By Johnathon Pendall
Death. It’s a subject that we never want to talk about, but how we feel about it shapes the way we live our lives.
Some of us are introduced to death at a young age when a grandparent or beloved pet passes away. Yet for many of us, the most pungent encounters seem to begin when we’re in our 20’s or 30’s. From then on, death seems to follow us; taking away all that we love one by one until finally coming for us.
Sickness, old age, and death are eventualities; along with losing what we love and enjoy, and being subjected to what we hate and dislike. Such is the way of things and there is no escape.
Now that everyone is sufficiently depressed, we can climb out of this deep dark hole together.
Grief, loss and disgust with impermanence were with me for a long time. Even as a child I sought to understand why we die, and why we suffer when the ones we love die. Yet as Nietzsche said, “When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you.” I was trying to understand from the delusional perspective of duality.
Still caught in the snares of idealism, I approached the subject from a standpoint of permanence and independence. Yet all things are boundless. Not bound by stagnancy. Not bound by isolation. In Buddhism, this is called Sunyata. I was also blind to an extraordinarily simple fact of existence: Ball goes up, ball comes down.
If we deeply understand just this simple fact, then we understand the dynamics of conventional reality. Then we understand why we suffer.
The bell curve is a phenomenon that all things abide by, even statistics! Taoists call it the Yin and the Yang. It permeates all aspects of reality. From the universe itself, down to the smallest atoms and everything in between. It’s as if everything is part of a boundless ocean, and the Yin-Yang is the motion of the tides.
Ball goes up, ball comes down. Suffering comes when we never want the ball to come down. Yet the ball must come down. If not, how could it have been tossed up to begin with? Also, if balls never came down—we’d spend a fortune on them!
If there were no such thing as death, that would mean that there’d be no such thing as Yin in general. The sun could never set, the seasons never change, a thought or emotion never end. There’d be no motion, no silence, no birth. If we eradicated Yin right now, everything would be permanently stuck just as it is. In fact, nothing could even exist at all.
All things are boundless.
That means that the mechanism that perpetuates death also acts on all things in the universe. There is no separation, no isolation. We die because rain falls. We die because the wind blows. We die because songs end.
And yet… The ocean remains after the wave crashes. Beneath the notes of a song, there is an empty staff. While watching the ball rise and fall, I can’t help but ask, “Who’s watching?” We’re almost out of the hole now, just a few more feet.
If everything is indeed subject to the bell curve, then there couldn’t even be the illusion of stability, there couldn’t even be the delusion of duality. Everything would be like two cars traveling at the same speed alongside each other. We look over, and the other driver appears not to be moving. We’d toss up the ball, and we’d travel up right alongside it.
So if our bodies, sensations, perceptions, thoughts and emotions, and even consciousness are subject to the bell curve, then what is it that gives us the illusion of stability? What is this thing that we all share that we misinterpret as the ego? It can’t even be awareness because even awareness depends on subject and object to exist.
Who is watching the ball?
I don’t know! That’s right, this article culminates into a huge let down. The answer to that question is far beyond my current understanding though I know there is an answer. I just don’t know who it is that knows it. We could pluck an answer from the mouths of masters, but I’ve vowed to never speak of what I don’t personally understand. I can’t mention what I’ve never experienced first hand.
Through zazen, mindfulness and constant inquiry from a nondualistic perspective, all things will be revealed. The nondualistic perspective is that it’s always night somewhere on earth. It’s also always day somewhere on earth. It’s always morning, always evening, always dawn and always dusk. All of these events are happening right now.
Is the ball rising from the ground or falling toward the sky?
The new moon is still the full moon, we just can’t see it. While paying respects at a visitation, it becomes clear that the absence of presence is the presence of absence. Our concepts are inadequate when it comes to true understanding.
Death is also a concept. When everything flows with everything else, who is it that lives and dies? When all that we are is secondhand clothes passed down since time immeasurable, who is it that’s wearing them?
When John breathes his last, is burnt to ash and planted with a tree, all that composed him remains. Every single atom is still here, still buzzing about seeking new atoms to join with. We intuitively understand this. We even call corpses “remains.” The flowing flows on, the ball continues rising and falling. Seeing a dead friend at a wake, has the animating force departed him or is the body just no longer able to accommodate it?
All that said, I cannot grieve anymore. Who is it I’d be grieving for other than myself? I cannot serve the dead, but I can honor them by taking to heart their lessons in life. I can serve the living and grieve for the grieving. All the while, there’s this luminous sprite fluttering through forgotten corridors in my mind; shining a light in dark corners.
The light called, “Who?”
Editor: Ty H Phillips
He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".