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The Wheel of Life and Death

By Roshi Philip Kapleau                              Buy the Book


The author spent thirteen years of ardent Zen training in Japan.  He has established Zen centers worldwide and has written other equal works including The Three Pillars of Zen which remained in print for twenty-five years.
If you have not met Zen Buddhism, you will be startled, perhaps, to learn that there is no such thing as a "soul"inthe conventional sense, moving from body to body in essence.  You may, as well, be surprised to learn death isnotinstant but takes a minimum of three days.  Both of those notions are in keeping with Traditional Buddhism.

Surviving that, you should realize by reading that the focus of this work is on preparation for death.  In addition to the topics below, the author offers practical advice that may save you some money on a funeral.  He explains Buddha's Nine Precepts for forming good karma and a list of what to do in case someone near you passes away.  There is also a form for a living will, a method of meditation and a list of Do's and Don'ts when consoling the bereaved.  This book may be especially useful for workers in crisis centers or for professionals who are in touch with the terminal ill and their families.


One: Death

The basic aim of this volume can be summed up in these words: to help the reader learn to live fully with life at every moment and die serenely with death.


1.  Existential Aspects

"There is no Death of anyone save only in appearance, even as there is no birth except in seeming.  The change from being to becoming seems to be birth, and the change from becoming to being seems to be death; but in reality no one is ever born, nor does one ever die."  --Appollonius of Tyana

The basis of the material world is the spiritual, and the world of form in turn influences and is inseparable from the spiritual realm.

With each . . . judgment the experience of pure hearing becomes fainter and fainter, until one no longer hears the sound but hears only his thoughts about it.

. . . the unending cycle of birth-living-dying-death-rebirth continues unbroken, driven by the volition, instincts, and habit patterns born of craving, anger, and delusion --driven by, in a word, Ego.  The physical body . . . is a composite or crystallization of our deluded, ego-based thoughts.

Form comprises past elements of consciousness that have formed the body and are represented by the body . . . sense organs, sense objects and their mutual relationship.

"This is the human predicament.  The Ego-Self, split at the root into subject and object, is forever dangling from a bottomless abyss, unable to gain a footing."  --Masao Abe  (Zen and Western Thought)

Dying . . . is not different from living, living is another form of dying, and both at base are . . . unreal.


2.  Meditations on Death

Meditations on death are intended to help . . . confront the reality of . . . finitude in a concrete way and thereby gain an intense awareness of . . . eventual death, and with it a greater appreciation of life.

. . . reflect on the deaths of about seven accomplished individuals who have had worldly success, fame , and power and yet could not avert death.


3.  Facing Death

"Death never takes the wise man by surprise.  He is always ready to go.  --John De La Fontaine

"When I'm in pain, all I want to do is accept that I'm dying and be prepared for it . . . but then the pain subsides, and I find myself looking through the newspaper to see if there is a sale on dresses."  --Leah, terminally ill cancer patient.


Two: Dying

You have to learn to do everything, even to die.  --Gertrude Stein


1. The dying person and death

To be reborn hourly and daily in this life, we need to die -to give of ourselves wholly to the demands of the moment so that we utterly "disappear."


2. The Dilemma of Pain

. . . suffering . . . is "the psychic component of pain endured ."

What lies at the root of all sorrow . . . is the delusory notion of an Ego-I  --that "I am here and what is not me is out there . . ."


3. Suicide and Euthanasia

The act of self-destruction is the suicide's supreme gesture of defiance, a symbolic thumbing of his nose at society . . . having failed him rather than he it.

"If it is for God alone to decide when we shall live and when we shall die, then we "play God" just as much when we cure people as when we kill them."  --James Rachels  (The End of Life)


4. To the Terminally Ill
 
All evil actions committed by me
Since time immemorial,
Stemming from greed, anger and ignorance,
Arising from body, speech and mind,
I now repent having committed.
Receiving aid from enlightened ones does not mean having some long-dead entity take over the body, speaking and acting through it in order to give guidance to oneself and others.  That sort of thing has nothing to do with the world of spirituality; it belongs to the occult.
5. To the family of the dying

Abandonment is one of the greatest fears of the terminally ill.


6. To the doctors and nurses of the dying

Quite a bit of a doctor's or nurse's anxiety around a terminal patient . . . comes from the professional's own fear of dying . . .


7. Cremation or Burial?

In the Buddhist  and Hindu Traditions, a wait of three days before the body is buried or cremated, to allow the life force to leave the body, is considered vital.


8. Creating the funeral service

. . . honoring the memory of the dead is . . . a way of discharging guilt feelings. . .

. . . It doesn't even matter whether the being who died was human.  Animals, too, can be affected by a strong funeral service.


9. Grieving

Commemoration of a deceased child:

if I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come.   -Chinese  Proverb

. . . life and death are . . . two aspects of one process, both present at any given moment.  Your ability to channel your grief in a constructive way will depend upon how strongly you believe in this.

. . . we lay flowers at graves . . . because at some level we feel that the departed still exists in one form or another.


Three: Karma

"Shallow men believe in luck, believe in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect."--Ralph Waldo Emerson


1. Understanding Karma

If the present life is totally or  wholly controlled by our past actions, then karma amounts to fatalism or predesti- nation . . . free will would be an absurdity.

No child who had been reared to believe in the validity of the law of causation, and had accepted it, would one day fling into the face of his parents the taunt "Don't blame me! I didn't ask to be born?" for he would know that we all ask to be born and are born through parents whom we seek because of a karmic affinity back before conception.

Types of Karma: 1. Simultaneous and Progressive,  2. Variable and Constant,  3. Small cause, Large effect,  4. Col-
lective,  5. Parent and Child,  6. Heavy karma.

. . . karma cannot be used as justification for doing or not doing anything.

"Everyone sees how he has been hurt, but does not see how he is guilty."  --Solzhenitsyn


2. The Interconnectedness of all Life

We are our brother's keeper  --no, in the deepest sense, we are our brothers, for we are not apart from them.

Intentionally to take one's life . . . is a descent rather than an ascent in the evolutionary  chain.


Four: Rebirth

The process from death to rebirth is said to take place in cycles of seven days or multiples thereof  --usually forty-nine days.


1. The Case for Rebirth

. . . rebirth, or better, "again-becoming," does not involve the transfer of a substance but is better described as the continuation of the process which occurs at every moment of consciousness, continuing to operate  to both affect and effect our rebirth.

"For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream.  He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak.  As he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."--Robert Jasper  (God & the Astronomers)
 "Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else: you are the one who gets burned.  --Buddha

. . . the supernatural power to know . . . past lives . . . is rather the result of bad karma in past lives . . .--13th century Zen Master Dögen


2. Further Implications of Rebirth

That we can't remember some of our actions doesn't make us any less responsible for them . . .


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