Death Is Nothing to Fear

As you age, death creeps closer. John Tarrant on how face mortality and truly live.

John Tarrant
4 June 2024
Photo by Rodion Kutsaiev.

Dying is part of living; it is also fundamentally tender and true. Old age, sickness, and death don’t have to be frightening. Fear doesn’t have to be frightening. 

Here’s the Zen view of death: sooner or later, we must deal with why we came here and what our lives are for. The most helpful thing in this regard, the ultimate encouragement to wake up, is the reality of death. You can be free while you’re dying, while those you love are dying, or even while it’s raining. 

People, though, are often still in the dream of their lives, and sometimes they linger. Sometimes they don’t believe they are dying, even when it seems plain to everyone else. When my friend is in hospice, I ask her for the passwords for our website, which she runs. 

“Oh no,” she says, “I’ll still need them.” She only has another few days in the body of form.

Death cannot be understood the way we usually understand things. Actually, nothing can be understood the way we usually understand things, which is why confronting the great matters of life and death requires time to penetrate. A certain sacrifice and courage are necessary to have your own true life. 

“If you are not afraid of life, you are not afraid of death”

In the weeks when our friend is sinking, we can’t find her rakusu. A rakusu is a Zen robe said to date from a time of persecution when practitioners needed a small, easy-to-conceal robe while in hiding. Now, it is the first stage of ordination. The outside is patchwork like farmland, straps going over your neck, and on the inside your lineage name is painted next to your heart. 

We look everywhere. She can’t remember where it is. We can’t get a new one, because rakusus are slow to make. She still wants to wear something ceremonial that represents the tradition and the community. The ancient forms help with the great occasions. Part of having your own life is having your own death.

We have an idea. The transmission scrolls for new teachers are called silks. The old teacher paints a dragon and the new teacher’s name on the fabric. While transmission is a not a common event, I always have good silk in a drawer. We decide to make a garment, part shroud, part robe. Allison, our friend’s teacher, measures the blank silk, doubles it, and sews straps on it.

Our friend also wants a new name. This makes sense; she will be going to new places. We paint her new name, “Crane in the Moonlight,” on the outside of the silk, announcing her arrival in the after-death. Allison paints the crane against the full moon, and I write the name in ancient Chinese seal characters. In making it, we are already dressing her for the journey.

The old forms are good to observe for both the living and the dead. Joy comes over me, brush stroke by brush stroke, and the sorrow, confusion, and fear of death is transforming. As I paint, I feel as if the whole question of death is being gradually moved across to the invisible world. We call the new garment a “traveling silk.”

The crematorium is an industrial place. The floor is smooth cement of the kind I drove a forklift across in factories as a teenager, and the furnace is encased in steel with a large steel door. All the fires are banked, but the blast continues anyway and echoes around the room. A memorial will come later, but a few of us are here to put our friend in the fire in the proper, companionable Zen way. We stand around the coffin on its bier.

Her daughter has already seen her body in the hospital and does not want to see her again. This seems right. Some teachers, particularly Tibetans, discourage family from staying around in the room since they might distract the traveler whose job is to leave and to set off forthrightly onto the paths of the after-death.

A quiet formality comes over us, just like when incense is silently handed to the teacher during the predawn ceremony in retreat. On this occasion, one of us lifts the upper part of the coffin. Our friend is all wrapped in white cloth and very thin. 

A good ceremony goes both ways—it blesses the traveler, and it sets things in balance at our end. As we age, our death sits ever more clearly on the horizon. When others die around us, death feels closer still. A good ceremony moves our sorrow, grief, and rage into the symbolic world of art and the dharma.

We rest our hands on her forehead for a moment, acknowledging and feeling the cold that she lives in now, taking it in. I lift our friend’s head and Allison passes me the traveling silk. I slip it under her neck and we spread it over her torso.

The coffin is closed and we do the ceremony, chanting the Heart Sutra in Japanese. Everyone speaks to the one leaving and offers incense. Then we all walk off into the rain.

Old age, sickness, and death are perennial matters of interest. In the Buddhist tradition they are linked to the notion of a path, a practice, a way to deal with the emotions that surround them. If you are not afraid of life, you are not afraid of death, which is indeed a fascinating part of living.

John Tarrant

John Tarrant

John Tarrant, Roshi, directs the Pacific Zen Institute, a community where koan meditation, the arts, and deep conversations meet daily practice and life. He is the author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros & Other Zen Koans that Will Save Your Life.