Tosotsu Juetsu Osho set up three barriers for his disciples.
Monks, you leave no stone unturned to explore the depths, simply to see
into your True Nature. Now I want to ask you, just at this moment: where
is your True Nature?
If you realize your True Nature, you are free from life and death. Tell
me, when your eye sight deserts you at the last moment, how can you be free
from life and death?
When you set yourself free from life and death, you should know your ultimate
destination. So when the four elements separate, where will you go?"
This is a very important koan, about death. All religions deal with
the question of death, so much so that someone has said that religions are
a defense against or a denial of death. And not only religions, even civilizations
and cultures are a sort of defense in dealing with death. All of us have
to face this question of dying, death, and what´s beyond death.
In Zen it´s an important theme, which comes back again and again. There
are so many koans about this. But passing the koans is not enough. One must
come to a deeper realization. You are all the time dying---that is part of
us, life and death. Like day and night it is part of us. We are born, we
grow, we die. Maybe when you´re younger you don´t think of it
much. Maybe when you´re older or when you get ill or when somebody
close to you dies, then you face this question of death: simply that this
physical existence will not be here after a few years.
Say, for example, sometimes you think: if there is no accident, no cancer,
no heart attack, maybe I can live 20 or 30 years more. But the years go
in no time, time flies, your´re suddenly there. When I entered the
priesthood---the Jesuits usually take 15 years---my mother said: "Fifteen
years!" And I said: "Fifteen years, what shall you do?" but
it was no time. When I went for Zen to Japan in ´78 they said that
going through the whole koan process takes 10 to 15 years. I thought: "My
God, I can´t do that". But time flies.
Suddenly we´re old, sick and maybe facing death today or tomorrow.
We are like fragile flowers; we bloom and then fade out in no time. Fifteen
or twenty years you grow, you learn to live, maybe then you work for thirty
years and then get a sickness or you fall down, finished. Sometimes we think
we are so strong. But we are not omnipotent, we are all fragile flowers.
Our life can be beautiful, because we are so fragile, so mortal, so passing---beautiful!
Physical death is the final symbol of void and nullity of be-ing. All through
our life we are surrounded and penetrated by this nothing and void. Separation,
loss, pain, abandonment and above all, meaninglessness and loneliness belong
to it. Humans try to ward off this evil of the void by "managing" their lives, and as the void bites pieces off them and their world they
try to remake and recompose their world so as to keep the wolf at bay. But
the prowling wolf cannot be kept away completely, or forgotten or denied.
It is at our doors, looking at us with gleaming, lusting eyes and open jaws.
But then, how do we face this question of our own sickness and mortality?
The three questions are thus:
1. You come here seeking to realize your True Nature. But don´t wait
for tomorrow. Just
here and now, when you are struggling: what is your True Nature? Can you
here and now?
2. If you realize your True Nature, you are free from life and death. I
ask you: when you
are dying, at that very time how will you become free from life and death?
3. Once you are free from life and death, you know where you go ultimately.
death, where do you go?
Very important questions, all connected. Who are we? What is reality? What
is truth? These questions are not separate. What is my life? What is the
meaning of my life? What is death?
Of course, regarding death there can be many reactions. Maybe earlier people
thought of heaven and hell but now many don´t believe in such things
any more. "You die; it´s finished", some people think. Or
some people believe: "Well, we never die, we go on, maybe as stones,
trees and so on." Or some may believe;"I´m one with the whole
thing, I will live". Or, some think that the Self or Person is different
from "nature", from things, and that the Person is immortal, eternal.
Some people dont´really face this question. They say: "I don´t
bother, I want to live, that´s all". Some feel: "If you live
your life fully, a nice life, it´s all right. When my time comes, I´ll
But what if you do not live your life fully? And particularly if there is
so much death around you, all the time. What do you do? Do you simply say: "Forget about all that" and go on? How do you face this? Or do
you simply say: "Well, there is another life after this one, don´t
worry about death"?
Religions also give answers. Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam---each
tries to give answers. But I think no one religious answer will satisfy
us. Finally these are all answers coming from the outside. That will not
be enough. So how do you face life and death in your life? Who are you ? What is life? What is the meaning of life? Of course you can
say: "We can´t answer these questions" and just sit there.
But is that enough?
One of the many koans about this:
One day Dogo, accompanied by his disciple
Zengen, went to visit a family in which a funeral was to take place, in
order to express their sympathy. Zengen touched the coffin and said: "Tell
me, please, is this life or is this death?"
There is a corpse lying there. The disciple looks at the corpse and asks
his master:"Is this living or is this dead?" Dogo said: "I
will not tell you if this is life or if this is death. I won´t tell
"I won´t" means "I can´t". You
can´t simply say: it is death. There is more than death here. You can´t
say: it is living. There is more than living here.
