Death and Life

This is a teisho I gave last night, on sesshin in Connecticut, with 60 White Plums, including 17 teachers in our lineage.

We will hear our Evening Gatha* chanted a short while from now, and, in it, these lines:

Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.

Do not squander your life.

Last Tuesday night, exactly a week ago, I had a very restless night’s sleep.  I suppose it would be more accurate to say I got very little sleep.  In the early hours of Wednesday morning, perhaps 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., I woke up with a strong, clear, compelling sense that death was nearby.

It wasn’t a thought.  It wasn’t a feeling.  It was just a very clear sense of death’s nearness.

It wasn’t frightening.  It didn’t make me anxious.  It didn’t send thoughts spinning in my head.

But it demanded, and so commanded, my attention. I laid awake much of the night with, and in, this sense of death’s nearness.

I was at my office later that morning – I’m a partner in a big law firm – when, around 10:00 a.m., everyone in our Boston office received an email from our office manager, informing us that the sister-in-law of one of our colleagues, with whom I’m quite friendly, had passed away that morning. This woman had been ill with cancer for some time, and she had spent the last few months living with our colleague and her family as she approached her death.

Twenty-four hours later, around the same time Thursday morning, I was again at my desk when I received an email from one of our partners in our Boston office.  He was writing to a small group of us who are friendly with a partner in our New York office. His email informed us that an adult son of this friend in New York had been discovered dead at his home.

As if all this weren’t enough, as I was driving from Boston to Connecticut Friday afternoon to attend this sesshin, I spoke to one of my brothers, who informed me that our uncle Paul, a man in his early 80s, who had lived with diabetes much of his adult life, and had been in decline for some time, was in the hospital.  His heart had failed, he was brain-dead, and his family would soon instruct the doctors to remove life support.

As we were gathering here Friday night, perhaps half an hour before Roshi Kennedy welcomed us and we began our first sit, I received a text from my brother letting me know that Paul had passed.

It seems this sense of death’s nearness that kept me awake last Tuesday night was on-the-mark.  It was communicating something quite real.  Death is always nearby, of course.  I suppose it has just been more apparent in my little corner of Indra’s Net over the past week.

We never quite know what awaits us when we arrive for sesshin.  During these first couple of days, I’ve been very aware of death’s aliveness.


I didn’t know my colleagues’ relatives who passed away last week, but I did know Paul very well, of course.  He was married to my mom’s sister, Regina, and he also was my dad’s first cousin, and, really, his best friend.  All four of them grew up in the same area north of Chicago, and the two men were acquainted with the two women by the time they all were in their late-teens or early 20s.  They got married around the same time, had kids around the same time, and packed up their families and moved to Colorado around the same time, in the late `60s, when I was eight.

The two families ultimately settled in small, rural, mountain towns a few hours apart.  We saw each other regularly, on holidays and some weekends, when I was between the ages of eight and my late-teens – the age range my own kids are in now.  We have a daughter who is about to turn 11 and a son who is 14.  Paul and Regina returned to Chicago around 30 years ago, and I saw them much less frequently after that.

I have many lovely, vivid memories of Paul during those years:  Perilous toboggan rides.  Fly fishing, just with Paul, in a beaver pond near their home (where, sadly, there is now a shopping mall).  My first record album, which Paul and Regina gave me one Christmas or birthday.

I turned 57 last month.  For the first time, retirement age seems right around the corner, as if I could almost reach out and touch it.  How did that happen?  Where did the time go?  And, yet, I definitely can touch those times with Paul, now nearly 50 years ago.  They’re right here, still.

Time truly passes by swiftly.  And its pace seems to accelerate as I get older.  Perhaps you’ve noticed this, too.


About 20 years ago, at a much earlier point in my career, I was offered a full-time teaching job, at a good university in the Midwest, in a field I care about greatly:  international conflict resolution and peacebuilding.  I had done graduate work in this field, both as part of my legal studies and apart from them, and I’d done a bit of publishing and applied work in the field by then.  I very much wanted to devote all my time and energy to the field, and this job seemed like my ticket.

It also was a much earlier time in my relationship with my wife, who already had her dream job, teaching full-time at a good university here on the East Coast, in a field she cares about greatly.  She did not want to change jobs.  It became clear to me that, had I pushed for a move, it would have put a terrible strain on our young relationship.  So, I let that job go.

But I was angry and resentful for several years.

Little by little, I would find ways to deepen and expand the scope of my commitment to the conflict resolution field: I arranged some part-time teaching near home.  I continued to publish.  I took on new practice-oriented activities.  Fast forward to today, and I’m quite content with the package of things I have in my life, including activities and experiences I value, and that I presumably would not have, if I had taken the full-time teaching job.

But it would be some time – longer than I care to admit – before I would realize, before I could realize, that the opportunity I lost 20 years ago was not that job.  It was the opportunity to appreciate my life, and to be a good friend and companion, during those years when I was angry and resentful.


How do we squander a life?  How do we squander life?

By not sitting, and by not living, with confidence, as we were told Friday that Roshi encouraged everyone to do on the first sesshin he led after becoming a teacher.  By not living with confidence that the life we’re actually living, right here and now, is the life we’re meant to be living, right here and now.

Sure, sometimes change is in order.  When the call to change is strong, clear, and compelling, we should summon the courage to change.

Perhaps more often, however, we are called to change in place, and that call can be harder to hear.  Sometimes we don’t want to hear it, and, hearing it, we turn from it.

How do we squander a life?  How do we squander life?

By not sitting, and by not living, with joy, as Roshi also encouraged everyone to do during his first sesshin as a teacher.  By not welcoming the joy and potential for joy that presents itself right now, whatever our circumstances.

How do we squander a life?  How do we squander life?

By not being a good friend and companion, as Charles [Birx, Roshi] summed up the call and fruits of Zen practice during his teisho yesterday.


My wish for each of you – each of us –  as we end another day of sesshin and go off to sleep, is that you fall asleep knowing you have lived today.  That you fall asleep alive.

And my wish for each of us, as our lives come to an end, as did the lives of the Dear Ones who departed last week, is that you die knowing you lived.  That you die alive.

This life, this alive, like Zhaozhou’s Mu – his no which is the yes that has no opposite – is, of course, that life which is not death’s opposite.

I’ll end with a brief koan:

Two monks who had been away from the monastery for the day passed a funeral as they returned.

One monk slapped the lid of the coffin twice, glared at the other, and asked ferociously, “Dead or alive?  Dead or alive?”

The other fired back, just as ferociously, “I won’t say!  I won’t say!”

Like the second monk, may we always refuse to take the bait when the Great Matter of life and death is framed like that.

May we continue to seek and find and live and give and share that life which is not the opposite of death.


* Evening Gatha:

Let me respectfully remind you,

Life and death are of supreme importance.

Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.

Each of us should strive to awaken.

Awaken!  Take heed.

This night your days are diminished by one.

Do not squander your life.