Why is the Anxiety Towards Death Only A Temporary State?

Why is it that when someone close to us dies, though we may tremble in anxiety and fear, these feelings will last only for a short time? Why is it that we soon get busy again with our school and work, pushing death into a distant future? We had the opportunity to hear the answer to these questions through a Q&A Session on the book YOU WERE BORN FOR A REASON on July 27. The following is the passage that was read and also some letters from our Buddhist friends regarding this Q&A Session.

The “dark mind” means the mind shrouded in ignorance of what happens after death. People often shy from the subject of death as somehow ill-omened, as if to say, “Don’t talk about it, or you’ll be next to go!” You are as likely to fall dead after talking about death as you are to come into a windfall after talking about money, to be awarded a Nobel Prize after talking about the nominees, or to have a house build itself after you have been talking about a blueprint. The death taboo goes unchallenged, but it is silly.

In the Japanese language, the number four is a homophone for death. As a result, hospital sickrooms have no number four, elevators have no button for the fourth floor, and so on. (A similar phenomenon occurs in the West, where the number thirteen is considered unlucky, and many high-rises have no thirteenth floor.) Such resistance shows the extent of people’s fear of the terminal station of life through which all must pass.

New Year’s decorations, mileposts on the journey to the other world auspicious and not auspicious at the same time.

In this poem, the Zen monk Ikkyu(1394??1481) makes the point that human beings are all travelers on a journey to the next world that is, the world after death. There is no doubting the truth of this observation. Each day that we live brings us one day closer to death. Stopping all the clocks in the world would not stop our progress along that route. This is a stern reality shared by everyone alive. Nobody would knowingly set foot in an aircraft certain to crash, yet from the day of our birth, each of us is a passenger on just such a doomed flight.

The Tiger in the Mountains

Death is the destiny awaiting us all, and yet few people give it much serious thought. We would rather just not dwell on it. The sudden passing of an acquaintance, a friend, or relative forces us to stare the unpleasant fact of death in the face, which may cause some to tremble with anxiety and fear; but that is only a temporary state. We soon forget again, filling in the hole in the heart with questions of how best to live. Accepting death’s inevitability does not stop us from pushing it into the distant future.

All this time it was only other people who died, or so I had assumed now the thought of my own death is more than I can bear.

This poem is said to have been written by a physician on his deathbed. The difference between attending other people’s deaths and contemplating one’s own imminent demise has been likened to the difference between seeing a tiger in a zoo and coming face-to-face with one in the mountains. Even if we tremble with anxiety and fear when someone close to us dies, we are looking at a caged tiger, not at the wild beast loose in the mountains. But what if you were told that you suffered from terminal cancer and had only one month to live? According to Hideo Kishimoto, the former professor of religion at the University of Tokyo who battled cancer for ten years before passing away, at such a time all else recedes, leaving only the burning question, “What will happen after I die?” Kishimoto’s record of his confrontation with death is gripping.

What does it really mean, the cutting off of life? Certainly it means the end of the physical life of the body. Breathing ceases, the heart comes to a stop … But human life is not constituted only by the physiological body. At least while a person is alive, it is common sense to think of him or her as a spiritual entity as well. In the now of life, one has a consciousness of self. There is someone whom one knows as “oneself.” Matters quickly focus, therefore, on the point of what will become of “oneself ” after death. This is the great question for all human beings.

(From Kentetsu Takamori Sensei’s book YOU WERE BORN FOR A REASON, Part II, Chapter 5)

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #09 | 2011, Why is the Anxiety Towards Death Only A Temporary State?

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