Conduct and observance

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Thursday, June 21, 2007


I got busted today for mentioning death in a post a few days back, and then not going into this subject in more detail.

Hence the picture; the the lid of an Etruscan sarcophagus in Tarquinia.

The Etruscans are largely forgotten; for a culture that preceded the Romans and clearly consisted of a blend of Hellenistic and local influences, they left remarkably little record of exactly who they were and what they were up to. We have their elaborate tombs, which celebrate not death, but life, and the mere fragments of their civilization. The bottom line is that we probably know more about what they thought of death than how they lived, and the cheerful pictures in their tombs suggest they thought death was not such a bad deal. That may make this particular sarcophagus lid, with its rather dolorous expression, an anomaly.

The figure on the sarcophagus seems more evocative of the effort of living than the sorrow of dying: a woman not fully formed, struggling up out of the mass of volcanic tuff from which she is carved.

In the same way, all of us struggle to form ourselves in the midst of a life that begins, in youth, like a hot, fluid, magmatic substance and slowly cools and solidifies over a lifetime, until most of us find ourselves in one sense or another trapped in circumstances we did not plan for and under conditions we never anticipated. It is up to us to cope, and, if we're lucky, find a Being within that context.

Hence the fear of death. We are afraid of not Being.

The irony is that if we were not, there could be no fear, because we would not be there to feel it. In a sense, our fear itself is a testament to the fact that we exist, even though we could still exist without that fear.

This reminds me of my ongoing question, can there be nothing? This is a good koan for anyone that lacks for things to ponder.

Anyway, the friend who busted me, up close and personal, pointed out that our fear of death is a fear that comes from the body.

I tend to agree.

Our body is afraid of dying; it does not know anything than what it is, it isn't well-educated, and in its partial manner, derived in large part from its biological origins, it wants to stick around. It does not recognize itself as a chrysalis in which something remarkable can form. In fact, it does not realize that in a higher sense it is nothing more than a creation of our Being itself, and from that point of view it can never be lost and will always exist.

We might think of the body as being something like a leaf on a tree. It is a part that is grown within the conditions it arises in in order to collect a certain kind of energy to feed the higher self. When its work is done, it shrivels and drops off the tree, but the tree is still there.

As we grow older, I think most of us lose our fear of dying a bit. I see this in my much older friends. Nonetheless, the body will always have its fear. The only way to integrate that into a healthier and more understanding picture is to work on the question of the inner unity that we have discussed so often in this blog.

As for myself, I have stared death down on a couple of occasions. I saw death looking at me in the mirror the day that I quit drinking in 1981; I saw death when I had a head-on collision in 1995. Both times, death did not look like anything I thought it would, and my reactions were nothing like I thought reactions to death would be. In both cases, my guardian angels were looking over me, and although I stared down the gullet, I was not swallowed.

Nowadays when I wake up in the morning and sense my breathing, the overwhelming sense is one of mortality, but it is not depressing. It is just one more fact that needs to be incorporated into this existence as I explore what it means to be human.

Jeanne De Salzmann announced after Ouspensky's death, "there is no death." I have heard others with varying degrees of authority say this.

I agree, it is true, there is no death, but there is an end to the body that we are in now. This is a sobering matter that should be considered quite carefully as we proceed through each day. Dogen remarked that bodies are hard to get and that the Dharma is difficult to encounter (Eihei Koroku.) He therefore advised us to practice as though extinguishing flames from our head.

As usual, his advice is unerring.

May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.

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