The life koan and the practice of death


The barstool Buddhist, the backyard Pagan and the country club Christian are all defined by one common thread – A dark thread that when pulled taut and snipped causes a panic. A scattering in the flight of night-jars and a divergence in the pondering of crows. To avoid this chaos we frame our experience of this life in a manner that shields us from the fact that it will end.

We frame our lives around Heaven and Hell;
      The chorus of angels and the howls of demons.
We frame our lives around Amida Buddha and a host of Bodhisattvas;
      Glowing immaculate and exuding compassion and care.
We frame our lives around the True Teachings and Holy Texts;
      Inerrant and bright, edited and compiled. Manipulated and contextual.
We frame our lives around the hope of transcedence and stumbling enlightenment;
     The promise of reincarnation and cycle of birth and death,
We frame our lives through God and a soul;

The simple immutable fact that defines every single religious movement; that allows theocratic empires and energizes popular movements, that builds kingdoms and topples empires. Every imaginary passion play and player, every belief manipulated is created in a knee-jerk reaction to the fear that binds us together. The fear that, at one point, despite all actions and hope to the contrary, this body will die.


All those beliefs and rituals – every memorized holy-move and choreographed transcendental-dance – are a divergence away from the practice of accepting and becoming intimate with death. We create benefits that await us afterwards; glorious and serene. We create dramatic fabrications that elevate our being to something larger than us. Thoughts and actions reverberate like the strike of a bell or the beating of a drum. We create rules and austerities ad nauseam. We concoct paths and plans. So elaborate. So encompassing. So comforting and utterly false.

Let me respectfully remind you,
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken.
Awaken! Take heed!
Do not squander your lives….

Creating dramas does nothing to prepare a person for death it only makes the journey there seem more pleasant – like the facades of a Hollywood movie set. Wishing to leave an eternal mark we scratch dreams into the tree trunk; painting a picture of an unfolding drama that distracts rather than contributes. Death isn’t special to any one person. It is just a process. No definite creator and no master plan. Death is the one thing in life that we can not avoid, the one battle that we can not win. It is the one opponent that always has the upper hand and higher ground. Just as one foot is placed in front of the other in walking so is it in birth and death. The action of moving a foot is part of the process of walking. In the same way dying is just part of the process of living.

No great and mysterious Wizard of Oz. No magic hats. No seeds of power. No easy answer. No medicine to drink. Just men and women being born and dying. We create our own illusions to comfort us from that simple, stark truth. Sharing that illusion with others does not make it any more real, only communal. Like a herd of bison being driven off a cliff by echoes, shouts, branches and shadows. A stampede of panicked eyes and flaring nostrils rushing towards oblivion goaded with neon signs and flashing lights. We need to accept and confront the fact that death is an integral part of the life koan. It compels the practice. It does not lead the stampede, it reins it in. It holds the bridle of life.


I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to
escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no
way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to
escape this.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of
the nature to change. There is no way to escape
being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot
escape the consequences of my actions. My
actions are the ground upon which I stand.

There is a legacy of thoughts, actions that after our death, float momentarily and then sink below the flow, imperceptible and interconnected.

This is the focal point of practice. Here it gets distilled to a shot of Old Crow. A burning shot of reality for our fundamental fear that brings flush to our cheeks, movement to our feet, fire to our belly, an intimate moment. When we adopt the pomp and circumstance, when we go for the show, we drive away from the chance at intimacy with our human condition – with our moment. The five remembrances state our fears exactly: Old age, illness and death. But rather than building a architecture of illusion and comfort it points the magnifying glass uncomfortably close to us. No flowery language. No soothing words. Just strong, honest, painful poetry.

A basic guide to reconcile death and change with our daily lives. A tete-a-tete with our morbid friend telling us that we are of the nature to grow old and no amount of plastic surgery, botox or praying will stop that. I am of the nature to have ill-health, there is no way to escape ill-health, no miracles and no prescriptions. I am of the nature to die, there is no way to escape death, it is the great equalizer. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change. The greatest and most desperate grasp a house-holder makes is to their family. It leads us to do perhaps the greatest things and causes the most strife. We need to be intimate with the fact that everything is transcient, impermanent, in constant ebb and flow.


My daughter had a nightmare last night. She called me in her room and asked that I hold her. She grasped my hand and eventually went to sleep secure that my hand would always be there to provide support – strong, consistent, comforting. As I fell asleep I was secure with the thought that my hand will always be there to provide those things. The illusion of childhood and the illusion of the parent. Being mindfull of the truth behind life and death doesn’t remove our fear or our anticipation but it prepares us to face each moment with strength and calm. I realized last night that one day, perhaps, th e roles w ill be reversed and my daughter’s hand will be there when I cry out. When I feel the fear of death. When it is my time to be driven like a herd of bison to the edge.


Mindfulness of death just prepares us for the most shocking of impermanent things, the impermanence of our lives. It steals away some of the strength of death by allowing us to become familiar and inimate with change. When the shock of death hits us. When our absolute fear and terror strike. When the ability to count breath becomes a miracle in and of itself. Then we need to face reality with fortitude and confidence that no matter our actions the herd is going to be driven off the cliff. The only question is do we go in wild with fear or prepared and calm. As the controversial self-titled Zen Master Suzuki Shosan said

Put everything aside and only study death. Always study death, free yourself from it, and when death actually comes, you won’t be flustered…”


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