Nomon Tim Burnett : Compassion 2 - Contemplation of Death

Wednesday, April 13, 2016 8:00 PM | Talus Latona (Administrator)

Podcast: Play in new window

Below find Nomon Tim Burnett's talk notes. This is not a verbatim transcript of what Tim says in the recording but for reference and a quick scan we offer these notes. Listening to the talk is recommended.


Good evening,

A wonderful friend of the sangha, of all of the sanghas in Bellingham, was a lively and energetic woman named Joan Casey. Joan died yesterday, she was 75, of pulmonary failure. I didn't see her often but I always so enjoyed her bright spirit when I did. The last time was at a screening of the film States of Grace at the Pickford, an amazing intimate documentary about the recovery of Grace Dammann, a resident at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center and an amazing doctor and bodhisattva who survived a horrible car crash some years ago on the Golden Gate Bridge. Joan had a place in San Francisco and I think used to live in Sausalito and of course knew all kinds of Buddhist practitioners in the Zen and Dzogchen communities down there. Anyway there she was at a Buddhist event and we were milling around the lobby and somehow Joan seemed to know everyone there.

[Early supporter of the original Dharma Hall, and of this one - heater story]

We'll have a memorial for Joan here or maybe also at the Bellingham Shambhala center - perhaps a combined memorial. She left instructions with us on what she wanted which doesn't surprise me at all. She wanted to help and she also took care of herself and knew what she wanted, did Joan. Of course I wish I knew her better now.

There should be a word for that melancholy feeling of wishing you'd spent more time with someone that often emerges when that person dies. When the fiction that you'll get around to seeing them more later on when you have more time comes crashing down.

As y ou know I'm trying to understand something about compassion and connection. I love the groundedness and the wisdom emphasis of Zen but a little Norman did with his study of the Tibetan Lojong mind training slogans and his great book Training in Compassion I've been also realizing I'm low in emotional awareness and compassion. I love people a lot actually but I often don't communicate that very well and I get a little self-focused.

So I've been studying both secular mindfulness-world application of compassion, doing trainings from groups on the cultivation of compassion inspired by Tibetan Buddhism and inspired by positive psychology and the interesting self-compassion movement. And also I've been reading Tibetan materials a little too, trying to get a sense of it. And a year ago we studied a famous Tibetan text that's all about compassion by the 9th century Indian pundit Shantideva.

The contemplation of death is a core Buddhist practice. In the mindfulness sutta there's a long section on contemplating actual corpses in the charnal gounds and seeing how we are of the nature to die very directly. Sometimes I've given people the assignment to go walking in the graveyard - Bayview is very nice for this.

Different branches of Buddhism have different ways of remembering that life is short and human life is a precious opportunity. To see this as a core motivator to practice, to use our time well for the benefit of all.

The Tibetans have a set of four thoughts that turn the mind toward Dharma

“The freedoms and opportunities of this life are extremely difficult to attain.”

“Being impermanent, all beings must die.”

"Virtuous and harmful actions cause their inevitable results.”

“The nature of samsara (self-clinging) is suffering.”

In an early Buddhist text called the Upajjhatthana Sutta - the subjects for contemplation we find the five remembrances, here's Thich Naht Hahn's version

1. I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

2. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

And many of our Zen stories contemplate the intimacy of life and death. Here's one of many.

This one happens to feature the great Chinese Zen master Yunmen whom we met a few weeks ago in the story about why do you put on the 9 panel robe at the sound of the bell?

[Blue Cliff Record case 27]

A monk asked Yunmen, "how is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?"

Yunmen replied, "Body exposed in the golden wind."

How is it when the tree dies, when we die? Is it just gone? Is it just compost?

It's open, it's exposed, it's alive in a new way, it's the golden body open and intimate with the golden wind. There is death and sadness and there is openness and intimacy.

Joan's husband, John Watts, told said to me, "it's sad, but it's okay, her spirit is flying far and wide now."

When people go we all wake up a little, but we don't always pay attention. And that waking up requires falling apart too.

I was listening to a talk by Gyokuko Carlson about the death of her husband and co-abbot at the large center in Portland, Dharma Rain Zen Center. A heart attack suddenly took Kyogen Carlson in 2014.

She said: "who are you without that voice? Without that face? Without that person? Without the mirror reflecting you back to you? We have set out on a journey, we are three weeks into this journey [it had been three weeks since Kyogen died] and this is just…I would encourage you not to be in a hurry. Don't be in a hurry to get remade. Don't be in a hurry to stop being undone. This is precious journey full of possibilities. It may be useful for you to relax around this and accept: just as you didn't choose this time to undergo this journey, you also don't get to choose what you experience along the way. You can relax about that. You can choose to turn toward it. Experience it completely." She's speaking to people who deeply loved Kyogen and were his students in all kinds of ways.  She later quoted Kyogen saying "I've thought for a long time that grief is the most underappreciated of human emotions, most people avoid looking at it

And that appreciate of death is not just something to be endured, it's a condition that supports practice and supports compassion when we turn towards it with wisdom.

Here's another case about death, this is maybe the most famous one:

Blue Cliff Record case 55

Is Joan Casey alive or dead? Of course we'd say dead. But don't be so quick. When someone dies like Gyokuko suggests don't be in a hurry to stop being undone.

Are you alive or dead?

1. I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

2. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

What should be our answer? How shall we live? How shall we practice? Perhaps it's time to keep studying compassion and wisdom, wisdom and compassion.


 Listen to Gyokuko Carlon's deeply touching talk to her sangha and practicing with the loss of her husband, and their teacher

  Download

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software