Living Together, Dying Together

“Followers of the Way, the view of the Zen school is that the sequence of life and death is orderly. The student of Zen must examine this most carefully.”
The Rinzai Roku, chp. 18, Ruth Fuller-Sasaki, translation

We live and then we die. This isn’t sometimes the way it is…this is always the way it is. It’s impossible to die unless you’ve lived and it’s impossible to live without one day having to die. Most would agree that that which makes human beings live and die is also that which makes everything else live and die. I’d like to suggest that investigating the sequence of life and death is the same as investigating the fact of impermanence. Perhaps through examining how other things begin and end we can gain some insight into questions about how we begin and end.

Because breathing is one long sequence of actions that everyone has experienced, maybe it is a good way to begin to look at the sequence of how we live and die. Just like living and dying, when we breathe we also do two things: we inhale and we exhale. Whether our first action is an inhalation or an exhalation doesn’t really matter…what matters is that first there is one, followed by the other. Because inhaling and exhaling are two distinct actions that always follow each other we are able to stay alive.

As living beings we naturally tend to focus most of our attention on living, but what if we emphasized only one part of breathing in the same way that we usually emphasize living over dying?

Imagine that you woke up one day to find you were exhaling one big “super exhale” and you didn’t have any knowledge or memory about inhaling. In the beginning of your exhalation you would feel that you had lots of air to breathe out and you probably wouldn’t worry about it too much. But as time went on and you kept exhaling you would begin to feel that you had only a limited amount of air left to exhale. You would begin to feel that you were running out of air. You would think that since all you’d ever done was exhale, that exhaling is what you are made of. You’d think exhaling was the only thing that a person could do. You would define being a person as..."The Ability to Exhale."

As time went on you would naturally begin to feel scared because you would have no idea that there was such a thing as inhaling. You’d begin to ask yourself or others, "What will happen after all my air is gone?"

Some people might tell you to look at it objectively. They would want you to agree with them that after exhaling nothing could exist. They would tell you that, because being a person depends on exhaling, once exhaling is finished you, along with all your thoughts, memories and perceptions, are gone. Unfortunately, aside from not being very accurate, this kind of story might not give you much comfort because it offers no hope.

Other people might tell you that there was a great Exhaling-god who brought all those who exhaled strongly and well to a place where you would be able to exhale forever. What a wonderful place that would be! Imagine, never running out of air to exhale! But, if you thought about it a little, you might still worry, because we all know that exhaling is just about pushing a little air from your insides to your outside. When you think about that fact, it doesn’t really make too much sense to have a place where you could exhale forever.

If you chose to believe them, these kinds of stories might give you comfort and help you to relax as you continued to exhale. However, deep in your heart you might still feel that these stories hadn’t really explained what exhaling was or why we find ourselves exhaling in the first place. But whatever you did, whichever stories you heard, whatever you still felt after hearing them…you would know that sooner or later you were going to run out of air.

What exactly happens when we exhale? When we exhale, the air inside of us gets pushed to the outside of us. The air inside of us is in a pretty small space. Our lungs are not very big. However, when we exhale, the air we breathe out can go 10 feet….30 feet….and eventually the same air that was in our tiny lungs will spread out over the entire earth.

Exhaling is a lot like how we live our lives. Everybody comes out of our mother’s bellies (usually NOT a very big space). Throughout our entire lives we use the energy of our bodies to do all sorts of things:

Engineers build bridges and tunnels.
Doctors perform operations.
Farmers grow crops.
Mother raise children.

But we can’t do all these things forever. Sooner or later we find that we’ve used up all the energy in our bodies. Where did all our energy go? It went out into the world around us:

Into the bridges and tunnels,
Into the cured people,
Into the earth,
Into our children

The energy of our lives gets spread out over the earth just like the air we exhale. Hopefully all of the energy that comes out of us during our lives will go towards doing wonderful things. But, just like lungs exhaling air, as our energy goes out of us and into the world, our bodies get smaller and smaller…they begin to shrivel and sooner or later we can’t even hold ourselves up.

When a young person sees a very old person it's typical for them to assume that that person has always been old. A young person can only remember an old person as being old and so they may think that an old person can only remember being old too. But that’s not how an old person thinks. An older person looks at the young people around him or her and thinks, "What has happened to my body? I was so young and strong once. I have changed from a young person into an old person." Of course, what has happened is that the old person has given all his or her energy back to the world around them…after all, that’s where they got all their energy to begin with.

Many old or sick people are angry and confused because they don’t know why they are not young andr strong and full of energy any more. Some people want all of the energy that they gave away back inside them. They think that they will never have strength and energy within them again and so they become angry and sad. Perhaps it might help them if they thought that living in this world is like making one giant exhalation. If they knew this then it might occur to them that something like a giant inhalation might begin the instant that they died.

