Powered By Blogger

Friday, July 30, 2010

The great Zen teacher, Suzuki Roshi, surprised everyone when he said: "I don't want to die." Suzuki Roshi was dying of cancer. Not wanting to die is perfectly compatible with being a Zen master. I deeply appreciate his candor. Insofar as we value and appreciate our life, we want to live; and death also is a fact of life.

Katigiri Roshi, a longtime friend and co-teacher, was the person that Suzuki Roshi was speaking to at the time. Katigiri Roshi bowed to his mentor and said, "Thank you for your great effort." I can think of no higher compliment. This exchange brings tears to my eyes. It is a beautiful moment between two dear friends, fellow human beings.

Love is what enables us to bear the unbearable. Love is all that matters... in the beginning, in the middle, in the end.

another summer
without Corky

(Corky was our childhood dog)
What we know and think about death is old and threadbare. It is our own conditioning that comes between us and the raw fact of mortality. Is it possible to clear the past away such that we are face-to-face with our own finiteness here-and-now, immediately?

Maybe we will only encounter our own mortality for a minute or two (which would be a long time!). What is new--original--in regards to this up-close and impersonal fact of death? What happens? What do I see, notice?

Ah, death is invisible and so am I. I see myself turning into something akin to woodsmoke and disappearing into the ether. No trace of me remains, and I feel all together untroubled--much to my surprise.

August mist
the morning disappears
into it
Where does death come from? I know that this is an all together odd question to ask. My response is going to sound even more strange!

As human beings, we seem to crave security above all else. I'm not talking only about physical security--shelter from the elements. We humans seek psychological security--refuge from real or perceived criticism, shame, rejection. We need to know that we are loved and praised, admired, revered.

Death arises out of this pursuit of security. The insecure ego needs to know that it is safe from attacks both inward and outward. Only a permanence of one sort or another will cure the anxiety that accompanies insecurity.

The fact is life is inherently insecure. There is nothing permanent in life, except the fact that everything changes. To free oneself from the misguided pursuit of security is to free oneself from death.

deathbed window
moonlight through
trembling aspens

Thursday, July 29, 2010

My father had a heart-attack while undergoing back surgery in February, 2002. As soon as he recovered enough from that operation, he was determined to have surgery on his heart again--he had undergone a bypass operation years before--in hopes of extending his life again. I knew in my own heart that he would not survive this operation, and begged him not to, but he had made up his mind. Shortly before undergoing the procedure, my father proudly remarked: "I have been a risk-taker all my life." It was settled, and I think these may have been his last words to me.

Sure enough, the day after my father was released from the hospital during the Memorial Day weekend, 2002, he died as the nurse who came to the house was examining him. He simply fell back into the recliner he had been sitting in when the nurse arrived. It was congestive heart failure that killed my father.

My dad's death split me wide open. Never in all my life have I experienced such searing pain, and I have had many losses, including the death of my beloved grandmother.

But, my father died heroically--something I have only recently let in. Deep inside I realize: If my father could live and die with courage, I can too. At the very least, I have set this intention.

gathering storm
I select a rain cloud
to ride off on
It's an interesting exercise to write down the associations one has of death, but doing so without laboring. First thought, best thought.

Death... ending, annihilation, desolate, free, sad, lonely, love, peace, serenity, loss, pain, tears, longing, wishing, withering, emaciated, numb, choking, coffin, worms, embalming, gruesome, eternity, motionless, no worries, no stress, ice cold, gray skin, skull, protruding bones, emptiness, stillness.

Death is a mixture of "good and bad"--constructs my mind uses to evaluate everything. Death is a word that attaches to other words and images. Each adjective and noun elicited a sharp, though transient emotional reaction. Within thirty seconds time I was jolted from one association to another. I felt relieved when my mind stopped associating. Of course, I could go back for more, but the list I came up with was quite enough.

In actuality, death can't encompass all of the images and ideas that I associate with it. Death is bigger than all the pictures, memories, constructions I have stored up over a lifetime. Death is as vast as the sky; Allen Ginsberg understood its vastness, and pointed to just this in his death poem, which appears in DEATH AND FAME: LAST POEMS:

To see Void vast infinite
look out the window
in the blue sky.

sun-bleached sand
no beginning
no end
Not a few people are frightened by death because we are allegedly alone when we die. That is, we die alone: I die my own death. No one can accompany me on this final trip.

