Due to technical difficulties with the posting the previous day, this posting is a completed edition and with an edited title.
Spring is Here!... in Northern Maine
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Today's Saying: We do not need to know the details of some life after death to be at peace with dying. We can be at peace with dying, regardless. Anyway, the life before death is the life after death. Life cannot not be. Life is not an absence but a fullness, a Presence.
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First, before sharing two stories and concluding comments, I refer to death and meditation. In meditation, we do not shut out the world - sounds, sensations of the body, smells, ... If one chooses to keep eyes open, sights are seen. We welcome it all to come and go in an all-encompassing awareness. It is all transitory. We watch it come and go. We sit as spirit in union with the IAM - not transitory, Spirit.
This process means a retraction from distractions. Senses are usually still operating, yet one does not stick to any single happening. Experience is seen as what it is - experience, not the Substratum of all experiences. This seeing is like sitting and looking at an interstate full of traffic - Who watches but is not all passing by in great variety? Who watches who is not in the traffic but is aware of it?
So, meditation is a death practice for it is a life practice. To say "No" and rest within as spirit - not person -, not carried along with the flux of phenomena, is to undergo a momentary death from our usual activity, our clamoring for attention, our thinking we are somebody separate from others, our claiming we have accomplishments, our thought that we own something, and our suffering resultant of all our trying to manage our lives - and Life. Hence, each time we meditate, we invite a little death that intimates the bodily death.
And we see this choice for death is a choice for life. This little death is why we may often feel reluctant to leave the silence and return to what we have been told is the real world. The absence of what we think is my life frees us to enjoy Life - this is a resurrection. Now, what if the bodily death is like this? While we may fear death or see it as a loss, what if it is the opening to an enhanced experience of Life unconfined by the body, wherein we - Consciousness - are liberated from the limitations of the flesh and world? Most who have been told they legally died and yet revived tell us this is so: their fear of death is no more, their love of life is enhanced, and they experience life in this world as sacred, even if they did not before.
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The late Zen teacher, Robert Aitken, in his book Encouraging Words, tells of an event in his teacher's life that reminded me of a recent visit to an emergency room. Alone, in a strange place, I had to face head-on the mortality of this human body, which was not the first time but a telling time. Aitken writes -
I was reminded tonight of my old teacher Senzaki Nyogen Sensei, who told us that when he was a young monk at Engakuji he became ill with tuberculosis, and had to be isolated in a little hut. Meals were brought to him, and once in a while his teacher, Shaku Sōen Zenji, visited. One day he said to his teacher, "What if I should die?" Shaku Sōen said, “If you die, just die.” This retort changed his life completely, and he began to recover. Ultimately he was able to move from his little hut back to the monks' hall. As he was packing up, he found in the back of a drawer the medicine which he had stopped taking after that exchange with his teacher. This is not to deny the importance of medicine, but rather to stress the Great Death which is really the purpose of sesshin [an extended zazen session], as it is the purpose of all true religious practice.
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After a time in the emergency room - the total stay lasted five hours - and still lying on my back, I was taken on the gurney for more tests. The first ingress of fluids into my bloodstream had not annulled the marked weakness, primarily due to dehydration, and the blood drawn showed no evidence of a heart attack. Yet, the pulse and irregular heartbeat remained as before. So, the doctor had ordered more tests.
I was rolled away to another room. A c-scan was taken of all major organs chest down to the midsection. Afterward, I was returned to the former room. I lay there alone, as weak as I could recall in all my life. I had been sick many days and had little sleep. I had no appetite, and I had no wish to drink anything. I had been tested days prior for covid, and that was ruled out; here, they did not seem concerned about it being covid - it was not, even after a second covid test days later at a clinic.
After a time, the doctor arrived confounded, "I'm scratching my head; all the tests are not telling us what is causing your symptoms." She said I would be admitted to stay overnight in the hospital. I agreed. Then, she wanted to know under what conditions did I wish to be revived if I died in the night. My spiritual path had for many years entailed awareness of mortality, yet these words hit me hard for some reason. I was reminded of what Ram Dass said when admitted to a hospital following a massive stroke - he was surprised as he looked up at the ceiling from his lain position, at how unprepared he was to die, though it had been central to his spiritual practice. I had sensed myself near death on different occasions earlier in life, but now it felt threatening. I now realize part of it is my love of this life is more than it was back then - simply put, I do not want to leave yet, regardless of its limitations and sufferings.
The doctor left, and I was alone again with this sense of a death threat. Finally, it dawned on me... the futility of fighting the possibility of death before the next dawn. I decided to relax in acceptance. Everything softened within and about me. The fear dissipated in this knowledge, "I might die tonight." This knowing was no longer theoretical - this was real to me. I was at peace. I felt the body relax on the gurney, and I felt a quiet bliss fill me, as though Light filled this temple of flesh with Itself.
Later, another doctor, coming on a new shift, infused me again with fluids. The body returned to its balance, and I felt renewed strength. The heart was calm. He sent me home. The cause of the illness was determined in about a week after being taken to a local clinic two times with marked symptoms, and I am almost back fully recovered from the two-month-long illness.
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During this recovery, a Word did come to me and brought understanding and comfort. I will translate it: "When it is time for you to leave the body, I will have prepared you to welcome it."
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Shaku Sōen's words, "If you die, you die," can appear unkind. Yet, they are wise words. They seem heartless until we are prepared to leave this body. When we are ready, dying is dying, even as being born was being born. To leave the body is no more an unnatural event than entering the body. Seeing death, in fact, as unnatural is prevalent in many cultures, which leads to denial. If I deny death, banishing death from awareness, I fail to live life fully.
Part of a spiritual way is assent to mortality. Yet, we can accept it theoretically, and that is not the needed acceptance. We can, through Grace, welcome to be prepared to say gracefully, not nihilistically, "If I die, I die." Then, those words are a confession of hope - not hope so - and love for this body that has given itself to us, and gratitude for those we have shared this time with. We can pray to leave this world thankful for the gift of having been here, and we can expect to be graced to say goodbye knowing the Way leads on.
I do not know what is after goodbye to the body, but I am assured I am ... before I am this or that ... is birthless and deathless. Again, however, this can be a subtle denial. The death of the body is the destiny of all bodies, for all things age in time, and we are wise not to avoid admitting death through a belief in something better or a continuance of life. So, we can say, "We do not die, yet we cannot avoid death." We can say, "When I die, I die." Then, we can embrace the liberating experience with integrity - Life is deathless, even death cannot touch Us.
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*(C) Brian K. Wilcox, 2021
*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher AuthorHouse. The book is a collection of poems based on wisdom traditions, predominantly Christian, Buddhist, and Sufi, with extensive notes on the poetry's teachings and imagery.