This month, we take up our 18th Lojong slogan together, Practice For Death As Well As For Life.
Here’s what Norman Fischer has to say about practicing with death:
The first three points mostly have to do with training under special circumstances, especially in difficult times, times of suffering or trouble. Compassion requires that we be able to face our own pain and the pain of others; turning difficult circumstances into the path also requires us to face difficulty and learn how to reverse the natural tendency to run away from rather than face what’s hard. Since so many people identify spiritual practice with feeling good and having pleasant experiences, it is crucially important that our training begin with these realities. Because if you can’t practice when things are rough, if in difficulty you revert to old ways of being and doing, you are sunk, and your practice isn’t worth much.
But we could also go to the other extreme and focus so much on suffering and pain and difficulty that we begin to imagine spiritual practice as a grim process of facing one nasty moment after another. It isn’t that. There is plenty of joy and happiness along the way—in fact, as we keep on, more and more happiness, even when things go wrong and conditions are difficult. Spiritual practice does make your life better, but only when you are willing to do it for its own sake and give up a big focus on improvement. This is the paradox: your life improves when you stop worrying about improvement.
But notice that all of this is about your life in good times or bad. If you think about religion, why it exists, what function it has in human cultures and in individual lives, you will soon run past life into larger and more mysterious questions. In fact, spiritual practice in particular, and religion in general, wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fact that we die, and we really don’t know how to understand, cope with, or digest this fact. So even though we do spiritual practice while we are alive and for our lives, really, we do it because we die and in order to understand and cope with death, grief, and loss.
In fact, it is artificial to separate life from death. In a very concrete and down-to-earth sense, there is no such thing as “life” or “death.” In Zen practice we speak of “birth-and-death” as being one phenomenon, and of course it is. We have already discussed this. Time passing is birth-and-death. Moments arise and then pass away; this is one action, one moment. Loss is constant and conditions our every thought, word, and deed. When I train caregivers for the dying in spiritual hospice care, I always tell them that the work they do isn’t about death, it’s about life. You are alive as long as you are alive, and when you are not, you are not. It’s a mistake to think of a hospice patient as “dying.” The patient is alive as long as she is alive. Truly, she is no more dying that we are. For we are dying. That’s what living is: dying a little, moment after moment.
You could say that the whole point of spiritual practice is to prepare for death. One of my favorite sayings is by an obscure French writer named Charles Péguy, who wrote, “A person doesn’t die from this or that disease. He dies from his whole life.” This is certainly true. The way we live is the way we die.
This slogan is telling us that as much as we need to practice the Five strengths for our lives, just as much do we need to practice them for our deaths, and specifically at the time of our death. Many people become religious or spiritual as they near death. This makes a lot of sense. When you are in bed, maybe in pain and sensing your life is now short, you are not so concerned about how to live more successfully going forward. The imminence of death has a way of grabbing your attention and changing your priorities. Everybody pays attention to his or her inner life and to questions of meaning when death is coming close—unless, that is, the person were to deny that death is close, which some can do. Death is powerful, it is very immediate, it is a great motivator. But if you wait till the time when death is close to begin your practice, it may well be too late. It is much better to spend time in your life working on your spiritual practice so at the time of death it will be there for you. So that when you’re dying, instead of being subject to a mind full of confusion and dread, it will be possible for you to meditate on love and compassion. And maybe even experience death (if this phrase makes any sense, it might not) as a process of entering unlimited love and compassion. Certainly I would never suggest to someone who is close to the end of life, “Well, have you thought of entering death as a field of unlimited love?” He may well answer me, “You’re full of crap, get out of here, I’m dying.” But if we have spent time in our life cultivating our spiritual practice, until, as this fourth point suggests, we see our whole life as practice, then it may be possible that our death can be not a tragedy but something much more. I have seen this happen.
Even in the last moments of life, you can breathe in and you can breathe out. You can breathe in the suffering and breathe out healing and relief. And when your selfishness pops up with fear and despair, you can turn around and say to it: “Ah, there you are again. I’ve been telling you to get out of here for a long time, and this time I really mean it, I’m going back to breathing, I’m going back to my meditation on love and compassion, and you see that glass of water on my bedside? You come back one more time, I’m throwing it all over you!”
And then you can remember, as you breathe in and out, all the things that you have been practicing for many years. You can remember that life is like a dream, that it has only ever been things coming and going, insubstantially, mysteriously. And that whatever form your life will take from the time of death onward, it will move in the same rhythm in which it has always moved. Such experiences are actually possible. And if you are practicing now with a resolution to continue, with strong determination, with aspiration, with confidence in the Seed of virtue, perhaps your practice will be there for you at the time of your own death. And you will be able to bring your practice to the bedside of family members, loved ones, and friends when they are close to death. You will be able to bring a sense of confidence and peace to those most precious moments.
As I said at the outset, Zen practice is very simple: just breathe in, breathe out. Just be where you are. You could say that the whole edifice of the mind-training text we are following in this book is just a long-winded way of saying: breathe in, breathe out, be where you are. All of these teachings come down to that. So simple, yet not so easy to do. We have so many complications!
Human beings are not just complex machines. Even though we now understand the lungs, the heart, the stomach, and so on, and can take apart and put together a human body and repair it in all kinds of previously unimagined ways, we know that a human being is not limited to his or her material hardware. We may understand a lot about what a human body is and how it works, but we understand very little about the soul, the spirit, the consciousness that illuminates that human body and makes it a living human being.
I have a nephew who is a cognitive scientist trying to understand the nature of consciousness. I asked him: “Have you figured it out?” He said: “Not only have we not figured it out, but we don’t even know the question that we should ask yet so as to point us in a direction we could go to begin figuring it out. Or whether there is a question that we could ask, or a way to answer the question if we could ask it.”
Breathing in and breathing out is an unspeakably deep process. To be alive is immense and unknowable. It’s no accident that in Latin and Greek, and in Hebrew, English, and Spanish, and probably in many other languages, the word for spirit is breath.
Fischer, Norman. Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong (pp. 76-80). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
I hope to see you for meditation this evening.