Death: Friend or Foe 3

Section 1

Everything changes; nothing stays the same. Well, this being a retreat, we’re going to gallop through death and impermanence much faster than one would normally. But there’s one more piece that comes from Everything changes; nothing stays the same. And some of you may recognize this when I read it.

I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant—
Among other things—or one way of putting the same thing:
That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray
Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,
Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened.
And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.
You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,
That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.
When the train starts, and the passengers are settled
To fruit, periodicals and business letters
(And those who saw them off have left the platform)
Their faces relax from grief into relief,
To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours.
Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think ’the past is finished’
Or ’the future is before us’.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
’Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: “on whatever sphere of being
The mind of [a] man may be intent
At the time of death”—that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
Fare forward.

O voyagers,

O seamen,
You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination.’
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.

Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

Four Quartets, for those of you who are interested.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Pardon? Yes, T.S. Eliot.

So, the time of death is every moment. We leave each moment behind. And that’s it. Ordinarily we don’t live this way. We make plans, and we get disappointed when things don’t turn out as we had expected. We generally assume that something went wrong and go looking for it, try to make it right, so that the next time we do something it will turn out as we expected.

I always find it amusing when people express their fear of starting a meditation practice in words such as, “Well, I don’t know what effect it will have on me. Maybe I will lose my edge. Maybe, it may change my life. I can’t tell what’s going to happen.” At which point, I usually ask everybody, “How many of you are where you thought you would be in your life ten years ago?” And of course, almost nobody—occasionally, one or two people hold up their hand. So, even when you think you can control everything, life still ends up going in unexpected directions. Well, maybe people just don’t want to introduce a new variable. But, we can’t say how things are going to end up.

Section 2

And that brings us into the next topic. Basically, in this retreat we have three full days, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, we had last night and we have Sunday morning. So, because of that, I’m going to compress the next two of the five phrases into one. And it’s actually a quite natural compression.

And the two are: Think about all the others who have died, or Think about how many have died in the past. I can’t remember the exact wording. It’s in Wake Up To Your Life. And the third one, the second one we consider today, is: Consider how many ways there are to die.

Now, traditionally, classically, for the first one—and this is what I present in Wake Up To Your Life—you start going through everybody who’s died. So you can go through the civilizations of throughout history, and you see it doesn’t matter whether a civilization is ascending and things are getting better or, or things have really decayed and it’s an age of barbarism. Everybody dies. And it doesn’t matter, and so you can go through it that way.

You can go through it by thinking about, okay, all the really special people in the world, the really famous ones, the people who really stood out as different from everybody, you know: great politicians, great warriors, great writers, great artists, great leaders of one shape or another, great saints, really, truly virtuous people. Strange thing is, they all died too. And there’s one thing we know we’re not going to get from spiritual practice, [that] is eternal life, because all our role models died too. Though people did make up some fairly elaborate myths about them not dying.

One of the more disheartening experiences for me was when I attended Kalu Rinpoche’s funeral services in India. And the head of the tradition at that point gave a talk. And he said the same thing in both Tibetan and English so he wasn’t saying something special for Tibetans or something special for Westerners. And I quote: “Do not think that Kalu Rinpoche has died. Rather, think that he has simply gone into retreat for a while.” ’Cause his incarnation would be recognized, you see. And I went, “Oh, there it is.” I knew Rinpoche himself would never have said anything like that, you see. Dead, dead, done.

But that’s the mythology of Tibetan culture. And I’ll get into all kinds of trouble for putting that on tape and putting it out on the Internet, but there it goes. They can’t hurt me anymore. [Laughter.] And, I mean there’s just like, I heard that and I just went, “Wow, okay.” So, culture trumps teaching. Which is a very important point to remember. Social cohesion trumps spiritual practice all the time. And we see this in the institutional forms of all of the great religions.