But is that so? Of course, no one knows the particular circumstances surrounding his or her death. It is possible that I could die in my sleep. Even if that were to happen, would I be alone?

I don't think we are ever alone. To the extent that each of us lives in the world, we are never alone: there are birds, trees, squirrels, rose bushes, daffodils, clouds, sun, moon, sky, ants, flies, spiders. To be alive is to be related. I take heart in knowing that I can depend on any number of living things--beings--to be present as I take my last breaths. The earth itself is a great being that makes all life possible. Why do you think it is called Mother Earth? If it has supported me during the whole of my life, I am confident it will continue to do so right up to--and beyond--my final moment here.

July nap
outstretched in a field
already home

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are we inching toward death, or is death moving toward us?

Almost everyone I encounter is astonished by how fast time flies. Months seem to pass like days. But, is there really any movement at all?

If life is not a movement, what is it then? This is not a question to be answered by the rational mind. It is an everyday zen koan or riddle. If our life doesn't move, then what does that imply about death? Doesn't death require the movement of life, if we are to reach the moment of death?

Only within the framework of time does movement take place. If time stops, then life and death do not move. Don't ask how to stop time; it is not an act of will. If you realize that time is a construction, an abstraction, then time disappears as the illusion it is. You do not have to shove time out of consciousness any more than you have to push out darkness to get at the light.

What happens to death when the mind sees through the fabrication of time? Don't answer! Don't move!

in the morning
the poppy opens
at night, it closes

morning glory
here today
gone today
Near the end of the work day, a younger colleague ambled to my office and, earnestly remarked, "I fear death a lot, always have." She went on to say that, from an early age, she witnessed the passing of several relatives. I was moved by the innocence with which she shared her fear of death with me. I felt a strong affinity with my colleague and let her know that I, too, have lived with death anxiety for many years.

She asked me what has helped to allay this anxiety. I told her about numerous retreats on "Conscious Living, Conscious Dying," that I attended for a number of years where I heard many people recall encounters with loved ones who had passed away. My colleague asked me if I believed in reincarnation. I said no, but I'm open to the possibility after hearing so many others recount experiences with deceased loved ones.

In the end, I realized there was nothing I could say that would dissolve my coworker's fear of death. For her, it is the unknown that she fears most. Perhaps we seek knowledge through the better part of our lives in hopes of stumbling upon the key that unlocks the secret of death and what becomes of us after we die. Or, could it be that the unknown itself is death's way of familiarizing us with it, wishing to be befriended by us?

still summer night
I lie in bed listening
to nothing
There are accounts of Zen masters in JAPANESE DEATH POEMS who knew the exact moment in which they would die and astonished others by doing so. We might infer that this is the ultimate in controlling one's destiny, but such knowledge is not rooted fundamentally in the desire to control. To be enlightened is to see clearly what is.

Still, as someone who is admittedly unenlightened, I fantasize not about controlling the moment of my last breath but having a say in the time and place I die. Two years ago, while spending the day at Spring Lake in Santa Rosa, CA over Christmas break, I learned that an old man had gone for a walk but never made it home. As I was leaving, I saw his covered body on a gurney in an ambulance, waiting to whisk away his remains.

December wind
on a sunny park bench. . .
my last breath


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Of course, we think of ourselves as unique and we are in many ways. At the same time, billions of people have come before us and billions--if the earth survives--will come after us. I find it humbling to know that, while no one else can experience "my death," all human beings experience death.

Is it any surprise, then, that I can happen upon another poet's death poem and think: " I could have (or should have) written that!" At such moments, I realize, yet again, that we are all brothers and sisters, though we may look or sound different. It is heartwarming, and my envy dissolves.

merging lanes
that other poet picked up
my death poem

Saturday, July 24, 2010

There is no so-called right way to die. Free yourself of all wishes, hopes, expectations of a particular kind of death--a good death, a peaceful death. Such images only serve to increase, not allay, anxiety. What happens if, when the time comes, dying does not unfold the way you expect? Visions of a good death banish one from his or her own heart.

