When you are free from birth and death, you know where to go. When your four elements scatter, where do you go?”
~ Gateless Barrier, Case 47
Today is All Souls Day, a day in our western culture when we might light candles in remembrance for the departed. It got me thinking about how Zen Buddhism addresses those who have passed and where they have gone. I found that Zen spends plenty of time on the here and now but not so much on the hereafter. For example, there is Tao Wu’s Condolence Call (The student knocks on the casket: “Alive or dead?” The teacher replies, “I can’t say.”). And also the National Teacher’s Seamless Tomb (The Emperor asks, “After you die, what will you need?” “Build me a seamless tomb,” replies the teacher). When given a chance, the sages of Zen invariably seem to double down on the on the present life rather than speculate on some afterlife.
That was not my first impulse as a young person. I have always been fascinated with stories of “life after life”, tales of patients who had been considered clinically dead, but who came back to life. Raymond Moody, M.D., was famous for chronicling stories of patients declared dead, who saw themselves floating outside their bodies, and passed through a tunnel to be met by a being of light. In these cases, the being sent them back to finish some calling on earth.
I believe those stories; my mother had a similar experience. One night, a decade ago, she tumbled down the wooden stairs in my house and lay broken and bloodied at the base. She was rushed to the trauma wing of Stanford University Hospital, and while in the ER, she later recounted, she met a beautiful bright light. Somehow, there were some white bunnies visiting her and they advised her not to look at the light. So she turned away, and came back to us.
Since olden times, Zen teachers have taught us to dwell on this life, rather than some other life after life. After all, this very moment ~ which extends far beyond any spectral or heavenly world ~ is the only one we will ever have, no matter what realm we inhabit. So, when my four elements scatter, where will I go? Running after white bunnies sounds like a pretty fun thing to do.