Before continuing I must say that I was a little hesitant to broach this as a topic for a blog entry. The meditation that I describe below may be distasteful to some and unsettling to others. Unfortunately I am not able to monitor and give direct feedback as I would do to a client so I have to leave it in your good judgment as to whether or not you wish to stop at any point and discontinue practice. The process should be challenging, yes, but not overwhelming to your emotions and if you should feel yourself becoming too agitated by the thought of death I would strongly recommend that you take an indefinite break from the exercises and come back only if and when you feel prepared to confront the same feelings.
I originally wrote this article after discussing with a friend the romanticized significance of the cherry blossom season (at the end of March) and what the cherry blossoms symbolize to the Japanese people. Of particular interest to my friend was the imagery of the suicidal kamikaze pilots hurtling to their deaths while only the night before they had composed some of the most beautiful and thoughtful poetry – their death poems. I have worked with various people on this topic before and decided that, all things considered, now is a good time to bring these ideas of a much wider audience.
Japanese death poetry (jisei) is particularly famous among Zen monks in Japan (though it is not restricted to this group). Through the historical partnering of Zen and the warrior elite (the samurai) that traces its origins back to the Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century, the death poem has entered, if marginally, into the practice of martial arts. There is one man in particular, one of my heroes and mentors in fact, that has turned me onto the idea of death poetry and its use in my own life and as a source for contemplation and meditation, and that man is Yamaoka Tesshu, a student of both Zen and the sword.
The Life And Death Of Yamaoka Tesshu
Yamaoka Tesshu was a master Zen Warrior. He lived in the turbulent nineteenth century and watched Japan have its borders opened up to Western trade before the Meiji Isshin (restoration or revolution depending on one's opinion) placed the Emperor once more in nominal control of Japan, thereby ending around 250 years of military rule. During his life Master Tesshu studied both swordsmanship and Zen very intensely before finally gaining his great satori, or ‘enlightenment’. His school of swordsmanship was well known for hard, extreme training that sought to forge the spirit and the character as much as the body and Master Tesshu stands as one of the greats who fused the battlefield techniques of the sword with the spirit and insight of Zen.
After a hard life of heavy drinking and numerous visits to the ‘entertainment’ area in Tokyo (to develop greater spiritual insight...and despite being married with children) Master Tesshu was eventually diagnosed with stomach cancer. In the last week of his life hundreds came to his simple home to pay their respects, leaving money in theory for the family of the soon-to-be-deceased, but which funds Master Tesshu immediately gave away to people more needy in true Zen fashion.
When the final day came on July 19, 1888, Master Tesshu bathed himself and changed into a white kimono. As he readied himself he composed his now famous poem:
Tightening my abdomen
against the pain –
The caw of a morning crow.
The poem reflects Tesshu’s complete absorption in the present moment – his pain and the sound of a crow outside the window. (So absorbed was he with the now that he died while holding a fan in his hand. The hot summer weather was a distraction; his mind was not dwelling on his past life and any regrets he may have, or on any possible future non-corporal after-life. No, he was concerned with how hot he was as death took him).
Tesshu next settled into seiza, the formal kneeling position that monks meditate in, said his farewells to his family, closed his eyes, breathed deeply, and experienced the great change. He is thought to be the only person to have died in seiza during the Meiji period.
There are innumerable lessons to be learned from the life and death of Master Tesshu but I want to focus on one in particular and then use the concept of the death poem for a deeper meditation.
When Master Tesshu wrote his poem he was completely focused on the present moment, despite being so close to death. Focusing on the Now is an important element to both Zen and martial arts and has also been explored by the psychologist, Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his concept of Flow. One of the key points in finding Flow is to be utterly absorbed in your current task, whether that task be martial arts, playing chess, performing surgery, looking after a baby or working on a factory assembly line.
The present moment – the Now – is the jumping off place to entering mushin, or no-mind, that peculiar state of (no) mind where dualism no longer exists and there is no sense of self and other. In martial arts of course, such focus was of immense value in the days of constant warfare. A warrior could not afford to let his mind wander for even a split second as that was all it would take for him to be killed by an opponent. The problem we all face is that we lose touch with the Now and instead fill our minds with so much internal dialogue that we lose sight of the present moment and instead dwell on our regrets and past successes and our excitement and fear of what may or may not happen in the future. It is only when something unusual happens that our minds revert to the present moment and we lose awareness of time, such as when we experience physical pain and cannot think beyond it or when we are caught in the ecstasy of orgasm.
