Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ashes to Ashes Teaching December 12, 2010

Great is the matter of birth and death
Life slips quickly by
Time waits for no one
Wake Up! Wake Up!
Don’t waste a single moment!
(Han inscription, Rochester Zen Center)

How do we live in way that is truly alive? The end result of spiritual practice is to live in this world exactly as it is, totally one with everything, rejecting nothing. How would someone living in this way appear? Shakyamuni Buddha said that an enlightened being has absolutely no distinguishing characteristics. Such a person appears completely ordinary-nothing special. Someone who sees reality clearly as it is has gained absolutely nothing. Awakening is a process of continuous disappearing, becoming less and less.

Jesus Christ indicated that we must die in order to be reborn. To become an actual human being, we must surrender our most cherished beliefs, convictions, concepts and notions. It is necessary to somehow stand completely bare, naked in the purest sense. Many years ago an image offered itself out of awareness. I saw myself as a barren tree in winter, stripped of all leaves, coverings, and adornments. A cold, piercing wind was blowing in and through me. Yet there I stood. Solid, rooted, doing nothing, going nowhere. Just this, exactly as it is-nothing more, nor less. All was lost, and yet….life continues, no buffers, without resistance, without becoming.

Jesus described a spiritual death that was required to enter the Kingdom, not the biological death of the human body. Like much of the New Testament, his descriptions of dying were symbolic, metaphoric-yet absolutely clear, pure and direct for those with eyes to see. In the Christianity I was taught growing up, profoundly literal and concrete minds had distorted his teachings. The death of the spirit-of who and what you think you are- had become the biological death of the body. Direct personal, experiential realization of the same truth that Jesus saw so clearly was replaced by a series of beliefs in strange notions that could never be personally verified as true. Thus, religion was born and the way of direct knowing became obscure.

Yet there is something very powerful about biological death. David Hawkins once mentioned that about half of the people who awaken to reality do so during, right before or right after the dying process. Impending physical death, especially when it is your own, has a unique way of focusing the mind on what is ultimately real-what is inescapable, incontrovertible. This past September 17th my father died at the age of 89. Some things, probably many things, have to be personally experienced to be fully appreciated. The death of a parent is certainly one of them, as is the death of a child, or a spouse. Each death is unique, original-the first death. All we can truly know for sure is our own direct experience, which is always both deeply personal and profoundly impersonal.

In the teaching/discussion of December 12th we will consider the incredible opportunity provided by biological death, both to those who pass on, and to those who remain. Around the time I began formal Zen training in the late 1970s I remember reading somewhere that the purpose of this hard training was to prepare us to die. Somehow this made sense to me at the time. Most of us live our lives as if we firmly believe that death will only happen to others-not actually to us. Who dies? Together we will confront and begin to uproot our fear of death using our most powerful tool-pure awareness.

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