So, and then you can talk about having special qualities. You know, the most beautiful people, you know, the best athletes, and so forth. They all die, too. And your own family. Well, they all died. So it’s conceivable that dying is an inherited quality. [Laughter]

I heard a very, very good talk on bioethics at UCLA many, many years ago. The woman who was giving this talk—a professor of bioethics—was really taking issue with language. And one of the many things she took up was the phrase “the right to die.” So this is a complete misuse of language, you know. “I waive that right.” [Laughter] Hmm.

And it’s unfortunate because I study language. Many of you know I pay quite close attention to the use of language. And it’s quite, quite disturbing, actually. How, how much, how many problems, and how much confusion—and I would even say harm—the misuse of language can cause. Don’t get me started on that. I’ll just go on for a rant for another hour.

Section 3

Okay, so those are the classical ways of approaching Everybody dies. And you can see very, very easily from this that by going through these things you gradually get this sinking feeling: “Oh, this is probably going to happen to me, too. It certainly looks like the odds are stacked against me.”

Now, it wouldn’t be so bad if we knew when we were going to die, you know. We’re here for three score and ten years. Done. That would solve Social Security and Medicare right there, actually. You know, we knew we would live seventy years. Done. Or seventy-five, or sixty, or whatever. You know, then we could plan things.

And everything would be much more manageable. Do this at this phase of life; do this at this phase of life. Wouldn’t have to worry about, you know, war and disease, things like that. Because nothing stops us, you know. We just get our sixty or seventy or seventy-five years or whatever it is. Done.

But it’s not like that. We can die at any time, which is the message of the next meditation. And there are different ways of doing that particular practice. What I generally advised people was walk through your day, and see how many ways you can die in the course of your day. I usually never got to work before my meditation period ended.

You know. You get up in the morning, you’ve had a restless night, your feet are tangled in the sheets, you sit up, get out of bed, trip over, smash your head against the dresser. Done.

Get into the shower, step on a bar of soap, whack your head against the faucet. Done.

Manage somehow—through some miracle—to get out of your shower without dying, and then you electrocute yourself on the razor or the hairdryer. You know. It goes on. You can have quite a bit of fun with that, actually. But as I say, I never got to work. You do this enough, you know, you begin to stay in bed a lot.

Of course, then, having listened, translated over and over again for Rinpoche on these talks, as soon as I think, “Well, I’ll just stay here, and it’ll be safe,” then the following story which Rinpoche liked to tell, is about this man who was told by a fortune teller that he would die in seven days. “Well, okay, I’m going to die in seven days. We’ll take care of this.” He rented a very nice apartment, just one room. Had every hard object removed from it. Just cushions. Brought in all packaged food that was ultra safe, and just hung out there for seven days. On the seventh day he was sitting by the window, the window was open. He was taking something out of his ear. There’s a gust of wind; blew the shutter; drove the object into his brain, and he died.

So, this leads to the other reflection. Is there any circumstance that you can engage in in your life, in which you’re absolutely guaranteed of not dying? We’re sitting here. Well, who knows? A meteorite could come crashing through at any moment. I was listening to a report on meteor strikes. There were some people sitting in a living room—I think it was in Australia—and a meteor came through the couch. But there’s actually no recorded incident of a person being killed by a meteorite. Dog, yes, but not a person.

But then there’s a Gahan Wilson cartoon, which I just love, showing this hat on the ground with the meteorite on top of it and a middle-aged lady looking at it with other people around. The caption is, “Harry always felt he was going to get it from a meteor.” [Laughter.] So.

Section 4

So, those are the ways that one practices this and just opens, I mean, just instills this understanding that we’re going to die. And it could happen at any time. Now we’ve moved very far away from that in our society. If anybody dies an untimely death, it’s immediately assumed that somebody did something wrong. And the lawyers appear, and start trying to establish blame. So, that’s why more and more things you have to wear protective equipment, etc., etc., because the manufacturers don’t want to get in a lawsuit. And again it’s another huge distortion.

