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When friends complain about growing older, I often respond that it is better than the alternative. Some understand right away, others require a moment to reflect, a few need an explicit explanation.


Growing older ends with what may be a person’s greatest fear: death.


For over four decades, a close group of friends who trained together as young leaders have been periodically coming together to talk about what is happening in their lives. Recently, a staffer close to the group passed away, soon after the unexpected death of a member’s spouse.   

These events caused the group to face more directly the uncertainty of growing old and dying.

As Zen priests we are often called upon to help people deal with this transition – either for themselves or for a loved one. They may seek explanations or words of comfort, a shoulder to cry on, or just someone to be there. Whatever is needed, our job is to provide it. However it happens, our aim is to provide fearlessness in the face of this great human fear.

A healthy man whose wife was facing major surgery once asked me:

-- Do you know what happens when we die?

-- Yes.

-- But how do you know?


Words were inadequate to describe how I knew, so all I could say was: I have experienced what exists beyond here-now.


The here-now is experienced by our human body, which is created by the union of sperm and egg.  Something that existed before we were even born, however, joins the corporeal entity. This “something” is indescribable and unnameable.

Our physical being exists for a limited number of years and then ends. The unnameable essence, however, continues. But note: It is not “I” that continues.

This is a hard concept to grasp for those who believe that the “I” continues to exist as some form in another realm, such as heaven or hell, and can reunite in the afterlife with those who have predeceased them. Some religious groups, such as Tibetan Buddhists, hold that there is a persistent “I” that actually returns in another body.

In contrast, Zen teaches that the body and its identity are temporary, existing here-now in an ever-changing state. They do not remain after death; what remains is this indescribable “something.”

As humans, we mourn the loss of this person who has been in our lives, the one with whom we used to laugh and talk. We empathize with those who grieve. Feel those feelings with all your might but do not wallow in them. Cut. Let go.  

There is here-now, and by dwelling more fully in this present of here-now, we can interact with those around us while we, and they, are alive. By treating each encounter as the only encounter, we can live and appreciate each moment-by-moment experience.


It is all part of this indescribable continuum. And, we are part of this continuum. From this perspective, there is no longer any need to fear death: life truly is just part of the cycle. This is Reality.

1 Comment

Thanks on this. I guess getting old wouldn't be so bad if it didn't hurt so much. Another good reason not to attach to this body too much. I know that this indescribable something is here, but it's sure hard to touch much less hold. Is this great doubt? I don't know. Maybe for me great doubt will have to be enough. gasho. jim😂

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