"While you've talked about death in all of your books I can only remember you mentioning the fear of death once and it was to say in effect: Buddhism can't do anything about our fear of death. And wouldn't life kind of suck without it anyway? I disagree. If I could live the rest of my life without the bone-chilling fear of non-existence then I would be MUCH happier. When I read that I supposed that you were referring to the biological fear hard-wired into us by evolution that makes most of us avoid things like playing chicken with trains and drinking Draino on bets with our friends. If that's what you mean I totally agree. But what about the more 'existential' fear-- angst I guess, or Nausea in Sartre's formulation-- that arises upon the contemplation of our death. When I squarely face the fact that my awareness will be annihilated in just a few short decades-- six or seven at the most-- it is enough to 1) keep me from sleeping and 2) make me really depressed. Now, I know that Buddhism says we die all the time. I know that there is no essential self that coheres through the years of a person's life. But it is still scary as hell to contemplate nothingness. So does zazen remedy that? If it does, great. But if it doesn't then why do zazen as opposed to obliterating yourself with video games, wild sex, and booze? Or whatever. Saying the practice is its own reward is all fine and dandy but if it is still going to leave us blanched with terror and sadness at the omnipresence of death then what's the point?"
Zazen will not get rid of your fear of death. Or maybe it will. But booze, wild sex and video games won't. At least not that I've ever heard. Though I've never really played video games and I don't like being drunk* and as for wild sex, I'll leave that to other bloggers to speculate about.
But I'm guessing you mean more generally distractions that help you forget about serious stuff. So maybe in my case it'd be Gamera movies, pad thai and... uh... wild sex (as if...). And you're wondering if Zen practice will blot out your fear of death permanently in a way these temporary fixes do not.
I can't tell you what it will do for you. I won't make any guarantees or even promises. I can only say how it's worked for me.
Like you, I found myself terrified of death. When I was a teenager I realized there was a horrifying hereditary disease in our family that often crippled and/or killed people before they reached the age that I am now. I didn't think I had long to live and I was scared shitless.
But for whatever reasons I didn't do my searching the way most people seem to. I didn't look for an escape from life. When I looked into religions it was all about escape. They offered ways by which they said you could escape from this life into a life in Heaven or Krishna Loka or a variety of other places. They didn't deny death. They were obsessed with death. But they denied life. What they said translated to me as something like, "Trade your life now for a chance at something amazing after you die."
They made the trade sound reasonable. I only get to live in this world a few decades. But the afterlife, they said, is eternal. So I was supposed to live a bland, boring , restricted, white bread and mayonnaise life now in the hopes of a really super terrific future in the afterlife that would last forever.
Problem was, I couldn't believe in the afterlife. The evidence for its existence was not convincing at all.
But I knew I was living this life. So my quest became about how to make this life better. It seems like most people when they search for a way to make this life better turn to the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure. Drugs, sex, money, material goods... these things seem to be the way to Earthly happiness without regard to any belief in life after death.
This didn't work for me either, for much the same reasons. There isn't a whole lot of evidence that money, power, sex and all that really lead to happiness. I was already well aware of the excessive lives of people like Elvis Presley or Howard Hughes who had all they could possibly want and were still miserable. Later on there was Kurt Cobain who did exactly what I'd been hoping I could do, parlay a shitty paying career as an indie rocker into superstardom. What did it get him? Then I started working in the movie industry and routinely associating with famous people who were absolutely loaded with cash and I saw that they were also just as unhappy as anyone else.
Zen practice was all about this life and how to make it better. It didn't offer any magic solutions, which was appealing because I didn't believe in those. It never got into questions of the afterlife, which was great because I didn't believe in that either. It demanded a moderate degree of austerity but not because you were trading austerity today for a future of wonders in Paradise. It recommended a certain degree of austerity because it said that chasing after money, fame, sex, material goods and power just added unnecessary stress to your life that would not be rewarded when you got those things. I knew this was true. I could see it for myself.
But what about the fear of death, then? What of the fear of future oblivion?
I came to understand this fear better through my practice. I began to see that the root of this fear was a projection of myself into an imaginary future. I started seeing it was a fear of things that were not real right here and right now.
This doesn't really erase the fear of death. When I think about the possibility of Brad Warner disappearing forever, I don't really like it. But I also understand that this fear is completely unreasonable. It's as unreasonable as fearing Godzilla or some other imaginary terror.
What I'm about to say might seem like mysticism, but here goes anyhow. Once you start seeing this moment for what this moment really is, you start to understand that you can never really be annihilated in the ways that you previously imagined could happen. What I think of as "Brad Warner" is a construct in my mind. It isn't real. Yet there is a real something upon which that mental construct I've called "Brad Warner" is based. This something can't really die because it was never really born. At least not in the sense we commonly think of things being born and dying. Yes, Brad Warner was born and yes Brad Warner will die. And yet he is not just an individual entity. He is also a temporary manifestation of something vast and unknowable that has no beginning and no end.
Weird shit, huh? Sorry about that.
So OK. I still fear death. But not very much.
I forget if it was Shunryu Suzuki or Dainin Katagiri, but both of these Zen teachers died of cancer. One or the other of them said, toward the end of his life, "I don't want to die."
I've heard that this statement freaked a lot of their followers out. It implied that either a) an Enlightened master still fears death or b) the master was not actually Enlightened because an Enlightened master can't possibly fear death. Neither possibility was very attractive to those who had put their faith in a master they thought was enlightened and therefore would deliver them from the fear of death.
But I don't think the statement implies a fear of death. It implies that the teacher simply would rather have lived longer. That's not really the same thing. And even if it does mean he feared death, what's wrong with that? I fear dentist appointments. But that doesn't mean I'm scared that I will cease to exist after them.
I used to lose sleep over the fear of death. It used to bug the shit out of me. Nowadays death is about as scary as, say, the idea of a a root canal. It's something I don't want to go through, but it doesn't keep me awake nights.
You have to understand, though, that whatever degree I have achieved of overcoming the fear of death I owe to years of often difficult practice. You don't overcome the fear of death by simply deciding you don't want to be afraid of death. It's not that easy. If it was, everyone would do it.
* Am I the only person in the world who finds being drunk a very unpleasant feeling? I don't mind the effect of a glass of wine or a beer, but actually being drunk feels awful to me, like being sick.