Death and Life
by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
"The witch that came (the withered hag)
...Die early and avoid the fate
Robert Frost was of the clear opinion that a person ought to hang onto his dough to guarantee himself a respectable death. Spiritual satisfactions seem to have been squinted out of his world view until only material, conditional things remained. An old Zen master who takes his turn with the "shit-stick" - the paddle used to push fecal clumps down the monastery's cesspool sluice - would be, by Frost's standards, a terrible failure. The poet concludes with this warning:
"Better to go down dignified
We think of ascetics dying alone in splendid poverty; and we wonder if it disappointed Frost to know they hadn't been prescient enough to set aside funds sufficient to suborn a few mourners.
Provide for a leisurely old age and some funerary pomp? It is not a Buddhist death. It is not a Buddhist anything.
Some ten years ago I had the occasion to discuss death, the afterlife, and Frost's poem with a man who came to me with what he said was a spiritual problem. He visited with me a few times; and then, as is often the case, he ceased all communication. A teacher never knows whether a student has stopped inquiring because his problem has been solved, or because it wasn't helped at all and he went to seek someone else's advice.
It was a few days before Christmas and he was drowning amidst the flotsam of taunting greeting cards and undelivered gifts - the debris of an unexpected holiday wreck. He couldn't make up his mind whether he wanted to sink or be saved. "I can't go on like this," he said. "My family has forsaken me."
He explained that in the summer of that year he had finally gotten "a very expensive and acrimonious" divorce from his wife of thirty years. They had had two children, a son and a daughter, who now had children of their own.
In the course of the divorce discussions he came to understand that he'd be spending Thanksgiving with his daughter and Christmas with his son. So that the parental paths would not converge, his ex-wife would do the opposite. But just before Thanksgiving he learned that both holidays would be spent with the children's families joined. Since his ex-wife would be present for the November dinner, he was dis-invited. He salved his hurt feeling by looking forward to the conjoined-family Christmas dinner. And then, a few days before he came to see me, he learned, much to his chagrin, that his ex-wife would also be present at the Christmas celebration. Again he was dis-invited. He said that he hadn't realized how much his children had sided with their mother in the matter of divorce. "For years," he sighed, "I stayed with that woman for their sake. And now..." He shuddered. "For the first time in my life," he said, daubing his eyes, "I understand how Christ felt when he was betrayed by Judas."
Needing guidance, he talked to his Roman Catholic priest who was also his ex-wife's priest and who undoubtedly was no more comfortable with that Christ comparison than I was. But the priest didn't help him. "He was too damned busy with other things," my caller said. I allowed that the Christmas season was a particularly eventful time for Roman Catholic priests who, anyway, were not likely to be authorities on post-divorce etiquette.
Then he saw Lawrence of Arabia on television and was struck by a line spoken by one of the characters on the eve of a battle. As best he could remember it, it went, "We will eat lamb together in Paradise." Dinner being much on his mind, he pondered the degree of faith inherent in the pronouncement. He tried to find a Muslim teacher, but there was none listed in the Yellow Pages. So he came to me. How did Buddhists regard death - in particular, suicide? Did we burn in hell or did we, too, look forward to eating lamb in Paradise or, if we're vegetarians, something else?" I had an awful vision of a heavenly tofu banquet but I shook it off.
"What happens to you after you die?" he insisted. "Nothing," I said. "Dead is dead. That's what dead means. Finished. No more." Seeing incredulity in his eyes, I offered a poetic illustration. "In Buddhism we often think of our Life-Giving Buddha as a great ocean. We rise from it in a skyborn moment, and then, as raindrops, we fall to earth for a lifetime's span. Eventually we return to our source and dissolve again into the ocean from which we originated." Unfortunately, I don't get florid with much conviction.
"You don't believe in Hell?" It was an accusation not a question.
"Of course," I said. "You are in it now. If you want to go to heaven, you have to do it now, while you're still alive to appreciate it."
He scowled and put his handkerchief away. When his children had dis-invited him to the Christmas dinner, he responded furiously, telling them both to go to hell. And I was now telling him that he wasn't in a geographical position to consign anybody there. But apparently I had intrigued him by hinting at a way he might extricate himself; and so he accepted the tea I offered.
