In February, Zen temples mark the Buddha’s passing away. It’s referred to as Nehan, or nirvana. With anyone considered to have had great realization, Buddhists often choose to say that the person “entered into nirvana.” But for what I want to say, it’s important to say it outright: the Buddha died.
There are lots of variations on the story of the Buddha’s death. Almost all include the detail that he was served a meal (maybe pork, maybe mushroom) that somehow led to his death. After eating, he experienced severe stomach pains and even passed blood. Most people tend to describe it as a kind of food poisoning, but others have looked at the symptoms and speculate it was something called mesenteric infarction, a lethal disease involving obstruction of the blood vessels, triggered by eating, with precisely the painful outcomes experienced by the Buddha. Of course, we don’t know. But we are told the following: (a) there was a lot of suffering at the end, (b) the Buddha knew he was dying, and (c) in that pain, and in that knowledge, he remained kind to—and even concerned about—those around him.
I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked some variation on this question: “If you knew you only had a year to live, what would you do?” I’ve asked it, too. It’s a fun question—when I was young, it brought to mind big things, a kind of bucket list of grand gestures. I would tell that girl how I really felt about her, and I’d write a book, and I’d travel to India, and on and on. In that year, I’d live just the highlights of the life that had been cut short. I’d go out in a blaze of wish fulfillment.
I heard the question again the other day, and it hit me very differently. It was posed like this: “Imagine the doctor tells you, ‘You’re dying. We don’t know how long you have—maybe weeks, maybe only days.’ How would that change how you behave?” Maybe it’s just that I’m older now, or maybe because of how the question was asked, but my mind didn’t go to the grand gestures (in fact, the grand gestures felt kind of silly). I imagined leaving the doctor’s office, stepping into my home, talking with my wife and kids, and the truth of it was crystal clear: if I really believed I only had a little time left, I would be more patient. I would be a better listener. I would encounter a situation that would have irritated me or felt like an imposition, and instead of trying to control it or get out of it, I would feel grateful for the chance to be with these people in this moment. I would make sure—with what I said, and the tone of my voice, and the way I cooked dinner, and the way I said goodnight, and everything—that they knew they were loved.
I would have less interest in control, and more investment in simply being present. I would relish the taste of a peanut butter sandwich—maybe my last one ever. I would feel each footstep as I walked. Instead of cursing about the weather, I would notice the joy of it, how alive I feel when the rain and snow touch my face. I can do all of this. I can do it today.
Buddhism, as I understand it, works as an accelerant. There are certain truths we avoid. Some are about our capacity to serve; we think we’re capable of so little. So we take up the bodhisattva vows early in our practice, before we have any clue how to make them real:
Beings are countless; I vow to free them all.
Delusions are inexhaustible: I vow to put an end to them.
Dharma gates are infinite; I vow to enter them.
The awakened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.
We stumble around, trying to work them out, and as we do, we start to see that whether we succeed in those vows or not, we have the capacity—the almost incomprehensible capacity—to accept the level of responsibility they require. We might arrive at that same understanding through a long life, and if so, that’s great. This path speeds up the process.
It’s the same with something like impermanence. Almost everyone eventually confronts the inevitability of death. How can we miss it? But Buddhism says, Look at this, and don’t look away. So we make a choice to notice change, the arising of things and their passing away. We watch as flowers bloom and as they decay, and we remind ourselves, I’m just like that. Everyone is like that. Everything is like that. It’s hard—even with the intention to look, our instinct is to look away. But in looking, in forcing ourselves to track the fact of impermanence again and again, we eventually come to terms with it. It’s an accelerated course of study.
We can take up that practice as a thought exercise—we can ask, “What if I were dying?” And that’s useful. But of course, it isn’t a thought exercise. We don’t know how much time is left—maybe years, but maybe only weeks or days.
We’re dying. Maybe we should start acting like it.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.