The Mystical Death

There is no teacher like Death.-Katha Upanishad. Since it is the same death, die now.-Zen Saying.

The great Upanishad called Katha contains the instructions given by the God of Death to an inquirer, Nachiketas.

Nachiketas went voluntarily to the abode of Death, and after staying there a short time, was granted three boons by Death, who is a deva or god whose will never fails. The third boon was to be told the secret of Death, namely whether the self of man is immortal and what is its nature. Death asked to be released from granting this boon, and offered instead wealth, long life, celestial pleasures.

” Or take any other thing you deem equal to these, but ask me not the secret of Death.”

Nachiketas replied:

” Having voluntarily approached a great god, wealth and long life come of themselves. But even the longest life is short, and what man can be made happy by wealth ? Having approached the Immortal, how can we mortals, slowly decaying here below, delight in such things ? No other boon can Nachiketas choose but that which he has chosen.”

Death praised him, as one who had avoided a trap in which many are lost:

” May I have another inquirer like thee.”

The Upanishad then gives the teachings of Death to Nachiketas, by which he attained enlightenment and immortality.

A great point is, that Nachiketas went voluntarily and consciously to the realm of Death, as an inquirer. Those, says Death, who thinking themselves wise seek merely the Pleasant, they come unwillingly to Death again and again. They are born and die, are born and die again and again. But because they have no knowledge of Reality and live wholly in illusion, in Maya, their living and dying also is unreal.

” O disciple,” says the sage Vasishtha, ” those who die again and again only think themselves to be dying. Let us die that death by which we shall never encounter death again.” Holy Vasishtha is referring to the yogic death in the soul, which is followed by the realization of the true Self, immortal and free from all suffering.

Tradition ascribes to the prophet Mohammed the saying : ” Die before you die “, and the Sufi mystics refer to him as one who had died and been resurrected in this very life. It does not mean a physical death, but the disappearance of the limited ego-consciousness and the revelation of universal consciousness.

In a lecture broadcast by the Kyoto Radio some years ago, a modern Japanese Zen teacher remarked that people these days don’t believe in ghosts, not seeing that it is they themselves who are the ghosts. Ghosts are supposed to be dead, but they aren’t dead ; they go on repeating old actions that perhaps once had a point but now have no meaning at all. They do not see the world around them as it is, but live in a world they have created for themselves. Nor do they ever advance towards any objective. We cannot say that they are really dead, but they can’t be called alive either; they neither really live nor do they really die. And so the ghost never advances. He is so to speak stuck, cannot find any right path to follow and doesn’t know where to go. And so he is bitter, hating himself and others. Isn’t this, says the Zen master, just the picture of people of the world to-day ? He goes on: ” The life just of the blood and the breathing, keeping up the bodily heat, is mere animal life, and a human being can never be satisfied with it.

The great questions present themselves, whence we have come into this life, and where we go after death, and what life is and what death is, and the final question of the meaning of human life itself.

They come up before every man, in different ways according to his temperament and his knowledge. Until they are solved, he cannot live at ease nor sleep at ease, and his whole life is agitated and in a state of crisis. Much of the worry and anguish and desolation of to-day arises from this. In vain the sorrow and in vain the agony; life is a mirage and death a mere dream. How pitiable ! To live really and to die really, to solve the problem of life and death, is the vital thing.

To the man who really lives and really dies, life and death cease to exist. This life beyond life and death, is immortality. The old song says: ” To have reached at last the goal one had to reach, -then alone is there happiness in living long in the body.” “And if it is not done, then : ` Oh, this world! Losing and winning, grieving and enjoying, all this and all that, and the end is delirium.’ But to transcend life and death, to enter the realm of absolute serenity, first one has to find the hidden spring within the heart.”

To do this, the Zen masters recommended their pupils, many of whom were samurai, to practise meditating on death. An old textbook on the spiritual training of a knight has the following: “The realization of the inevitability of death must be borne in mind the whole day. Every morning one must quieten body and mind and meditate on the moment of death, whether by bowshot or spear, cut by a sword or swept away in a storm at sea. Let him meditate that he is jumping into a great fire or crushed by a thunderbolt, perishing in an earthquake or leaping over a precipice, dying from sickness or by an unexpected accident. Let him without flinching put himself into the state of death. An old master says, when you leave your own roof, count yourself already among the dead, for outside the gate the enemy is waiting. This does not mean that a man should multiply his precautions, on the contrary it means that he must experience: death in advance.” When the death meditation reached its maturity, there was an experience of death in the heart followed by a resurrection, like the sun appearing out of the clouds, or a golden dragon soaring aloft from the silent waters of a lake. This very world becomes the lotus paradise of Amitabha, this very body becomes the Buddha.

Swami Rama Tirtha, one of the great Mahatmas of modern India, attained his enlightenment when seated in meditation on a rock in the river Ganges. As he came out of the meditation he found his body being borne up by the waves of the Ganges, and he says that the whole of nature was crying to him the ancient Upanishadic text: That Thou Art, That Thou Art. He says that the life. jumped out of his body, into the Ganges of Unity, and from that day all limitations ended for ever.

There is a poem entitled Death by Abbot Haku-in, one of the great figures in Zen Buddhism, written for a young samurai; it contains some references to the Buddhist meditation on the navel which may sound strange to Western ears. But the navel is one of the centres of’ vitality in the body, and if the mind is placed there it is easily concentrated. Moreover, in the fencing and other techniques which they studied as part of their profession, the samurai were already used to concentrating their attention on the navel, which is the centre of gravity and of physical movement.

© Trevor Leggett

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