The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, February 17, 2018
Spirituality ... Zen ...

Our Zen sangha recently discussed a koan called “Kyogen Mounts The Tree“. It’s about a sage named Kyogen who describes a man hanging onto a tree branch with his teeth, while dangling over a steep cliff. The koan did not specify why this man could not grab on to the branch with his arms and hands — perhaps he was disabled? And just how did the guy get into this predicament? That would require a sensible answer, and koans are not in the business of providing sensible answers.

Anyway, according to the koan story, someone else came along and saw the poor fellow up in the tree, hanging on for life. The sojourner did not make any attempt to rescue Kyogen’s friend — perhaps there isn’t much that could have been done in ancient times, a time without cell phones and body harnesses and helicopters. So, the passer-by decided to ask the hanging man a question: Why does Bodhidharma come to China from India? This question puts Kyogen’s man in a quandry — if he stays quiet, he “fails” — presumably he misses his chance to spread the dharma and perhaps attain his own enlightenment (for it is in teaching that we learn the most). But by staying mum, he keeps alive the hope that somehow, something will rescue him. If he does decide to answer, he goes down into the chasm, and dies on the rocks below. But in the few seconds of his fall, he might attain enlightenment (or at least bring the passer-by to it — assuming that Kyogen’s man has a good answer).

Various members of our group argued that the answer is obvious: let go and answer the question! Being a true Zen student means taking the risk, accepting the worst, and letting go. Even if that means making a sacrifice for the cause. We should not get hung-up on what seems most obvious — i.e., putting self-preservation first. The fear and struggle caused by mindless self-preservation holds us back; it can be worse than the consequence itself. This would seem most consistent with the Buddha’s teachings that grasping and desire are the ultimate cause of suffering, and it also comports with modern notions of “letting go” of obsession. Of all the things that inspire us to grasp and desire, self-preservation has to be among the top. But Zen likes wisdom, and when someone asks for wisdom (Bodhidharma going to China certain must have had something to do with wisdom, we think), maybe that is the most important thing.

Of course, I took the contrarian position — I opined that Kyogen’s man said it all by saying nothing. His silence was the more eloquent answer (especially given how Bodhidharma supposedly sat in silence facing a rock wall in a cave for 9 years straight!). Koans attempt to use words to transmit wisdom (in however distorted a fashion), including the paradoxical wisdom that the wisest things are beyond words. The lesson that the passer-by gains from Kyogen’s silent hanging man is beyond whatever he might say in a second or two of falling to his death.

That all sounds good, but what I really wanted to say is that being alive and conscious of it IS the main event !!! Why shouldn’t we struggle to preserve precious life, even if some suffering is involved? In a way, the Buddha’s teachings on suffering amount to a prescription for euthanasia. If you really don’t want to suffer at all, just go and kill yourself! Yes, sure, it makes sense to say that we cause unnecessary suffering by engaging in excessive grasping and desire. I’ve heard Zen teachers try to make Buddhist teachings palatable by turning the Buddhist strictures into a question of balance. But balance and subtlety is NOT what Zen and Buddhism seem to be about (if you want balance and subtlety, you need to go to Taoism).

Still, most religious traditions present their followers with the possibility of dying for the cause, even if they don’t recommend it to most people in most situations. The main western theistic faiths, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, all present stories of saints and heros who gave up their lives in the name of a holy principal (Jesus being the most obvious poster-boy, although with the footnote that it might be easier to go to the cross when you are a Son of God).

I can’t recall any myths or stories from any of the eastern spiritual traditions that directly address this issue, but some of Zen’s koans present potentially fatal situations to the student (including the familiar koan about the monk hanging on the side of the mountainside with hungry tigers gathered above him and below, so the monk uses his last moments to enjoy a dangling strawberry). These traditions don’t so much appear to be encouraging fealty to an ultimate principle; instead, they appear to be teaching calm and equanimity in all situations, even one that demands death. But there may be some stories, such as Kyogen’s quandary, that suggest that the attainment of Enlightenment is a prime directive to be pursued even at the cost of death.

But let’s get something straight — whenever a spiritual system recommends or at least suggests the possibility of dying for the cause, it also presents the compensation of a promise of eternal life. Modern Buddhists deny that Buddhism is an any way tied to life beyond death, but that is just modern Western revisionism at work. Old-school Buddhism CERTAINLY focuses on re-incarnation and the goal of “avoiding re-birth”. Just read the Tibetan Book of the Dead if you want to see what was on the mind of real Buddhists in the lands where it thrived for over a millennium.

One can argue that Buddhist re-incarnation does not promise the preservation of the self, with all its memories and feelings and unique personality; only the karma of the self is passed on. In some instances that might be understood, but in the more popular manifestations of Buddhism amidst the masses, mythologies involving a personal agency that survives beyond the immediate life become more common, e.g. in the Pure Land traditions. And the idea of “Nirvana” is never described in detail (by contrast, an unfortunate tendency of some Christian leaders is to paint a glowing picture of Heaven, e.g. “Answers to Your Questions About Heaven“), but certain implies some form of happy existence or transcendence beyond the boundaries of physical reality.

