Today is Easter Sunday. It falls in the midst of a Coronavirus crisis where death is virtually everywhere. In developed countries, death is often hidden from plain sight. Yet, during this crisis, death is not so subtle. It is sometimes in prominent display, like in a body bag moved from a hospital into a truck.
Easter Sunday is a good occasion to talk about death. But the deep spiritual message is death AND rebirth. The order of these two ideas is curious. First, death. Then, life. It is a complete reversal of our common understanding, which is that first we live, then we die. The spiritual understanding is therefore counter-intuitive.
In Zen teachings, there is this saying, “First die the big death. Then, live in the present.” It parallels the story of Jesus in the gospels — first he died, then he was resurrected. There is also a Chinese idiom which says “finding life in the midst of a hopeless situation.”
There is a Zen story which is about a traveling man who is chased by a tiger. He runs and runs until he comes to a cliff and cannot go further. He sees some wild vine hanging down the cliff which may provide a means for escape. Holding on the vine, the man climbs down the edge of the cliff. As he looks down, he can see another tiger waiting for him at the bottom. In the meantime, there are two mice, one black and one white chewing at the vine. Right at this moment of desperation, the man notices some luscious strawberries near him. He plucks the strawberries and eats them.
This is a famous Zen story. It is also a Zen koan. I have read the commentary on the story written by a famous Buddhist monk who is also a Buddhist scholar and a world-renounced dharma teacher. He wrote, “How stupid is this man! Death is right in front of him. Still, he loses himself in sensual pleasure.”
The master got it all wrong. There is no solution to this man’s problem, as there is no solution to our own problem of death. No one can escape death. The sooner we reckon with this fact, the better off we are. The point is not to find a way to escape death. Rather, it is to full accept the fact that we all die. It is only through this acceptance and the surrender to what is that we can start to live. Truly live, without being troubled by the phantom of death.
Father Richard Rohr, in his recent daily meditation, wrote the following:
I believe the Christian faith is saying that the pattern of transformation is always death transformed, not death avoided. The universal spiritual pattern is death and resurrection, or loss and renewal, if you prefer. That is always a disappointment to humans, because we want one without the other — transformation without cost or surrender.
Well said, Father Richard. Genuine spirituality, regardless of religion or sect, is not about the avoidance or the escape of death. It is to accept it, wholeheartedly, even joyfully. Then we can start to live!