow. Perhaps you'll see a spot where whirlpools form for a bit, a knot of water that takes on a perceptible form for a few seconds from certain conditions, then melts away as conditions change.

But then, a little later, in the same spot, another whirlpool forms.

Is it the same whirlpool?

The question as phrased does not admit of an accurate answer. "Same" is a construction of mind.

Indeed, as the water flows downstream, and the molecules pass through the whirlpool, we might ask if the whirlpool is the same from moment to moment.

Consider the puzzle of Ulysses' ship - during the voyage, every single plank and nail and bit of rigging is replaced. Is it the "same" ship that pulls into the final harbor as that which set out?

Now consider - is it the "same" Tom Swiss that writes this, as the infant that fell into this world thirty-seven years ago?

If the idea of "self" is empty, if the idea that there has been one person existing for decades is just a mental construction, a character in the story my brain is telling, then how can this fictional thing be re-incarnated or be re-born?

One story about Zen Master Bankei says that he was very scared of death as a child. When he had his great enlightenment, he realized that "he" could never die, because "he" had never been born.

If our usual idea of "self" is wrong, than what am I?

If we look deeply we see that we are interconnected with all life on Earth.

We are interconnected with each other. If you are not here, dear friend reader, I am not here. If my teachers are not here - every single on of them, from my parents to the dead lizard I saw run-over on the road this afternoon - if they are not here, I am not here. If my ancestors are not here, I am not here. Often we express this as "If my ancestors had not been here, I would not be here", but this is the illusion of time. There is only now.

A fellow once told me that he had been Jesus is a past life. If I'd been a little quicker-minded and brave enough, I should have told me, "me too". [That's a typo but I think I'll leave it in!] We're all the re-incarnations of everyone, past, present, and future.

Also in a very deep sense we are one not just with our fellow humans and "higher" animals, but with the entire biosphere - just as the whirlpool is one with the stream. If the tree with which I exchange air now survives, and spreads its seeds, then I live. And if the water I piss out rises to the sky and falls as rain; and if the shit I bury in the woods fertilizes a blueberry vine;

And now we face a problem not encountered by the Buddha; we know that the human species is not immortal, And we know that the biosphere is not immortal. In fact, it is rather sick at the moment, and it is quite possible that we humans will kill it.

Oh, certainly life on Earth is going to survive, at least until the Sun swallows the planet, and maybe even then some hardy rock-dwelling extremophile bacteria will live on. But taken as a whole system, there have been mass extinctions, cometary and asteroid impacts and super-volcanoes and ice ages and warming trends, that have wiped out enough life so that today's Gaia is probably about the dozenth or so to develop here.

Now, just as the whirlpool is one with the stream, so the stream is one with the rains and the clouds. So even if the stream dries up, the wise whirlpool knows that its true self continues. And the rains and clouds are one with the great oceans, so drought is no end. And the oceans are one with the planet, so even if they soaked into the ground, no problem. And when the sun boils and bakes the planet and all the water is gone, this wise whirlpool knows the in the H2O that forms it, the hydrogen is condensed from the big bang, the oxygen is the smoke from the fire of old stars. So perhaps, if it is wise, the whirlpool does not fear the end of the stream.

But it would still be aesthetically unpleasing, extremely disharmonious, for the whirlpool to destroy the stream.

And someday the human race will end. Maybe a big rock from the sky will get us; maybe the sun will swallow the planet. (And maybe we could stop the rock, maybe move the planet; maybe we should, maybe we shouldn't. But the universe is finite and the energy runs out eventually.) And in the big picture, with the right understanding, we can be okay with that.

But it would be a damn shame, disharmonious, if we did it to ourselves.

So two more guests have shown up here...one older fellow originally from New York, one younger British(?) guy.

In reply to by Bjorn Solstad (not verified)

In my day job as a software guy, I'm basically a professional problem solver. What we learn is that any big project - say, the programs to run a phone system, or the ground stations for a science satellite - breaks down into smaller problems, and those break down, until you see a bunch of achievable steps rather than a whole big impossible mess.

As the cliche goes, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

But you have to proceed with the assumption that the thing is solvable. If we assume it's not, well, it definitely won't be; if we assume it is, maybe we're wrong, but at least it gives up something to do until the end, right?

So what would the solution look like? Really it comes down to not so much new technologies as a new way of thinking for every person. It needs an awakening of each individual human.

If each of us does a little - change to CF bulbs, drive less, go vegetarian, practice mindful living, be a little nicer to our fellow sentient beings - and manage to convince just one other person to move the same way...and then they manage to convince just one other person...well, pretty soon there's a pretty big change in the air.

It can happen. If big things like slavery and segregation can end

Should we do something? Compassion says there's a lot of suffering out there if we don't.

It's funny...We'd never even ask that if there was one person drowning. You've throw him a line and never think twice about if you "should". But if a hundred people are drowning, we tend to freeze.

But you can grab the nearest line and throw it to the nearest guy. That's at least one life saved, and even if nothing else that's a damn good day's work. And then maybe there's another line and another guy within reach...

Do what you can, when you can.

Tom Swiss - proprietor, unreasonable.org

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.