Zen is not a cradle-to-grave religion. Zen is a mystical path specifically designed for adults who understand Buddhism's Four Noble Truths and are ready to embrace them. A man of Zen is supposed to be beyond needing threats and punishments in order to conform his conduct to some ethical code - those carrot-and-stick rewards and punishments that coax him towards a distant, post-mortem horizon.
The moment is always now.
Much in Buddhism depends upon the way we define our terms, in particular Reality and Illusion. In our Path we believe that what is real is true and what is true is always true. We therefore define Reality as that which is unchanging, unconditional, and eternal. This, to us, constitutes Nirvana, our heaven. It is the world as seen through the eyes of our interior Buddha Self. Illusion, then, we define as that which is always changing, conditional, and temporal. This is Samsara, our hell, the world seen through our ego's eyes. We enter this chaotic world at the moment we acquire ego-consciousness or self-knowledge. As infants, we live in perfect innocence. As children we have already become potentates, self-important monarchs of our environment. And we will remain such autocrats until we turn away from the allurements of the material world.
"Our ever-changing egos are also illusionary creatures," I explained. "Yes, we have a continuing identity. I'm not the same person I was when I was sixteen, but neither am I somebody else. We understand the flowing river and know that we can't step into the same river twice, that the molecules of water that brush our ankles will be different molecules the next time we step into the water - but we have the illusion that we are the same person who is stepping twice. We are not. Just as the river is in flux, so is our ego-consciousness. With each passing moment we acquire new information and forget old. Each erosion and accretion alters us. The second time we do anything is intrinsically different from the first!"
"Why is this hell?" he asked.
Hell is the insanity of trying to make the flux stand still while remaining in the flux. We try to apprehend a momentary state of being, to concretize and memorialize it. It defies us and changes. Worse, we also change. What excites us today may bore us tomorrow. What we love today we may despise tomorrow. And we're stuck with expectations and commitments and so many bad emotional investments. We're maudlin or we're hard as nails; guilty or remorseless; stolidly indifferent or sentimentally romantic. "Emotions," I said, "being such conditional things, are also illusionary creatures."
Conditional love varies with conditions. If it depends on youthful beauty, it will alter with time. If it depends on wealth, it will diminish directly as the lover's assets shrink. Love that is true is unconditional. Ask a man why he reveres his dog and he will tell you that he knows to the depths of his being that his dog will love him no matter whether he makes a million in the market, or loses two. His dog doesn't care if he's a criminal or a saint, famous and successful or a complete flop. His dog loves him unconditionally. His dog has no judgmental ego.
Inside each of us is a Buddha Self; and when we live out the life of that Self we see things directly, without the ego's interpretations and all those shifting conditions. We don't impose conditions on our love, withholding it until our conditions are met. We act with quiet simplicity. And then we let the deed go. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi used to recommend that we "burn our good deeds behind us." (Excellent "real-world" advice!)
He scoffed. "So this misery I feel is imaginary?"
"We create a hell," I answered, "whenever we try to control people in order to gain some strategic advantage, to become powerful, loved and admired. Since we see only the surface of things - and then only those features we want to see - we become bewildered and frustrated when those objects continuously change. After enough confusion and defeat, we send up the white flag and surrender to the obvious truth: all was an illusion and now we are disillusioned."
"I didn't imagine that I was supposed to have Christmas dinner with my family. I didn't buy a thousand dollars worth of imaginary gifts. I didn't manipulate anybody into inviting or dis-inviting me to dinner. What I can't handle is such colossal ingratitude from those persons to whom I have devoted my life and my fortune!" He suddenly checked his watch. His attitude was that of a prince who has condescended to converse with a servant, and who, upon hearing some disagreeable speech, draws himself up, regrets the waste of his largesse, and gestures that the exchange is terminated. I laughed to myself thinking that he seemed to expect me to bow and shuffle backwards out of the room. But I wasn't going anywhere.
Yet he did not get up to leave. "Hell can't be much worse than this," he sighed, adding, "so what else does Buddhism have to sell?"
He wasn't receptive to the information and, to be honest, I wasn't trying very hard to deliver it. In those days I still naively supposed that when someone asked for spiritual information, he was at least prepared to consider it. I didn't understand to what degree samsaric desperation could prompt negative or inappropriate responses or how, under the stress of the moment, some latent pride could burst into haughtiness.
I could tell from his clothing and jewelry and the mannered way in which he spoke and carried himself that he was not only rich, but was used to being rich. When he first entered he removed his coat, and I took it and placed it on a chair. I can still recall being surprised by the touch of cashmere. I hadn't expected a man's coat to be so soft.
