A Japanese woman practised Zen at the beginning of the twentieth century. Her daughter told me about it. The mother was diagnosed as having a serious illness, and the medical science of the time gave her only a few months to live. When she was told, she went to see her Zen teacher in Yokohama. When he heard about it, he just remarked, ‘Well, you may be missed for up to three years after your death, but after that no one will remember you at all.’ She was taken aback, and pleaded, ‘I’m going to die. Can’t you help me?’ He jumped up, took her by the shoulders and pushed her out the door. ‘If you’re going to die, die quick!’ he said, and slammed the sliding doors together behind her.
She went into one of the little caves in the small cliff at Yokohama, and stayed there to meditate and die quick. On the third night, however, she had a vision of bodhisattvas filling the sky, and felt something turn over inside her. She came out and resumed her life, becoming a well-known local figure in Zen, and living into her eighties.
This does seem very harsh, and probably the teacher would not have said this to someone of less strength of character. I can also say that in times of real crisis I have found this phrase a big help: If you’re going to die, die quick.
Such things are part of a living instruction. It is not a question of always shouting. Some of us need shouts, perhaps at particular times, and there are others who don’t need them, or need them only rarely.
If You’re Going to Die, Die Quick! from the Old Zen Master
© Trevor Leggett