Zen Meditation With The Grim Reaper

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Have you ever thought about consciously seeking a meeting with the Grim Reaper? The classic texts of Buddhism claim that it is the first step to authentic liberation.

Most of us would rather avoid thinking about. However, thoughts about the inevitability of death can creep up on us, worm their way into our brains, so to speak. Our notions of death (or  ‘after death’) have a tendency to arouse fear. Such concepts often consist of vague notions of annihilation, of utterly ceasing to exist. Thoughts of annihilation can certainly dull hopes and undermine our ambitions.

Nevertheless, taking an honest look at the Grim Reaper has proven to be a most effective method for getting us on the right track to true freedom.

Zen Master Hakuin credited his awareness of death’s certainty with setting him on the path to enlightenment. Pondering the torments of hell as a child filled him with dread and aroused a determined search for liberation. Zen Master Dogen’s quest too, was inspired by a deep awareness of death while still in childhood. Watching the rising smoke of incense at his mother’s funeral when he was only eight years old, he resolved to enter monastic life. As a teacher, Dogen often asserted that the knowledge of impermanence was the beginning of practice.

With a few notable exceptions, contemporary teachers have little to say about the hooded, scythe-carrying monk. It seems that motivating students by arousing the ever-grinning face of death is out of vogue. Perhaps it is because of the reaper’s potential of scaring off donors. Some teachers, like funeral home owners, are sensitive to people’s desire for avoiding certain topics.

While financial concerns may be a factor, there is more to it than that. Evidence suggests that some of our teachers have not resolved the issue for themselves. For example, a “Zen book” by one popular teacher presents a story about a Zen master that was asked about the after death state. The “master” responded with, “Why ask me?” The questioner said, “Because you are a Zen master.” The master said, “Yes, but I am not a dead Zen master.”

Evidently, this is supposed to be a teaching on being in the moment. It is related as if the master is pointing out that questions about after death can only be resolved after death. Initially, this sounds like standard Zen wisdom. Looking a bit deeper however, that is unlikely. Of course any Zen master worth his salt will insist that we must each personally resolve this question–but they would also insist that it be resolved while we are alive.

We would not seriously ask a Zen master what happens after death unless we were is suffering from anxiety about the Grim Reaper. Implying that “live” Zen masters don’t know, could easily be misunderstood as suggesting that the question can’t be resolved, which would be a subversion of Zen teaching. Saying, “I cannot resolve it for you” is much different than saying, “I cannot resolve it because I am alive.”

One of the great Zen koans that illumines this issue is “Zengen’s Living or Dead.” The case goes:

Once, at a funeral, a monk named Zengen tapped on the coffin and asked his teacher, Dogo, “Living or dead?” Dogo said, “Living, I won’t say. Dead, I won’t say.” Zengen said, “Why won’t you say?” Dogo said, “I won’t say, I won’t say.”

Later, as the two were walking home, Zengen said, “Living or dead? If you will not tell me, I will hit you.” Dogo said, “You can hit me, but still I won’t say.” Zengen hit him.

Later, after Dogo died, Zengen related this incident to Sekiso, another teacher. Sekiso said, “Living, I won’t say. Dead, I won’t say.” Again Zengen asked, “Why won’t you say?” Sekiso said, “I won’t say, I won’t say.”

At these words, Zengen finally saw through the Grim Reaper’s costume.

Later, Zengen came into the teaching hall carrying a hoe. He walked back and forth as if looking for something. Sekiso asked, “What are you doing?” Zengen said, “Looking for our late teachers relics (bits of bone, etc. found after cremation).” Sekiso said, “Vast and limitless, the myriad thundering waves fill the sky. What relic do you seek?” Zengen said, “That is just where to apply effort.”

No doubt this koan does offer some intellectual satisfaction on the question of death. Yet, that is not its function. The classic Buddhist doctrine of “no-self” (hence no-death) is intellectually and philosophically presented in much clearer terms elsewhere in Buddhist literature. Zen koans are not concerned with philosophical concepts. Obviously Zengen would have been deeply familiar with the Buddhist doctrines on no-self. He was a Buddhist monk after all.

Koans offer practitioners a ‘gap’ through conceptual understanding to the reality beyond. It may be better to say that koans bridge the gap between theory and the truth that is beyond mere conceptualization. (This particular koan even offers something of a “self-reference” giving us a clue about “just where to apply effort” (in our meditation).

Neither Dogo or Sekiso say, “I can’t say” or “I don’t know.” They both say, “I won’t say.” Even if Dogo or Sekiso gave him the “answer,” it would not allow him (or us) to see that the Grim Reaper’s scythe is made of papier-mâché. (This is one reason why books with koan “answers” don’t offer any real insight to students or pose a threat by “giving away” anything.)

Before resolving the issue, Zengen was so desperate for the “answer” that he was willing to apply physical violence to his teacher. Then, upon his personal resolution he was so confident that he had the audacity to enter the meditation hall with a hoe and respond to any challenge.

What happened? What was the agent of such a powerful transformation? One thing is sure, it was not simply learning some new bit of knowledge.

We, like Zengen, can easily grasp the Buddhist doctrines on the question. According to Buddhism, we have always been free from birth and death; our true nature is the source from which all things arise, abide, and return-including the Grim Reaper himself. Yet, as the Zen proverb goes, “Knowing about water does not slake our thirst, saying the word ‘fire’ does not burn our mouth.” Buddhist teachings on emptiness, dependent origination, Buddha nature, and so on, are necessary guidelines for practice, but are of little use in and of themselves.

