Death, where is thy sting?

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
St Paul

In a conversation with a visitor Nisargadatta said, “The jnani knows neither birth nor death. Existence and non-existence are the same to him.”

Jnana means ‘to know’ or ‘knowing.’ It is most often translated as “knowledge,” but knowledge is already crystallised knowing and is, in a way, dead. Knowing is vital and alive.  Jnana comes from ‘jna’ which is primordial, non-reflected, awareness, and is the basis for all intelligent life. With jnana there is no knower, so we could say, “Knowing knows neither birth nor death. Existence and non-existence are the same.”

Perhaps you remember that when you attended the workshop, I spent some time talking about the word ‘existence.’ I pointed out that the need to exist, the thrust, the insistence on existence, is the source of our suffering. To put it that way sounds strange, because everybody wants to exist. While this is true, it follows from that that everyone suffers. Existence is made of two words: ex which means outside of (ex: exit, exodus) and sistere, to stand. ‘To exist’ is to stand outside of ourselves, and the need to stand ‘outside of’ is the source of our suffering. This is a way to interpret the story of Adam and Eve.  God of the Israelites was the personification of the powerful urge of life.  Adam, when he disobeyed God, turned his back on the very source of life and so was caste out of the Garden of Eden, the original state of peace and contentment to which we so desperately strive to return.

We create our world by perceiving it.  When we create our world we then stand outside it, or separate ourselves from it.  We say, the world is over there; I am here. Moreover a moment’s observation will show that a sense of self lies at the center of the world that we create. We hear about a million people that are homeless in Burma for example, and we say how shocking it is. We hear about Katrina in New Orleans and although a few thousand people are affected, we feel somehow it is more serious, particularly for an American. Then we hear that Rivière des Prairies is likely to flood and we get very upset. In other words, as the catastrophe gets closer to home, so it becomes more catastrophic. And we see the same thing from the point of view of time. A death ten years ago does not have the same impact as a death yesterday.

The questioner, because Nisargsdatta has said, “The jnani knows neither birth nor death,” asks, “When your body dies, do you remain?” And Nisargadatta replies, “Nothing dies. The body is just imagined, there is no such thing.” The “nothing dies” follows from “the body is just imagined, there is no such thing”. Every day we chant the Prajnaparamita and we say, “No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind.” In other words, we are affirming the imaginary nature of the body.

Perhaps ‘imaginary’ is not the best word, while illusory would be better. Imaginary can mean arbitrary, and illusory does not usually have this meaning.  It means, rather, lacking in substance.

The body and the world are illusory because we are standing outside them, because we are separating ourselves from them. We therefore see ourselves from outside. We say my body, my mind, my thoughts, we even say, my self.  This indicates that at some level I am separate from all these. The ‘thingness,’ the ‘isness’––we might say, the essence of what we call ourselves––only appears to be solid and real.

When you are reading a book for example, where is the body? Or when you are really engaged in some creative activity, where is the body? Or when you are with someone that you love and you are just sitting there with them? But if I say ‘the body is illusory,’ you immediately snap to and say, “I cannot understand that; the body is very much there. It aches constantly.” You might say further that the body only appears to be absent because my attention is distracted from it when I am reading a book. But then what is this “attention” that it can make the body appear or disappear?  When we ask ourselves, “What am I?” we have to investigate all of this.

Even so, when you read “there is no self,” or “the body is illusory,” or something like that, do not take that as a piece of information that must now be included within your understanding: information that you have to integrate somehow in order to find a way to live with it.  We hear, “True self is no self” for example, and may think  “Well, Hakuin said it, the teacher said it, so therefore it must be so. How can I live with that?” People say in the dokusan room, “I know that I am not something.”  This is not true; all that they can in truth say is, “I have heard and read that I am not something.“

To say, “I know that I am not something,” or, “True self is no self,” is just substituting one illusory belief for another. Everything Hakuin or Buddha say must come as a challenge, not as a new belief. Possibly the most important trait in practice is honesty, honesty with oneself. Honesty means that we do not claim to know when we do not. It means that ultimately we must challenge all our credos, all our beliefs, all that we feel is absolutely certain.

For example, every day on a sesshin, you chant, “No eyes, ears, nose, body, mind.” Do you have a nose, do you have eyes, ears, a body? Are you going to be satisfied with just mindlessly chanting it, just using an empty set of phrases? Or are you going to ask yourself, what does that mean “No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind”?

Moreover, when we consider the Prajna Paramita, when we really dwell on it, we see that it is a chant of death. No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind; no color, sound, smell, taste, touch or what the mind takes hold on. Is this not talking about death? We say that if you are going to see truly into yourself or truly into Mu or truly into any of your koans, you must see truly into death.

