I suspect that anyone who writes on the subject of death has a moment when he or she wonders whether it is better to agree with the Zen monk Toko who, in his dying moment, tells us in a death poem (see Japanese Death Poems by Yoel Hoffman) that
are mere delusion—
death is death.
Death is nothing to poeticize—it is what it is! Perhaps. But many cannot rest content with a tautology in the face of death. They are driven to respond: yes, it is what it is…but what is it? They want to talk and speculate about this mystery of death. And perhaps that is the real point of the self-refuting death poem that says death poems are delusional: we, like Toko, often end up speaking of the very death that should condemn us to silence. Some think of death as a door to another realm about which we can gain some knowledge. Religious teachings, books of the dead, shamanic maps, testimony of mediums, and other paranormal phenomenon are often taken to be occasions for obtaining this knowledge. Some agree with Heraclitus’ pronouncement that “there await people when they die things they neither expect nor imagine”. Such people say there is an afterlife of some sort after death but we cannot know anything about it. Still others maintain a more cautious perspective. Plato’s Socrates, at his trial, admitted total ignorance when it came to death. He did have an opinion about it: either death is an endless, dreamless sleep or death is a relocation of the soul to another place. But he really didn’t know despite his hopes: “For to fear death, gentlemen, is nothing else than to think one is wise when one is not; for it is thinking one knows what one does not know”. Many people adopt this Socratic uncertainty and maintain that both death and an afterlife currently defy our understanding. Lastly, there are those who think we can know that there is no afterlife. For some, this may be tragic; others may agree with Epicurus’s argument: when we are, death is not; and when death is, we are not. Therefore, death is nothing to us.
But another form of death, mentioned by the wise over the ages, is a death-in-life that one can live through. For example, Socrates tells us that philosophy is “the practice of dying and being dead” and the samurai way of life is likewise characterized as “the practice of death”. St. Paul said “I die every day!” and Seneca tells us “throughout life one must learn to die”. Hegel claimed that “the life of the Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it” and Kierkegaard asserted that to be a Christian means to be kept alive in a state of dying.
Of course, we might pause here with trepidation and recall Spinoza’s famous assertion that “a free man thinks of death least of all things and his wisdom is a meditation of life, not of death”. But I think meditating on death-in-life is what enables our inquiry to be life-affirming and avoid morbid introspection. In fact, our challenge will be to understand death as it is present in those moments when we seem most alive. Jiddu Krishnamurti articulates this challenge beautifully:
“What is death? Do you know what death is? You want to know if there is survival after death; but, you see, that question is not important. The important question is: can you know death while you are living? What significance has it if someone tells you that there is or is not survival after death? You still do not know. But you can find out for yourself what death is, not after you are dead, but while you are living, healthy, vigorous, while you are thinking, feeling. This is also part of education. To be educated is not only to be proficient in mathematics, history or geography, it is also to have the ability to understand this extraordinary thing called death—not when you are physically dying, but while you are living, while you are laughing, while you are climbing a tree, while you are sailing a boat or swimming.” (see Think on These Things, chapter 10, question #1)
After considering these comments and many others like them, I was amazed to see the wealth of insights that can be gleaned from a mediation on this peculiar death-in-life. For in such transformative moments we seem to emerge anew and yet, somehow, are still related to what we once were. We are beyond total identity and total difference and are, rather, a mysterious combination of the two. As Heraclitus said, “we are and we are not”.
Perhaps, then, Toko’s claim that death is death is an oversimplification: maybe death can include life as well.