Monday, October 1, 2012

The Way of Death, Or the Way of Dying. [For Rachel]

From Seven Samurai.
Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one's body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one's master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.”
“There is a saying of the elders that goes, “Step from under the eaves and you're a dead man. Leave the gate and the enemy is waiting.” This is not a matter of being careful. It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand.”
- Yamamoto Tsunetomo, The Hagakure.
I have no idea if there's a traditional word for the style of meditation that the author of the Hagakure recommends. Many years ago, I heard the quote being sampled in a song and went: “I think I need to read that book.” The sample was actually from the movie Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai which can best be described as both amazing and hilarious.

Somehow, over the years, that's culminated in doing what the author advocates every day. Initially it was very uncomfortable. Then it became a habit. Then it became a fixed point in my daily, if not weekly (I occasionally get busy too quickly and fail to meditate), cycles of meditation.

During the first year or so I did it, I found that I didn't like how it left me feeling. Meditating upon the different ways you can die is not “fun” by any means. The second stage of my experiences began shortly after that and that process has continued to this day. The mind is really, truly amazing at its ability to correlate feelings and experiences, and for the last few years I've found myself trying to divert my attention to those who I feel attached to. About the time I'm falling from a great height to my death, my mind will suddenly flash to those I love:

How would they respond or react if I died? This would trigger an emotional response and I'd try to stop. I discovered that if you continued the process, or simply began it again, the emotional response would dwindle and you'd be left with the sudden, strangely secure, feeling that it didn't really matter. If you're dead, then you're just plain dead.

Obviously, the book this quote comes from is meant for warriors for whom death is considered an honor. In fact, Yamamoto seems to disregard the cycle of reincarnation altogether:
“Although it is unfitting for someone like me to say this, in dying it is my hope not to become a Buddha. Rather, my will is permeated with the resolution to help manage the affairs of the province, though I be reborn as a Nabeshima Samurai seven times. One needs neither vitality nor talent. In a word, it is a matter of having the will to shoulder the clan by oneself.”
In other words, the role and focus being performed relates to being a warrior and facing the challenges that a warrior (or at least, a follower of Bushido) rather than using meditation to realize that the world around us is an illusion and seeking to overcome it. I think that my explanation here is painfully simplistic and probably not very good, but hear me out: a warrior acts upon the world, and within the world. In fact, there are plenty of Samurai stories in which the warrior willingly, more or less, damns himself and becomes trapped in the world because he has to use his blade and face enemies that would otherwise harm those around him or his retainer. Since he's pledged to follow his path to the end, he has be prepared for that end.
“We all want to live.” Yamamoto tells us, “and in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one's aim is a dog's death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one's heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.”
Now, there are no Samurai left. They've been gone for quite a while, so the question becomes: “why still do it?”

My honest answer? If you're going to be running around, trying to travel out of body, then doing daily meditations to prepare for the death of that body removes some of the fear over time. Perhaps this isn't quite right... It might be more appropriate to say that you simply begin accepting that you already are dead, in some sense or another, and the fear no longer matters. All that comes of it is an adrenaline rush followed by the meditation cycle.

Regardless of whether or not that last comment is entirely correct, I am completely convinced that the death meditations do work and have some curious impacts on the psyche, and I still recommend them to anyone willing to sit down, become peaceful and relaxed, and then... Well, I think you get the picture, blog reader.
“Bushido is realised in the presence of death. In the case of having to choose between life and death you should choose death. There is no other reasoning. Move on with determination.”
Be seeing you,


Jasso said...

As a Zen Buddhist, I'm interestend in the relationship between bushido and Zen. Curiously, zazen posture is sometimes called "the coffin" (you're doing a "metaphorical death"). Jodorowsky, who also was a Zen Buddhist, says that the body will never accept the idea of dying, but at least we can tame our intellect and our emotions in this aspect and try to be prepared for the moment. Obiously He's not talking as a scientific person, He's just a poet-magician, but I'm totally agree with him.

Be well
Frank ;D

Rachel Parker said...

Thank you for this article, Jack. And thank you for leading me to read Yamamoto's Hagakure.


Jason Miller, said...

There are actually a number of traditions that advocate this.

Greek Stoics had a meditation for imagining your own death, as well as that of your children and closest loved one. It sounds horrific but you have to try it to realize how freeing it can make you.

Of course in Tibetan Buddhism we have Chod, but even without the formalities of Chod, there are simple meditations on imagining your own death.

Kunzang Dorje sent me to the cremation grounds of Pashupatinath to meditate on the burning corpses so that I would have a very clear image of the human body being destroyed. I sat for three days, with nothing more than a prayer and the instruction to see myself and my loved ones as the corpse. One of the best things I have ever done.

Mr. J. said...

A magnificent discipline. As someone who has been at deaths door more than once, it is also helpful, and motivating.

Also, death is not a "maybe" kind of situation. If you are living, you ARE going to die. Maybe become part of the .000000000000000000000000001% that gets translated into some sort of Godlike existence while living.

But don't plan on that. Plan on dying, and plan on after death. No eyes, no ears, no organs of sensation, etc.

If you accept death an an inevitability, and with that in mind choose how to spend your life (like currency), you can accomplish a great deal.

Karmaghna said...

From among all of the various types of meditation available to an individual, the contemplation of ones own inevitable demise is certainly, in my opinion, one of the most useful. You do not need to belong to a certain culture or tradition for it to be utilized. As humans, we all share the same plight.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

I was going to mention the Stoics as well but Jason beat me to any case their philosophy has been very important to me the past year.

Contemplating death and worse things that can happen frees you from simpler anxieties. And our age is one that can be rife with anxiety -especially if you have no meditation discipline.

Lance Michael Foster said...

I love the Stoics and Zen.

In Catholicism one was to daily meditate on death, memento mori (, derived in part from the Roman culture. It blended the ancient Stoicism of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and the Christian message, if one follows that path. There is a whole set of traditions on that. For example,

In the works of Castaneda (yes, I know the history and the sham of it, but there are many useful bits and pieces too) Don Juan advises to take Death as an advisor. Death sits at one's left, and in all things, ask Death. Not out of ghoulishness or fear, but to ask, is this action, which even a small one can lead to death, is this the way of a warrior? Is this the way of a sorceror?

Crazy Horse said, before going into battle, "It is a good day to die." It is not that he wished to die, but that all the things in life are here and now, and this day is as good as any other, so one just does what one must do, fearlessly.

I myself am still afraid of death, I struggle with death and that fear, I am working on it. One of the times I almost died in the ocean from drowning, the last time I went down, I remember thinking, "this is it," this is the day I die. But I fought still, was helped by something unseen, and finally reached shore, exhausted.

Rachel Parker said...

That's great info and a great story, Lance. Thanks! -R

Jack Faust said...

To everyone: thanks for all the comments, and the complementary techniques and meditative practices mentioned!

I really need to look into a couple more...