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The Transitoriness of Life and the Certainty of Death

by Vajradarshini

The Transitoriness of Life and the Certainty of Death
by Vajradarshini

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/audio/details?num=OM741
Talk given at Tiratanaloka Retreat Centre, 2005

Challenging material; Nagarjuna on the breath; life as precious and fragile; the structure of the talk

I drew the short straw! Actually I’m beginning to think maybe they’re all short straws on this retreat! In our group people have found that reflecting on the precious human life has been quite difficult and quite challenging. In our team meeting yesterday when we were talking about this, we were saying it was supposed to be the easy bit, the uplifting bit at the beginning! So maybe it’s all quite challenging in different ways. What I’m going to talk about is death and impermanence.

Many things threaten life, which is even more ephemeral than a bubble full of air. How amazing is the opportunity to exhale after inhaling, and to awake from sleep.

This is Nāgārjuna. I really like that, particularly that last line, “How amazing is the opportunity to exhale after inhaling, and to awake from sleep.” We take it so much for granted that after each breath there will be another breath, and that each time we go to sleep we will wake up again.

Because I’ve been thinking about this talk, and Dhammadinna’s been talking about reflections on the precious human life, I think I’ve seen how closely they’re connected and how much they go hand in hand. They only make sense together. I was thinking that in a way we only really experience life as being precious when we have a sense of it being quite fragile or frail. And by having that sense of it being fragile, we realise the preciousness of it. So they very much go hand in hand. What we’re trying to do is have a heightened sense of both of those things, of the fragility of life and of the preciousness of life, as opposed to having a dull sense of both of those things. I know for me that dull sense is like, “Well, life’s not so great anyway, so what if I die?” There’s a dull sense of both, but what we’re looking for is a heightened sense of both.

I’m going to talk about these reflections in this context. I’m going to talk about death in the context of these mind-turning reflections. What I’ve realised is that it’s quite a particular reflection on death. It’s not just a general musing on death. It’s thinking about death in a certain way for certain reasons. So I’m going to talk a bit about that sort of reflection on death. I’m also going to talk a bit about my own experience since my dad died. My dad died at Christmas this year, quite unexpectedly, and I’ve thought quite a lot about death for the last nine months, so I’m going to bring in some of those things that I’ve been thinking about.

Dew in zen poetry; Issa the poet's story; Dogen's insight; dew and autumn; dew on the flower - which lasts longest? Dewfrost; dewdrops as tears; dew and the lakshanas

First of all I’m going to talk a little bit about dew drops. I’m going to talk about an image of impermanence from the Zen tradition and from Zen poetry. I’ll start with a little poem.

The lakṣaṇas can cut like blades sometimes
While the dew drop world is the dew drop world
But yet, but yet

This is a poem by Issa, a Japanese poet who lived in the 18th century. He had a really difficult life. His mum died when he was very young, and he had a stepmother who made his life hell, so he left home as soon as he could and eventually he married when he was about 50 and he had four children and they all died in infancy. Then his wife died in childbirth. Then his house burnt down. Eventually he re-married when he was quite old and he had a daughter who lived, but she wasn’t born until after his death. He died when he was 65. That is a little life story of Issa. If you read his poems, he just writes the most beautiful, simple, sad poetry. He has the quality of empathy. He often writes about things like flies, but with a huge amount of empathy, as if he’s put himself in the fly’s shoes, so to speak – flies don’t really have shoes! But it’s just beautiful, simple poetry filled with empathy.

This world of dew is nothing but a world of dew And yet, and yet.

I’ll come back to that in a minute, this ‘world of dew’.

I was also reading a book about Dogen’s poetry, and he’s the same in that he uses this image of dew and dew drops. He lived in the 13th century and is one of our teachers on the refuge tree. His mother and father both died when he was quite young, and he had quite a strong insight as a very young boy into the whole of life being quite fragile, loss and grief. He decided to become a monk when he was about 14. He writes:

Dew drops on a blade of grass
Having so little time before the sun rises.
Let not the autumn wind blow so quickly on the field.

