Natural Life Magazine

Zen and Non-Zen Ways to Face Death

Fearing the Future or Experiencing Today
Non-Zen and Zen Ways to Face Death

By Gene Sager

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 itself.

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.


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