However, understanding that and realizing it directly are two vastly different things. When authentic Zen masters are asked about the fear and loss associated with death, they point us to the only thing that can truly resolve any kind of anguish, awakening to our true nature.

Buddhism has always acknowledged that true liberation can only come through personal awakening. Authentic freedom, say the Zen masters, can only be realized through direct, personal experience. Treading the path of genuine practice and enlightenment can only be sustained by authentic aspiration.

Meditation on death is one of the most powerful methods of arousing authentic aspiration.

Meditating on the inevitability of death is not only has the potential to inspire genuine aspiration for enlightenment, it gives us a more realistic perspective on life, and can even provide a kind of yardstick to measure our spiritual progress.

Here is a standard technique for meditating on death (think of it as a kind of template to experiment with and personalize). We begin by settling into whatever our primary method of meditation is. Once settled, we do our best to sustain judgements while we visualize ourselves lying alone and nearing death. Breathing normally, we see the light go out of our eyes. Resting here for awhile, we calmly observe our lifeless body.

Next, we gradually visualize our body begin to decompose. We see its color fade to gray, then black and yellow splotches slowly spread over it. We see the skin begin swell and sag. We visualize the various fluids, watery or thick, black, green, and yellow leak from our own dead body and pooling around it or seep into the ground. We watch as the insects and worms begin to explore, nest, and hatch in our body. We allow ourselves to be aware of the stench of decay arising from our decomposing body.

If we become aware of agitation, we should rest here for awhile and become aware of the thoughts and feelings that are arising within us.

When our observation becomes calm and objective, we visualize our skeleton slowly emerging from the softer tissue of our body. As the image of our own skeleton arises in the mind’s eye, we allow ourselves to become mindful our skeleton at this very moment. Our skeleton is at this very moment, imagining its own inevitable future.

Now we watch as even our skeleton begins to fall apart. We see our skeleton gradually transformed into a pile, and then a scattering of bones. We continue to watch as the bones themselves become brittle and break into smaller pieces. Continuing to visualize this inevitable process, we keep going until we see even our teeth turn to dust.

After we become comfortable looking deeply at our own death, we can follow a similar process for meditating on the death of our loved ones. When we clearly see that everyone we love is going to die, our thoughts, words, and deeds change. Our thoughts and feelings about our loved ones become kinder and less judgmental. Our time together becomes more precious, and our gratitude for them increases.

We can also apply this meditation technique to those in our lives that we harbor resentment, or ill will toward. By becoming mindful of their deaths, we notice that they too will lose everyone they love. We become aware of the people that love them, that will miss them and suffer because of their deaths. Gradually, the anger, or vindictiveness we feel for the injuries or injustices they have caused dissipates. Often, this practice quickly fosters a sense of forgiveness toward them.

As already mentioned, applying this technique can also provide us with a kind of gauge for measuring our progress on the path. Observing how the thoughts and emotions aroused by this method are gradually transformed over a period of time, we can evaluate the gap between our knowledge and our realization. The quantity and quality of anxiety or doubt that arises during this process is directly proportionate to the gap between our understanding and our realization.

Cultivating a deep awareness of the certainty of our death grants us a realistic appreciation for the preciousness of a human life. Truly realizing the we will die alone, that nobody can walk through that gate for us, can inspire us to earnestly, and personally resolve the great matter of life and death.

Being mindful of the ceaseless approach of our own death puts things into proper perspective. Some of the things that seem valuable or important will dramatically lose their significance in the reflection from Death’s scythe. Things that previously seemed trifling, even worthless, take on a whole new light. The burning desire for that new car or bigger house may suddenly fade out. True joy and wonder for the “little things” may surge up. The tree-fort we build with our child, the cup of coffee we share with our spouse, or the sudden realization that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West may suddenly seem causes for celebration.

Both Dogo and Sekiso said, “Living, I won’t say. Dead, I won’t say.” When asked by Zengen why, both said, “I won’t say, I won’t say.”

It might seem that Zengen did not “get it” when Dogo said it, and did “get it” when Sekiso said it; however, that misses the point. The words of Dogo and Sekiso are not different, what else about these two teachers is not different?

After Zengen resolved the issue for himself, what did he mean saying he was looking for his late teacher’s relics? And why did Sekiso suggest that those relics filled the earth and sky?

I won’t say, I won’t say.

Why won’t you say?

Becoming intimate with our own true nature begins by becoming intimate with the grinning face of death. If we cannot look into his dark, eyeless sockets now, how will we handle it when it is our turn to take a boat ride with him?

If the Zen masters are right, when we truly see into the Grim Reaper’s eye we will see the light shining from the Buddha-eyes of all beings. A Buddhist scripture says, “When I don’t see, why don’t you see my not-seeing? If you did see my not-seeing it would not be real not-seeing. If it is real not-seeing it must not be an object, how could it not be you?”

Instead of turning to the TV, fantasy, ice cream, or other distractions when the Grim Reaper comes a-haunting, why don’t we try to discover the secret behind that ever-present grin. Calling him to sit face-to-face with us for awhile we may come to realize that even death breathes. With practice, we will learn to reach out, take hold of his dark hood, ease it down and study his bony face. Examining the Grim Reaper’s form and emptiness, we are sure to discover some familiar features.

write by Farah

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