The Conquest of Death

The Conquest of Death
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Recently, I’ve begun teaching Son meditation to a hospice patient. A couple of years ago MRIs revealed that her internal organs were riddled with tumors. After an excruciating treatment of chemotherapy, her doctors informed her there was nothing more they could do. She moved into a hospice and her physicians now predict she has between six months and two years to live.

When I met her, it was hard to guess her age. I couldn’t tell whether the chemotherapy had aged her prematurely, but she looked elderly. Still, among the elderly there’s a difference between those who expect to live longer and those who think they’ll die soon. She obviously belonged to the latter group and the first thing that struck me was the look in her eyes. I’m dying.

At our first meeting, she got right to the point, “What’s going to happen to me?”

Like so many people these days, she didn’t belong to any religion, but she considered herself “spiritual.”

I said, “There are two scenarios. In the first one, your consciousness will disappear. In this case, death isn’t an experience. It’s the end of experience. It’s the end of suffering. From this point of view, death is unfamiliar, but it’s not actually something to be afraid of. Death is literally nothing at all.

“The second scenario is that some part of consciousness will somehow survive physical death. It will move on to or manifest itself in some other mode of existence. Maybe it will go to another realm. Maybe it will move into another body. But if a part of consciousness survives, then, again, there’s no actual death. One way or the other, death does not exist as a thing to be afraid of. But, on a human level, we’re afraid of it anyway. We fear the pain of dying, we fear the unknown.”

I first became a monk because I wanted an answer to the reality of death and impermanence. I had always been highly aware that all life, including mine, ends in death. But my awareness was only mental. I was a young man, I had a young body. My body didn’t feel like it was going to die any time soon. The truth is, it felt like it would never die. There was a disjuncture between what my mind knew and what my body felt. Every dead bug, dried up leaf, meal on my plate, and bit of roadkill that I passed on the highway told me in no uncertain terms what was coming for me. But my body felt glowingly alive and my heart stupidly beat on with clockwork reliability. Like it would do that forever.

But the years passed. One day I looked in the mirror and noticed again, with mild disapproval, the white hairs forming on my head. And then it hit me. I’m really going to die. An animal shudder passed through my body. My heart shriveled and I felt my stomach turn inside-out.

Everything changed after that. For the first time in my life, what my mind knew and what my body experienced were in sync.

The patient told me that her chemotherapy treatment had been a nightmare. Every day now she was racked with agonizing pain and she spent all of her energy just enduring it.

But that was nothing, she said, compared to the fear. “The not knowing where I’m gonna be.” That, according to her, was the worst thing.

Would you get on a boat for a year-long voyage without asking where the boat was headed? Would you just gamble with a year of your life like that?

Would you be willing to ride that boat for 70 or 80 years without ever confirming the final destination?

Would you ride that boat the whole time without asking any questions if you knew for a fact that at the end of the trip it will go over a waterfall?

Then, why do we live our entire lives the way we do?

Our society, our culture, our civilization, and each of our individual life plans are built upon a pathological denial of the reality of death. The signs of death —the sight of human corpses and terminally ill patients — are hidden away in places that people under normal circumstances avoid like they’re radioactive. The symptoms of aging are covered over by make-up, dyes, and wardrobe or they’re literally cut away by cosmetic surgery. Our media subject us to a torrential downpour of the most irrational, obviously deceptive propaganda that has ever been invented: “Stay young forever! Look years younger!”

Open talk about death is taboo and you broach the topic at the risk of being labeled morbid. At the risk of social censure.

Such a denial of any other obvious fact of life would be considered a symptom of outright mental illness.

But we keep on denying it — because we think there’s nothing we can do about it. Because, as smart as we think we are, we just can’t get our heads around it. Because no one ever taught us how to balance the twin realities of having to live and having to die.

You actually have to know how to do both.

“You know that you didn’t start dying when you got cancer, right?” I asked the patient.