What I would like to do is help you reestablish your connection with the present moment with a simple but effective exercise.
Before continuing, notice also that Master Tesshu relates his awareness of both what is happening internally (the pain in his abdomen) and what is going on externally (the sound of the crow) and that this dichotomy is overcome in the present moment. Tesshu’s awareness of what is inside and what is outside is equally weighted and, from his perspective, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ have vanished in the moment.
He simply perceives what is.
This is a constant theme in both Zen and the Japanese martial arts and one I particularly pay attention to in my own philosophy and teachings. Seeing what is in front of you can be profoundly difficult, especially as many of you will have been fostered with a worldview that posits ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘mine’ and ‘yours’, ‘this’ and ‘that’, but the dissolution of opposites is a vital step in moving towards spiritual liberation and even if for now you can just recognize the issue as an intellectual one, that is a great step forward.
This isn’t to say Zen isn’t without judgment, but the judgment is postponed until after the fact of perception. The book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell is full of examples of how in our everyday lives we pre-judge situations according to how our life experience has taught us to see things. In other words, we don’t just see what is before us, we see what we are inclined to see. This is proven by the Implicit Association Test (IAT) that has found we make connections between pairs of ideas that are already connected in our minds more quickly than we do between pairs of ideas that are unfamiliar to us. The implications of the results of the test are enormous as they clearly suggest we will act in certain pre-determined ways in supposedly ‘spontaneous’ situations. One of the examples given is that if you display a pattern of pro-white associations in the IAT this will affect your interactions with black people, more often than not in a negative manner.
The Zen mind, as revealed in the poem by Master Tesshu, takes us beyond this pre-judgement and allows us to truly see what is in front of us and to experience what is in front of us. By re-focusing on the present moment you will develop this ability to a greater extent and be less inclined to use labels immediately.
This task is very simple to understand but difficult to perform. In this task you will begin developing a Zen mind by focusing your awareness on the present moment and take in all the detail that is within you and around you.
Before starting find a pen and a piece of paper or two. Sit down quietly and relax your body, deepen your breathing and quiet your mind.
After a minute or two allow yourself to become aware of the thoughts that are racing through you mind. Become aware of your body and which parts are tense and which are relaxed. Become aware of the touch of your clothes on your body, of your breathing, of your posture, of different sensations in your body. Record these perceptions as best you can on the paper, constantly updating your stream as an awareness of new things arises. In the beginning the changes may be occurring too quickly for you to focus on long enough to record and that is okay, just stick with the exercise. The writing aspect is less important than developing your awareness of the present moment.
Focus on what is internal to begin with then allow your consciousness to drift outward and become aware of what is happening around you. What do you see? What can you hear? What information is coming to your senses right now? As before, try as best you can to keep track of these sensations by writing them down, but don’t get too caught up in the process of recording. Feel and give yourself to the moment.
You can spend as long as you want on this exercise, just soaking up the present moment and living in the now. You may repeat it at different times during the day and as you become more proficient you can do it any time you have a moment free. Remember, writing down what you notice is not a key part of the exercise and you can repeat it without recording anything. Your writing will help you focus though on the present moment and this will be helpful to you as you develop your skill with this exercise.
There is no end, just stop when you are ready to stop. Try though to remember the feeling of being caught up in the now so that you can duplicate it at other times throughout the day.
Your Death Letter
This is a very powerful and thought provoking exercise. It involves you imagining you will shortly die and that, in the time before your death, you will write a single letter to someone important to you; a loved one, a friend, a teacher, whoever. The challenge is for you to say whatever you like in whatever language you like knowing that this is your last chance to say those things and express yourself.
The form of the letter and the contents should be decided by you and you alone. This is your final statement while you remain conscious of your life and before you make the final change. Write what you feel needs to be written and said, however brief or detailed it may be. Take your time but remember that this is your ultimate expression.
This is an exercise that you may wish to return to from time to time as you consider your life and death in greater detail and gain more insight through the practice of meditation. You may also find it beneficial to return to this exercise and address your letter to different people.