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‘Zen, Death and me’ by Maurice Shokatsu George

‘Having reached my ninth decade, I’ve passed through many phases and experiences. It would be surprising if I as a Zen practitioner had given no thought to death and its implications. In my youth I thought I’d ‘dance forever and a day’. Years passed and nothing changed; death was for old people. In my life as a Buddhist since 1995, I’ve found that the question of death is unavoidable. So inevitably the teachings of the Buddha have had a profound effect on my outlook.

I remember my pre-Buddhist life with sadness and some guilt. I used to be an expert swearer, a dedicated drinker, a sex-obsessed sensualist and a time-waster. I’m glad to say that I’ve extinguished three out of these four unwholesome inclinations. (Guess which!) I had a few more redeeming interests: humanism, socialism, egalitarianism, etc etc. My only moment of curiosity about Buddhism came when I found a book called ‘The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha’ dated 1955. When I read ‘This being, that becomes’, I instantly gave up. I still have this tattered paperback. Buddhism was for cranks. I simply wasn’t ready. It’s only now that I realise that this is one of the most profound and revolutionary teachings on causality.

Through my Zen lens, I detest the superficial attitudes to death which have become embedded in British culture. It’s the great unmentionable. Funerals are generally dedicated to hiding the facts of death and a profitable industry has grown around a sentimental avoidance of the issues. Many of you will have attended a funeral at a crematorium where the corpse (safely nailed inside a coffin) slides away behind the curtains into a hidden furnace. This is nothing but amateur theatricals.

So what’s my alternative? I’m fully prepared for my death. It will not come as a surprise. There will be no funeral. No limousines. No flowers. No urn filled with my ashes. I shall be cremated in private and that will probably be the end of me. I’ve written a farewell letter with my last utterance in this life and on this earth. The letter is already printed and put in envelopes to be sent to my friends and simply announcing my death.

I am not afraid of dying. Of course I’d prefer it to be a painless experience but that’s not guaranteed. What lies beyond? Nobody knows. I refuse to speculate. Everlasting life? An appalling idea. Rebirth? Ditto. Nirvana? Wow! Hell? Oh dear, where did I go wrong? Oblivion? Very likely.

The Japanese origins of Zen have produced some remarkable texts. I have a book called ‘Japanese Death Poems’ which is closely connected with our Path. It has been a long tradition especially for Zen monks on their deathbeds to write haikus. Here’s a sample:

‘People, when you see the smoke,

Do not think

It is fields they’re burning’.

Most of the poems are more conventional and refer to plum blossoms, snow and the moon. I prefer more down-to-earth themes. The famous Doctor Johnson is alleged to have said to a visitor, ‘Die, my dear sir? That’s the very last thing I shall do.’ Or how about Woody Allen: “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” And this was Jimi Hendrix: ‘I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.’ Mark Twain said, ‘The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time’.

Changing the medium, I’ve just seen a brilliant film called ‘Departures’ which portrays traditional Japanese attitudes to death and the reactions of a young man, starting with his horror at encountering a corpse and gradually progressing to a loving understanding of death and the living. My tears fell. Another film on dying is ‘Soylent Green’ which shows a future world dying from the greenhouse effect; it ends with an idyllic euthanasia. And I must mention ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, a fantasy view of an afterlife.

On the Internet, there are endless resources on Buddhism. I quite liked a page called ‘How to become a Buddha’, accompanied by an advertisement for fibre-optic broadband. Every Sutra is available online so it would be comforting to believe that the Dharma will spread throughout the world.

To conclude, if you ask me about the meaning of life, I’ll have to disappoint you. We are all together in this mysterious system. We will all die. Why are we here? I haven’t the slightest idea. Is it all a waste of time, or a spiritual experiment or part of a galactic plan? Who cares?

There are many versions of the Buddha’s last words. This is my favourite: ‘Let the Dharma and the discipline that I have taught you be your teacher. All individual things pass away. Strive on, untiringly.’

Maurice George

January 2017