Musings of the InsightLA teachers
Frank Ostaseski is an internationally respected Buddhist teacher and visionary cofounder of Zen Hospice Project, and founder of the Metta Institute.
The Five Invitations: What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully
Life and death are a package deal. You cannot pull them apart.
In Japanese Zen, the term shoji translates as "birth-death." There is no separation between life and death other than a small hyphen, a thin line that connects the two.
We cannot be truly be alive without maintaining an awareness of death.
Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most. And the good news is we don't have to wait until the end of our lives to realize the wisdom that death has to offer.
Without a reminder of death, we tend to take life for granted, often becoming lost in endless pursuits of self-gratification. When we keep death at our fingertips, it reminds us not to hold on to life too tightly. Maybe we take ourselves and our ideas a little less seriously. We let go a little more easily. When we recognize that death comes to everyone, we appreciate that we are all in the same boat, together. This helps us to become a bit kinder and gentler with one another.
In Buddhism, the reflection on death is an essential spiritual practice. It is not seen as ideology to be adopted as a protection against death. Rather, it is an opportunity to become more intimate with death as an inevitable part of life. While such reflections may seem morbid to some, I have found the practice of cultivating a wise openness to death to be life affirming. The value of these reflections is that we see how our ideas and beliefs about death are affecting us right here, right now.
This Sunday, Frank Ostaseski joins InsightLA's founding teacher Trudy Goodman at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Hollywood Forever, the home of our Eastside Monday Night Sitting Group, is the perfect setting for the exploration of what death can teach us about living fully. The program is open to all and will include mindfulness meditation, talks by the teachers, experiential exercises and discussion.
The Buddha’s original instructions for meditation, or dhyana, ask us to go into a secluded forest and sit under a tree, a quiet place to allow deep concentration. If you’ve ever meditated outside in nature, you can feel the support of plants, landscape, the earth, just as you are buoyed by different energy when you sit in a group from when you sit alone.
Jack and I are in Kyoto, Japan, for the first time! We spent our first day visiting majestic monasteries and Zen gardens. Everyone takes off their shoes at the entrance to a temple and puts on worn slippers. We pad silently around the soft wood floors, respecting the quiet rhythm of Zen temple life. Around each corner, gardens display subtle patterns of rock and gravel, moss and water, curved stone bridges carrying us from the preoccupations of our human world into the beauty and harmony of the vast cosmos.
When I gaze at the ineffable elegance and grace of one simple garden, I think of you and me. We, like Zen gardens, are exquisitely designed to express the sweep and power of nature in a small space - in this body. With quiet, mindful presence, we don’t have to go off to visit faraway Zen temples or ancient Japanese gardens to realize how this very body -- this personal life of you and me -- reveals infinite dimensions of universal life.
It’s very early Spring and the branches are bare. A few daring plum blossoms have burst open and little red camellias brave the cold. Stopping to savor a garden, we tune into the eternal stillness and flow of this life we share. A thirteenth-century Chinese master, Wumen Huikai, rakes the gravel of our flowing thoughts and feelings into one of my favorite Zen poems:
春有百花秋有月 The spring flowers, the autumn moon;
夏有涼風冬有雪 Summer breezes, winter snow.
若無閑事挂心頭 If useless things do not clutter your mind,
更是人間好時節 You have the best days of your life.