Her eyes lit up and she exclaimed, “Yes, yes, I know exactly what you mean! But I didn’t know it until now. We’re always dying.

Every day of life is a day closer to death.

It’s not rocket science, but it never fails to astonish me how poorly even the most brilliant minds think when it comes to the subject of death. Fear completely distorts our reason.

Take, for example, the two most well-publicized ways which scientists have considered for defying death: Cryogenics and uploading our mind into a computer. Even if we could manage such feats, the most obvious thing we can see here is that these are ways of delaying death, not actually eradicating it.

Let's think about this clearly. Either the universe is eternal or it’s not. If it’s eternal, then it means that no matter how successfully you clone and enhance your body or how indestructible and replicable the robot body that you build for your mind may be, there is one-trillionth of a chance that some accident will irretrievably destroy this new vehicle for your mind. But in an eternal universe a one-in-a-trillion probability at any given moment is a 100% certainty over time. Eventually, over trillions of trillions of eons, something’s going to get you.

On the other hand, in an impermanent cosmos, the universe will eventually collapse or expand out of existence. How will your indestructible, endlessly replicable mind/body then live without a place to live in? Without energy or space?

And if we think we may be satisfied with an incredibly long lifetime, we need to remember there’s an important difference between longevity and immortality.

The difference is this: No matter how long we live, no matter how long our happiness lasts, when it’s time for us to give up something that we want to keep, it feels too soon. We say, “It feels like just yesterday when…”

This is the obvious truth of impermanence, why it’s so painful for most of us: When something disappears, it’s disappears so thoroughly it’s like it was never there.

Look at an elderly, dying patient and you literally cannot guess what they looked like when they were twenty. Fall out of love and your body and heart don’t register at all anymore the nearness of someone you once felt so close to. Lose your passion for doing something and the place where you worked so hard for so long now feels foreign.

Whether you live seventy years, a hundred years or a thousand years, when your time is up, it always feels sudden. Something in your mind always goes, “That’s it? It’s really over?”

So how then shall we conquer death?

I’ve chosen to bet that some part of consciousness — what Son Buddhists call the source or root of consciousness — lives on. I’m trying to find — Awaken to — exactly what part of me that is. I choose this path because a life lived in the shadow of death — while nervously, self-deludedly trying to ignore the reality of death — is awful.

But it’s also the choice where I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. In this choice, there is a possibility, however remote, of attaining some form of transcendence over death.

If I’m wrong and delusional and at death my mind is completely destroyed, then who cares? It’s what would have happened anyway. There will be no “me" to be embarrassed or regretful that I was wrong. And it will be the end of suffering.

On the other hand, if I’m correct, then I may attain peace in the face of human mortality. Indestructible, eternal peace. I mean that literally. Because I’ll be enlightened to the one part of my mind or my existence or reality itself that survives and transcends physical death. And a whole new realm of existence will open up before me. That prospect is actually exciting. Thrilling even.

So I choose the seemingly unlikely possibility that the source of consciousness survives over the 100% certainty that, even if I could freeze my body or upload my mind into a new body or computer, the vehicle of my mind will be destroyed. And I certainly choose it over a desperate and hopeless reliance on diet fads, low-body-fat-at-all-costs workout regimens, botox, and clothes that make me look skinny.

It’s a truism among hospice caregivers that people die in the same way that they lived. If we spend our lives in relentless, pathological denial of death, there’s no way to measure the helplessness, frustration, and terror we feel on the day that we’re given a terminal diagnosis. All of the fear and uncertainty that we suppressed come roaring back after us with a vengeance.

But if, while we live, we are able to Awaken to some other timeless dimension of life within ourselves somewhere, well, I’d prefer to be illuminated like that when my body finally gives out and there’s nothing more I can do but just take it.

It seems like a better way to die.

To learn more about Son meditation please visit Hwansan Sunim: Son Meditation for the Modern World and for updates please visit International Son Buddhist Meditation Program. Questions can be sent to:

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