Aug 1, 2020
Jenny Hall

Verses from the Dhammapada 289

The 12th Link of the Chain of Dependent Origination is 'Death', but there is a death-in-life necessary to experience life more fully. Jenny Hall explores this theme.

‘Seeing that no one can help him when he is overtaken by death, the wise will enter the Path leading to Nirvana.’

This verse points to the last link in the 12 Linked Chain of Conditioned Arising, ‘Old Age and Death’. It is preceded by ‘Birth’, the 11th link.

‘Seeing that no one can help him when he is overtaken by death…’

The philosopher Martin Heidegger, when asked, ‘What can we do to spend better lives?’ replied ‘Spend more time in graveyards.’ However rather than heeding this advice and contemplating our demise we prefer to distract ourselves in a variety of ways.

Recently it has become popular to compile a ‘wish list’ of projects to pursue in our retirement years, ranging from dyeing our hair purple to sky diving. The current interest in Botox and cryonics reveals our society’s deep denial of ageing and death.

One particularly cold morning the Electricity Board cut off the power in our Close in order to repair a fault. Around lunchtime we received a phone call inquiring about how we were coping without electricity. Reassurances that we had a gas fire, stove and a supply of candles were met with a kindly offer of extra blankets and warm food, should we need them. It later discovered that the phone call was a special priority for the over 60s. Despite being retired for over 20 years, it was a shock to be classed with the elderly.

We tend to ignore the Buddha’s teaching that impermanence is the natural state of the world. Everything, including ourselves, changes, ages and dies. We also forget that the Buddha taught that ‘I’ am a delusion made up of five impermanent aggregates: physical form, sensations, perceptions, mental formations and sense consciousness. They come together to create a psycho-physical organism. When the form dies, they break up.

Despite our transience, we cling, not only to the idea of youth, but to all our experiences, both enjoyable and distressing. This creates the delusion of ‘me’. This delusion is terrified of death. Such fear drives us to strive constantly to become ‘someone’. We pursue this goal through possessions, relationships and accomplishments. Even the desire to become a Zen student may be initially part of such ambition. Before starting the Zen training, I had read that through zazen (sitting meditation), I would find my ‘real’ self. I believed that if I sat long enough this real me would appear. Fear arose when nothing emerged!

‘… the wise will enter the Path leading to Nirvana.’

The Zen training helps us to recognise this fear. We learn to greet it and to embrace it. When we stop running away from it, the energy is transformed into the spaciousness and timelessness of ‘Choiceless Awareness’ – the description given by the sage Krishnamurti for consciousness without the delusion of self. This ‘I’ made up of fear drops off. So we learn to ‘die’ on the cushion before we die physically.

Master Sokei-an said that when the time comes, and death approaches:

‘We fold our hands, bow our head and return to where we always have been.’

These beautiful words express the whole of the Zen training.

The story of The Dead Man’s Answer, illustrates this complete self-abandonment. Mamiya went to a Zen master and asked for guidance. He was given the koan: ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ Mamiya concentrated on what the answer might be. When he went back to his teacher, the teacher said: ‘You must work harder. You are too attached to food, wealth and that sound. It would be better if you died. That would solve the problem.’ The next time Mamiya met his teacher he was asked for an answer. Mamiya fell onto the floor as though he was dead.

‘Yes, you are dead, but what about that sound?’ said the master.

Mamiya looked up and said ‘I haven’t solved that yet.’ The teacher said: ‘Dead men do not speak. Get out!’

The daily life practice offers the opportunity to ‘die’ from moment to moment. Each time ‘I’ give myself away into the situation, becoming at one with it, whether it pleases me or displeases me, is a little ‘death’. At the same time the craving ‘to be’ someone drops off too. The spacious intimacy of the open heart appears. We participate fully with life, its ups and downs, the light and the darkness both. There is no separation. When there is freedom from this one who stands apart judging everything about me there is just the Buddha’s compassion remaining.

The bird singing in the tree sings in our heart. The poet Basho wrote:

What stillness,

The voices of the cicadas,

Penetrate the rock.

Text copyright to Jenny Hall

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