What Is a Man’s Life?

What is a man’s life?

A bubble on the stream,
Raised by the splashing rain, which merrily
Dances along the swiftly gliding wave,
Full of apparent life, then suddenly
Breaks and leaves no trace behind
To show where it hath been….

A summer moth,
Hovering, at night around the candle-flame,
And finding first its transient joy of life,
And then its death….

A frail banana-leaf,
Spreading its beauties to the morning wind
And broken in a trice…

A dream that comes to lure the soul with sham reality,
Yet fading in a moment, when the mind
Wakes to the truth…..

A shadow on the path
Lacking all substance, echo without voice,
Vain fantasy of action……

Such is life.

Buddhist Meditation by Zeisho Aisuko

Recently, one of the executives I coach told me of the recent loss of a loved one. We talked about the sense of loss one feels when we lose someone who has been significant in our lives. But there is also a sense of release when we have watched them age and lose their physical, and (even more distressingly,) their mental capability.

It is said that Western societies hide death. People seldom die at home any more. They spend their last days in hospitals certainly being well cared for and appropriately drugged so as to avoid any undue pain. And I suppose we should be grateful for that. None of us wants to see our loved ones suffer. But how often is it that a life ceases behind the closed curtains of a hospital ward? A soul departs without the due recognition of an appropriate bon voyage. Someone medicated to unawareness leaves us by themselves with the importance of such a life not properly acknowledged by us to them.

In preparing ourselves for our own inevitable demise what are we to do? The Buddhists teach us a salutary lesson. They tell us to imagine ourselves dead! Would it matter if the headstone was not so big? Would it matter if our obituary in the local newspaper didn’t fill a quarter of a page? Of course not! Bones in the ground are a great trigger to humility and the proper sense of ego. (I have written a meditation involving this concept. For those who are interested it is contained in the commentary at the end of Chapter 28 of “Augustus Finds Serenity.”)

The Buddhist meditation heading this blog underlines life’s brevity and transience. In “Augustus Finds Serenity” I used a similar thought embedded in a Buddhist parable.. I have outlined it below with another such parable in the commentary.

“The young Master Samadha went off to find the legendary teacher Wung Fei. After many trials and tribulations he finally came to the hut of the Master. The Master invited him in.

‘Oh Sage,’ commented the young man, ‘You live in a very spare environment. Why is that?’

The old man merely smiled. ‘Samadha you come to me yourself unencumbered. You carry little with you. Yet you are surprised that I have few material possessions. Why is it that you have so little with you?’

‘It is simple, my Lord. I have little with me because I am merely passing through.’

‘Ah, but that is the nub of it. I have such few possessions because I also am merely passing through.’”

“When we understand the intemporality of our existence, how can material possessions be of any consequence?”

Once, Augustus asked Takygulpa to explain how a life should be viewed.
“Imagine it is night, and you are a bat. You fly through the darkness. Eventually you approach a small hut. In the hut there is a candle. The candle lights up the room with its brightness. By good fortune, the window is open. You fly through the window and out the open door on the other side. That short passage through the lightened room is like a life!”

“Is that all there is?” says Augustus in surprise. “What about reincarnation?”

“Perhaps there are other huts with open doors or windows up ahead,” replied the sage. “But can you rely on that?”

(We will come back to the notion of reincarnation a little later.)

This notion of transience is also reflected in a Sufi parable about the enigmatic Khidr (“The Green One”) of pre-Islamic lore.

Once Khidr went to a king’s palace and made his way right up to the throne. Such was the strangeness of his appearance that none dared to stop him. The king, who was Ibrahim ben Adam , asked him what he was looking for.

The visitor said, “I am looking for a sleeping place in this caravanserai.”

Ibrahim answered, “This is no caravanserai – this is my palace.”

The stranger said, “Whose was it before you?”

“My father’s,” said Ibrahim.

“And before that?”

“My grandfather’s.”

“And this place where people come and go, staying and moving on, you call other than a caravanserai?”

Sogyal Rinpoche advises thus:

“Looking into death needn’t be frightening or morbid. Why not reflect on death when you are really inspired, relaxed and comfortable………….
These are the moments when you can go through a powerful experience and your whole worldview can change quickly.”

Various traditions tell us that life and what we perceive as reality is only an illusion. The Lankavatara Sutra has this to say:

“The world seen by discrimination is like seeing one’s image reflected in a mirror, or one’s shadow, or the moon reflected in the water, or an echo heard in the valley. People grasping their own shadow of discrimination become attached to this thing and that thing and failing to abandon dualism they go on forever discriminating and thus never attain tranquillity. By tranquillity is meant Oneness and Oneness gives birth to the highest Samadhi …….”

Many have postulated that while the body is mortal, that which observes the body, the seat of consciousness, the audience of our thoughts, – sometimes called the Witness – is indeed immortal. This concept, as well as that of the illusory world was taken up in my little book of parables, “Augustus Finds Serenity.”

Augustus remembering a lesson from Takygulpa Rinpoche replied, “When you understand who you really, really are, then there is no pain and suffering. It is true that your body may suffer; it is true that your mind may suffer; but at the level of the Witness there is no suffering. Our hearts go out to those who are deceived and identify themselves with mind and body, but underneath it all we know all is well.”

He continued, “You do not suffer. Only the person you imagine yourself to be suffers.”

“Let me try to illustrate with a Zen parable. There was a Master who taught his disciples that the entire world is an illusion and it was folly to become attached to an illusion. The Master had an only son and through some misfortune the son was killed. A disciple went to the Master and found him weeping.

‘Why do you weep?’ asked the disciple. ‘After all, the world and everything in it is an illusion.’

‘Ah yes,’ agreed the Master, ‘but to lose an only son is the cruellest of all illusions.’

It is hard to put aside those emotional attachments we have. It seems part of the human condition to hang on to them. But the enlightened understand that although all the earthly manifestations may seem to point to the contrary – all is well. So you see that although I might cling to some notions of injustices and suffering, in the final analysis there is no injustice and there is no suffering, for all is well.”

Let us briefly comment again on the Witness. A famous Zen Koan says, “Show me your Original Face, the Face you had before your parents were born.” Ken Wilbur explains:

“This is not a trick question or a symbolic question; it is very straightforward, with a clear and simple answer. Your Original Face is simply the pure, formless Witness prior to the manifest world. The pure Witness, itself being timeless or prior to time, is equally present at all points of time. So of course this is the Self you had before your parents were born; it is the self you had before the Big Bang, too. And it is the Self you will have after your body – and the entire universe – dissolves.”

The mystics are unanimous that death contains the secret to life.
We briefly mentioned reincarnation above. Reincarnation was a belief of the Pythagoreans, most Hindus and many Buddhists. The Eastern traditions use the term samsara to describe the endless cycles of births and rebirths. While to Western eyes to be reborn might seem some sort of a triumph, in these Eastern traditions it is not, because they believe suffering is the inevitable fate of all who live. The ultimate goal is moksha which is spiritual liberation allowing the soul to be free of the cycle of samsara. For philosophical Hindus, progress from one life to another is determined by karma.(literally action). Each rebirth is guided by the moral action in the previous life. In the ethical monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, human beings are rewarded and punished for their good and bad deeds by a good and just God. In Hinduism, however, consequences follow from actions without any supernatural intervention. Inherent in the notion of karma is the fact that evil actions produce punishments and good actions produce rewards. As the Shvetashvatara Upanishad puts it, we wander in the cycle of transmigration according to our deeds. (Remember the bumper sticker – “My karma ran over your dogma”?)

Stephen Prothero though explains the underlying philosophy that allows us to move from samsara to moksha this way:
“Hindus refer to the essence of the human being as Atman, which is typically translated as ‘self’ or ‘soul’. The essence of divinity they refer to as Brahman. And the liberating wisdom of Hindus who walk this jnana (wisdom) path is as simple and as complicated as this – the individual soul is divine. The essence of each of us is uncreated, deathless and immortal. Atman and Brahman are one and the same.
Quite a few of the themes above I have explored in previous blogs.
Our fear of death largely comes from the primary dualism where we have separated ourselves from everything else which ends up having ourselves identify with our bodies and our egos that Phil Harker continues to remind us are “vulnerable, attackable, rejectable and mortal!” This generates our existential angst.
Let me again quote from Ken Wilbur.
“The fact that life and death are “not two” is extremely difficult for most individuals to grasp, and the difficulty lies not in the direction of complexity but rather of simplicity – it is not too complex to understand it, it is rather too simple, so that we miss it at the very point where we begin to think about it. Life is ordinarily taken to be something that begins at birth and ends at death. But in actuality, life and death, or more appropriately, birth and death, are nothing but two different ways of viewing the reality of the present Moment. As we have seen, in the eternal Present there is no past, and that which has no past is something which is just born. Birth is the condition of having no past. Further in the absolute Present there is no future either, and that which has no future is something which has just died. Death is the condition of having no future. Thus the present Moment, because it has no past, is newly born; and because it has no future, it is simultaneously dead. Birth and death, therefore, are simply two ways of talking about the same timeless Moment, and they are illusorily separated only by those who cannot escape from the standpoint of temporal succession so as to see all things in their simultaneity. In short birth and death are one in this timeless Moment.”
And so it is, if we can live in the eternal present, avoid the traps of dualism, recognize that we All are One, that Atman and Brahman can be reconciled, that who we are essentially is not our bodies or even our minds, then death should not be a concern.
The mystics seem to say that death contains the secret to life.

It is an oversight that in this rambling I have not referenced a Christian point of view. But Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth century catholic mystic had this to say:
“No one gets as much of God as those who are thoroughly dead.”
The Hindu sage Sri Ramani Maharshi added:
“You will know in due course that your glory lies where you cease to exist.”
And the Buddhist text, Zenrin, says:
“While alive, live as a dead person – thoroughly dead.”

But if you believe I have been inordinately seduced by the wooly thoughts of mystics let me finish with a quote from the Nobel- Prize winning cofounder of quantum mechanics, Erwin Schroedinger.
“It is not possible that this unity of knowledge, feeling, and choice which you call your own should have sprung into being from nothingness at a given moment not so long ago; rather this knowledge, feeling and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in people, nay in all sentient beings. The conditions for your existence are almost as old as the rocks. For thousands of years men have striven and suffered and begotten and women have brought forth in pain. A hundred years ago [there’s the test], another man sat on this spot; like you he gazed with awe and yearning in his heart at the dying light on the glaciers. Like you he was begotten of man and born of woman. He felt pain and brief joy as you do. Was he someone else? Was it not you yourself?”

“Learn to die and you shall live,
for there shall be none who learn to truly live
who have not learned to die.”

5 Replies to “What Is a Man’s Life?”

  1. Anthony De Mello has a nice quote about death as well:

    All questions at the public meeting that day were about life beyond the grave.
    The Master only laughed and did not give a single answer.
    To his disciples, who demanded to know the reason for his evasiveness, he later said, “Have you observed that it is precisely those who do not know what to do with this life who want another that will last forever?”
    “But is there life after death or is there not?” persisted a disciple.
    “Is there life before death? – that is the question!” said the Master enigmatically.
    © Anthony de Mello, SJ

  2. Hi Greg, I like the quote “Is there life before death – that is the question” but prefer to phrase it as “Is there life before death – that is the choice.”

    On reflection after typing this however maybe these are two completely separate issues or maybe a whole raft of issues. Will have to give it some more thought.


  3. Thanks for that Ted, very apposite as always. I think it is John Shelby-Spong who also observes the perpetual state of accute anxiety suffered by (most of) mankind is attributable to our self consciousness and our uniquely human appreciation that we will one day surely die, given the essential drive of all living things to survive. I know this is a topic you have addressed and I agree that in the West we seem particularly ill equipped culturally speaking to deal with death. Some of the spiritual traditions offer better insight than others, but rather than quote one of my favourite mystics I will share the philosophy of my grandmother, who lived a full life of love – and endured all the challeneges of her first world war generation – and said in the face of both life and death “Well dear, we’ve just got to make the best of it”. (She would be very surprised to know she had been quoted on a reputable blog such as this,not least because she would have had no idea what a blog is!)

  4. A financial advisor once tried to sell me life insurance and convince me of the benefits of having ‘a will’. He tried eveything he could think of to convince me, and eventually resorted to an emotional appeal, asking me how I would feel once I died knowing that my family might have difficulty with claiming full legal rights to any assets.

    He wasn’t amused when I laughed and responded ‘who cares how I’ll feel, I’ll be dead’.

    Needless to say my search for financial enlightenment was short-lived.

    About the bat in the dark…I once got hit by a bat while riding my bicycle home in the dark. It was as big as a dinosaur. I could have died…I guess life has a funny way of reminding us to die laughing at our own foolishness to have ever perceived that the ‘I’ is an important matter.

  5. According to Wikipedia, the hydra and the jellyfish turritopsis nutricula are both thought to be, in effect, immortal. Enough said about immortality. I think I would kill myself if I were ever reincarnated as a jelly fish.

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