But a rich man's life is worth no less than a poor man's life; so I reined in those judgmental horses that were trying to carry me into irreligious territory. "When we discover that all our efforts to manipulate people into paying homage to us have utterly failed and that we have instead alienated them, leaving ourselves wretchedly alone - well, then, we have awakened to Buddhism's First Noble Truth: Life is bitter and painful."
He didn't seem too impressed. "And is there a second truth?"
"Yes. The cause of this bitterness and pain is desire. It is our egotistical desire - our need to be loved, respected and admired - that confounds us and leads us into such desolation. The Third Noble Truth is that there is a solution to the problem."
I had thought the segue was a good one, that he'd respond, "Well, what is that solution?" Instead he said, "We can get to that later. I want to know more about the afterlife. What about reincarnation?"
It is not easy to teach Zen.
I directed the conversation back to his problem, quoting Sri Ramakrishna to him: "If we seek the troubles of mankind, we have only to look to lucre and lust." I suggested that he consider money and sex as possible explanations for the predicament in which he found himself.
I probed for an hour - without any benefit of anesthesia - and he finally revealed that yes... he had had plenty of other women and yes it had driven his wife to drink, making her even less desirable and more pathetic. Funny how she sobered up after the divorce and fixed herself up. And yes, there had been one woman in particular who had prompted him to seek the divorce - but that affair was over. She, too, was perfidious.
"Perhaps your children think you're still involved and vulnerable to this woman. Put yourself in their place. They want to provide for their kids. They probably feel entitled to the family assets; and now, after the divorce, some wicked stepmother is standing between them and your estate - their inheritance might easily be claimed by an avaricious woman. Maybe your children are playing the percentages. You say your ex-wife got a nice chunk of your net worth. It's more likely that your children will inherit her assets than yours. This doesn't mean that they took her side in the divorce. It may just mean that they're looking out for their children's interests, providing for their future."
He said he hadn't considered greed as a motive.
"Well, suppose your wife, after suffering for so long, met a man who made her happy. Perhaps she had invited him to Christmas dinner back when she, too, thought it was going to be a single family affair. Maybe the kids were so delighted with her new happiness that they didn't want anything to spoil it... so you were dis-invited. Wouldn't you have done the same thing for your mom?"
He sighed. "And what am I supposed to do with all those presents?" He was a little too indignant.
"Call a delivery service tomorrow and have them delivered to each home... with a note wishing them all a merry Christmas. Do the classy thing. That's the best advice I can give you."
He stood up and got his coat. As he walked out the door he said, "I have a perfect right to be there."
Two days after Christmas he called asking to come by and visit. His voice was flat and distant. He had gone down a few circles in his private Inferno. Of course he had realized that he couldn't crash a Christmas dinner. He was, after all, a gentleman. He had intended to summon a delivery service - but then he realized that many of the gifts needed batteries and so he thought he'd first go shopping for batteries... and then it was too late to have the gifts delivered. So he thought he'd play Santa Claus and just put them on their doorsteps on Christmas Eve. But it looked like rain that evening... and so he decided to come early to the house on Christmas morning - before any dinner preparations had even begun - and personally hand out the gifts, wishing everyone a very happy holiday and quickly exiting. But he had had a few drinks with friends on Christmas Eve and he slept rather late the next morning, so it was after lunch before he arrived. Naturally, he wanted to show the kids how to operate some of the gifts. They were so excited with the toys. His daughter hadn't even put a turkey in the oven yet, so he saw no reason to hurry away. And then disaster struck. Some caterers arrived early and began to set up for a party of fifty. His daughter gently told him that it was best that he leave.
In shock, he drove away. When he could think clearly, he returned and parked down the block, waiting and watching and seeing to his horror that some of the guests were his best friends and their wives - people with whom he had planned to spend New Year's Eve. Well, they could go to hell, too. He quickly made reservations... Aruba I think it was... and would be leaving in the morning for a couple of weeks' vacation.
I reminded him that consciously or unconsciously he had manipulated the events that led to this disaster. He protested that he had done no such thing and hadn't come to me to be so charged! He simply wanted to start the New Year with a clean spiritual bill of health, a Buddhist regimen. I said, "Fine. Now you must accept the First Two Noble Truths. Your life is bitter and painful and your desires have caused the bitterness and pain."
