The Zen Poetry Of Death
A visit with my father is like coming from a zendo, thorny koans prodding at my half-cocked mind. My 91-year-old inquisitor wheedles me to homilies on existence, non-existence. Impatient with my caginess, he whips me on to unmask secrets, write a masterpiece revealing Buddha-wisdom on life, on death. Driving home past autumn purples, bronzes, oranges, dark and soft golds, I'm suddenly aware of road-kill, mile on mile. Squirrels, opossums, skunks and more, every few yards, it seems, poor things displaced by excavators turning meadows and cornfields into housing sites. Harsh contrast of ravaged dead and sensual drifts of nature into winter. There was a time when death came gentler to both man and beast, when words passed like seeds from those who went to those new-coming.
I wonder, in all literature can there be poetry so all-encompassing as the Zen poetry of death with its history of nearly 1,500 years. In T'ang China of the sixth century the first Ch'an (Zen) masters, accepting responsibilities that went with guiding a new generation, understood the exemplary nature of their role. Disciples were to be rescued from illusion, from dualistic traps set around them in a rigidly structured, Confucian-conditioned society. Only tough disciplines of Zen could possibly achieve that. The masters lived in every sense alongside their disciples, meditating and chanting with them, eating and sleeping with them and, of course, making them talk out their fears, weaknesses, and hopes. They gave them koans to grapple with, again and again expressing dissatisfaction with their efforts, driving them ever harder to see, surpass themselves.
In early days of Zen the vision of enlightenment and what it might achieve was very pure. All stages of progress in discipline were gauged most scrupulously, every hour offering its special challenge. How that challenge was met was most carefully judged, whether working in the vegetable garden, washing dishes, raking leaves, relating to fellows in the zendo, the daily beg-