There is a quiet, imperceptible dying in each moment. We typically don't have any expectations regarding the ending of this moment, or the next, or the one after that. Death is just the next moment. Are you here now?

morning birdsong
my eyelids grow heavy again
morning birdsong

Friday, July 23, 2010

Death is everywhere, always present. It's not just reported in the daily papers or on the evening news: so-and-so murdered; 15 Iraqis die in a car bombing; plane crash--all 237 aboard dead. On the walk to the mailbox lies a lifeless baby bird while in the yard ants swarm a broken snail shell; on the way to work, a squirrel lies motionless in the road, having fallen as it attempted to make its way across a telephone wire. Down the block an ambulance stops in front of the house belonging to our elderly neighbor. We find out a few days later she was rushed to the hospital but died of congestive heart failure en route. The dentist says that decayed tooth needs to come out. There are ten thousand reminders that death is omnipresent, unavoidable. And, yet we continue on each day as though the path we traverse leads into eternity.

walk after rain
returning worms
to the earth
As I've said, early experiences with death affect the way we view and react to death. I was perhaps seven or eight when I convinced my mother to allow me to buy a couple of white mice from our favorite department store in New Jersey--Modells. I created a comfortable home for them out of a carton and shredded newspaper. I loved stroking them and watching the two little mice scurry about; they seemed so carefree.

One morning I removed the lid of the box and discovered that one of the mice lay on its side, frozen in a corner of the box, stiff as could be. I shrunk back in horror. I don't remember who it was--most likely my mother--who gathered the dead mouse up, wrapped it in a handkerchief and placed it in the earth in our backyard. I wouldn't go near it. I insisted that the mouse be properly buried, despite having not been to my grandfather's funeral just a few years before. Within a short time, the other mouse died, too. I found myself in a state of disbelief... feeling guilty, then numb. Never again would I go out and buy a pet of any kind.

early morning cartoons--
over and over characters get killed
then spring back to life

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Death is anything but a neutral word; it comes with a huge emotional charge but it is, after all, a word. As the spiritual teacher, J. Krishnamurti, often observed: "The word is not the thing." What would it be like to approach death without all the associations--images, reactions, memories--that accompany the word?

This may seem all but impossible, at first glance. A meditative approach to death enables one to notice reactions and release them. Slowly, as an inward stillness spreads through one's being, death is approached with emptiness. There is a story about a professor who wished to study Zen. He visited a monastery, where an old Zen teacher greeted him and politely offered the professor a cup of tea. As the old master poured the tea into the professor's cup, it quickly began to spill over and the professor exclaimed: "What are you doing?! You've poured too much." The Zen teacher replied: "If you wish to study Zen, you must come with an empty cup."

Emptiness itself, far from something to be feared, brings one closer to understanding death--the unfathomable. Death is beyond the field of the known, remembered, conceived.

that old urn
now empty
gathering light

zen garden
stands out
I put off having my wisdom teeth out for as long as I could, but my dentist insisted I schedule with an oral surgeon, which I reluctantly did. On the morning of the fateful appointment, as my mate was driving me to the surgeon's office, I felt overcome with terror. I was certain that I was going to die in the chair while under general anesthesia. With growing panic, I did everything in my power to calm my frightened mind: I tried talking supportively to myself, I took deep breaths, I turned the radio dial to soothing classical music, I turned off the radio for silence. . . nothing was working.

Suddenly, unbidden, in my mind's eye, one beloved relative after another appeared. They had all passed away--every one of them--but I could see each of their faces so clearly: My grandmother, grandfather, step grandfather, uncle Morris, aunt Shindy, aunt Rose and Louis, Jean and Harry, Ida and Si. In less than a minute, my mind had come to peace, returned home.

waiting in line
with loved ones
for my turn
I had just turned five when my grandfather suffered a stroke and was taken to the hospital. I have only the vaguest recollection of being in the hospital waiting room as my mother and grandmother spent time with my beloved grandpa during visiting hours. He didn't last long. I never got to see him again; I never got to say goodbye. During his funeral, I was with a baby sitter.

