Zen and the Art of Dying

I remember when the thought of dying became real to me. I was 24 years old, serving a tour of duty in Iraq with the U.S. Marines.  It was my squad’s turn to act as the quick reaction force (QRF) for our base. QRF is like the 911 of a forward-deployed unit. They’re on standby 24/7, ready to don their gear and race to the vehicles should a unit that’s out on patrol need assistance.  
It’s not as exciting as it sounds. Most of our time on QRF was spent doing timed drills, where unit leaders measured our team’s reaction time in various scenarios.

So, it was a lot of half-eaten meals and video chats with loved ones cut short because the siren could go off at any minute, and we needed to be ready. I remember the first time the siren went off, and it wasn’t a drill. It was a few hours after dark, and my squadmates and I were reading, writing letters and watching movies on our laptops. Then we heard what sounded like an explosion in the nearby town. We stared at each other for a moment, unsure of what to do.

Then the siren went off, and everyone started to move. We’d rehearsed this so many times that the team leaders didn’t have to shout orders. Everyone knew their job and where they needed to be.  When I got outside and started running toward my MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush-protected) vehicle, I looked around and realized something was wrong.  If this had been a drill, our squad leader would be standing outside with a stopwatch, screaming at us to go faster.  But he was nowhere to be seen.      

My first thought was that he must be in the COC (command operations center) receiving orders. My second thought was, “Holy sh-t, this is real”. My third thought was, “I’m going to die”. I’m not sure where that last thought came from. Everyone knows that they’re going to die eventually. And you can’t enlist during a time of war like I did without knowing the risks involved. But my understanding of death was intellectual up until that point. It didn’t become real to me until that night.

But as the thought, “I’m going to die,” grew heavy in my chest, I didn’t have time to contemplate it.  I just kept running into the darkness because there was nothing else to do.  Obviously, I didn’t die that night or on any of the nights that came after.  But the question of my impending death never left my mind.  I wasn’t afraid, per se.  But it seemed like something I needed to figure out in the same way one needs to figure out taxes.

After many years of searching, I found a satisfying answer in Buddhism.  But if we wish to understand the Buddhist teaching on death, we first need to understand the Trikaya, also known as the “Three Bodies of Buddha”.  There is the Nirmanakaya, which is the physical body. Sambhogakaya, which is the joy-body. And the Dharmakaya, which is the primordial essence of enlightenment. 

To be clear, all three bodies are Buddha. But they represent Buddha in different forms in much the same way that water can take on three forms; liquid, solid, and gas. Mahayana Buddhism teaches that all physical creation is Nirmanakaya. That’s why we’re taught to look to streams, rocks, birds, etc. for the Dharma. The Sambhogakaya is made up of celestial beings (Kannon, Jizo, Amida, etc.), and the Dharmakaya is completely without form; acting as the source material for everything else.

Sticking with the water analogy; the Dharmakaya is the ocean, and we’re all waves on the surface. We exist simultaneously as separate entities while also existing as part of a much larger whole. That’s why birth is listed as one of the inescapable sources of suffering in Buddhist literature. When we’re born, we inherit the illusion of a separate self, and that’s where all our problems start. But dying is also a source of suffering because we’re so tied to the illusion that we don’t want to let it go. It’s like a kid who won’t stop eating candy even though it rots his teeth.

But when we understand our relationship to the Dharmakaya, we realize these physical bodies are only a small part of our larger self. Thus, we understand that the act of dying is nothing more than the act of going home; like a wave returning to the ocean. That’s why the teaching of non-self is so important. When we let go of our illusory sense of self, we lose our fear of death because we realize there’s no one here to die. 

Of course, that still begs the question, “What happens after I die”. In simplest terms, our consciousness disappears; never to rise again. And our pieces, parts are recycled to make new trees, rocks, grass, etc. That’s why human birth is so valuable in Buddhism, it’s incredibly rare. The exact events that came together to create us will never happen again. Thus, our lives are both fragile and precious at the same time; like an expensive jewel. That’s also why death isn’t something to be feared. Our bodies die, but we live on in the plants, animals, and people that come after us. As long as the universe exists, we exist.

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