So, Buddhism is not excused from the “be willing to die for the faith, if you want happiness forever” club.

But what about joining this club? How should informed modern people approach it? A lot of those people today take the atheist (or very agnostic) tack; they stick to positivism, and reject anything that can’t be proven in a rational, scientific fashion. Not to say that an atheist would never die for a cause; they might well find it rational to sacrifice their own life if it will preserve the life of many others. But they certainly would not entertain any notion of life beyond death in making such a decision.

I myself look at the life beyond death question as a great mystery, something akin to a koan. There is no one answer that seems completely right while all others are clearly wrong. The arguments against it seem just as compelling as the ones in favor. On some days, it is clear to me that the grave is the bitter end; on others, hope seems undeniable. About the best analogy that I can find is from quantum physics. We live almost like a quantum particle in “super-position”. We are all possibilities simultaneously, all very real; and yet we are none at all. We are both dead and alive after death, sort of like a Schrodinger’s Cat.

Obviously, it’s not as easy to be a hero or a saint who sacrifices one’s life for a cause (or even for the betterment of other people) when you aren’t really sure about the next life. It might be even worse than being sure that we are totally extinguished by death, as the atheist / positivists are. I really think that we need new forms of religion, forms that are honest about the inherent uncertainty of transcendence. I think that it would be comforting to share the mix of hope and emptiness with others. It would seem somewhat less absurd if we could share our “quantum feelings” about this. Just as quantum particles become somewhat more “real” when they exist in relation to other particles, such as in an atom.

For now, I think that the hanging man’s silence was the more important thing than any words he could have spoke about Bodhidharma. His hanging on for dear life IS EXACTLY why Bodhidharma came to China. “Bod” came to help Chinese people live. And die, when the time came for that. He thought he had some things to say — and NOT say — that could help them with all of that.

So, keep on grasping that tree branch of being ! But when the time comes to let go, then just let go. If life after death is quantum, then there is at least a chance that transcendence awaits below.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:07 am      

  1. Jim,
    Once again, you have here a very good summary of religious thinking on dying and “the hereafter”. Buddhism (and what I think might be called the “zen version” of it; I admit I may be wrong on this appellation) and including the various versions of Christianity (to my way of thinking), altho I think the Jewish people would seriously object to that connection, and the Muslims would likely not want to be connected to Christianity either. But I’ve always seen the three religions as one big evolution of what might be called the same idea. You even include atheism in this review, if I may call it a “review”.
    Maybe I’m wrong but in the end it seems to me you appear to wish that those who “aren’t really sure about the next life” have some way to consider something akin to a “new form of religion” so as to have some comfort regarding the concept of dying and life being extinguished. If I’m wrong here, I stand corrected.
    I do not really have an answer to your question of what can give some succor to the problem of the “uncertainty of transcendence”; but I do have a kind of “multiple” thought about the topic. If I have misstated or misunderstood some aspect or all of the above, do not hesitate to correct me here.
    While I do think, without a doubt, that when the body dies, the named person who existed on earth (e.g., Joe or Judy) dies, Joe or Judy simply is no more; that person is “dead and gone” as has been said at times. (So the atheists may be right in a certain sense.) BUT I certainly do think that (how to express this?) what some call the “soul” and others call “the person”, I’ll call it “the being” of the “earth person” still exists and has consciousness that we likely at this point do not understand. And thus those who believe in some form of life after death are also right. That consciousness, which likely has/is an accumulation of the lives lived previous to earthly death and then adding earthly death would then “get what it expects as an afterlife”. To put it in a shorter and maybe a less convoluted way: We may get what we expect when we die.
    If we believe in heaven, then we just might go to “heaven”, at least for a “portion of existence”. While I realize there is no “time” after death, there must be some way to determine when the “person or evolving consciousness” has had “enough” of one kind of existence and may seek another. If we believe in non-existence, we may for a portion of existence after death, experience just that, “non-existence”. If we believe in life as a learning process that continues, then perhaps we experience (when we are ready to continue) that learning process either in another life as a person on earth or in another form of life that may be somewhat like “angels” who are available to do good; perhaps even as devils who promote evil; there are likely as many “afterlives” as there are beings who die. There likely would be some form of “learning” going on in the “afterlife”; I do not see any other way to think about it.
    Since “eternity” is open likely to many more kinds of existence than we can possibly conceive of, there may be a limitless amount, or “kinds of” life or existence we cannot conceive of here on earth and that are available to the consciousness in whatever the “afterlife” may be.
    Then again, perhaps ALL of the above ideas, including yours and mine, may be wrong. I prefer to see things as I very inadequately expressed them above. Perhaps the afterlife of consciousness is very much more complex than anything we may be able to conceive of. MCS

    Comment by Mary S — February 22, 2018 @ 9:36 pm

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