The questioner asks, “Before another century will pass, you will be dead to all around you. Your body will be covered with flowers and then burned. That will be our experience.” In other words, we will see you cremated. “Now what’s going to be your experience?” Nisargadatta answers, “The world is your personal experience. How can it be affected?”

What sort of death are we talking about when we say that the Prajnaparamita is the sutra of death? Are we simply talking about the death of the body? Is that the death? Earlier he says, “nothing dies.” When we say that seeing into yourself is the same as seeing into death, it is seeing into this illusory sense of a self.

You say that you are afraid of death, yet if you consider it very carefully, you can only come to the conclusion that you are not afraid of death, but that you are afraid of the idea of death. Some people claim that they are not afraid of death.  What they mean is that they do not have a very strong idea of death. The idea of death is the idea of ‘nothing.’ When we consider death, and it brings up fear, we are considering the idea of nothing, negation, annihilation. This idea negates the thrust to exist, the need to stand out and be the one, special, and unique, and with that idea comes the fear of death. We can no longer affirm an absolute, omnipotent and omniscient self. Yet it is precisely our claim to be an absolute self that supports our idea of ourselves. We believe that death is the greatest mystery. But the mystery of death is the mystery of what it means ‘to be;’ to be beyond the idea of something and nothing. It is not the mystery of what it means to die. The great mystery is “I am” and “I am” is beyond the thrust to existence with its consequent fear of annihilation.

I have a favourite sentence that I often use in dokusan when I am talking about the need to struggle with the sense of self: the phrase of the nun who said, “I cannot pull up the weed, because if I pull up the weed, I pull up the flower.”  Another, similar phrase is, “The thief, my son.” That which is most precious is at the same time the thief of my life. The thrust to existence obscures and conceals “I am;” “I am” is beyond the thrust to exist, sustaining it and giving it vitality and life.  In a similar way the light of the cinema projector is obscured, concealed by our fascination with what happens on the screen. Yet that light of the projector gives vitality and life to the film. The apparent negation of what cannot be negated, is the mystery. The mystery of death is how can that, which cannot be negated, be negated by death?  And when we put it in those terms, we see the mystery crumbles. Because the negation is an idea; “I am” is the reality.

When, therefore, we are asking, “who am I?” inevitably, if we are serious about the question, it brings about a sense of dis-ease, even anguish, and sometimes fear, panic, or horror. We are questioning that which is most precious to us. For most of us, the illusory sense of self is the reality, and “I am” the illusion. To question the sense of self  invites “I am” to annihilate it.

So to return to Nisargadatta’s answer, in reply to the question, “After death what will be your experience,“ “The world is your personal experience, how can it be affected?” it is also true that the world is your creation. Let me remind you that when I speak of the world, I am not talking about stars, planets, suns and galaxies. The zendo here is our world at the moment; our immediate experience encompasses it and so we call it “the world.”

The world is not simply something that comes to you through your senses. As you go about your business during the day, you do get a certain amount of stimulation through the senses – your hear a car, or the voice of someone speaking to you, you see the trees and houses, you smell the flowers– there is this objective world if you like.  But a course of psychology 101 will show you that this sense stimulation forms a mere part of our perception. Perception of the world is the result of a remarkable creative process, involving our awareness, phenomena, senses and language, as well as our memories, education and training. Each of us has a worldview by which we bring all of this together in a meaningful way.This is what we call the world.

In elaboration of what he had said, Nisargadatta continues, saying, “You might have been delivering a lecture for two hours, where has it gone when it is over?” And this is a point that I have often made. Where is the breakfast that we ate this morning? We say, it is in the memory. But what does that mean actually: it is in the memory? People say, the memory is stored in the neurons. But is it? Undoubtedly some connection exists between neurons and memory, in the same way there is some connection between a violin and music.  But we cannot say that the music is stored in the violin. We see neurons from the outside; we know of them because we perceive them with our senses. But memories are not outside.

So where is breakfast? Let us leave aside anything that we have read or learned about this and go straight to the experience. Let us find a line that we have to cross in order to find where “external reality” may suddenly be transmuted into an “internal state.” Of course there is no line. It is all “memory.” Even the neurons that are supposed to store memory, are memory. Or, to use different words,  the breakfast, neurons and the whole world  are all subjective states, that is to say, states that are dependent on a subject perceiving them.  Perception and memory cannot be separated. We have many different phrases and words –– world, memory, perception, reality, outside, inside–– and believe that these refer to different things, faculties or abilities.  But they are ways by which we try to make sense of an ever changing, kaleidoscopic whole that has no parts, things, faculties or abilities.

