As a prelude to Frank Ostaseski’s Zen Luminaries visit next week, let’s explore this koan about life after life:
When you’re free from birth and death, you know where to go. When your four elements separate, where do you go?
—Gateless Gate, Case 47
Fundamentally, death is perhaps the greatest unknown. And our relationship to that unknown is worthy of our attention.
—Frank Ostaseski, The Five Invitations
In recent weeks, I’ve been engrossed in the many stories of loss and grief in Frank Ostaseski’s book, The Five Invitations.Frank, co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project, sat by the bed of thousands of dying people and their caregivers. Rather than talking about after what happens after death, he mostly talks about life and love.
He writes, “As people come closer to death, I have found that only two questions really matter to them: ‘Am I loved?’ and ‘Did I love well?’” Reading his book made me ask those questions of myself, stirring up memories of various experiences with death in my life.
When we die, where do we go?
Father McLaughlin, our pastor at St. Mary’s parish, seemed to know. Famous for his fire and brimstone, in a heavy brogue he frightened us kids and chided the adults about heaven and hell every Sunday at Mass. Most of the Buddhists—Theravada, Mahayana, and particularly the Vajrayana—are among the world’s greatest mapmakers of life after this life.
But Zen folk do not spend a lot of time on the subject of rising to heaven or falling into hell. Of the hundreds of hours of teisho I have heard over the years, I can recall only one, given by Koun Yamada, briefly mentioning that subject. Why is that?
Hakuin Ekaku’s Song in Praise of Meditation says,
This very place is the Lotus Land (Heaven),
This very body the Buddha.
It was Yamada who often said, “We have never been born, so we never die.” In Zen, there is no time apart from this time, no place apart from this place.
The son of a friend who was running a podcast on death called me up for an interview about what it was like to die, from a Zen point of view. Trying to get some measure of his podcast, I listened to several of his guests, who were from various spiritual backgrounds. One guest, a follower of Indian Vedic teachings, used a metaphor of waves: At the time of death, our own small wave returns to the great ocean of large waves. From a Zen standpoint, the small wave never left the large wave. They never were, and never will be separate. Where do you go when you die?
This weekend, Pacific Zen held a leadership retreat and the subject of death entered the room. The next day, the program included a Slavic folk tale of the maiden Vasilisa and arch-witch Baba Yaga. Each participant found and embodied the part of the story that spoke most to them.
What left the greatest impression on me in this fairytale-koan was the point, early in the story, when the mother had just died and Vasilisa went to bed and cried over her loss. I recalled being about five years old, perhaps Vasilisa’s age, when I realized for the first time that my parents would die. That night I cried myself to sleep.
Fifty years later, it was in my own house that my mother would stumble and fall down our stairs, which in six months would contribute to her demise. I still feel pain and sorrow, and to some degree, guilt over her death.
The ambulance took her to Stanford Hospital she lay unconscious in the Emergency Room. Later, my mother told me, that at the time, she was seeing a long, broad path, with a bright and beautiful light at the end. There were a bunch of white bunnies sitting by the side of the path, urging her to turn away from the light. She took their advice, turned around and came back to us. A few months later, she fell again, and rapidly declined. Thank you, bunnies, for those last six months of her life.
Four and fifty years
I’ve hung the sky with stars.
Now I leap through—
—Eihei Dogen’s Death Poem