"When we look deeply at things, we see that this idea about birth
and death is mistaken..... No phenomenon whatsoever can come into existence
out of nothing, and no phenomenon which exists can become nothing. Things
are ceaselessly transforming. The cloud does not die; it only becomes rain.
The rain is not born; it is only the transformation and continuation of
the cloud. Leaves, a pair of shoes, joy and sorrox, all conform to this
principle of no-birth and no-death. To think that after death we continue
to exist without change is called the ´view of permanence´. Reality
transcends both permanence and annihilation."
Zengen said: "Why don´t you tell me". Dogo said: "No
I will not tell you". On their way home Zengen said: "Teacher,
be kind enough to tell me. If not, I´m going to hit you." Hitting
the master is supposed to be one of the worst crimes. But the disciple is
so desperate that he says this. He thinks the master can give him the answer.
Dogo said: "Strike me if you like, but I will not tell you", and
Zengen beat him up. Later after the death of Dogo, Zengen went to Sekiso
and told him the whole story and asked him: "Please, help me now".
He is carrying this burden with him still. And Sekiso said: "I will
not tell you if it is life or death". Zengen asked: "Why don´t
you tell me?" Sekiso: "No, I will not tell you". Upon hearing
this Zengen attained sudden realization.
There is a similar koan about Chosa. Sancho, a disciple of Rinzai, sent
a monk to ask Chosa about the dead teatcher Nansen. The monk asked Chosa: "Where did Nansen go after his death?" Chosa said: "When
Sekiso was a young monk he met master Eno". So, nothing which has to
do with the question; he seems to be talking about something else. The monk
said: "I was not asking about Sekiso, I was asking about Nansen after
death". And Chosa said: "Go and ask Nansen". And the monk
said: "You´re a great master, and you can´t even answer this".
And Chosa kept silent, didn´t say anything. And the monk said: "Thank
you very much for answering like that". Chosa kept silent. And then
he told about this to Sancho, who said: "If Chosa can answer like that,
he is greater than Rinzai. I´ll go and see for myself". So he
came to Chosa: "I heard of your wonderful answer; nobody has ever before
answered like that". And Chosa still kept silent.
This is a beautiful koan. the point is: you can´t really answer about
this. Whatever words you´re going to use, they´re only words.
You can also say: "Keep silent like this man: you can´t answer;
these are all mysteries; no one knows about that". There is another
nice case: Someone asked a master: "What happens after death?"
He said: "I dont´t know, I´m not dead yet". There are
lots of humorouous things like this, too. Of course you can answer some
way, but not giving words on which you can hang something, so to speak.
Silence alone is not enough, is it?
Ikkyu, the famous master, went to see one of his lay-friends who was dying.
Ho told him: "I will now guide you to your last end". The man,
a Zen disciple, said: "I don´t need your guidance. I came alone,
I go alone". Ikkyu said: " If you think you came alone and you
go alone, that´s your illusion. I´ll teach you where there is
no coming and no going". And the man, when he heard that, smiled and
died. This is a beautiful one: "where there is no coming and no going",
to be able to teach that!
And so, how do you face your own life? It´s not only about death. Connected
with your death, you must all the time learn to let go. Falling asleep is
a form of death. But we do that easily, because we got used to it as children,
before we were caught in reasoning. Therefore it comes easily. If you were
not used to this falling asleep, perhaps you would not be able to do it:
letting go of everything. Forgetting everything, falling into unconsciousness.
Even thinking of that can be frightening. But we are used to it,
we are sure we will wake up, and so we fall asleep. Falling asleep is a
form of dying.
Actually the major problem may be that we are ready to die physically, but
we want to leave an image of ourselves in the world. That you are holy,
that you are great, that you are good---some image. That you are a loving
father or a loving mother. We are attached to our image. It is a form of
perpetuating ourselves. We can build a monument or leave some children to
carry on our name.
Someone has written a book The Denial of Death . He says: it is not
sex, it is not other things which are the major problem, it is facing our
death. All the time we are trying to escape into ecstasies, into religion,
we do not really face our dying. There is no way of escaping the void. Of
course you can deny it, or manage your life with various defenses, get yourself
lost by being busy in loving, working, or what-not. But only by going through
the great void, through utter darkness and loneliness and meaninglessness,
only by surrendering yourself to this bottomless abyss, can you be "redeemed"
and liberated. This liberation and redemption is not merely of your own
making. As Paul put it: "I live now, not I, but Christ in me".
This is a description of such an experience.
