I Am of the Nature to Die

I gave this talk on Thursday, February 2, 2023, at the Greater Boston Zen Center. A recording of the talk follows the text.

I am of the nature to grow old;
There is no way to escape growing old. 

I am of the nature to have ill health;
There is no way to escape having ill health. 

I am of the nature to die;
There is no way to escape death. 

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change; There is no way to escape being separated from them. 

My deeds are my closest companions.

I am born of my deeds; and I am their heir.
My deeds are the ground on which I stand.

I’ve reread The Five Remembrances we recited earlier tonight because I’d like us to reflect on the neglected topic of our own mortality.  I hope tonight’s conversation will help each of us reflect on it more frequently—even daily—if we do not already.

I’ve been compelled to reflect on my own mortality lately for a rather mundane reason.  I turned 60 last year, so the prospect of retirement is nearer than it has seemed in the past.  We have been updating our financial plan to ensure we are prepared for that moment when it arrives.  In the process, I’ve had to use life expectancy and longevity calculators to estimate my remaining lifespan.

Taking a tip from a book on financial planning, I downloaded an app called Countdown, set a countdown timer with my estimated expiration date, and made that timer a widget on my phone’s home screen.  I now see a current estimate of the number of days I have left every time I pick up my phone.  Who knows when I’ll go, of course.   The best of these longevity calculators is not a crystal ball, and its output doesn’t come with a life-time guaranty, but it can provide the best probabilistic estimate of how long any one of us might live. 

If this practice of counting down the days to my projected expiration date sounds morbid, it’s just a way to visualize and operationalize The Five Remembrances we chant each time we meet. This chant is an element of our spiritual tradition that can be found in many others. In Christianity, for example, there’s the notion and practice of momento mori, which translates to “remember that you die.” When you see a human skull or bones, or an hourglass, in Christian artwork, it’s there to remind you that you will die. Monks in another stream of Buddhism practice a form of meditation in which they minutely visualize the stages of their own death, including the decomposition of their bodies.

We go to great lengths to hide death in our culture.  When I traveled around Latin America in my 20s for the first time, I was surprised to see coffin vendors in retail areas alongside fruit stands and shoe stores.  Years later, in Nepal, I was equally taken by the outdoor funeral pyres—massive bonfires, tended by monks, ignited to cremate the departed.  In Italy, Israel, and Iran one regularly sees Christians, Jews, and Muslims, respectively, carrying coffins through the streets in funeral processions.  Here we tend to be reminded of death only when we get news that someone we know has died or is terminally ill, though our experience obviously was much different during the height of the pandemic.  People in China are experiencing now what we experienced two years ago.

The anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote an influential book in the 70’s called The Denial of Death.  He argued that much of human culture, and most of our behavior, is geared toward helping us ignore or evade the anxiety we feel when we are aware of the reality that we will die.  As far as we know, we are the only species that can reflect on our own mortality—and also the only species that can create elaborate ways to buffer ourselves from the fear reflecting on our mortality provokes. 

One element of this theory is the idea that we construct and cling to shared worldviews that help us feel we are meaningful members of a meaningful group in a meaningful universe.  Knowing vaguely that we are part of something larger that will continue after we are gone decreases personal death anxiety.  A corollary of this idea is that encounters with people who embrace a different worldview can feel threatening to our own sense of identity and worldview, and that this can contribute to prejudice and hostility.

Scholars later decided to test Becker’s ideas empirically, developing many creative experiments that seem to support the theory (which does have its skeptics within the social sciences, I should note).  For example, an experimenter might stop people on the street to interview them.  First the researcher asks whether the person they’ve stopped is conservative or liberal, or maybe whether they practice a religion and, if so, which one.  Then the researcher asks how the person views members of a different group—say, liberals if speaking to a conservative person or Christians if speaking to an atheist.  The researcher conducts these interviews in two different locations, one in front of a funeral home and the other in front of someplace like a bakery that we don’t associate with death.  It turns out that people stopped in front of the funeral home tend to express less charitable views about members of other groups.

But there’s also good news: These researchers have learned it’s often possible to counteract and even reverse this unconscious tendency to feel threatened by people who are different than oneself. They have found, for example, that simply making people aware of this unconscious tendency and its link to our natural anxiety about death reduces feelings of hostility toward people who view the world differently. Even more positively and hopefully, they even have found that affirming one’s own worldview can make one more accepting of and charitable toward people with another worldview.

We don’t even need the other to affirm our own worldview, though this can help; it’s enough to affirm it ourselves.  For example, in one study very conservative Muslims in Iran and very conservative Christians in the United States assessed members of the other group very negatively when asked about them.  However, when members of each group first were prompted to reflect upon a core value within their own tradition—say the Beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” for the Christians—these study subjects expressed very moderate, even friendly, views about members of the other group.

Spiritual practices like The Five Remembrances help us face and get used to the reality that we die—that “our little lives are rounded by a sleep,” as Shakespeare wrote.  Practicing them repeatedly—even every time we touch our mobile devices throughout the day—keeps this reality ever-present.  Over time, these practices tend to make the seemingly inconvenient and anxiety-producing truth that we are mortal rather matter of fact, even boring. 

My teacher, Kevin Hunt, has been a monk for about 70 years, engaging in these sorts of practices every day over these decades.  A while ago doctors suspected he had an illness that could end his life very quickly.  They were surprised by his placid demeanor when they broke the news.  When they asked why he didn’t seem disturbed, he smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “I’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time.”  He wasn’t so ill as it turns out, but Kevin knows it’s just a matter of time until his time comes.  He’s ready for it.

He also knows he is not living on autopilot.  These practices not only help reduce fear and denial of death, but they also help us value life and live more fully and securely, much like the researchers I told you about have discovered.  That is the ultimate point and purpose of these practices.

In light of this it’s fitting to end with something the Zen teacher Mel Weitsman said not long before he passed away in 2021.  He encouraged us not to use the phrase “life and death,” as we tend to do, but instead to say “birth and death”—because it’s all Life.