Life and Death

A Dharma talk by Enkyo Roshi given December 31, 2000

It’s appropriate to meditate on loss and on death at this time of the year, I think, when it’s very bare and the snow covers everything making it all one thing. It reminds me of what Alan Senauke said at the Dogen Conference about standing in the rain during a vigil at San Quentin when there was an execution. There were three groups there: the guards and police; the protesters against capital punishment, and the demonstrators for capital punishment. And Alan talked about how the rain was coming down and all three of these groups were just getting soaked to the bone. And as he looked at these three groups he saw that they were all one: the guards, across the fence, the people saying: “Kill him!Kill him! Kill him!” and the people saying, “Don’t kill him! Don’t kill him! Don’t kill him! ” It was as if the rain had brought those three groups together. Alan could see in that moment through the rain falling on all of them how they were not three, but one.

I think of that when I see the snow covering everything – the roads and the highways, and the forest. Here’s what Dogen said in a portrait of himself called Snow:

All my life false and real, right and wrong, tangle/ Playing with the moon, ridiculing wind/ listening to birds/ Many years wasted, seeing the mountain covered with snow/ This winter I suddenly realize snow makes a mountain./

Snow makes a mountain – they’re not separate.

Likewise, we’re not separate from our grief, our pain, our joy, our obsessions. They’re all here. In the same way, death makes a life. This issue comes up again in a favorite genjo koan of Maezumi Roshi’s called “Dao Woo’s Condolence Call.”

“Dao Woo went with his attendant, Chen Yuan to a house to make a condolence call. Yuan hit the coffin and said: (Knocks) ‘Alive or dead?’ Woo said: ‘I won’t say alive, and I won’t say dead.’ Yuan said: ‘Why won’t you say?’ Woo said:’I won’t say.’ Halfway back, as they were returning to the monastery, Yuan said: ‘Tell me right away, teacher. If you don’t tell me I’ll hit you!’ And Woo said:’You may hit me, but I won’t say.’ And then Yuan hit him. Woo said: ‘You’d better not go back to the monastery, because the head students will really punish you for hitting me – so you’d better leave.’ And so Chen Yuan left. And a little while later Dao Woo died. And Yuan went to Shi Shong’s house and brought up the foregoing story. When he told the story, Shong said: ‘I won’t say alive, and I won’t say dead.’ And Yuan again says: ‘Why won’t you say?’ Shong says: ‘I won’t say … I won’t say.’ This time Chen Yuan had an insight. Something happened – he saw something. He got it. So the next day he took a hoe into the zendo, and walked back and forth – east to west and west to east. And his teacher said: ‘What are you doing?’ And Yuan said: ‘I’m looking for the relics of my late master, Dao Woo.’ And Shuang said: ‘Vast waves spread far and wide, foaming billows flood the skies. What relics of ourlate master are you looking for?’” And Yuan said: “Thank you for your teaching. The late master’s relics are still present.”

So here we have an attendant going along with the teacher and seeing a corpse, maybe for the first time, in a coffin. And he is asking what this thing called death is and what this thing called life is? And what do they have to do with our practice? What could Dao Woo say? Give him some pretty words? A Hallmark card verse? He responds: “I won’t say alive, and I won’t say dead.” Right there, he said it all. But poor Chen Yuan couldn’t hear it. We can be face-to-face with the answer, but we miss it, and instead go after the words. How many times has it happened to us during sesshin when we come face-to-face with an experience and suddenly we want to put it into words and concepts, describe it and concretize it. Is this samadhi? Or is this the opening to samadhi? (Laughter) That’s our human nature but it leads us away from ourselves.

Think about what Dogen says: ” If we understand that life and death are, themselves, nirvana, there is no need for avoiding life and death or seeking nirvana” Then, for the first time, there arises the possibility of freeing ourselves from life and death. When you no longer have the desire to reject life and death, or seek nirvana, you can truly gain nirvana and free yourself from life and death.

So Shuang says, in response to, “I’m looking for the relics of my late master” – “Vast waves spread far and wide, foaming billows flood the skies.What relics are you looking for?” It’s always been right here..Unzan is right here. Maezumi Roshi is right here. My mother is right here. And all the people that you can think of are right here. Vast waves spread far and wide, foaming billows flood the skies. What relics of our late master are you looking for?

I understand why we’re all so uncomfortable about death. We’re afraid of losing the people that make us happy, that we love. We’re afraid of losing our own body. You know, deep down, we do love ourselves. (Laughs) And when we die we won’t have our body anymore. We know that. And we won’t have the mind that we have now. So we’re afraid. We’re afraid of pain, of suffering and of not knowing what’s next. I mean, wouldn’t it be bizarre if there wasn’t a next? We spend most of our life planning for next … and it’s very frightening to think of no next. We think I, Enkyo, will exist forever. And to think that Enkyo won’t exist forever – or put your name in that blank – frightens us. And that’s one reason why we practice. We practice so that we can experience not being separate; so that we can experience that oneness of the snow covering everything. The practice of letting go teaches us how to do this. Like Michael Unzan looking at that little patch of wall in front of his hospital bed, in Saint Vincent’s and breathing. Or Lynda Hart, who is very near the end and can’t talk anymore. So on the phone, we simply breathe together. Isn’t that the basis of our practice? How do we allow ourselves to really face death, in ourselves and others? Simply by the practice that we do.

I remember two experiences with Maezumi Roshi, on two successive summers in Mountain Center, when I was doing Ango. The first one, a dear friend of mine, a woman, was dying, in San Francisco and she asked me to come and give her the precepts. And I had not yet had Denkai, but Maezumi said: “Oh, you can go. Take my kesa and go and give her the precepts” That wasn’t enough for me, however. I had to ask him for something special – some sort of teaching. So I said: “Well, what should I say to her? What should I do?” And he looked at me and he said: “You’ll go up there, you’ll give her the precepts, you’ll cry, she’ll cry, and then you’ll come back.” (Laughter) “Okay, Roshi -bye.”

And then, later, the following summer, Robert was dying. And I was again at Mountain Center constantly on the phone long-distance. As it was getting closer and closer to the end of his time I went to Maezumi and I said: “Robert’s dying. I’m going to have to go back to New York.” And he said: “Tell him not to die until the end of Ango.” (Laughs) And I thought: “Oh, how cold.” But I told Robert, and he didn’t. (Laughter)

The ability to laugh and to cry, the ability to be present with all those conflicting emotions, to live a life that’s paradoxical, is to really be alive. And then, when we die, we really die.

One Zen master was asked: “How are you when death arrives?” And he said:”When served tea, I take tea; when served a meal, I take a meal.” So, let’s appreciate these snowflakes falling. It can be a reminder for us of what it is to be one. That’s what happens when we die – we go back there. But I didn’t say. (Laughter)