New Zealand, I think, is a much healthier culture. There’s no personal liability, or there’s no liability insurance. You go bungee jumping and the cord breaks: that’s it. Done. You know, it’s a risky thing to do. And, so, they do all kinds of weird things, but their death rate isn’t significantly higher, it’s probably lower than America’s. So go figure.

But I was just giving you that as a kind of recap. The central thing here is that—and Charles is going to get totally on my case in a minute—so you just have to squelch him. [Laughter]

Charles: You can do that all by yourself, Ken. You don’t need help.

Ken: Yes, I know, but you’ll see. He sent me some very strong emails on this topic.

We know we’re going to die. But we don’t know when. So, in one sense, there’s a kind of order to the world. In another sense, there’s this chaotic or unordered aspect. Now if you notice people—notice anything about people—you will see that people basically fall into two categories: those who like order, and those who don’t. Those who like order we call accountants, those who don’t we call artists. Very broadly.

But you see, we want things one way or the other. But that’s not how life is. And this is why I’m putting these two together. Because by putting these two together, we enter into what some writers and some teachers call the core dilemma of human experience. We can’t approach our lives as if everything was chaotic, because we could live for a very long time. And if we didn’t actually plan for that, we could be in trouble. On the other hand, if we live our lives, things totally ordered, as if everything is totally ordered, then we’re unable to respond or take in, or deal with the unexpected.

This is wonderfully brought up by two relatives of mine who are very good friends in a small town in southern England. One was a doctor; one was a retired nurse. And they were very, very good friends. So they decided to go on a trip together. Well, the doctor had a very ordered life. She was the kind of person who would say when she fell down in her backyard and sprained her back, said to my younger brother, “If you go into my den, on the set of shelves on the west wall, on the third shelf, second one over, in the middle shelf you’ll find five rows of bottles. In the third bottle three over from the right, you’ll [laughs]….” That was her life.

The retired nurse on the other hand just liked to do things that felt good. So, first day of the trip, “We’ll spend half an hour here, an hour here, fifteen minutes there, have lunch, etc.” And the retired nurse would go, “Oh, this is interesting, why don’t we stay a little longer? I’m just…Oh, and why don’t…, we didn’t consider that. Let’s go and look at that.” After ten days of this, no mention was ever made of the trip to anybody, ever. They returned to being friends but they never traveled again. [Laughter.] So, order, chaos.

Section 5

Now, in the meditation—and this will take us through til tomorrow afternoon—I want you to take these two lines, or the messages of these two lines: I am going to die. And I have no idea when. And in the same way that you worked with, Everything changes; nothing stays the same. I want you to work the same way. Not going through all of those reflections about it. I was just giving you that to give you the flavor.

But, you sit, “Okay, I’m going to die, and I don’t know when.” Now what happens when you take that up? Well, I don’t know how it is for you, but for me there’s all kinds of conflicting sensations in the body. It’s like as soon as I say, “I’m going to die,” a bunch of stuff goes, “Nah, we don’t like this, and we don’t like going there.” And then say, “But I don’t know when,” part goes, “Whew, what do you mean you don’t know when? I can’t live with that.” So, there’s all kinds of conflicting stuff comes up.

Now, as before, open to the physical sensations. I was repeating in terms of the stories that begin to run, but if you go to the stories, you actually lose connection with your body; you lose connection with your experience. It’s not the place to start. You start with the physical sensations, and the whole mess of them.

And there’s probably not going to be much consistency. That something will be pulling over here, and something will be pulling in this way, and something will be pushing down, and something will be pushing up, and something will want to tear apart, and something will just as fast [be] trying to sew it back together. So, all of that stuff going on. But now you’re opening to the experience of how life actually is.

This was rather beautifully brought home to me when I first started doing one-on-one consulting, which was in the late eighties before the drug regimes for the treatment of AIDS had been developed. So AIDS was still a terrifying death sentence, basically. And a person—early forties, late thirties, somewhere around there—came to see me. He had AIDS, and said, “You know I have AIDS. I’m probably going to die within the next year or two. I thought you might be able to help me work with this.” And I said, “I don’t know, but I’m happy to explore this with you,” and started in on the traditional death meditations.

