My first encounter with a Zen teacher happened when I was in my late twenties. Zen had been an interest of mine for nearly a decade before this chance encounter with a person of Zen. I had never thought seriously about actually DOING Zen, but I liked reading the philosophies that came from Zen literature. Doing Zen was, well, something I thought I would never be able to do: it required detaching from everything ... and I liked my attachments. But the scariest thing was detaching from my self, from who I thought I was. My identity. I really didn't want to lose that!
. . . any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction.
My first encounter with a Zen teacher happened when I was in my late twenties. Zen had been an interest of mine for nearly a decade before this chance encounter with a person of Zen. I had never thought seriously about actually DOING Zen, but I liked reading the philosophies that came from Zen literature. Doing Zen was, well, something I thought I would never be able to do: it required detaching from everything ... and I liked my attachments. But the scariest thing was detaching from my self, from who I thought I was. My identity. I really didn't want to lose that.
Well, this chance encounter gave me the opportunity to ask some questions related to all this, because I DID want to actually do Zen, but a huge blockade stood before me: its essence was the nature of life and death itself. "It seems," I started, "that Zen is fundamentally about life and death." "That's right." he said. "That's pretty heavy stuff." I replied, not knowing what else to say. "Yes." he said, not offering anything more.
Unsure of my own thoughts, I nervously asked him, "How do I overcome the obstacle of death?"
After a short silence, he replied "The obstacle is not death, it is fear. And fear only manifests when we project into the future or into the past. When we are living in this moment, there is no fear." He paused. "There is no death." He paused again. "There is just the continual transformation from one now to the next. When you are fully present in this moment, this now, there can be no fear because this now encompasses everything. There is nothing more. Nothing less. What we bring with our concerns of death are fears of what will happen in the future - how our existence might change. But our existence is changing every moment and we pay it no regard. How ironic that we care so much about some imagined distant point in time and space and attend so mindlessly to our being here and now. Zen training is about nothing more than training ourselves to be present. And there exists no moment in which we can be present than this moment. When we are not present, it is as if we are dead. Funny isn't it? We're dead, worried about death." He took a moment to laugh, then looked at me with eyes that seemed to look directly inside me. "Zen is not about life and death in the way you think. A person of Zen does not question the nature of life or the nature of death. These are issues for philosophers. A person of Zen delves into the nature of being and, once discovered, abides there. But it is not a passive thing. Zen engages our inner eye to separate what is real from what is illusion. Initially it's hard work because we're not used to it and we have to retrain our way of thinking and perceiving. But with time, it becomes second-nature."
He stopped talking and I finally asked, "So death doesn't enter into it at all?"
"Sure it does. The reason we're scared of death is because we're scared of suffering and because we're scared of the unknown. We're scared that we may die in pain and misery. We're scared that our existence will vanish. Without such intense concerns, how can sufficient willpower be generated to do Zen? Zen isn't philosophy. It isn't a hobby, something we do to try to ‘make ourselves a better person' or be popular at our local yoga group. Unless we put our life on the line, we'll never discover what life is truly about. We will be forever tormented by our imaginations, projections and opinions. We will be the walking dead. "
I didn't know what to say as the silence lingered. Uncomfortably, I thanked him for the explanations. He told me to come visit him anytime.
While this old man's words sounded true, and led me ultimately to discover Zen for myself, his picture of death and dying was not complete. He told me only half of it: the half I needed to know at the time perhaps. The part he didn't address was the suffering we observe others enduring. He didn't address the pain of watching while a loved one struggles with cancer, old age, or any of a myriad of diseases that can be acquired as we age. He didn't address the pain we feel when we watch the tragedies of human suffering as they play out around the world - the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, the Bhopal disaster, the 1990 Hajj incident, the 911 attack on the World Trade Towers, countless wars . . . the list seems endless the more we look back into history, and the more observant we are of the present. How does our own enlightenment help us manage what seems to be an underlying essence of human suffering, so simply summarized in the Buddha's First Noble Truth? Why should we be concerned about our own destiny or misfortunes when there are so many others whose suffering completely overshadows our own trifling existence?
Living in the here-and-now, that mode we adopt automatically once we are able to detach from imagined, fabricated, conceptions of self, does not mean that we live in bliss, for we are still witness to the pains and struggles of our fellow humans; and if we're adequately sensitive, to the pains and struggles of other creatures as well. But living in the moment necessitates the loss of self, of ego-self that is. When we are only pure awareness, there is no consideration of the source of the awareness - awareness is all there is. Awareness is its own source. With awareness comes an intimate connection between the perceiver and the perceived. When I am with You, and perceive You entirely, it is as if I am You. There is no difference.
As we bear witness to the suffering of others, we too suffer. Our desire to see an end to all suffering led our Dharma forefathers to add a special vow to the Buddhist canon: a vow to save all sentient beings. This speaks directly to the pure desire to see all people freed from suffering. It does not mean that if we are to be good Buddhists that we will need to save all sentient beings ... it means that once we're enlightened, we'll desire nothing more than to save all sentient beings, regardless of whether or not we can. The vow acknowledges the suffering we all endure when another suffers. It acknowledges our inseparable connection to each other.
There are two types of suffering though: the suffering of the soul, and the suffering of the body. We can do little about the suffering of the body - nature takes its course and we fall victim to old age and the myriad diseases that accompany it. Or perhaps we're born with congenital disorders that we suffer, or fall victim to a violent accident of some kind.
But suffering of the spiritual kind is by far the worst of all. It happens when we fail to recognize our True Self, our Buddha Nature, God. Plato likened it to living in a cave with no light, never having seen the light, never knowing it exists, and thinking of anyone who talked about such Light as insane. Yet once the Light is known, the pain of physical suffering is reduced to insignificance because we no longer identify with it. Physical pain can no longer touch us because we are so well connected to what Us is and know that what Us is has nothing to do with our physical body or the pains it experiences. When we see that the nature of life is no different from the nature of birth or of death we become released from the confinement of our body and mind. We see all as a continuum of change in which nothing of fundamental substance is destroyed. As the serpent biting its tail, all is an endless loop of birth and death, creation and re-creation. Every scientist takes as a fundamental premise that energy can be neither created nor destroyed but merely transformed from one thing to another. Every mystic also knows this as a fundamental truth. And when it is known beyond words -- beyond theory and beyond philosophy, in our hearts -- then there is no fear of death because death is seen as just a change from one form of energy to another, death does not kill our "self" because our "self" does not fundamentally exist in the first place.
When a Buddhist vows to save all sentient beings, we vow to help them out of the platonic cave of darkness, out of the true source of suffering, which is ignorance of our True Nature. Once we have attained full awareness of the Platonic Light, we can suffer bodily pains but they are no longer consequential to our inner happiness. Such pains are detached from Us ... from our Self, which is timeless, and infinite. To live a life without ever finding this connection to our fundamental nature is tragic. To watch as an enlightened person dies a painful death is painful, but to witness the pain and suffering of another being who has not yet awakened to their True Nature is the hardest of all.