He sneered. "And the others are in no way to blame?"
Always, we want our will to be the universal will. But since every other man also wants his will to be the universal will, we exist in natural conflict. We walk as if on a tightrope over a snakepit. We desire money because we think that by being rich we will be desirable to others - but we don't want to be loved for our money. We desire to be physically beautiful, strong and graceful - but we don't want to be loved just for our pretty face or body or because we look good on a dance floor. No, we want to be valued for our character and our keen intelligence though we seldom value anyone else for having these qualities. We want to be obeyed, preferring that our subordinates do not comply from fear but from ready recognition of the wisdom in our edicts. We want our children to develop into adults who can think for themselves, but we require that their thoughts do not conflict with ours.
It was useless to try to talk sense to my caller. I told him to contact me when he returned from vacation.
I heard from him again - for the last time - in late January. He was a different man, subdued, and thoroughly humiliated.
There is a turning point, a bottom to our grief. We fall and fall until we hit bottom and either go splat or bounce. I couldn't tell which he had done.
The 'final' disaster had occurred during his hasty holiday. While he was in the shower someone entered his hotel room and stole his jewelry, wallet, and passport. There, bereft of family and friends - by his own choice - he had to suffer through the indignities of victimization, of at least temporary poverty, of begging strangers for help.
During the awful days it took the consular employees to regain semiconsciousness, he browsed a bookstore and found a book of poetry which contained Frost's Provide Provide.
He didn't know how to approach the poem. Was he the one dying alone, abandoned? Had he fallen or been pushed from that familial High Tor he once occupied? But on the other hand there was Abishag. (Ah, Abishag... she couldn't warm old David's body, but how she could inflame young Solomon's!) What a nice juicy feeling it gave him to think of her getting her comeuppance, on her knees with that bucket. But... was that how his family was seeing him?
I read the poem aloud and asked, "By what right does Frost assume that a person who is poor is also miserable? What about accumulated wealth, the obverse side of the coin of poverty? You have money, but perhaps you've suffered more sitting in first-class than any scrubwoman has kneeling on a floor."
No, he insisted. There had to be justice - visible, appreciable justice. There had to be punishment for sinners during life or after death. A victim needed to have some sense of satisfaction. If it wasn't hell then it had to be another lifetime spent as a wretched outcast!
But surely, the loss of Heaven is the ne plus ultra of punishments. Yet, how can we convey to a blind person the scintillating beauty of a diamond? I was approaching exasperation. "You need to apply Occam's Razor to this problem," I said. "Pare away the excess elaborations: the devils, the tortures, the suffering required to work your way up a reincarnation ladder from cockroach to chambermaid. Experience Nirvana once, that's all - just once and you are free from any Samsaric rounds of births and deaths. Even people who believe in reincarnation will tell you this."
He wanted justice for his injuries. But deep inside himself he was aware of his own guilt for having caused them, for having created his own misery; and he was punishing himself accordingly. I asked, "Why can't you understand that as long as you're burning with hate and resentment you are in hell? Heaven and hell exist and they exist here and now and in your own mind. Stop trying to conquer the material world. You cannot win! Look inside yourself and find your own Refuge and the treasures in it. Enter your Buddha Mind."
We do not need any exterior judge or jury, not for ourselves and not for anybody else. Earthly existence is a mechanical sequence of actions and reactions; and ultimately, no matter how we struggle against them, there remain old age, disease and death. In Samsara, we start to die the moment we're born.
I gave him an old photocopy of Seventh World of Chan Buddhism. "There is salvation or there is no salvation. Any wicked sinner who sincerely desires salvation can find it as easily as the best man you know. And if the best man you know doesn't take his spiritual salvation seriously, he'll die without knowing the glory of heaven.
"The cure for Samsara's distress is not to seek another life, another body - like a parasite - as a flea jumps off a dying dog. The cure is to be reborn in the Spirit, in the Real world. The cure is to seek the Buddha's medicine."
Finally, he asked, "What is the Buddha's medicine?"
"The Fourth Noble Truth: to follow the Eightfold Path."
Here is the entirety of Frost's poem, Provide Provide
The witch that came (the withered hag)
The picture pride of Hollywood.
Die early and avoid the fate.
Make the whole stock exchange your own!
Some have relied on what they knew,
No memory of having starred
Better to go down dignified
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts