Interviewer: Taikyu Sandy Kuhn Shimu
The interview got published in the book «Im Angesicht des Todes – und jetzt?» by Taikyu Sandy Kuhn Shimu.
When have you been confronted with death for the first time?
The first time when I was met with death I was about 6 or 7 years old. We used to keep small animals at home in cages, or fish in an aquarium, and one day they would lay or swim there without moving. My parents explained to me that they were dead. This seemed to me quite natural and I was not especially impressed.
When did you consciously realize your own impermanency for the first time?
When my grandmother died I clearly realized for the first time that we all will die sometime. At that time I was about 9 years old. The first time I saw a dead man in a coffin I was deeply impressed. It was a friend of mine who was in the same group of pathfinders, and he had committed suicide. Our group attended the funeral in uniforms. I was about 17 years old then, and the picture of the corps haunted me a few times in my dreams.
Very intensely I experienced the death of my father. He died at home in his bed. I was 44 years old then. My mother asked me to go to her and to help her to undress Papa, wash him and dress him freshly for the cremation. This was hard work! Papa was already stiff and had a strong smell from decay. Together we succeeded, and it was one of the most intimate moments with my mother that I had ever experienced. While working it became clear to me that what we had in hands was not my father, but the so called deadly remains. Papa was gone, not here anymore, had passed away. What was still alive though was the father in me, my memories of him, my being formed by him, and my love for him. Consequently I did not go to his funeral, nor did I ever visit his grave. Inside of me Papa is vividly alive.
What is your relationship with death?
As to this question I would like to draw a comparison in order to make clear how Buddhism, as well as myself, look at this matter of life and death. When we look only from our personal point of view, from our ego, then death is the end of the world. Our person disappears from the stage and we do not know what happens with it. Everything that we understood as our personality and identity is erased with one stroke. However, when we look from a deeper level, from a level on which we are connected with all other beings, we see ourselves just as one possible expression of the Great Whole.
Or, to finally come up with the comparison I mentioned, we can understand ourselves as one wave among innumerable waves on the great ocean. Each wave is unique and different from the other waves. But each wave is nothing else than the great ocean itself. And when the one wave rolls out at the beach, that is to say when it dies, the water of which the wave consisted will just form another wave. And this wave will be different from the former one. But it is always the same water, the same ocean, of which the different waves consist.
In Buddhism this “water” common to all beings is called “Buddha-Nature”, our true being. All that is in this beginning less and endless universe, every being, has this Buddha-Nature as its source. Through it we are inseparably connected with everything. Buddha-Nature is something we can experience. And this particular experience is commonly called Satori, realization of the true self, or enlightenment. This experience is possible for anyone who becomes free from the tyranny of the ego.
So, my relationship with death is a natural state of expectation. My person will completely perish, dissolve into the Great Whole, and again be expressed by it in any new form.
What happens to a human being when he or she dies?
The human being who passes away disappears. Just like a flower which withers, or a wave which rolls out at the beach. That which has brought forth this human being persists. It is timeless, everlasting, without any boundaries, without any perceivable substance, but full of potential, full of creating power. This something has many names: Tao, Buddha-Nature, true being, Sunyata, Brahman, and so on. The Ur-Christians called it God. We do not find it anywhere else than within ourselves. When we get aware of it, realize it, immediately our fear of death disappears.
Do you believe in a life, in a existence after death? If so, how do you imagine it? If not, is it the end of everything?
I do not believe in an existence after death. With the process of dissolving into the Great Whole our individual form as an existing being ends. Then all that is personal, all that is individual has ceased to be. We disappear into Non-Being, from which all Being comes forth.
Here I have to say that this, my way of seeing it, is not a general Buddhist way of looking at it. In Buddhism, especially in Tibetan Buddhism, the belief in a personal reincarnation is widely spread. I also have to admit that I do not really know whether a personal identity is maintained after death or not. Nevertheless I tend to think that after our passing away only our deeds, the energies that we sent out and the memories of those left behind remain as witnesses of our person. Buddha Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, was asked about this quite often. It is said that he always replied he could easily teach about this, but that it is not important. He instead emphasized the importance of being conscious of the impermanency of all things, and that in this way we realize that our small self (person, individuality, ego) is an illusion. In this way we become able to wake up to our True Self, which connects us to all other beings.
