Sunday, June 20, 2010

Let's talk about death! And Father's Day!

This week I attended the memorial service for someone in my company (I'll call him "J") who had died after a long illness; he had toughed it out for severl years, but finally, he went rather quickly.

Yesterday, my son - who espouses strong atheism, albeit at the age of  8 - asked me what happens to the mind after death.  My first answer was it really does not matter; nobody really knows, but we should live our lives as if every day were our last.  As I was speaking to him, my son -wisely for his age- pointed out that to be born meant one will indeed die, but still he had the question what happened to the mind?  I was reminded of some words written a while back by Jean Paul Sartre...

We were never more free than during the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, beginning with the right to talk. Every day we were insulted to our faces and had to take it in silence. Under one pretext or another, as workers, Jews, or political prisoners, we were deported en masse. Everywhere, on billboards, in the newspapers, on the screen, we encountered the revolting and insipid picture of ourselves that our oppressors wanted us to accept. And, because of all this, we were free. Because the Nazi venom seeped even into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest. Because an all-powerful police tried to force us to hold our tongues, every word took on the value of a declaration of principles. Because we were hunted down, every one of our gestures had the weight of a solemn commitment. The circumstances, atrocious as they often were, finally made it possible for us to live, without pretense or false shame, the hectic and impossible
existence that is known as the lot of man. Exile, captivity, and especially death (which we usually shrink from facing at all in happier times) became for us the habitual objects of our concern. We learned that they were neither inevitable accidents, nor even constant and exterior dangers, but that they must be considered as our lot itself, our destiny, the profound source of our reality as men. At every instant we lived up to the full sense of this commonplace little phrase: “Man is mortal!” And the choice that each of us made of his life and of his being was an authentic choice because it was made face to face with death, because it could always have been expressed in these terms: “Rather death than…”
And here I am not speaking of the elite among us who were real Resistants, but of all Frenchmen who, at every hour of the night and day throughout four years, answered NO. But the very cruelty of the enemy drove us to the extremities of this condition by forcing us to ask ourselves questions that one never considers in time of peace. All those among us – and what Frenchman was not at one time or another in this situation who knew any details concerning the Resistance asked themselves anxiously, “If they torture me, shall I be able to keep silent?” Thus the basic question of liberty itself was posed, and we were brought to the verge of the deepest knowledge that man can have of himself. For the secret of a man is not his Oedipus complex or his inferiority complex: it is the limit of his
own liberty, his capacity for resisting torture and death.
To those who were engaged in underground activities, the conditions of their struggle afforded a new kind of experience. They did not fight openly like soldiers. In all circumstances they were alone. They were hunted down in solitude, arrested in solitude. It was completely forlorn and unbefriended that they held out against torture, alone and naked in the presence of torturers, clean-shaven, well-fed, and well-clothed, who laughed at their cringing flesh, and to whom an untroubled conscience and a boundless sense of social strength gave every appearance of being in the right. Alone. Without a friendly hand or a word of encouragement. Yet, in the depth of their solitude, it was the others that they were protecting, all the others, all their comrades in the Resistance. Total responsibility in total solitude – is this not the very definition of our liberty?

I don't think I quite answered his question, despite these a few of these  beautiful words appearing in my head.  (I quoted more than is relevant here, simply because it's generally hard to find the extension of this famous quote of his elsewhere.) 

Of course death is like this torturer, and also to a certain extent Sartre, like many of his comrades experienced a certain psychological effect as a result of these experiences.  
Mumon in his commentary on Joshu's Mu ( 無) relates that on penetrating 無 one will be "free in his way of birth and death" according to the translation by Paul Reps.

Hakuin, in writing to a Nichiren nun spoke of his relatively shallow first experiences of what he thought was his  awakening:

In a loud voice I called: "Wonderful, wonderful. There is no cycle of birth and death through which one must pass. There is no enlightenment one must seek. The seventeen hundred koans handed down from the past have not the slightest value whatsoever." My pride soared up like a majestic mountain, my arrogance surged forward like the tide. Smugly I thought to myself: "In the past two or three hundred years no one could have accomplished such a marvelous breakthrough as this."
Shouldering my glorious enlightenment, I set out at once for Shinano. Calling on Master Shoju, I told of my experience and presented him with a verse. The Master, holding my verse up in his left hand, said to me: "This verse is what you have learned from study. Now show me what your intuition has to say," and he held out his right hand.
I replied: "If there were something intuitive that I could show you, I'd vomit it out," and I made a gagging sound.
The Master said: "How do you understand Chao-chou's Mu?"
I replied: "What sort of place does Mu have that one can attach arms and legs to it?"
The Master twisted my nose with his fingers and said: "Here's someplace to attach arms and legs." I was nonplussed and the Master gave a hearty laugh. "You poor hole-dwelling devil!" he cried. I paid him no attention and he continued: "Do you think somehow that you have sufficient understanding?"
I answered: "What do you think is missing?"
Then the Master began to discuss the koan that tells of Nan-ch'uan's death. I clapped my hands over my ears and started out of the room. The Master called after me, "Hey, monk!" and when I turned to him he added: "You poor hole-dwelling devil!" From then on, almost every time he saw me, the Master called me a "poor hole-dwelling devil."
One evening the Master lay cooling himself on the veranda. Again I brought him a verse I had written. "Delusions and fancies," the Master said. I shouted his words back at him in a loud voice, whereupon the Master seized me and rained twenty or thrity blows with his fists on me, and then pushed me off the veranda.
This was on the fourth day of the fifth month after a long spell of rain. I lay stretched out in the mud as though dead, scarcely breathing and almost unconscious. I could not move; meanwhile the Master sat on the veranda roaring with laughter. After a short while I regained consciousness, got up, and bowed to the Master. My body was bathed in perspiration. The Master called out to me in a loud voice: "You poor hole-dwelling devil!"
After I devoted myself to an intense study of the koan on the death of Nan-ch'uan, not pausing to sleep or eat. One day I had an awakening and went to the Master's room to test my understanding, but he would not approve it. All he did was call me a "poor hole-dwelling devil."
Later on in that same writing, if my memory and the website I've quoted are correct, Hakuin says about the death of Nan-ch'uan:

If you wish to test the validity of your own powers, you must first study the koan on the death of Nan-ch'uan.
A long time ago San-sheng had the head monk Hsiu go to the Zen Master Tsen of Ch'ang-sha and ask him: "What happened to Nan-ch'uan after he passes away?"
Ch'ang-sha replied: "When Shih-t'ou became a novice monk he was seen by the Sixth Patriarch."
Hsiu replied: "I didn't ask you about when Shih-t'ou became a novice monk; I asked you what happened to Nan-ch'uan after he passed away."
Ch'ang-sha replied: "If I were you I would let Nan-ch'uan worry about it himself."
Hsiu replied: "Even though you had a thousand-foot winter pine, there is no bamboo shoot to rise above its branches."
Ch'ang had nothing to say. Hsiu returned and told the story of his conversation to San-sheng. San-sheng unconsciously stuck out his tongue [in surprise] and said: "He has surpassed Lin-chi by seven paces."
If you are able to understand and make clear these words, then I will acknowledge that you have a certain degree of responsiveness to the teachings. Why is this so? If you speak to yourself while no one is around, you behave as meanly as a rat. What can anyone possibly prove [about your understanding]?

I remember at the age of nine how shocked I was at my grandmother's death; and the way in which my parents had handled it didn't exactly soften the blow for me, although they (obviously in retrospect) had bigger fish to fry mentally at the time.

My father died in 2001; he did get a chance to see my son before he died; today is Father's Day. 

I feel very much at peace with all that; and in the service for the man from my company who died, I was amazed at how the narrative still revolves around, "Death's no problem for us because of Jesus."  I was sad because so many many many alternate possibilities for peaceful, harmonious reconciliation with the notion of death were excluded, as was, in my view, an inability even to conceive of such alternates.

One alternate might be seen in the myriad of possibilities of the answers to questions from my son.   Perhaps my answer - a bit from Sartre, a bit from Suzuki Shosan -  was also in the direction of the koan on the death of Nan-ch'uan. (Perhaps not.)

In something Douglas R. Hofstadter wrote he pointed out the issues arising from consciousness  - I think that was the area of intent of my son's question.  If a computer were sentient, could we know it? (Probably not - we can't even tell if anybody else besides us is sentient. Yes we take that "on faith" and yes, the subjective and objective spheres retain their character of subjectivity and objectivity despite their interdependent origination. )  So even if a smarty pants computer comes along, it wouldn't matter to us.

I did tell my son, "nobody really knows" what happens after you die, but I also did mention  that the idea that consciousness or awareness is irretrievably lost in death does not seem to be the case either.  It is manifestly obvious to me that the effects of those I have known and have died still hurtle forward in this world; where do these effects end and "their" consciousness begin?  Yeah, OK, if we're talking only about the meat computer between the ears, and its electrochemical phenomena,  it does the way of all meat.  But I don't think awareness actually is subsumed by that totality; it simply does not appear to be the case when I think about that spinning wheel.

I remember my father.  I remember J. Neither of them talked much about death, especially in the last months of their lives, and to the extent that such issues did come up, it was realistically expressed, at least in my father's case.  

I'd like to say I miss my father, but I feel  he's still here, regardless of whatever  happened to his consciousness.  I'm sure he's dealing with it fine.

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J said...
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