Final Diagnosis and Being It

I’m told that it takes about six weeks after conception for our hearts to start beating. At that point, we’re officially “a person”.  It may sound morbid but at that moment we also receive an unspoken diagnosis — death. We don’t know when it’s coming but we certainly do know that we’ll never leave this life alive.

 So why the upbeat topic and what’s it’s relevance to Zen, Martial arts, writing and aging?

 If you’ve hung around Buddhist practice for any period of time you hear about being assigned a koan. Koans consist of a story, question, or statement the meaning of which cannot be understood by rational thinking, yet may be accessible by intuition.

 One of the first, most frequently assigned koans is the Mu koan. (Mu means ‘no’.) The story is that a Master was once asked if a dog has Buddha nature.  And the master forcefully answered Mu! This was heresy since the belief was that all things (rocks, trees, humans, dogs) have Buddha nature. Your job then is to solve the koan.

 In solving the koan you are told at the onset that it can’t be solved with your brain. You are constantly pushed to “be” the koan.

 Think about it a second. How do I become a koan? And to add some fun to the process, each day you go, kneel on the floor, bow, sit in front of your teacher and give an answer to the koan. Every day. Sometimes twice a day! For the record, it’s common to be working on this koan for several years. Many days you kneel down, bow and look blankly at your teacher. Or worse, give some answer that gets you yelled at as the teacher picks up the bell and rings it signaling for you to get out. Every day, day in and day out. I suspect you begin to dream the koan, talk to yourself about the koan, and go a little batty when you keep striking out. Yet you persist.

 So what’s a koan got to do with death? I think it points the direction toward how we should live our lives until the end. Isn’t a life something only I can live and is in fact a koan? Don’t I have to ‘be’ my life?  Don’t we ideally want to live from our heart and don’t we have faith that our hearts will follow an invisible direction leading us toward ‘who we really are’. I like the advice of Archbishop Oscar Romero: “Life is not to be endured. It is a mystery to be unfolded. Life comes from the living of it”

 What about the koan of everyday living? Am I doing, believing or ‘being’ something that’s not me? What are all the things I do that might not be my true Buddha nature? Am I a Zen practitioner and martial artist because it’s cool, makes for nice social discussion, family talk, or gives me status?  And in the bigger picture, if we all have a final diagnosis of death, shouldn’t it be critical to examine and assure ourselves that our life koans are all aimed at solving, “Who am I?

Why not try to figure out your life Koan?


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