At the Bay Area Dharma Seminar on February 24, 2016 Norman offers Talk 9 of Old Path White Clouds: On How To Die, and Emptiness Teachings.
Old Path White Clouds, Talk 9
By Norman Fischer | Feb 24, 2016
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
The beautiful story of Bacali gives us teachings for how to deal with death and what can be a difficult, painful passage to death. I think it depends on your sense of identity. If you are absolutely convinced that 100% of who you are is your body, the things you have done, your memory, your history and your relationships, I think death is bad news for you, and it is going to be scary. But if the identity expands to include all of life, what you have always been, your ongoing process of life, and the sky and clouds and plants and earth, then death can truly be felt as a great joining.
The truth is that when we are young, we don’t think like that, because we are focused on our sense of identity, our embeddedness in the world, and all the things we have to accomplish. But even when we are young, we are already working on practicing dharma and working on seeing a bigger view of our lives. When we are older, and when it becomes time for us, it is a lot easier to have the sense of a shifting identity. But even when you are older, it is pretty hard to do. So if you don’t have a head start, it will be even harder.
Bacali’s whole life was an opening to identity; he practiced this at the end of his life. If we are lucky, we can look forward to that time of expansion. It doesn’t mean dying is peaceful or without a lot of stress. No, it isn’t peaceful. Bacali had a lot of trouble, but at a deeper level, despite the trouble, he was a happy person and a person who was grateful for what was happening to him.
There is a passage here that reminds me of what I have always been saying: Buddhism comes down to “Don’t make things worse.” People laugh when I say this, but here is the Buddha saying the same thing. The Buddha says, “As living beings, people have to suffer more or less.” This is astonishing, because you always think of the Buddha talking about the end of suffering, promising that suffering is going to be over.It makes me laugh, actually. Some people come to study Buddhism, thinking that this will be the ultimate app. All the suffering is going to be gone, if only you practice Buddhism. But I think that is impossible. So Buddha says, “As living beings, people have to suffer more or less.” Yes, more or less, and that’s the key thing: more or less. So make your choice. Would you like to suffer more, or would you rather suffer less? That actually is the choice.
The Buddha said,
Those who devote themselves to the study and practice of the dharma suffer a lot less than the other ones, because they possess understanding, the fruit of their practice.
Thanks to his understanding, a practitioner can prevent pain in himself and others from being intensified.
When an unpleasant feeling, physical or mental, arises in him, the wise man does not worry, complain, weep, torture his body and mind. He calmly observes his feeling, and he is aware that it is a feeling, or if it is a thought, he is aware that it is a thought.
If there is a painful physical feeling, he knows it is a physical feeling. It is unpleasant, but he doesn’t lose his calmness; he doesn’t worry or fear or complain. He doesn’t add more arrows on top of the first arrow. Thus the feeling remains painful, but it is not able to grow and ravage his whole being. He doesn’t let that physical feeling spread to his whole sense of identity.
The bhikkhu contemplates interdependence and the nature of the body and the feelings, so that he will not be bound by the body and the feelings, even pleasant ones. If he needs all his strength to bear the pain, he should observe, “This is the kind of pain that takes all my strength to bear.”
This pain is not my identity. I am not this pain. I am not being spun around and being victimized by this pain. The body and the feelings at this moment are like a lamp with the oil and wick running out.
It is by conditions that light manifests and ceases to manifest. We all know that dying is going to happen, and when it happens, let’s not be surprised and protest. I am not bound by conditions. If you practice in this way, calmness and release will eventually come.
If you are in a condition of pain and sickness, it’s not fun. You aren’t going to be sitting there blissfully, with the half smile of the Buddha. You are going to be in a bad way. It actually may be an advantageous condition that causes you to being willing to practice with diligence.
It turns out that zazen is a great practice for dying. What are you doing this morning? Oh, I am practicing dying. This practice is a common thing in religious life. They say that the monastics in Catholicism would have coffins in their rooms and would sleep in them to get used to the idea. Tibetan monks would also rehearse dying. That’s a very cheerful thing. It sounds morbid when I say it, but actually, when you think about it, if you are confident with the thought of dying, it is wonderful. What do you have to be afraid of? What could go wrong? You could die. Well, okay, then. Whatever else goes wrong, why would I worry? Why not enjoy myself?
The next subject I want to bring up is my favorite subject: emptiness. The teachings of emptiness are really important in Buddhism. They appear in the early teachings and are emphasized even more in the later teachings in Mahayana Buddhism.
When I was thinking of this today, I remembered that Thich Nhat Hanh, when he first came to America in the 1980’s, revolutionized our collective understanding of the emptiness teachings. He gave everybody a very different flavor, a different feeling. Now, I don’t think he says anything original that is not already in the tradition, the Indian style of explanation that we were all raised on. The Indian explanation was a little severe and philosophical, and so was the usual Chinese Zen style, that was sharp and harsh sounding. After all, the word “emptiness” is already scary. That is the way we all looked at it.
Along comes Thich Nhat Hanh, who made the whole thing seem so poetic and wonderful. He combined, as Zen normally does, the teachings on emptiness with the Avatamsaka Sutra (the Flower Ornament Sutra) teachings about the oneness and all-inclusiveness of everything. Each thing is all inclusive; each thing is full and complete. He had a beautiful way of talking about that. Nagarjuna’s idea of emptiness is dependent co-arising. Thich Nhat Hanh coined the word “inter-being,” which had never existed in the Buddhist language. He became very famous for this word inter-being. It makes emptiness sound nice, doesn’t it? If you say It is inter-being, instead of, It is empty, you are happy. Instead of thinking, Someone snatched something away from me., we’re thinking: Inter-being. Good, I’ve got more stuff than I had before!
Thich Nhat Hanh made “emptiness” less foreboding and more positive.The basic meaning of emptiness is: this is because that is; that is because that is. There is no this without that. There are no things without togetherness.
As he says in the text,
What is a fixed, separate self? It is a self that exists completely on its own, independent of all other elements. There is no such thing. No dharma possesses a separate self. That’s the meaning of emptiness.
This was what I was talking about a moment ago. Can you at the time of death ban your identity? This is what he is saying here. Expanding our identity is recognizing that this small thing, that you are so terrified of losing, has never been you to begin with. You expand your identity to what you really are and have always been.