When he reached the meditation on, “I could die at any time,” he came to me one day and said, “That’s really changed things for me.” I said—and he seemed much lighter—and I said, “How’s that?” He said, “Well, one of the things that’s been really difficult for me is that when I’m with people, and they hear that I have AIDS, they change and they look at me as if I’m half dead.

And I’ve just found that really a very painful experience, and I have no idea how to respond to it. And it’s just like I’ve become a non-person to them. So it’s very, very, it’s been very uncomfortable. But now when I see that change in their expression, I just say to myself, ’Well, you may think I’m half dead, but you could be completely dead tomorrow.” [Laughter] Because he saw that he might not, he and others might not actually die of AIDS, they could die of something else. So, that was interesting.

Now, the proximity of our death changes our view of life. And one of the more profound ways that it changes our view is that different things become important. A very good friend of mine thought she had the flu, and she was really not feeling well so she went to the emergency room, local hospital. They checked her out, ran some tests, and she waited for a while. And they came back to her and said, “You’re not going home.” “Why? It’s just a flu. Can’t you give me some antibiotics or something? Or…” “No, it’s not the flu. You’re not going home, because we’re doing a triple bypass tomorrow. This is your heart, and it’s a miracle that you haven’t died of a heart attack already.” So she had the surgery, and it’s very major surgery. It took her a while to heal. And she would call me up and said, “You know, Ken, this really changed a lot for me, ‘cause I’ve decided that I don’t want the words on my tombstone to read, ’I wish I’d not spent another day at the office.’”

Section 6

So, the proximity of death actually brings us in touch with life. And what is—I don’t want to say what is truly important about life—but what is truly important to us, to each of us individually about life. Because I don’t think we can go any further than that. I really don’t think we can say, absolutely, what is important about life. But by considering our own death, our own mortality, we can come to what is important to us about life. And that’s very important, because knowing what is important to us about life is probably the only way we can be sure that we won’t die with regret.

Now, I have a couple of things. Here we are:

The disciple of the head Sufi of Baghdad was sitting in the corner of an inn one day when he heard two figures talking. From what they said, he realized that one of them was the Angel of Death. “I’ve several calls to make in the city during the next three weeks” the angel was saying to his companion. Terrified, the disciple concealed himself until the two had left. Then, applying his intelligence to the problem of how to cheat a possible call from death, he decided that if he kept away from Baghdad he should not be touched. From this it was a short step to hiring the fastest horse available and spurring it night and day towards the distant town of Samarkand. Meanwhile, Death met with the head Sufi. And the Sufi teacher said, “You coming for me?” He said “Oh no, no, no. I just came, courtesy call. But where’s such and such a disciple of yours?” And the head Sufi said, “Oh, he should be somewhere in the city. He usually spends his time in practice, and perhaps he’s in the caravanserai.” “That’s a bit odd,” said the angel, “because he is on my list. Yes, here it is. I have to collect him in four weeks time in Samarkand of all places.”

And for a slightly different perspective on that:

Section 7
The Angel of Death came to Nasrudin one day and announced, “Your time has come, mullah. Prepare to be taken to the other world.” Trembling and shaking with fear, his face white as a sheet, Nasrudin managed to choke out a few words. “My life has been spent blaspheming and generally poking fun at religion at every possible opportunity. But I am a Muslim, and I wish that I could have one last chance to prove that all my past misdemeanors are deeply regretted.” “What chance do you want?” asked the Angel. “If I could be spared the time to perform the five prayers before my death,” sighed Nasrudin, “I’m sure I would go peacefully on my way.” “Very well,” replied the Angel, “I will return this time tomorrow when you have performed your five prayers,” and he disappeared. Next day he arrive at the appointed time. “You have had your extra day of life, Nasrudin. Now you must come with me.” “What? Did you not promise to allow me to perform my five prayers before my death?” “Yes, I did.” “Well, I performed only two.” “And when will you say the rest?” asked the Angel of Death. “In my own time.”

Section 8

So, in your practice, “I’m going to die, and I don’t know when.” Now, that doesn’t sound like much, but actually all of the teachings of the Middle Way are present in just that. The Middle Way is defined as not falling into an extreme. Order is one extreme; chaos is another. Life is neither order nor chaos. We are neither just body nor just spirit. Things are not one, and they’re not many.

And one can go on and on, all of these different polarities. What the Middle Way is, is a way to live in these apparent contradictions. I say apparent contradictions, because they really aren’t contradictions. They’re just how things are. And they only become contradictions when we conceive that they should be one way or the other.

One of the most eloquent presentations of this, which I’ve always liked, and I assume I will be able to find. Here we are. This book, which is now published under the title How to Cook Your Life—there are two or three books by that title—but the one you want is Dogen and Uchiyama—is a commentary on Dogen’s instructions to the chief cook of the monastery. Uchiyama offers a commentary on Dogen’s instructions. So we have the following quotation from Dogen. Dogen was the founder of Soto Zen, lived in the twelfth century in Japan. We have the following quotation from the original instructions:

Next all the officers meet in the kitchen or pantry and decide what food is to be prepared for the following day. For example, the type of rice gruel, the vegetables, the seasoning.

And then Uchiyama quotes from another text saying:

When deciding on the amount of food and the number of side dishes for the morning and noonday meals, the head cook should consult with the other officers. When they have chosen the meals, the menu should be posted on the notice boards in front of the abbot’s room, as well as in front of the study hall. When this has been done, preparations for the next morning’s meal may begin.

Now this sounds pretty dry doesn’t it? Discuss food; figure out what the meal’s going to be; plan the menu; post the menu. What’s the big deal here?

Uchiyama goes on:

In this seemingly matter-of-course passage there is an extremely vital teaching to be found. In this world of impermanence, we have no idea of what may occur during the night. Maybe there will be an earthquake or a disastrous fire, war may break out, or perhaps a revolution might erupt, or we ourselves could very well meet death. Nevertheless, we are told to prepare the gruel for the following morning and make a plan for lunch.

There’s an order to life.

Moreover, we are to do this as tonight’s work.

Here’s the important point:

In preparing the meal for the following day as tonight’s work, there is no goal for tomorrow being established.

Let me read that again.

In preparing the meal for the following day as tonight’s work, there is no goal for tomorrow being established. Yet our direction for right now is clear: prepare tomorrow’s gruel. Here is where our awakening to the impermanence of all things becomes manifest, while at the same time our activity manifests our recognition of the law of cause and effect.

Or karma.

In this routine matter of preparing tomorrow’s gruel as this evening’s work lies the key to the attitude necessary for coping with this absolute contradiction of impermanence and cause and effect.

Or karma. Order and chaos.

Much too often we go about our lives holding onto some future goal without thinking about our present direction, or about the direction of our lives as a whole. When we stop projecting goals and hopes in the future, and refuse to be led around by them, yet work to clarify our lives, that is, the direction of the present, then we’ll discover an alive and dynamic practice. At the juncture of this contradiction we will begin to understand the function of the head cook.

Section 9

There are several things that this contemplation is going to touch on. They’re going to touch on the parts of you that want to control your life, who want things to be ordered and predictable. They’re going to touch on the parts of you that want to ignore many aspects of life. Want to live in a Never Neverland of eternal youth. Peter Pan. That’s what Peter Pan was essentially about, or is essentially about.

The point that he mentions at the end of this passage, the direction of the present. That’s his phrase, and I find it a very useful phrase. But there are other ways that we can come at the same notion, and that is through the notion of balance and imbalance.

Where are things out of balance? Quite frequently when people ask me about difficult situations in their lives that they’re facing—and sometimes they can be quite complex—and they come, often somewhat confused, having difficulty deciding what to do and having some kind of confidence in me to provide them with good advice. What I usually do is not give them any advice, but ask them to open to everything that’s going on, and more. Because as we open to things, and include more and more, a non-conceptual knowing tends to arise.

