Contemplating the end of our life
presents an opportunity to consider our current existence. In this article,
I’ll examine two contrasting ways to do that: Zen and non-Zen. But
first, what is the non-Zen perspective?
Today, the most popular non-Zen way to
face death is by making a “bucket list.” This bucket list idea seems to be a
kind of corrective to the general death-denying current in our society
today. It is an up-front statement which says, “I am going to die, and I
want to do or experience certain things before my death.”
A bucket list can simply be a reason
given for doing something interesting and fun. Or it can be more serious,
indicating a need to feel one’s life has been fulfilling or a “full life.” A
serious bucket list, then, is made to ensure that we have the experiences
and do the things which, if left undone, would mean we die unfulfilled.
Items on these bucket lists range from
skydiving to a visit to a grandmother. Of course, the plan is vulnerable to
unforeseen problems such as a crippling attack of sciatica or grandmother’s
sudden passing. A more telling problem is that the bucketeer can discover
that they want more than what is on the list. If your list includes the
rainforests of Costa Rica, then you would think you have to see Guatemala’s
Tikal (which has even more amazing rainforests and ancient pyramids as
well). When is the list complete?
A deeper problem still is that the
serious bucketeer is focused on a set of very special or peak experiences.
These experiences have special power – even the power to give our lives
meaning and make us feel it has all been worthwhile. There is a romantic or
sentimental dimension to this notion: dependence on special events with
symbolic meanings that lift us above the humdrum of ordinary life. But we
may very well ask why fulfillment cannot be achieved by full attention to
and appreciation of the ordinary, daily experiences. A Zen monk once said,
“Chopping wood and carrying water, I attained enlightenment.” We have to
return to this idea of fulfillment or a full life.
In all of this, the serious bucket list
mentality sees death as the enemy. Death is a threat: It causes us to fear
being unfulfilled and it causes us to scurry about completing the special
events list. For the bucketeer, everyday life experience is in this way
eroded by fear and stress. Surely there is a better way to face death.
The bucket list approach looks to the
future and seeks to complete life before one dies. But another, different,
and equally human response to the vicissitudes of life and the threat of
death is to grasp and hold on to what we already have. We cling to all sorts
of things – to people we love, to our career, to our wealth, and to life
The telltale sign of such clinging or
attachment is the suffering caused by the fear of loss. The stronger the
attachment, the stronger one’s grasp and the fear of loss. Attachment sees
death as the enemy. The fear of loss causes suffering and stress, and stress
undermines our health. Ironically, the more we cling to things in life, the
more we hasten our death. Clinging to life is a leading cause of death!
The Zen Perspective
We turn now from the non-Zen approach
to a Zen perspective. Zennists find the bucket list mentality and attachment
to be stress-ridden and self-defeating. In Zen, we learn to experience the
peaks, the plains, and the valleys with equal appreciation. Zen is known for
a focus on ordinary, everyday activities, but it does not shun love and
intense pursuit of goals, provided the love is non-attached. The core of the
Zen path is unfrazzled attention to whatever the situation requires.
Learning to walk this path is no simple
undertaking. Zen is called the “warrior’s way” – the way of the spiritual
warrior. The methods are basically twofold: (1) consistent practice of zazen
(seated meditation), and (2) the guidance of a roshi (Zen master). Both
methods help us learn to deal with the trickster of the human mind.
The key to the Zen perspective on death
is this: “What makes my death good makes my life good also, and what makes
my life good makes my death good also.” Life and death are intimately
related. We see the interplay of life and death in Nature, and even
death-denying cultures cannot obscure how pervasive death is. The experience
of life depends on the experience of death, and death is known just because
we experience life. Just as we cannot perceive light as such without the
experience of dark, so life as we know it would not exist for us without
death. Life and death make each other what they are. In the Zen perspective,
it is self-defeating to see death as the enemy of life. The mind and culture
may tell us that death is the enemy of life, but this is a delusion.
Bucketeering and attachment fail to recognize the natural symbiosis of life
and death, and so they turn out to be detrimental to the enjoyment of life.
Most religions involve teachings about
the afterlife. Standard Buddhist doctrine includes belief in reincarnation,
but Zen makes no claims about the next life – neither reincarnation nor
heaven nor hell. A famous exchange between a Zen master and his student
illustrates the Zen approach: The student asks, “What will my life be after
I die?” The master replied, “Do you know who you are right now?”
This here-and-now focus of Zen does not
mean Zennists are critical of other religions. In China, Japan, and the USA,
Zen has been practiced in syncretism with Taoism, Shinto, and Christianity.
You can sit in Zen meditation first thing in the morning and then partake of the Catholic
eucharist at midday. Knowing yourself deeply here and now does not conflict
with any worldview or with any belief about the afterlife.
The Zennist’s notion of a “full life”
calls for no clambering about to complete lists of peak experiences. Neither
does it make us hold tightly to things most dear. Once the mind is cleared
of clutter from bucket lists and attachments, then even the “mundane”
moments are rich and full. My master often reminded me of the sanctity of
everyday experience. He said we can live the ordinary life in an
extraordinary way. When we experience life thus fully, then nothing is
lacking. There is no hankering after more experiences, yet there is no
eventuality with which we cannot cope.
As a part of my Zen training, my master
would challenge me with pointed questions. As we were walking through the
cemetery behind the temple, he suddenly stopped and asked, “In this very
moment, what is lacking?” The correct response to this challenge is “Nothing
is lacking,” said from the hara (gut) with absolute honesty. In this
fullness, agreeable and disagreeable experiences are accepted. All the
so-called “opposites” like light and dark, life and death, and joy and
sorrow are a single web: the original world wide web.
To a Zennist, the grim reaper is not a
threat because life and death are natural complements.
Gene Sager is Professor of
Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California. He is a
prolific and thoughtful writer on environmental and philosophical issues,
and a frequent contributor to Natural Life. He practiced Zen under a master
in Japan for four years.