There were lots of tears. For several years, my grandmother was bereft; her happy face disappeared; all I saw was her sad, red eyes and broken heart. I could tell this thing called death was terrible; it caused profound pain and sadness. At age five I learned to dread death.

Can one recover from such intense, formative experiences, or are we condemned to a lifetime of fear and dread? I do think that freedom from the past is possible.

washing my face
still half-asleep
Death is the great democratizer. It razes all classes and hierarchies that are carefully cultivated throughout life. The rich and the poor; the beautiful and the homely; the powerful and the powerless--all of us are subject to the same fate. No exceptions. As Jim Morrison of The Doors eloquently proclaimed: None of us get out of here alive.

Most of us lament our lot in life. We wish we were taller or shorter, thinner or wealthier; healthier, more talented, more famous. All of us long to be "happy," all the while craving and wishing to have more or be more than we are. Our very craving is a major source of unhappiness, dis-ease.

Death levels out all differences, burns away all distinctions. At the end, I am simply a corpse, indistinguishable from every other. "His remains, her remains"--a phrase that is used to describe one and all. It is a rare expression of truth in a world where language is, more often than not, used to obscure truth.

cemetery walk
past small & large gravestones
a grassy knoll
I have long wished to die quietly, unobtrusively, in my sleep. Somehow this has become the ideal way to die. A peaceful death, I suppose, is the ultimate antidote to a life characterized by chaos, violence, longing, grasping--the very opposite of peace in virtually every way.

But, it occurs to me that a so-called peaceful death is nothing more than the ego's wish to exercise control right up to my very last breath. Except for a few enlightened Zen masters, most of us cannot divine our last moment. It almost seems arrogant or presumptuous to think that I can predict or choreograph my own death. I will die when I die; it may be during sleep, but it may be after a period of prolonged agitation or pain. Can I find a way to be all right with whatever happens? Again, my mind is trying to make peace with uncertainty.

that weed in the yard
suddenly pulled up by its roots
a bluejay screeches

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Yoel Hoffmann, in his compilation, JAPANESE DEATH POEMS, referred to death poems as the spiritual legacy left by departing poets. What does spiritual legacy mean? For me, spiritual legacy refers to a distillation or summary of what has mattered most in my life. To put it unpoetically in a nutshell, love is the spiritual legacy that I wish to impart. I realize that this is nothing new; many before and still many more after will sound the note of love as the essence of a life well-lived. That's all right; I simply wish to add my voice to the chorus.

daffodils blooming on his grave
All of us want to continue into perpetuity. We secretly or publicly long to live forever. This cannot be. To have a body is to be limited in terms of time on the planet, at least in this embodied form. How to come to terms with this hard fact of existence?

In Zen Buddhism, there is a koan, or riddle, that goes: "What is your Original Face before even your parents were born?" Koans cannot be answered by the use of reason or logic. They are beyond rational analysis. To solve this koan is to enter into what is known in Zen as the "deathless." The deathless exists because we are also unborn. That which is unborn cannot die. Have you seen your Original Face?

morning light
in the bathroom mirror
morning light
Many fear death because it is the ultimate unknown. No one knows what happens after death. But, this is also true of the time before birth. We don't know what we were doing before we were conceived, yet most people feel undisturbed by this. What would it be like to regard death the same way we regard the time prior to birth?

vast blue sky
the faces in clouds
come and go

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Is there room for humor in death haiku? I certainly hope so! The fact that we are born, grow up, get sick, work hard to achieve, accumulate and accomplish, fall in love (perhaps several times) only to deteriorate and die in the end, suggests ever-so-slightly that life contains more than a hint of absurdity. Ah, but to capture that hint in a haiku is easier said than done. Humor can't be too leaden or the poem sinks to the bottom of the lake; or so light as to float away into the clouds. It is a touch of death awareness that anchors a poem in the ungraspable while infusing it with compassion for the sorrows that inhere in life.

no, she says, you can't
be buried in
your Halloween suit
I wake up this morning and take it for granted: I'm alive. Did I awaken on the in-breath or the out-breath? The mind is already going from the moment my eyes open; it's too busy to notice whether I'm breathing in or breathing out. But, without the breath, there is no consciousness, no life. It is no coincidence that most meditation disciplines include an anchoring in the breath. The word "spirit" means breath. Without the spirit or breath, the body is just a corpse. To what extent do we cherish our breath?