Now you are dying, where is it all going? When you have a thought and that thought no longer exists, where has it gone? If you say it has gone nowhere, then you must say it was never anywhere. But you had the thought, there was a thought, and then the thought goes. Where? A koan asks, “when the light of the candle is blown out, where does the light go?”  When we ask people that, all we get from them is pffff…. That’s not it, that’s not it at all! Where does the light go? Where does the memory go? You remember something and then you let it go.  What happens, what is remembering, what is forgetting? If life and the world are one with your experience, where does that experience go when you die? That is the same question as where does a thought go.

In answer to his own question  “Where does the lecture go when it is over?” he says, “It has merged into silence in which the beginning, the middle and end of the lecture are all together.” I am a little concerned about the idea that the lecture “merges with silence.” That implies that before the merging, the lecture and silence were separated.

Even so what is this silence? Sometimes, at the beginning of a sesshin, I say that one must enter into the silence, the silence beyond the silence. I sometimes refer to silence as  ‘ringing stillness,’ so what is ringing stillness into which our memories, our thoughts, our experiences return? Just as Nisargadatta says, “The beginning, middle and end of the lecture are all together in silence,” so we can say, “the beginning, middle and end of life––our memories thoughts and experiences–– are together in death.”

Just as an aside, some Christians have a belief in the resurrection of the body. I cannot help asking myself, which of my bodies is going to resurrect? Is it going to be that healthy young body that used to run about on a soccer field all day, that walked, swam and danced, or is it going to be this decrepit old thing I can scarcely drag around anymore? We can only hope can’t we?

The beginning, middle and end are one; it is the end of time. He says, “Time has come to a stop. It was, but it is no more.” He goes on to say, “The silence after a life of talking and the silence after a life of silence is the same silence.”

Have you ever listened to silence?  Just listened to it without any thought of how peaceful it is, or how restful, indeed without any judgement or comment at all. Furthermore, when we hear a sound, does silence no longer exist? Is there silence at one moment, then the next moment there is no longer sound but silence? Or is the sound the sound of silence? Is sound the body of silence? And if we could use “sound: life” and “silence: death” as analogies – when we are alive does death no longer exist? Is there life one moment and death the next. Or is life the body of death. Most of us think that because we die, there is no longer life and because we live there is not yet death. If life is the body of death, what we call death is no longer a dark empty hole but is a brilliant, scintillating light of love.

The problem is that we can only experience the death of others.  The death of others is a loss, darkness.  Death is a negation.  And so we think that our own death must likewise be loss, negative and darkness. “Do not go gentle into that good night./Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” as the poet, Dylan Thomas would say.

Nisargadatta goes on to say, “Immortality is freedom from the feeling ‘I am.’” Many people think that their feelings are the truth. We feel peace, or we feel silence even, and the feeling is so intimate that we are under the impression that with feelings, particularly the feeing “I am,” we are somehow in touch with the truth. Moreover, people confuse the feeling “I am” with the truth “I am.” The truth “I am” is beyond all feelings. Again, from the Prajnaparamita: “no eyes, ears, tongue, body, mind…. “it is beyond all of that. The “I am” is beyond feeling, thought, choice; it is beyond consciousness itself. Because, when we say that the Prajnaparamita is the chant of death, the Prajnaparamita is also the chant “I am.”

“Immortality is freedom from the feeling “I am.” It is freedom from existence. Existence pins us. It is like we are fixed to a static center. We are like a donkey tied to a pole of a static center around which we turn and turn. The pole is that sense of self, the sense or feeling “I am”, the feeling of being something: a person, a mind, a soul or something. When the pole is cut down, is just nothing left? It is like a house: the house is destroyed, what is left? Koan number 8 of the Mumonkan tells us, “Zen master Gettan said to a monk, “Keichu made a hundred carts. If we took off the wheels and removed the axle, what would be left? Most reply, “There would be nothing left.” However, only because we stand outside the situation is there nothing left: we first have something, then we have nothing. But what is beyond something and nothing? Is this not another way of asking, “What is beyond life and death?”

Nisargadatta tells us, “Immortality is freedom from the feeling ‘I am,’ yet it is not extinction. On the contrary, it is a state infinitely more real, aware and happy than you can possibly think of. Only self-consciousness is no more.” Only existence is no more. Because existence and self consciousness are inseparable

The questioner then asks, “Why does the great death of the mind coincide with the small death of the body?” He says, “It does not. You may die a hundred deaths without a break in the mental turmoil or you may keep your body and die only in the mind. The death of the mind is the birth of wisdom.” As Hakuin’s says, “If you die before you die, you do not die when you die.” Nisargadatta is saying  that there is this great death, and that the great death is at the same time the great resurrection. In fact, in Zen, the resurrection comes before the great death and makes it possible.