Because we are not dead it is very hard to say exactly what it would be like after we die. Maybe it makes sense to think that after we die it will be exactly the opposite of being alive, just like inhaling is the exact opposite of exhaling. In order to look for the opposite of living we first have to find a way to describe what we go through while we are alive. How can we describe what is it like to have a living self?

Every living self is part of the universe. The word universe can be traced back to two Latin words that can be translated as "one-turning" or "one thing that is changing." Besides being one thing, everyone also knows that the universe is divided into opposites of all kinds. The fact of duality seems to be rarely, if ever, considered in the world view of most western cultures. It seems worth considering that ALL the things we know about must have an opposite in order for them to make any sense. .

We couldn’t know what the past is without something in the future.
We couldn’t know what a man is without seeing a woman.
We couldn’t know what doing good is without experiencing something bad.
We couldn’t know what this is without seeing that.
We couldn’t know what outside is without having an inside.

Before we come out of our mothers we really can’t distinguish things the way a ‘born’ human being can. After we are born we know simple opposites like comfort and discomfort. As we get older we get quite good at being able to tell thi’ from that. When we are grown up we know very, very complicated differences between things. Then, when we die, our bodies literally dissolve back into our surroundings and it seems that our ability to tell the difference between things vanishes along with the distinction between our own inside and outside. Perhaps it’s correct to assume that one way to describe living is as the time when all the opposites that make up the universe are experienced most clearly.

While we have our bodies, the differences between our inside and outside or this and that seems beyond question. It then becomes very easy to think that everything truly is just a separate object that doesn’t need anything more to complete it…doesn’t need its opposites to define it. Once we think of ourselves (or any thing) as really being separate objects, we have closed the door on our fundamental and defining partnership with everything that is not ourselves. Perpetually striving to remain forever separate from everything that is not ourselves then becomes vital to maintaining this twisted, one dimensional sense of self. Death then becomes something to fear and avoid…just like inhaling is the enemy to those who thought that to be a person one could only be exhaling. Ignoring the inherent symmetry of everything, we use this stunted logic to reason that human beings die because we are somehow flawed or evil. Once we think that humans die because we are originally bad then we begin to desperately look for something outside of ourselves that will save us from what we think is an otherwise hopeless fate.

When we are living, all the opposites that make up the universe are very distinct. However, just because all the opposites of the world are so clear doesn’t change the fact that the universe is, at the same time, one thing…one-turning. During breathing…when we exhale, our surroundings receive air at the exact same moment our insides give it. The inside’s exhale is the outside’s inhale and vice-versa. Looking at it this way we can say that both inhaling and exhaling are always present but we usually describe breathing only from our personal point of view and assert that we are either doing one or the other. Both are always present, but one side is active while the other is passive…then they switch. It’s simple….it’s breathing.

The universe clearly has an aspect to it that is about distinctions as well as an aspect that is about oneness. Just as in breathing, these two aspects are always present but we usually only identify with the active side. Maybe, like exhaling and inhaling, a self arises within and because of both these actions. Life is the time when our sense of self is founded upon distinctions. If so, then perhaps it becomes reasonable to think that death is the time when our sense of self springs from the opposite pole, the pole oriented to the oneness of the universe. This in no way changes the fact that the oneness of the cosmos is, at the same time, woven from an infinity of precipitated opposites. In life, we are connected with everything even though things seem totally separate. In death, perhaps duality silently continues to support us even though we may primarily experience the world as seamlessly connected. Both parts are always present but perhaps, as in breathing; one leads, the other follows, then they switch. In life, our energy expands out into the world. In death, the world expands into us. Seen this way, death is no more the destruction of the self than the moment- to-moment impermanence we experience in life. It is merely a change of direction on a larger scale. It is the beginning of the Great Inhalation. The self-in-life creates memories. Perhaps it is the work of the self-in-death to forget them. The end of one part of the cycle is the necessary and wonderful beginning of the next part…exactly like breathing.

The world has become a very small place and differing cultures that were formed in relative isolation now find themselves trying to live closely together…often with tragic results. In order to live together in peace, exclusionary views will have to change. History teaches that if we refuse to change from the inside-out then something will happen that will change us from the outside-in. It seems that the latter process is almost always very painful. It might prove helpful for more people to first carefully examine the sequence of life and death and all that it might imply before fighting over ideas that arise from assuming that death is bad. Once we begin to value death as a necessary and wonderful part of existence; as the true spouse of life, it might become clear that the sequence of our own living and dying need not depend on the teachings of widely divergent supernatural beliefs or cold objectivism. Even with just a little investigation there looms the hopeful prospect that the eternal evolution of human consciousness in all its beauty, majesty, and complexity, fits perfectly into the simple patterns we see all around us.