‘What happens when we die?’
Not a subject to ask a politician though quite a few will have died a thousand deaths recently. What happens when we ask a Zen master instead? In Zen as in politics the answer isn’t always want we want, or expect.
So what do we learn from the precocious and over-knowledgeable young Zen monk who couldn’t answer that simple question when his master asked him. ‘What happens when we die?’
He thought the answer would lie in the Buddhist scriptures and when he couldn’t find it there he insisted his master tell him, seizing and shaking him when he refused to do so. Appalled by what he’d done he left the monastery, spent years as a wandering monk, then tended the tomb of the sixth Zen patriarch, Huineng. One day as his bamboo struck stone the answer came to him. In a moment. It wasn’t the answer he’d have expected as a novice, something measurable and clear-cut. He’d taken many years unlearning (not learning) what he knew to find the answer.
If we seek too hard we’ll never find. All we can do is put ourselves on the right path, seek no certainties, have no expectations. It’s the path that leaves ‘I’ behind, that accepts suffering (being the distance by which reality falls short of our expectations), lets every day, every moment in that day, take its course. We have the illusion that we shape the world, when the world shapes us. We create ripples on the surface, and they are gone in a moment.
A story of my own. I stood by the river flowing through the garden one recent Monday morning. That river also works for me as an image of the Tao, the steady inevitable flow of life that we think we can influence but flows ever onwards at its own pace. It’s that flow we all need to be a part of, aware of the changing rhythms of the day, the elements, the earth, life itself.
The ducks who paddle that stretch of river saw me, one mother and four young turks, almost grown, full of energy, waiting for the bread we regularly feed them. That moment it seemed wrong, with the water coursing through the flowering ranunculus, and the trout steady against the stream, and the ducks pecking at bits of greenery here and there. But if we don’t feed them, then they won’t come back. That’s what we tell ourselves. There are other cottages upstream who also feed them, and they go just like us humans for the easy life, do ducks. So I fed them, and throwing the bread here and there, this moment one way the next the opposite, I create a scurrying and a spurting and a flurry and fuss that I never seen before.
‘Sorry, chaps, I’m out of bread.’ They didn’t answer, and they didn’t go way. They were still there an hour later, hoping no doubt that I’d re-appear. I’d had fun and the ducks had too (I think, although maybe they were angry with me) but I wasn’t quite happy about it. All that kerfuffle had broken the mood, reduced the river to the same crazy place as the world beyond the garden hedge, and down the M4 only a few miles away.
Our world only exists because we imagine it. It’s our minds that give reality to the world and we give names and attributes to everything so that the world makes some kind of sense. The names (within a language group) we all have in common, but we all of us imagine the world in very individual, very different ways.
Try also a pool as an image… imagine it somewhere out in India, or in the African savannah. A watering hole where all the animals come to drink. They don’t come at the same time. They come in their own time. And that’s how we take wisdom from life. Not by all our crazy communal efforts but by sampling, listening, drinking, doing it as individuals, finding our own truth.
The river, the Tao, and the pool, that still source of understanding, are both metaphors for the inexplicable. We cannot explain the way, or understand wisdom in any intellectual way. Both take us beyond all our attempts to describe or understand the world. As happened to that Chinese monk all those centuries ago, we find wisdom when we don’t expect it, and then we live that wisdom. It’s not a subject for study, it cannot be enhanced by learning. We may try and explain how we get there to others, and the scriptures of Buddhism and other faiths have done that for two millennia and more. But wisdom itself is beyond explanation.
There are no answers. There may be some courses of action that are better than others. But there are no answers.