December wind
playing with
my last breath
Someday I will no longer exist in this embodied form. What are the implications of this? Death is the loss of everything and everyone that is dear to me. From the moment we are born, we become passionately attached. However, as Stephen Levine, author of A YEAR TO LIVE, is fond of saying, "If we don't learn to let go during our lifetime, we get a crash course at the end." So true! Death awareness haiku can be a study of impermanence, the fact that everything arises and passes away; that there is nothing to hold on to. This is the Buddha's holy truth.

Haiku is rooted in this moment and each moment is transient, already in flight.

checkout time is noon
I turn in the key
and everything else

With a tinge of anxiousness, I remind myself:

don't wait
don't wait
don't wait

Monday, July 19, 2010

One way to enter your life fully and to practice the art of death awareness poems at the same time is to write a poem each day for a year. This need not be as forbidding as it sounds. You only have to write this one today. Just create the wholehearted intention, and give yourself permission to write the worst death awareness poem in the world.

dying to
this slant of
morning light

Don't know. Don't know is the most honest thing one can say about death; don't know is an existential fact, a sacred truth. Those with strong religious beliefs may counter that they, in fact, know that there is a God and one shall go to heaven, unless he or she has committed unforgivable sins. Such faith exists within the field of the known. Death lies outside the field of the known. No one has died and gone to heaven, returned and reported this. Even those who have had near-death experiences have not actually died.

Uncertainty, then, is what characterizes death. As a species that is wired for survival, we are deeply averse to uncertainty and shrink from it. Our brains have evolved to search out, and cling to, explanations. In such explanations we take refuge, convincing ourselves that they accord us security. But death shatters all illusions of security. Do we have the courage to face our fundamental groundlessness?

long winter break
will I too get to pick a sunny park bench
to take my last breath

Intuition is an alternative to knowledge. With intuition, we discern connections that knowledge can't reveal. The offspring of the marriage between perception and intuition is poetry. At such moments, poetry becomes revelation. I love this haiku by Basho, which is as poignant as any death poem I have ever read:

the temple bell stops
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Death Awareness Poetry Launch

I am new to the blogging world, but I want to create a respectful forum where poets east and west can come to share their death awareness poetry--haiku, senryu, and tanka--on the subject of one's own mortality, not someone else's.

Thank you for taking the time to post your reflections or death awareness poems, which Yoel Hoffmann, editor of JAPANESE DEATH POEMS, describes as the essence of one's "spiritual legacy."

I have edited an anthology of contemporary death awareness poems entitled, DREAMS WANDER ON, which I hope will be out by the end of 2010. The title of the anthology as well as the blog was inspired by the last poem by Basho, the father of Japanese haiku:

sick on a sojourn
over fields of dried grass
dreams wander on

Robert Epstein

Strictly speaking, death poems can only be written by someone who is literally on the verge of death. These poems are known as jisei in Japanese. However, according to Hoffmann, Basho, the father of Japanese haiku and an informal student of Zen Buddhism, maintained that any of his poems could be considered death poems. In this spirit, one may legitimately write any number "death poems" if done so with one's own mortality in mind. However, I have taken to calling such poems "death awareness poems," since they are written when one is alive and well (though, of course, from a certain angle we are all "dying").

Another kind of death poem is known in Japanese as zekku. A zekku is a last poem written by a poet who didn't know he or she was going to die. If you don't want to risk having your last poem be your death poem, then you may want to consider writing death awareness poems along the way and designate one as your official death poem. This was sometimes done by Japanese poets, who didn't trust themselves to be lucid, coherent, or creative in their last moments.

death poem
turning me
inside out

death poem
watching it disappear
into mist

Writing death poems is NOT morbid! Death is not separate from life. They form a single whole. Thus, to write about death is to write about life. Contemplating one's own mortality is to put one in touch with what matters most in each and every moment. As haiku poet vincent tripi observed in Paperweight for Nothing, "We all pass never having spoken enough about death or about poetry." I agree. Let's change that.

death poem
not mine
not yours