teisho 1303 (2013)
The basic question in our practice, and really in our lives, is “What is death?” This question is the same as “What am I?” People talk about the mystery of death, but life is no less a mystery. If we are going to plumb the depths of this mystery, the only possible way we can do so is by putting aside all that we have taken for granted, all that everyone knows to be the case; everything that common sense tells us. In other words, we put away all our defenses.
We need courage, to face the death of others no less than the death of ourselves. The question: “What is my face before my parents were born?” requires that we face the issue that not only will I die, but all my family, my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, my friends, all will die. The earth itself – everything has an age, nothing is permanent. Even though we love them, beautiful flowers fall. Impermanence. Can you let that sink in? Nothing abides. Do you see that this is the great liberation, the great freedom? Imagine an existence in which there is no death. We need to see impermanence and death in another light. When someone we love dies, we learn nothing about death. When millions of people die, as in a war or pandemic, we learn nothing about death. The only way we can know about death is by dying.
When someone close to us dies, we think that that darkness, that absence, that loss, that negation, is death. Because the loss is so unacceptable, death itself must be unacceptable. We mourn for the dead, but the dead do not need our mourning. It might be that death is not ultimate darkness, but ultimate light. Nisargadatta said “There is something beyond living beings, much more wonderful. It is neither being nor non being, neither living nor not living, it is a state of pure awareness, beyond the limitations of space and time. Once the idea that the body mind is oneself is abandoned, death loses its terror, it becomes part of living.”
So what does it mean: neither being nor non being? Or we could ask, what does it mean, neither is nor is not? What is beyond me and you? What is beyond you and others? What is beyond life and death? You can’t think about it, one has to go beyond the dualistic view. This is our practice. We need to make our whole life our practice. The insecurity and uncertainty of life was what drove Buddha on his pilgrimage. The very things that we fear are the way to freedom. Without insecurity and uncertainty, we would not open ourselves to the question which ultimately will lead us into the light.