Of all mindfulness meditations,
That on death is supreme.
—Buddha, The Parinirvana Sutra
Death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling?
In end, we all come to death. Or else death finally comes to us. It happens to everyone and everything. Sentient beings aren’t the only ones who die. If we look at history we find that knowledge and truth die every few centuries. Cultures, art forms, fashions, political institutions, civilizations, religions, gods and goddesses; even planets and world systems die. Some of these may have a slightly longer lifespan than we do, but eventually they cease to exist. If you bemoan your brief stay on earth, consider the mayfly which lives only for one day. If the weather were bad that day your whole life could be rained out.
How do I know that loving life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death I am not like a man who, having left home in his youth, has forgotten the way back?
Each one of us and each one of our offspring, generation after generation, will disappear from the earth. In a few billion years the sun will explode, and with that fiery event the earth will surely be destroyed. The pyramids and the Eiffel Tower and the World Trade Center will all be gone, and all copies of the Bible will have burned up. “Okay,” you think, “maybe we will have made it off this planet by then, into another, more stable solar system.” Even so, we still have to remember that, according to current astronomical understanding, the entire universe is now in the process of either expanding into nothingness, or is slowing down its expansion and will eventually collapse back into one single particle. Whichever occurs, not even Shakespeare will survive.
I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
What do we fear when we fear death? The loss of our “self?” According to Crazy wisdom there is no self to worry about, and all we have to lose is our illusions. Death is not “death,” but simply a way of ending this painful feeling of separation, a way of dissolving back into the flow, a homecoming. Crazy wisdom says, “We have nothing to fear from death but nothing—and nothing is nothing to fear at all.”
Death is just infinity closing in.
—Jorge Louis Borges
Perhaps the most tragic thing about death is that we fear it so much. Recent research finds that people who are medically resuscitated, literally brought back from the experience of death, aren’t too happy to return. They apparently enjoyed being dead. They say it’s very peaceful.
The happiness of the drop is to die in the river.
—Ghazal of Ghalib
Death is Crazy wisdom’s best friend and most important teacher. When we get to know our own death and ask it to move in and live with us, all things assume their proper perspective.
Why fear grief
when Death walks so close beside?
Don’t fear the General
if you are good friends with the Prince.
Crazy wisdom tries to explain it this way: If life is a joke, then death is the punch line. If life is a tragedy, then death means the show is over and we can leave and go home. If we have many lives, as some believe, then we must also have many deaths— so we might as well practice dying and get good at it. Also, the sages say that only by learning how to die do we finally learn how to live. What a deal! Two lessons in one!
But wait. As usual, there’s a catch. Those same sages will also tell you that once you have learned how to die, and hence how to live, you are finally allowed to get off of the rebirth wheel, the cycle of life and death. In other words, just when you get it right the game is over! Oh well, that’s life.
The thing to do when you’re impatient,” he proceeded, “is to turn to your left and ask advice from your death. An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if your death makes a gesture to you, or if you catch a glimpse of it, or if you just have the feeling that your companion is there watching you.
—Don Juan, Journey to Ixtlan
Don Juan tells Carlos Castaneda to keep death over his left shoulder. To do this, it is useful to have an image to represent death. Some people visualize the grim reaper (usually with a smiling skull). Crazy wisdom likes to picture nuclear bombs, the sleek modern symbols of death, or what the generals call “megadeath.” For your death and dying practice, the Pentagon has conveniently listed their nuclear weapons according to size, and then given each one a cute little name, which offers a human, personal touch. There are bombs called “Juliette” and “Hotel.” Crazy wisdom’s favorite is a relatively small bomb with the explosive equivalent of fifty thousand tons of TNT. The bomb’s name is “Golf.” Whenever you get lost in pettiness and need to pause for perspective, just visualize the Golf bomb over your left shoulder. “Hello Golf,” says crazy wisdom. “Fore!” That usually clears the mind of confusion and allows one to play on through.
The birth of a man is the birth of his sorrow. The longer he lives, the more stupid he becomes, because his anxiety to avoid unavoidable death becomes more and more acute. What bitterness!
He lives for what is always out of reach! His thirst for survival in the future makes him incapable of living in the present.
Everything that takes form is subject to inevitable transformation. That is the law of nature. And so each of us goes to womb to world to tomb to worms, just as our species travels from waves to caves to graves, and some would say, back to start again. Every ending is also a beginning and death must lead someplace, perhaps back to life. And of course, we know that without death for a comparison there would be no such thing as life.
The meaning of life is that it stops.
Crazy wisdom wonders why this big moment of transformation has such a disreputable image, the very thought of it evoking fear and loss. Perhaps the very word death has become too laden with negative connotations. Death. It sounds so sudden and final. Perhaps we should give it another name. Even though we know what happens to our flesh when we die, it probably wouldn’t help to change death’s name to “rot.” (“Oh, he’s rotted.”) It would be better to refer to the transition of the spirit, the aura, the essence which in the modern age, we call somebody’s “energy.” We are looking for a lighter metaphor—a “light” metaphor. Imagine that when we cease to exist, our light fades into the big shadow. Or perhaps you may see it as our shadow fading into the big light, depending on whether your view of life is dim or bright. Now, instead of calling it death, we can call it the dissolve. It’s still the big “D” but a dissolve only implies that we have lost our outlines. We have dissolved into that place where there is only darkness, or into the eternal pure white light. “We will all dissolve someday.” “She is sick and dissolving.” And after all, from what we see and even from the memory of others, that is how we leave. We just fade away, and the show goes on without us.
All conditioned things are impermanent. Work out your own salvation with diligence.
—Last words of the Buddha
In Japan there is a crazy-wisdom tradition among poets, artists and Zen monks of writing a “death poem” as one approaches the final moments. It is cheating to write your death poem until you are quite sure you are about to die, since the poem is to be a final test of your true attitude toward death, a testament to your level of spiritual attainment. On their deathbeds, the great ones will be fearless, in full control of their artistic powers, and ready with the wry perceptions of crazy wisdom.
This must be
my birthday there
My old body:
a drop of dew grown
heavy at the leaf tip.
Though I should live
To be a hundred,
The same world, the same
The moon is round,
The snow is white.
Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
the cask will leak.
A few days before his death, Zen teacher Kozan Ichikyo called his pupils together and ordered them to bury him without ceremony, and forbade them to hold services in his memory. He wrote this poem on the morning of his death, laid down his brush, and died sitting upright.
Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going—
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
It is customary and auspicious for Zen monks to die while sitting up, in meditation. Chinese Zen master Chih-hsien asked his disciples, “Who dies sitting?” They answered, “A monk.” Then he asked, “Who dies standing?” His disciples answered, “Enlightened monks.” Chih-hsien then took seven steps and died standing up.
Be a dead man,
Be thoroughly dead—
And behave as you like,
And all’s well.
—Zen Master Bunan
In Oriental Humor, R. H. Blyth tells of an even more impressive exit: Zen monk Teng Yinfeng asked his followers if anyone had ever died upside down. When they told him it had never been seen or heard of, Teng stood on his head and died.