Filed in Aging, Death & Dying

Aging Into Dying and Death

Longtime Zen practitioner, haiku poet, and secretary of the U.K. Network of Engaged Buddhists, Ken Jones offers wisdom on aging and death. The following is an excerpt from a pamphlet—Ageing: The Great Adventure—that grew out of a series of workshops Jones conducted.

Ken Jones

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Buddhist writer Larry Rosenberg maintains that “we’re not really afraid of dying—we’re afraid of the idea of dying.” The discussion of ideas about dying has become quite fashionable—though they are not usually recognized as anymore than ideas. The Tibetan Book of the Dead and its famous variant, Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, have become bestsellers. At any public meeting on Buddhism you can be sure of at least one question about rebirth.

In meditative inquiry it is important to distinguish between ideas and personal experience. Buddhist ideas about death are an expression of the experience of highly evolved yogins, raised in or living in traditional, spiritually saturated cultures. Such ideas can sustain faith. They are also valuable in that they may contain specific meditation and visualization instructions, which, in gifted and advanced practitioners, can lead to altered states of consciousness.

However, it is all too easy to forget that these are mere ideas, which we may have made into fascinating and consoling mind pictures. They then become, in effect, evasions, in that they make it more difficult to sustain a don’t know mind, empty and open to receive whatever gifts of insight may be offered. The ancient Ch’an scripture On Trust in the Heart warns us that, of death and all the grave and constant concerns of life, “the more you think about it, the more you talk about it, the further from it you go. Put an end to wordiness and intellection and there is nothing you will not understand. For what can words tell of that which has no yesterday, tomorrow, or today?”

Similarly, many centuries later, the great Zen master Dogen, who emphasized death as the central concern of practice, urged us not to analyze it or speak about it. “Just set aside your body and mind, forget about them, and throw them into the house of Buddha; then all is done by Buddha.”

If we ask ourselves questions like “What is my death?” and “Where do I go after I die?” we may be able to come up with some interesting ideas. But in the shadow of death, we shall need more than fascinating explanations to sustain us. Our salvation lies in sustaining holy ignorance, the open, receptive mind of bare awareness. This requires faith, courage, and determination, because when we penetrate beyond ideas about dying, we uncover what we really fear, and with good reason—our feelings about dying.

From “Ageing: The Great Adventure: A Buddhist Guide,” © 2003 by Kenneth Henry Jones. Reprinted by permission of Pilgrim Press. To obtain a copy of the complete text, please send $8 in dollar bills to Troedrhiwsebon, Cwmrheidol, Wales, SY23 3NB, U.K.

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I have a deep consideration of the souls in the life of the world to come. I believe that rather than sacrificing don't know mind we are literally sacrificing our place on earth for the endless cycle of birth and rebirth, to begin again in a way in which we have sacrificed, and given with our spirits to those who have observed our minds with open hearts.

dan.carr13's picture

"However, it is all too easy to forget that these are mere ideas, which we may have made into fascinating and consoling mind pictures. They then become, in effect, evasions, in that they make it more difficult to sustain a don’t know mind, empty and open to receive whatever gifts of insight may be offered."

This touches the - heart - of the matter very directly. Names, words, labels, concepts, are all swept away; always. There is no moment in which this is not happening. That is the great liberation. No clinging required.

John Haspel's picture

The Buddha had a different understanding of death than Dogen. He did not teach ignorance of one’s body and mind and the process of ongoing delusion and suffering rooted in ignorance. He did not teach to “throw one’s body and mind into his house” whatever that may mean.

He taught that death was an aspect of the generally unsatisfactory nature of life described in The First Noble Truth. He taught that death was no different than sickness, aging, loss of loved ones or of possessions, or of any other unsatisfying condition that arises from deluded views rooted in an ego-personality.

He taught an Eightfold Path that when engaged with wholeheartedly, free of individual and culturally influenced views , develops understanding of suffering and the cessation of clinging to objects, events, views, and ideas arising from ignorance of the Four Noble Truths.

John Haspel

mcmeares's picture

Ignorance in this case means open awareness or the pure and open "don't know mind." Death of course is the ultimate impermanence from our small-mind mortal point of view. For me, Dogen's "throwing one's mind and body into the house of Buddha" means just that awareness - don't intellectualize; rather be the emptiness that leads to the end of dukkha. (Through the four noble truths and the eight-fold path, yes.)