I haven't been in the mood to post any real blogs lately. I have been a bit of a mess of up and down. But, because this has been on my mind all week, I am posting my response to Maja Milcinski's article "Zen and the Art of Death". It is from a 1999 Journal of the History of Ideas, but it is marvelous.
Of course, my ending response was:
I need a few more pages to feel truly capable of attempting this freedom for more than a few fleeting moments here and there.
But, it's interesting all the same. I am not claiming my response is interesting, but I feel the need to post it so here it is.
In any introductional study of world religions a student will study numerous approaches to death. Death is never an easy topic to address and we, in the West often attempt to address it logically. The Western need to rationalize causes us to say things such as ‘it was time’ or ‘God needed another angel’ to assist us in coping. In general Westerners approach death with a need to explain. Maja Milcinski’s article “Zen and the Art of Death” from The Journal of History of Ideas discusses the general differences in Eastern and Western approaches. Milcinski takes the exploration one step further asking, ‘What is the best way to approach the inevitable end?’
Whenever I hear someone state “I’m dying” my immediate instinct is to reply, “Aren’t we all?” Each day we live we are further from birth and closer to death. While this end is expected and inevitable, it remains scary since it is uncontrollable. Anyone who has watched “Final Destination” knows you cannot outrun it forever. Yet, “in European thought the fact of morality and impermanence remains frustrating and traumatic, which does not help a person to face the inevitable […]” (387). Milcinski has, in general, evaluated this approach correctly. Some people are scare of their deaths, some of friends’ deaths and family’s death, and some are afraid of all death. Is there a way to overcome this fear and difficult in coping?
The Buddhists believe that “all material things are considered to have come into existence through some cause and are subjected to the process of creation, abidance, transformations, and extinction. This process, moreover, is cyclical…” (388). This allows the believer to trust that the soul has been carried on either as another being or that it has been enlightened and obtained Nirvana. There is no loss in death. This encourages believers to “not cover one’s eyes from the reality of death but to enjoy the world as it is presented” (388). Coming from a Western perspective this is difficult to imagine. In order to enjoy the world as presented one feels inclined to be aware of the present to enjoy it, the past to learn from it, and the future, to plan for it. It is difficult to imagine enjoying the future when the dark idea of death is before us.
Chinese Chan and Japanese Zen present “life and death as unimportant so that one may look upon and anticipate death with equanimity” (391). This composure under stress can be reached by “diving into the Void” (391). Daoism also discusses this way of thinking in looking for a metaphysical sense of transcending this Earthly state. For a reader with only bare bones (a couple of classes and culturally inherited) knowledge of these belief systems, this is a difficult concept to grasp. I imagine it may be similar to the feeling of utter freedom gained from dancing in a summer downpour with someone you love while sounding your barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, but that is just a moment. To sustain that sense of freedom while going about daily tasks seems nearly impossible. Even those nights I walk home alone at 4am with the crisp fall air leaving me completely in love and at peace with the world, fade. Milcinski attributes this difficulty (of sustaining a sense of freedom) to the barriers people put up in advance. The ego stops the person from escaping the ego. “It is entirely different if one opens one’s heart to everything that happens and realizes the here and now without any second thoughts” (392). This is, of course, easier said than done. Then again, the article is “Zen and the Art of Death,” not Zen’s Five Easy Steps to Escaping Mo(u)rning.
While attempting to commit one’s self to this ‘Void’ it almost seems logical and perhaps simpler to literally jump into the void- ending life early, but Yang Zi answers Meng Sun Yang’s question by telling him to “let life run its course […] when it is time to die, resign yourself and let death run its course…” (394). It seems that acceptance is the key. When rushing or avoiding you are attempting to be greater than your destiny. At the same time, one should not be so caught up in death that he/she forgets how to live.
Both Eastern and Western perspectives strive for this acceptance. They also both acknowledge the cycle from birth to decay. It is the spiritual aspects that these two differ in. Sino-Japanese suggest that reality and the Ego are illusions. If this is the case there is a major discrepancy between this way of thinking and the general Western philosophy. Milcinski suggests there needs to be a merging of the discussed methods to be able to properly deal with death. People are present and thus a strictly mystical approach often seems unattainable, but words themselves are not able to bridge the gap between our earthly existence and the post-death Nirvana, Heaven, Enlightenment. The “logically discursive style of Uroboros” should be combined with the “meditative mystical style of the open circle” (397). Finding this balance is the art. I only wish Milcinski could hold my hand through it.