In the evening gatha, chanted by many Zen Buddhist groups, we are reminded that “life and death are of supreme importance, time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. We should all strive to awaken... awaken! Take heed! Do not squander your life!.” In another version, we are told: “Today the days of your life has decreased by one. Awaken, Take heed, do not squander your life.” Or to put it more succinctly, please remember, one day you are going to die, so what will you have to show for it?
Every day people are born and people die. If people didn’t die, there would not be enough space for all of us on the planet. Same with plants and animals. Nature is an ever changing, ongoing cycle of birth and death. But in spite of this reality, there is a part of us that feels like we will live forever. Why is it we are surprised when we really realize that we are going to die. Perhaps we have been in a near fatal accident. Perhaps we have been told we have a disease that can’t be cured and have only a short time to live.
In our sangha study, we are looking at some of Dogen’s essays. One of my favorites is Uji or Being Time. Here we learn that time is only now, but somehow we humans have related to time in a way that makes it seem more elastic. As kids, the future seems endless but as elders, we become very aware of how little time we have left. We learn quickly as elders not to squander our lives, because finally we know death is very near. In Uji, Dogen writes: “Moment by moment thoughts appear then vanish. Moment by moment our bodies appear and then vanish. “ How do we make this truth come alive for us? With each breath in, we live for another moment. With each breath out, we let go and face that empty space at the end of the out breath. It is a taste of emptiness, a taste of complete letting go, perhaps a taste of death.
I have a friend who is 103. She knew me before I was born. I recently said to her: “How wonderful to live so long.” She replied, “Not really.” My parents died in their 70s. Since I turned 70, I have been very aware of the fact that I could die before reaching 80, mostly because my parents did. It’s an irrational thought, but it has helped me to learn to appreciate each day. Some mornings, when I wake up, I think “this could be the day that I die”. And sometimes, after an especially wonderful day, I think “this would be a good day to die.” Death comes when we least expect it, even if we have been told we only have a short time to live.
For the last year and a half, we have, as a country and a world, been even more aware of death. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a great toll. "A new study estimates that the number of people who have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. is more than 900,000, a number 57% higher than official figures. Worldwide, the study's authors say, the COVID-19 death count is nearing 7 million, more than double the reported number of 3.24 million.” (www.healthdata.org) For many people, COVID19 brought the reality of death, the fragility of life, and the unpredictability of life into sharp focus. Tell me, being born and dying in every moment how are you living your life right now? What can you do to find ways to change your perspective on your current circumstances? Can you awaken to your inherent Buddha nature? Can you see that in each moment you have choices in how you respond to the events of your life.
In gassho with love, Jishin Sensei