Mirror of Zen Blog

Memento Mori

The three worlds are fleeting like autumn clouds. Like a staged performance, beings come and go. In tumultuous waves, rushing by, like rapids over a cliff. Like lightning, wanderers in samsara burst into existence, and are gone in a flash. — Lalitavistara Sūtra

Lots of thoughts about death these days: the slow-motion/fast-motion death of the climate I once new, the everyday-deaths of numberless migrants swallowed in the seas between Africa and Europe (and the countless more to come), the death in the last 10 years of so many monks and nuns I have practiced with. My own body falls apart in bits and pieces. Nothing serious yet, just the intimation of the inevitable slow cascade I witnessed in the older Sunim’s: in a torn-meniscus knee which will never permit me to do 108 bows ever again, or sit without a cushioning brace (and a second knee showing first signs of the same), the dwindling of eyesight in one eye, and now every intensive retreat sending blood streaming out of an ass which has cushioned far far too many thousands of hours of immobile sitting). My Father’s passing is not yet two years, and Mom’s is just over four: both genetic roots recently severed. No turning back.

Dae Soen Sa Nim’s “Temple Rules” end with an old poem, “In the great work of Life and Death, time will not wait for you. If you die tomorrow, what kind of body will you get? Is not all of this of great importance? Hurry up! Hurry up!” These lines first impacted me from the first days practicing in his lineage.

Some of Dogen Zenji’s first and most impactful writings urged us to consider the matter of impermanence as inspiration for why we must practice:

“Impermanence is swift; life-and-death is a matter of utmost urgency. For the short while you are alive, if you wish to study or practice some activity, just practice the Buddha-Way and study the buddha-dharma. Since literature and poetry are useless, you should give them up. Even when you study the buddha-dharma and practice the Buddha-Way, do not study extensively. Needless to say, refrain from learning the Exoteric and Esoteric scriptures of the teaching-schools. Do not be fond of learning on a large scale, even the sayings of the buddhas and patriarchs. It is difficult for us untalented and inferior people to concentrate on and complete even one thing. It is no good at all to do many things at the same time and lose steadiness of mind.” (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 1)

To maintain this inspiration, the Buddha’s students practiced meditation on cremation grounds. In the Christian tradition, monks practiced in cold caves with skulls and withered bones to remind them of the impermanence of this bodily life, and the fast approach of physical annihilation in death.

The Lalitavistara Sūtra says,

अध्रुवं त्रिभवं शरदभ्रनिभं नटरङ्गसमा जगिर् ऊर्मिच्युती। गिरिनद्यसमं लघुशीघ्रजवं व्रजतायु जगे यथ विद्यु नभे॥ The three worlds are fleeting like autumn clouds. Like a staged performance, beings come and go. In tumultuous waves, rushing by, like rapids over a cliff. Like lightning, wanderers in samsara burst into existence, and are gone in a flash.

ज्वलितं त्रिभवं जरव्याधिदुखैः मरणाग्निप्रदीप्तमनाथमिदम्। भवनि शरणे सद मूढ जगत् भ्रमती भ्रमरो यथ कुम्भगतो॥ Sentient beings are ablaze with the sufferings of sickness and old age, And with no defense against the conflagration of Death. The bewildered, seeking refuge in worldly existence, Spin round and round, like bees trapped in a jar.

Philippe de Champaigne, “Vanitas” (1671): there is only life, death, and time.

The bust of Socrates watches over our practice, as well, for wasn’t it he who said (in the Phaedo), “Other people are likely not to be aware that those who pursue philosophy aright study nothing but dying and being dead. Now if this is true, it would be absurd to be eager for nothing but this all their lives, and then to be troubled when that came for which they had all along been eagerly practicing.” When Socrates says “philosophy” here, he means — for us — practice. “Those who practice correctly study nothing but dying and being dead.” Or, as Dae Soen Sa Nim used to say, “You’re already dead.”

So, whether Greek, Buddhist, or Christian, the admonition is clear: We must always strive to do correct practice, in this short span of life given to us, almost as if by lucky chance.

Hard to do that in a prosperous Bavarian city, wafting with the scents of finely-gebraten meats, finely roasted gourmet coffee, and delicious beers. The childhood aroma of my own long-dead German grandmother’s home-cooked old-country meals sometimes blooms to fill our Dharma Room when the Regensburg Weißbräuhaus serves up lunches in the summer sun, just two doors down. The sound of glasses raised is heard during our meditation. There is the even purr of finely-tuned German engines slowly turning the corner on our narrow “Gasse.” Life is good. Things will go on like this, it seems.

So, a little redesign of our altar has appeared, to keep Dogen’s admonitions nearer at hand: in the Christian tradition in which I was raised, it’s memento mori.

“In the great work of life and death, time will not wait for you…”

This reminder is not a depressing symbolism, but one which urges me on with greater seriousness in practice. It reminds me of the preciousness of this opportunity to wake up, to make utterly stable this attainment of True Nature, for the good of others. I am reminded of these extraordinary words by the great Richard Dawkins, one of my greatest intellectual heroes:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

― Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

So, rather than despair, there is a greater joy in this, in the face of inescapable death, to practice awakening. So burdened with this receiving this life, how fortunate I have been to have encountered these teachings of self-liberation through practice, to trash mere religion for the sake of finding something better than mere “God” in the wind through the trees, the sound of a bird, a set of footsteps passing on the cobblestones outside the Dharma Room window, a fragrant tree walked past on the street. I have been burdened with “life,” since it has set up the incoming experience of annihilation of death, an experience I can imagine coming toward me: Yet, how inexpressibly lucky I am to encounter the practice of “moment-world,” this infinite expanse of now.

The Romanian existentialist Emile Cioran once said, “How good would it be if one could die by throwing oneself into an infinite void.” (On the Heights of Despair) Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know — again and again and again, as far as the inner eye can see, and further still in boundless awareness. There is no sweeter “death” than this.

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