That non-conceptual knowing, and you can call it intuition, direct awareness, the tipping point; you know, many different names. I don’t really care about them. But frequently—not necessarily immediately—the person finds himself knowing what to do. And that knowing comes from including everything. Which is one of the reasons why I am emphasizing the aspect of opening and including in practice rather than focusing and concentrating.

Now whether they’re able to do what they know needs to be done, that’s another matter. What I’m saying here is that sensing the direction of the present is something that is within most people’s capabilities. I won’t say all, because there can be little things like ideologies and beliefs that get in the way, but those represent really heavily invested areas of life which include [or] create a different kind of distortion.

So what I want you to do in practice this evening is the same kind of alternation that we’ve been doing. Resting. And then, “I’m going to die, and I don’t know when.” And see who comes to visit. Stay connected with your body. Through your body, stay connected with all the emotions that arise—the many, probably conflicting emotions that arise. Through staying connected with the emotions and your body sensations, you can experience the stories. And you get to sit in the whole mess. See what comes of that. Okay? A few minutes for questions. Or does everybody want to get out of here as quickly as possible?

Section 10

Student: We want to finish our two more prayers.

Ken: Three more. You want to finish your three more prayers. On your own time, no doubt. Anything? Microphone’s here.

Student: Would you say a little bit more about how ideologies can get in the way?

Ken: When there is a certain degree of emotional investment in a belief, the belief becomes like a rock. And anything that doesn’t fit into what is defined into the remaining space at best has to be ignored, at worst has to be destroyed. The emotional investment and the solidification is sufficiently strong that no awareness can penetrate.

So things can’t even be questioned. Which is the way it is with ideologies. And that introduces a very significant distortion. One can have a practice and be very attached to certain points of view or certain ways of living, and at a certain point the attention will begin to reveal to you the fallacies or the inappropriateness of those things or the problems with them. But because of the emotional investment, you won’t be able to go there. Not only that, you will block that aspect of awareness. And the consequence of that is you end up being split in two. And you’ll find that most people who have an ideological fixation are actually split in two. Very few recover from that.

One who did was Lee Atwater. Lee Atwater was the chairman of the Republican national committee in the Eighties. And he was the person who developed the divisive politics that ruled for the next twenty years. He was extremely ideologically fixated, and I have a passage in Wake Up to Your Life which is an excerpt from an interview with him, which I don’t have a copy of here. But he says that when you’re that fixated—particularly in that particular ideology—to even acknowledge your enemy was to show weakness.

So he says, “I would never speak with Ron Brown,” who was at that point his opposite number, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Well, Lee Atwater came down with cancer, and it was terminal. Ron Brown came to visit him in the hospital, which was incomprehensible to him. But through his struggles with cancer, he came to see that his ideological fixation was completely wrong. And for the year or two that remained of his life, he sought to correct the many, many things that he’d done in his political life, and to educate his Republican colleagues that, no, this actually wasn’t the right way. But nobody listened to him because they also were fixated.

And that’s very frequently the kind of thing that happens. You can tell when ideology is present, because when ideology is present there is a refusal to acknowledge the suffering that is generated by the ideology. There’s a lack of compassion. And whether it is fascist ideology, communist ideology, radical fundamentalist ideology, economic ideology, political ideology, doesn’t make any difference. It all has the same effect. That help? Okay. Roger.

Roger: I’m curious about what you just said about ideology. Could that apply to someone’s view of themselves in their own personal history?

Ken: It’s a very, very good point, Roger. Absolutely. We can have these fixated ideas about ourselves in which we are completely shut off and won’t acknowledge the suffering that’s there, until something really very, pretty drastic comes along which either kills us, or causes us to wake up a little bit. Yeah. It’s a very good point, thank you.

Creative Commons LicenseThis transcript by Ken McLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. This transcript has been edited to make it more readable. There may be minor differences between the audio file and the transcript.