Two thing I want to cite. One is from Thich Nhat Hanh. I like him very much;
he writes very well. But even though he is a Zen monk I have somequestions
about his approach to life and death. I´ll read what he writes:
"The five elements which combine together to become the thing
we call self: the body, feelings, perceptions, mental factors, and consciousness.....
All five elements are constantly transforming. They are never born and never
But I find this way of talking inadequate. What do you mean by "All
our elements are only transformed"? Do you mean to say simply that
the elements are transformed; tomorrow we will be changed into worms, into
earth, into air; that´s all? Is that life after death? Or if you say:
"Nothing is destroyed, your self will not be destroyed" --- What
is that? Still talking from outside. You don´t touch deeply. If these
ideas are meant to be pointers, OK. But as a full commentary it seems to
On the other hand, I was reading a very fine book on the Tarot1. The chapter
on death is beautiful. It talks about four levels of memory. The first level
is automatic, mechanical memory. You remember thing that you did yesterday.
This mechanical memory will come and go; you may forget things. Our selfhood,
our consciousness is very much bound with memory of our history and experiences.
Second, there is a logical memory. Logical means you can reason out what
is what, what the consequence of something is. Third, there is moral memory.
This means dealing with justice. Say, for example, so many people are killed
in Bosnia. What happens to all of them? What is justice? Is there justice
after death? These are questions we face. We are happy here, sitting here
enjoying our lives. Do we ask questions like that? Moral memory disturbs
Then there is a dimension of vertical memory. Vertical memory seems to mean
a sort of sense that we are in touch with a reality which transcends space
and time. We can somehow (as Ikkyu says) come to where there is no coming
and no going. Can you also come to be in touch with, to be aware of, a dimension
in you, which is beyond life and death? And can you therefore go through
life and death?
There are many levels in our being. Is there a dimension which will not
be destroyed, which will always be there? In ordinary life we must accept
life and death, night and day. That´s no problem for most of us. Accepting
this is a nondualistic approach. But the question is: is that all? Or is
there a sort of self which transmigrates and goes on and on? Where will
you go after death, as this koan asks? But even asking about this "you" seems to be too egoistic. How do you experience that self, transcending
birth and death?
Can you awaken to this dimension? On one level, of course, you can come
to experience the mystery, the emptiness. You can say, Well, I can accept
life, I can live it freely; I can at the same time live in that mystery,
that emptiness. You can say that. But can you experience deeply the
other dimension, which is beyond life and death?
You remember I sometimes quote to you this saying of the Buddha: " Monks,
if there were not an unborn, unconditioned, undying, there would be no deliverance
for the born, for the dying, for the conditioned, for the limited".
And so, is that a self, one with yourself, or a part of you? Even, can you
conceptualize like that?
I struggled for a long time with this koan. When I passed it with Yamada
Roshi, it was exciting but I forgot it after that. Then it came back to
me. When I reached my middle age, this koan came back again and again, asking:
what survives? what is that self? is it there at all, or is it nothing?
Can you simply say, as some Buddhists say and Thich Nhat Hanh quotes: the
elements just transmigrate, there is no self, everything goes? Or is there some self, as Christianity says? That seems too narrow, too egoistic.
Or is it as in one Hindu view, which says that the one who really transmigrates
is the Lord (Shiva). Shiva means Self. It is not the small self, it is the
Lord himself---and there is only one Lord, who plays in so many faces. Is
that enough? I had to struggle with that for years and years. Although I
had gone through all the koans and had had many experiences, I still struggled
for a long time. Only recently I came to a sort of deep realization.
But of course each person must awaken to this realization. In the process
of going through the koans, you learn the Zen perspective on life. Maybe
you can even come to the experience of emptiness. But that is still not
enough. Some time you must awaken to your True Self. You can´t force
that awakening, but you can be seeking, questioning. And some time or other
you awaken to this dimension. It is not a matter of oneself alone. You also
listen to scriptures, you listen to teachers. At the same time you question
deeply, till you come experientially to realize, to awaken, to touch and
see: "Ah, that is it, yes". All of us can come to this. Of course
it is not a matter of one or two years. If you can be open to this, if you
can seek, if you can be all the time focused on this, and then only if it
is your life koan, you can come to realize it. All other ways of working
with the koans are simply play. That can be educative and liberating, but
still it is not your life koan. Only some koans can be your life koan. So
keep the life koan for yourself.
I want to mention Etty Hillesum. I have been reading her very touching letters.
She was a young Jewish woman; 33 she was when she died in a concentration
camp. The way she went through life and came to inner freedom is not a way
that you should imitate; rather, you must awaken to this reality yourself.