Do you prepare for death? If so, how?
Death is a helpful teacher. We should always be aware of the possibility that we could die right now. If we give our best every given moment, then death can come anytime – we are ready. Then, we did what we could and do not have to cling to anything.
Why is it that most humans fear dying and death?
Human beings ordinarily fear dying because they only know the small self, that is to say the ego. As children we learn to develop an ego. The ego gets trained to make sure we get enough of all we need, so that we survive in this world and are well. This is important and we need this ego. However, usually it takes over the command over our deeds and decisions and at the same time it separates us from our surrounding. In order to able to experience Oneness we have to eliminate the ego. Or better, we have to learn to override the ego when necessary. When we die, the ego vanishes completely. Because it was trained to secure our survival, death marks THE catastrophe, to which it has no clue, knows no answer. This creates fear.
Do you have an advice for us?
The thought that we, instead of just disappearing, dissolve into a greater, all embracing Whole, which also brought us forth, takes away the frightening horror from dying. Even looked at it from a completely materialistic point of view, do we return with death into the Great Whole, the boundless universe. Our corporeal body decays and becomes earth again, whether as ashes or as decaying corps. From the universe there is no escape – no increase, no decrease.
How can we deal with mourning?
Mourning and grief are feelings like any other feelings, too. The best and most appropriate we can do with feelings is to express them. Expressed they tend to leave us. With our actions we press them out (ex) of ourselves. When happy – we smile, radiate, sing or dance. When sad we cry and think about what has made us feel sad. We can conduct rituals that bring out our feelings and emotions. A funeral or abdication ceremony is such a ritual. We can also create our own ritual or ceremony. It is important that the form of the ceremony feels right for us, so that our own feelings get expressed and we can become free from them. Then there is space for new feelings and life can continue.
What do you think of near death experiences?
I did read some accounts of near death experiences. Really interesting would be an account of a completely dead experience. But it does not exist.
Some years ago you said something to my husband Jundo and myself; it stayed with me until today: Old age is cruel. Can you explain this statement?
This statement expresses my actual experience. The cruelty of old age consists of the unstoppable loss of physical abilities and its merciless advance, not allowing any exception. Beside the mechanical shortcomings like the loss of physical power, agility, sight and sense of hearing also the vitality in general, the joy and vigor decrease. Quite often there is also loneliness. However, this is only one side of it, against which we are powerless. This powerlessness is the reason why I regard old age as being cruel. The other side is the so called mildness of old age, that is to say experiences, wisdom, goodness, patience and forgiveness. Also it is not expected from elderly people that they join all and everything. They do not have to compete anymore. They can join so to speak hors concourse. This gives them great freedom. When we can wholeheartedly accept in old age that we have only a fraction of our abilities and power left, then these years can be a wonderful, happy and contented time.
How do you see the topic of suicide?
Me, too, I had a few times thoughts of suicide and I think almost every human thinks at least once in life about this possibility. I feel great empathy for people who do not see any other way out of their situation. But I also think that there is almost always another solution possible.
How important for you is the commandment not to hurt or kill?
Commandments, whether Christian or Buddhist, aim to help us to come to the experience of Wholeness, or unity with All. Have we had this experience, the commandments become somewhat useless. When we see and experience ourselves not as separated individuals anymore, we conduct great care for everything that exists, as well as for ourselves. In this way the commandments get fulfilled all by themselves. Until we get to that point we should respect and hold the commandments according to the circumstances. To honor life and not to hurt or to kill is a difficult commandment. We constantly kill without being conscious of it: Germs, bacteria, smallest animals and insects. When we take antibiotics, we consciously expect the death of many bacteria. Eating meat is not possible without killing animals. So, we should find to a way of living that is responsible and at the same time supports life in all its aspects.
What do you think is the meaning of life?
The meaning of life is life itself. I don’t think that behind life, or behind all things as they are a separate meaning can be found. For me life cannot be understood. It fulfills itself in a miraculous way.
What will you say to someone who is incurably ill and cannot understand why he or she is hit with this by destiny?
