The artificial boundary between life and death

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Jan 19, 2009 The artificial boundary between life and death

The Chinese script for the character “mu,” which means nothing.

A friend who is getting on in years recently said that death is unacceptable. Here is my excerpted reply:

Here are some things I have written about death over the years, for whatever it is worth to you, and in case it will help give you more harmony about the mortality of you and everyone else:

–      Woody Allen on death: “I keep wondering if there is an afterlife, and if there is, will they be able to break a twenty?”

–      “It’s an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe’s supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously.” Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything.

–      “Tomorrow is not real. It is an illusion. The only reality is now.”  From Zen in Martial Arts.

–      If someone fires bullets at me and I die without a groan and with God’s name on my lips, then you should tell the world that here was a real Mahatma…” Gandhi on the morning of his assassination.

–      He Ram, He Ram” – Ghandi’s last words, praying to the deity.

–      Certainly life continues when others die, so in that respect death may be an artificial boundary. I have recognized all the more how my fear of death is  so closely connected with my being self-centered, my over-attachment to my body, and my lack of enough internal peace and balance.

“Death is our greatest challenge as well as our greatest spiritual opportunity. By cultivating mindfulness, we can prepare ourselves for this final passage by allowing nature, rather than Ego, to guide us.”–Ram Dass, Still Here (2001).

– Zoketsu Norman Fischer said: “In Buddhist funeral services we always say, in true reality there is no coming no going no increase no decrease no birth and no death. This is a deep expression of our gratitude for existence as it is, our knowing that life in order to be life is always full of death, and death, in order to be death, is always full of life.”

–      From Fred Lehman: “I remember sitting one morning several years ago with Professor Cheng [Man Ch’ing] and several students in the Asian Library at Columbia University. The Club of Rome Report had just been released by MIT, and one of the students had bought in a clipping from the New York Times outlining the hopelessness of solving the compounded problems posed by overpopulation, food shortage, energy resource depletion, atmospheric pollution, radioactive waste, etc. The student was quite upset, and asked professor Cheng what he thought of the situation, and how we could get out of it. The Taiji master turned the question around and asked the questioner what his ideas were. The student gave his answer, and sat expectantly, awaiting correction from the Sage. Instead, Professor Cheng turned to another student at the table, and asked, ‘What do you think about what he said?’ This continued until each student had commented on the others ideas, and it was clear that the subject had been exhausted. There was really no way to solve the problem. Professor Cheng went back to reading his book.

“After a pause, the first student, more upset than ever, asked again for some word from the teacher. Professor Cheng leaned forward, and put his book down next to the cup of hot tea which had just been refilled for him. ‘What will happen to the world? I don’t know. Look at this vapor; it comes from the tea, it goes into the air, and right about here’ — he pointed in the air — ‘you don’t see it anymore. Where does it go?’ He sat quietly for a moment while we pondered the empty space left after the world had destroyed itself. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said, ‘Nothing gets lost.'”


I found a scene from Wim Wenders’s Tokyo-ga that visits late film director Yasujiro Ozu’s gravesite. Instead of saying Ozu’s name, his headstone has the symbol “mu” (see this photo of his headstone, too), which I understand can be defined — perhaps very imperfectly defined — as “nothing”.

What did Ozu mean by having his headstone say “mu”? The senses of cinema webpage says: “Whilst in China during his war service, Ozu asked a Chinese monk to paint the character ‘mu’ for him (an abstract concept loosely meaning ‘void’ or ‘nothingness’). Ozu died painfully on his sixtieth birthday in 1963 of cancer and his tombstone in the temple of Engaku in Kita-Kamakura bears the inscription ‘mu’ from the monk’s painting that he had kept all his life.”


–      Contemplation on No-Coming and No-Going By Thich Nhat Hanh This body is not me I am not limited by this body. I am life without boundaries I have never been born, And I have never died. Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars, Manifestations from my wondrous mind. Since before time, I have been free Birth and death are only doors through which we pass Sacred thresholds on our journey Birth and death are a game of hide and seek So laugh with me, Hold my hand, Let us say goodbye Say goodbye to meet again soon. We meet today We will meet again tomorrow We meet at the source every moment. We meet each other in all forms of life.Thich Nhat Hanh, Chanting and Recitation from Plum Village. Page 188.

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