She was living in the midst of death, tourture, suffering. In spite of
all she could say:
"God, you have made me so rich, please let me share out your beauty
with openness. My life has become an untinerrupted dialogue with you, oh
God. Sometimes, when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted
in your earth, my eyes raised towards your heaven, sometimes tears are running
down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude."
How can we understand this? She knows that everyone will be killed and still
she says: "I´m filled with gratitude and joy" and "There
is a space in myself and nothing can take that away; I´m free".
Of course she addresses God---that doesn´t matter. God is a dimension
of reality, that is yourself or in yourself. Somehow when you come and touch
that, you are transformed. That is a thing that we cannot simply bring about
by our own saying: "I will, I want". It is only by a sort of opening
ourselves, by grace.
As the author of the book on Tarot says: "Birth is always preceded
by sleep, you must learn to sleep, to let go, to forget". You must
learn to fall asleep, to forget, then you awaken in another dimension. That
is also a part of life: to be able to awaken like that all the time. There
is a time of learning to let go, of waiting, forgetting and awakening.
Let me end with two little Zen incidents. One is from Tozan, when he was
dying. A monk asked him: "Master, is there somebody who is not sick?"
He said, "Yes, there is somebody who is not sick." The monk: "Does
this person, who is not sick, look at you?" And the master said, "It
is not for him to look at me, it is for this old monk to look at him".
The monk asked, "How do you look at him, at him who is not sick?"
The master: "When I look at him who is never sick, there is no sickness
at all." So that is a way of saying: there is also somebody in me who
is never sick, who is beyond sickness and dying. But it is a little abstract,
Tokusan, another Zen master, was asked the same question on his deathbed: "Is there somebody who is not sick?" He said: "Yes, there
is". And then the monk asked: "How do you look at him?" And
Tokusan said, "Aaooah, aaooah aah". This means that he is suffering.
Thus, there is no difference between the one who is not sick and the one
who is sick. That was his teaching.
If you can come to realize this dimension, then you can go through your
life and death freely. Life and death are like night and day, or your two
feet, they are nothing apart from you. At the same time, don´t hold
on to these concepts, thinking "Now I am above all these things".
That is only an idea; don´t cling to that. You have to lose yourself,
surrender yourself totally to this life. Only when you face death, when
you´ve gone through life and death like that, can you come really to
live this life. Then we can totally surrender ourselves. As Dogen said:
"When you die, just die."
The danger in some Zen stories, though, is that people can do these koans
and then say things like "I have no problem with death any more; when
you die, just die." But there is also a time to face suffering and
sorrow and death, a time to mourn. There is a time for mourning and grieving.
Don´t forget that. Sometimes Zen tries to be heroic, as in this story:
A man came to Enkan, who was master in Kyoto, and asked: "How do I
go beyond death?" Enkan beat him and threw him out, saying "There
is no life and death in my place." It is too heroic, talking like that.
It may be nice to hear stories like that, but the danger is that your vulnerability,
sickness, fear, mourning are wiped away by trying to be too heroic. That´s
wrong. You must also mourn, grieve, suffer. All these things are part of
life. And through all this you must come to realize your undying
self. You surrender yourself to it, to sorrow, to death, to all those things,
to be totally able to live your life, totally accept your human condition.
Most often it is only when we get an incurable illness that it becomes clear
what accepting the human condition really means. It is in and through such
an experience of being human, being mortal and weak and heir to our thousand
illnesses and humiliations, that you come to realize the be-ing beyond birth
and death. By going through all this, not denying it.
About trying to run away from the human condition, the author of the Tarot
book says: "There are two realities in life, two pillars --- night and
day, death and life --- and we go through these. And the devil has a third
way". What is the third way? He calls it crystallization. He says that
the devil, or false teachers, suggest to you a way of making your mind and
body by which you prolong your life. Then you will not face death, you will
be immortal. This is a deception. People try to do that, to acquire magical
powers, to become immortal, undying. This is to want to be a statue --- that
is all you can do to perpetuate yourself. Or become a salt statue --- you
can rigidify, crystllize yourself like that. Some yogis, some Taoists, practise
such crystallization of "immortal body".
Many spiritual paths are actually like that, teaching us how to be immortal,
undying. This is denial of death, escape from life, and not really coming
to true awakening. Dont´t be caught by these false ways. There are
so many false ways, trying to escape from all these things. Addiction is
another form of escape from our human condition, our mortality.
Come to true awakening and then you can totally accept the human condition.
For this to happen, be open to your life koan. However it may come to you,
take your life koan. Face that koan. Go deeper and deeper, keep that koan,
till you really awaken. Facing death is our great koan. Now, go back to
Tosotsu´s Three Barriers.
1.Meditations on the Tarot: a Journey into Christian Hermeticism, Anonymous, Amity Hous, Amity New York, 1985.