Why me of all people? There is a saying in German: A given horse you don’t look into its mouth. The gift should be accepted as it is. We get born. We do not give birth to ourselves. Life is a gift to us. We should accept it as it is. I don’t mean this in a moralistic way. It is just much easier for us if we are able to accept ourselves and our lives. In Buddhism there is this term Karma, which is often translated as destiny. On a deeper level, however, it just means the law of cause and effect. This is a natural law and is effective in our lives. What we experience as our life is the effect because of a cause. And this effect becomes itself a cause with its related effect. If someone is incurably ill, the best way to deal with it is to accept the illness. If someone quarrels with his destiny and tries to go against it – this is just lost time. Nobody knows why the sun every day rises in the east or why this universe and we exist. And nobody can know why one is incurably ill and the other dies from a cold at the age of 93. In the end we all will die though.
How will you respond to parents who lost their beloved child in an accident?
I will respond to them with compassion and understanding. How exactly this will happen depends on the situation and the parents, and also on how they approach me.
Do you think there is a higher being observing your life, or a plan which rules your life?
As I see it, and as I experience it, there is neither a plan, nor a higher being, nor conduction. As I am experiencing it, I am lived by the Great Whole. It happens without me doing anything. Neither I nor any other being in this world has ever decided to be born. And just like this my life happens without me really being able to decide over it. What we call our self, of which we normally think it makes decisions, to my experience is an illusion. The more I give myself to the flow of life and let happen what happens, the more I get fulfilled, contented and happy, and the same is true for the humans around me.
What does it mean to you to live a happy life?
To accept, to be completely present, and to perceive without an idea how it should be, without judging. Then every day is a good day.
In your tradition – does the term soul exist?
In Buddhism the term soul does not exist.
In Buddhism – is there something like a pious, God fearing life? If so, what does it mean?
There is no God in Buddhism. And there are no sins either. We can conduct our lives according to the commandments. This will help us to realize our true self, our Buddha Nature. This realization, this experience of the Great Whole, the reunion with it is what we humans long for, whether we are conscious of it or not. But it is not a question of morality, or of a God who is pleased with our life. It is just a natural fact that we do much better when we reconnect with the Whole. Because then our most inner longing will be fulfilled.
Do Buddhists believe in a God, or in Gods or something similar?
Buddhists do not believe in a God or in Gods. But we do know Arhats and Bodhisattvas, who can be compared to the Christian Saints. C. G. Jung impressively showed that the Saints and comparable figures of other religions on the entire planet can be traced back to the archetypes. They are expressions of forces, which are existent in our unconscious. When we bow towards the Bodhisattvas we hope that our ego diminishes. To bow means to take down our proud ego. And that the forces symbolized by the Bodhisattva get fortified within us.
Can I practice Zen Buddhism and still be a convincing Christian?
Zen Buddhism and Christian religion can very well complement one another. But there is a fundamental contradiction, for which the church mainly is responsible. Nowadays for the Christian church God is something outside the humans. For the Zen Buddhist, and for any Buddhist Buddha-Nature, or God, is our own True Being inherent in ourselves. The early Christians saw this in the same way. Also Jesus said: “If you look for the Kingdom of God with your eyes, you won’t find it, for the Kingdom of God is within yourself.”
Is there an eternal life in your tradition?
The eternal life is the Great Whole in its essence. It embraces or contains life and death. There is no life without death. And there is no death without life. The source where all manifestations, forms, things and beings come from is in itself empty, but full of potential, full of creating power. It is not born, therefore it cannot die. It is the eternal life, Tao, Buddha-Nature, God.
Are there these terms «Heaven» and «Hell»? If so, what do they correlate with?
Heaven and hell are imaginations that exist in the entire world. In Buddhism we have the tendency to see these realms as realms that we experience as living humans. The better we can accept the circumstances of the Here and Now as they are, the more intensely we will experience the Here and Now as heaven or paradise. However, if we quarrel against it, the Here and Now will be like hell.
Is there a judge who judges your life?
I do not believe in a judge. The way I have lived will be effective according to the law of cause and effect.
Regarding life, dying and death, what is the most important you would like to convey to your fellow humans?
All that exists is impermanent; not only we, but also the earth, the sun, the moon and the stars. All is ever changing.
The source from which all that is springs forth is everlasting, unchanging, incomprehensible and empty. It is beyond thoughts or intellectual understanding. It is beyond logic or illogic, beyond good or bad and beyond right and wrong.
To find back to this source means to enter eternal life. It does not mean that we do not die. It means that we realize life and death as two sides of the same coin. They belong to each other, even they depend on each other.