If you read this Zen poetry, this Japanese poetry, and you read about it, you realize there are a number of themes, which mean definite things and they are re-occurring. One is the seasons, and each season is a symbol for something else. It’s interesting because we’re in the season of death and impermanence, being autumn. Also apparently in this poetry, whenever dew appears as an image, it always means autumn, interestingly. It’s like fleetingness, something disappearing in the dew.

There is the image of dew being an image of impermanence, an image of transience of things. There’s a little saying that goes, “Which will last longer, the master or his dwelling?” It’s said to be like asking, “Which will last longer, the dew on the morning glory, or the morning glory itself?” We’ve got a morning glory here, and the flowers come out, and they don’t last a day. They last about half a day. When we ask the question, which lasts longer, the dew or the morning glory, it’s like maybe the dew will fade before the flower does, or maybe the flower will fade before the dew does, but either way by evening time they’ll both be gone.

You also have another image to do with dew which is dew frost. I’ve just come across this idea of dew frost. If you go out very early in the morning on a morning – I don’t know what weather conditions cause this but sometimes there’s just lots of dew and it’s very wet on misty mornings. If you go up by the reservoir where there are fences, they are full of cobwebs. Obviously they are there all the time, but you don’t normally see them, but because they’re covered in dew in this dew frost, you can see all these forms out in nature that you don’t normally see. This dew frost is used as an image for things being insubstantial. It’s as if we need to reflect that we are as insubstantial as that dew frost, those forms made of dew, of nothing, that will fade as the sun comes out. In this poetry when he talks about the dew drop world, the image of dew drops is an image for tears, so it brings in the emotions that go with the reflections on impermanence and insubstantiality. That sort of reflection has got a certain kind of flavour and the flavour is sadness, so these dew drops represent tears. It’s a kind of painfulness. It’s quite interesting because it’s the three lakṣaṇas: the dew is impermanence, the dew frost is insubstantiality, and the dew drops are painfulness, suffering, sadness.

Sadness and awakening - sabi; nothing beats real experience; being moved by impermanence; death as the ultimate koan

So you also see in this kind of poetry, e.g. if you’re familiar with the poetry of Ryokan, there’s quite a strong connection between sadness and awakening, so sadness is a definite flavour in this kind of poetry. That sadness is ‘sabi’, for those of you who don’t know that I talk about wabi sabi. The sad part of that is sabi, which is not an unpleasant sadness. It’s just a sadness at the fleetingness of life. But in terms of Zen poetry, there’s quite a strong connection between that feeling of sadness and insight.

I was struck by Dhammadinna talking about Keith Dowman saying nothing beats real experience. It’s all very well to reflect on things or even sit in bed reading this lovely sad Zen poetry, but it’s quite different to actually experiencing death or loss and the sadness that comes with that. There’s quite a strong connection between real experience and reflection, because what we reflect on affects how we experience the world. How we experience the world will be reflected in our reflecting. They feed into each other. If it was the case that things would never die, they would lose their power to move us. We are only moved by the dew or the morning glories because they fade away and we too are going to fade away. That’s why we’re moved by them. Because we reflect on those things and those things will fade away, we have to take in more that we will fade away. They feed into each other, our reflections and our experience.

It’s a bit like death seems to be the ultimate koan. What particularly moves me about this Issa poem, the lakṣaṇas seem to cut like blades sometimes, is that the painfulness of existence, and yet he talks about it as a dewdrop world, this world of dew, this world of illusion that is also very really painful. For me that is a koan. How is it that this world is an illusion, and yet it’s so real in terms of the painfulness of it?

There’s a story about Marpa. His son dies and he’s absolutely filled with grief at the loss of his son, and his disciples are quite shocked that he’s grieving so much, and they say, “How come you’re grieving so much, because you’ve taught us that everything is an illusion? How come you’re grieving so much at the death of your son?” He says, “Yes, everything is an illusion, but ...

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