The questioner says, “The person goes and only the presence remains?” and Nisargadatta says, “Who remains to say there is presence?” Some believe that after death there is going to be just a presence; some even have the fear that they will be present to utter loneliness. Yet, when there is no sense of self, who or what is present?

Nisargadatta adds, “In the timeless state, there is no self to take refuge in.” It frightens us when we hear that. It is so vast, so awful. One has to bring to mind the parable of the young man who wandered from his father’s estate. It comes from the Lotus Sutra. His father was very rich, a very powerful lord, and this boy wanders away and gets lost. Eventually he has to live on the food of the pigs and animals and lives a miserable existence for a long time. But then, in his wandering, by accident he stumbles on to the land of his father. His father sees him and recognizes him immediately. But rather than run out and say you are my son, welcome home, he realizes that this will be too much for the boy, that he will become terrified. And so therefore he gives him the most menial of tasks, and then gradually promotes him through until he can say finally, you are my son. This is how it is with us. The truth is too sparkling, too awful, too brilliant, it is like looking into the sun, it blinds us and so fills us with fear. We can get a glimpse of the brilliance in flashes. Every now and again we may see it, we are open to it and for many of us it is just like being caught in a raging storm.

He says, “In the timeless state there is no self to take refuge in.” He says, “The man who carries a parcel is anxious not to lose it. He is parcel-conscious. And the man who cherishes the sense of self,  is self-conscious.” When you are working on a preliminary koan, Mu or Who, I say you must get lost in the questioning, you must become one with the question; the ‘person’ is no longer there. Mu asks the question. And it is the fear of losing that sense of self in the process of seeing into MU that is the barrier through which so many are unable to pass. That is why it takes so long for us to come to awakening, true awakening. Because we are struggling all the time at one level or another to maintain contact with a sense of existence, with a sense of being something, a reality, essence, a core of substance of some kind. The Christians say, “The fear of the lord is the beginning of understanding”. When Moses met God he was afraid. And this sort of terror in the face of the truth is well documented in many different traditions.

He says, “The jnani holds on to nothing and cannot be said to be conscious.” Consciousness is a mixture of language, concepts, ideas, sense perceptions, and memories; all of this is centered on the thrust to be. Whether consciousness can melt  away completely, whether it is possible to live without any sense of self, I do not know. It seems certainly reasonable and, from the way he speaks, it seems that Nisargadatta has attained that state. But it might take us many lifetimes. We should not pretend to something that we have not reached, because that pretence itself will be destructive of any future progress in our spiritual life.

He says, “The jnani holds on to nothing (and so it says in the Prajna Paramita: the Bodhisattva holding to nothing whatever) and cannot be said to be conscious. And yet he is not unconscious. He is the very heart of awareness.” We can enter into a very profound samadhi and in that state there is no sense of self, no consciousness, there is nothing to hold on to. The whole body is the body of peace, is the body of openness, and it is a condition of pure happiness, pure joy.

“We call him [the jnani] clothed in space (the very heart of awareness) the naked one beyond all appearances. There is no name and shape under which he may be said to exist, yet he is the only one that truly is.” He does not appear. When we exist we appear. When we exist we appear to be a man or a woman or a person, we appear.  We have no form, yet we appear.

The questioner complains, “I cannot grasp it.” Nisargadatta asks, “Who can? The mind has its limits.” When we practice, we are not trying to grasp the truth, we are not trying to get it, we are not trying to bring it down into a state that is accessible to the understanding. We need the courage to release the grasping, which after all is a form of  control. Generally speaking, our need to understand is the need to control. Our science is no longer a science seeking the truth; our scientists are seeking for certainty. They are all looking to control, to find some technical application, something that will enable us to control situations to a greater degree.

“Who can? The mind has its limits. It is enough to bring it to the very frontiers of knowledge and make you face the immensity of the unknown.” This is, as I said in the last posting, the function of our intelligence. It is to bring us to the frontiers of the immense unknowable, not the unknown. The unknown may one day be known. But one gets to the frontiers of the unknowable, that which can never be known.

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2 Responses to Death, where is thy sting?

  1. Jacqueline V. says:

    “The jnani holds on to nothing and cannot be said to be conscious.” This must mean not in the conventional sense of a me being conscious of the world around me, but surely means conscious in the sense of aware and attuned, as you would say: knowing rather than knowing something. Is the meaning of ‘conscious’ distinct from ‘knowing’ in this context?

  2. Albert Low says:

    Yes, what we know as consciousness is a complex involving awareness, perception, memory. and language. The ‘consciousness’ of a jnani is awareness only, the jnani having gone beyond consciousness, as in gate, gate, paraagate, parasamgate, Bodhi,(or knowing) svaha.

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