Norman gives the fifth talk of the Santa Sabina Sesshin on Practicing With Death. In this talk Norman also speaks on the koan “Ziyong’s Last Teaching”.
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Sep 22, 2012
Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
For those of you, like me, who are preparing for death, I have some teachings for you by Baizhang:
Zen study is like washing a dirty garment. The garment is originally there, and the dirt is added from the outside. Having heard that all sound and form, existent or not, is such dirt, do not set your mind on any of it at all. The thirty marks of greatness and the eighty-two refinements of the Buddha under the tree of enlightenment are all in the province of form. The twelve sections of the doctrines of the Canon are all in the province of sound.
Right now cut off sound and form, existent or not, your mind will be like space. You should study in this way as attentively as you would save your head from burning. Only then will you be capable of finding a road pre-prepared to go upon when you come to the end of your life. If you have not accomplished that yet, if you try to start composing yourself when you get to the moment of death, you will have no hope of success.
That’s Baizhang’s teaching on how to prepare for death.
The idea of consciousness as a pure, white cloth goes back to the Surangama sutra. That sutra says, “The white cloth of consciousness is tied in six knots,” which are the five senses and thinking. Because of these knots, the mind gets trapped by the senses into creating a messy world, which is called by Baizhang “dirt.” But the dirt is not part of the garment. It’s not built into the garment. The garment is pure and white. You are pure. You are perfect. We are all pure and perfect.
Baizhang says, “Don’t set your mind on sound and form.” Sound and form are short hand for all mental activity, all thinking, all feeling, all perception. Don’t set your mind on these things, like setting concrete. Let everything be fluid and flexible. Let everything flash up and flash away. Then you can stay clear and fresh.
Not only are thinking and feeling potentially dirt producing, he says, but even the teachings and the awesome presence of buddhas could be dirt producing. Any outside object that appears, don’t set your mind on it. This is a specific practice instruction, and it is also a specific instruction for dying. If you want to practice this instruction on the moment of dying, the idea is you better start now, because it may be too late to start then.
“Cut off sound and form, and your mind will be like space,” he says. Drop everything right now, with every breath. Let everything go right now, with every breath. Let your life end now with this breath. Then be born again with the next breath. Don’t ruminate or cogitate. Don’t carry yourself along like a big, heavy burden. Be relaxed, yet present in a decisive and drastic way. Every moment is the last. Then, you will be at ease, just the way space is at ease: empty, open, yielding, ready to receive anything. Not rejecting anything. When you practice like this with a great and serious determination, you will see a road ahead prepared when you come to the end of your life.
What is the worst thing? Fear. Terror. Regret. You become terrified when you don’t know where you are going, when you don’t know where the next step is. But if you prepare yourself by entering space right now in zazen, and you train yourself over and over again, then when you are dying, a road opens up right in front of you. You will see that you can walk on that road, and you won’t be afraid. You will be happy to be going somewhere, where the knots are untied, and there are no more painful limitations. And you better start now, Baizhang says, working on this every day, so you will be ready when the time comes. It is really important. If you wait too long, it is going to be too late.
Practicing this way is good for life too, because we are dying all the time. Dying all the time is what we call life. What’s life? Dying all the time.
Here is another teaching by Baizhang on how to die:
When facing the end, generally beautiful scenes appear. [Isn’t that good news!] According to your mental inclinations, the most impressive are experienced first. If you do not do bad things now, then there will be no unpleasant scenes when you face death. Even if there are some unpleasant scenes, they too will change into pleasant ones.
I have the feeling that when he says “unpleasant scenes,” this may be a bit of an understatement. If you have been shaky in your practice and your life, if your compassion is not very available to you, if your kindness is hardly known, if you have a lot of enemies, if you’ve done a lot of nasty things, if your mind is full of denial and painful regret and aggression, then you might have a really bad time of it. But it sounds like Baizhang thinks that death itself is very merciful. Eventually, if you don’t freak out too much, you will find some peace anyway. I don’t know how Baizhang knows this, but if he is right, it is very good news.
Then he goes on to say:
If you fear that you will go mad with terror at the moment of death and will fail to attain freedom, then you should first be free right now. Then you will be all right. Right now, with respect to each and every thing, don’t have any obsession at all, and do not remain fixated on intellectual interpretation. Then you will be free.
This is the key to having some ease in dying and to not go completely crazy: don’t have any obsessions or any fixed, intellectual interpretations. This sounds funny. You would think that you would not be debating intellectual things when you are dying: Let me see, is there God or not? Is there free will? I think that he means letting all thought, perceptions, images, and sounds to gently arise, and then letting them go. If something really strong comes, and you get stuck on it with fear – if fear sticks you to something – then the thing you are stuck to will get bigger and bigger, and it will get more and more scary. If fear comes, and you get stuck to the fear, then the fear gets bigger and turns into panic.
So make your mind gentle and let everything come and go. This is not having obsessions. Then, try not to get fixated on your interpretations. For instance, you might say, “Oh, my God, I’m dying. This is terrible!” But that would be an interpretation. No one is ever dying. No one ever dies. Death is entirely conceptual. The only thing is coming and going, coming and going, coming and going, coming and going – forever.
Whatever your interpretation about who you are, what is going on, or who anyone else is, you try not to get stuck on it. You try to come back to the immediacy of what is going on. Then, he says, you will be free, and death is merciful. Death will take care of you. You don’t have to do anything. Just let death take care of you.
It is obvious that this instruction is for life as well as death.
In Japanese tradition, dying is called “returning to silence.” That’s really beautiful, isn’t it? Silence is nirvana. Peace. It isn’t a big absence. It is the potential for everything and anything to arise – the charged emptiness of life and death.
We can feel it in our sitting. Once all our struggles to be, or to do this or that, have exhausted themselves, our mind becomes simple and willing and soft.
So the time we have remaining in this beautiful, silent sesshin, let’s try to practice like this. We are all getting ready for dying, clearing away the old, gnarled underbrush of a lifetime’s confusion. Little by little, we peer ahead, and we see the beautiful road opening up.
A sangha member said to me, “I thought death was the problem. But separating from those you love is the problem.” I think that is right. So maybe we will have a lot of tears. But maybe not! Maybe if we are steadfast enough, we will see that we are not leaving anyone. Who knows? Anyway, we will find out soon enough.