Friday, February 6, 2009

The Great Matter

Busy with nothing, growing old.
Within emptiness, weeping, laughing.
Intrinsically, there is no “I.”

Life and death, thus cast aside.

Above, the death poem of Taiwanese Chan Master Sheng Yen. I just learned of his death on February 3 from the blog "In Pursuit of Mysteries." The link attached to his name leads to another blogger's review of his autobiography, which has the wonderful title, Footprints in the Snow. And the poem - "Busy with nothing, growing old" - certainly speaks of ordinary life as I know it.

The death poem is a tradition among Zen masters. It expresses their acceptance of the truth of all organic life: it is (we are) born and dies, and transforms into other life. My husband Tom, the physicist, tells me that sometimes instead of trans-forming, organic life can fossilize, that is, turn into a mineral. There's a metaphor.

What's all this resistance to dying? I feel it within myself. When I learned I had cancer in 1997, I fervently didn't want to die of that. Later, when my kidney function fell so low, I sincerely didn't want to die of that. I, I, I. I haven't figured out what I do want to die of, but I know I'd like it to be slow and comfortable, on clean sheets, and not today.

You can hang on to life because it is a good time, a party you don't want to leave, an interesting conversation. Once, leaving Deb and Karl's annual fall party, we found ourselves under a clear, starry sky. Straight from the bluegrass jam into the vast, beautiful universe. I thought, This is what a good death would be like. It might not be like that, I don't know. But I think it is important to leave the party willingly, having been immersed in the rhythm, having had a very good time, and knowing it's time to go

1 comment:

  1. I remember so clearly the phone call I received from my doctor confirming melanoma (my brother and mother both died from this disease). I remember the automatic heart stopping fear. But then in the next moment, I knew that whatever came next, I could be present for it. I think that's still true. I think the difference is that most of the time some challenge brings us to the question, whereas Master Sheng Yen knew it all the time.