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September 11, 2001

Once, Master Dogo went with his student Zengen to pay a condolence call to the family of one of his disciples who had just died. The body was laid out in a coffin in the middle of the house. After they paid their respects to the family, the student Zengen rapped the sides of the coffin twice and asked Dogo, "Alive or dead?" "I won't say," answered Dogo. Later, on their way back to the monastery, Zengen, again asked his teacher, "Ailve or dead?" and again Dogo replied, "I won't say." Zengen grew desparate and shouted, "Tell me or I'll hit you!" Dogo responded, "You can hit me all you want, I still won't say." [see Blue Cliff Record Case 55 for the full story] What was Zengen really asking about so urgently? There was no question that their friend was dead; they saw his body laid out in the coffin in front of them. As Buddhists, we talk about non-duality and say there is no separation between self and other, inside and outside, life and death. But faced with a corpse, how many of us truly believe that? Isn't alive alive, and dead dead? How could two things be more radically different than life and death? Faced with the reality of death, especially the kind of sudden tragic deaths we all witnessed this week at the World Trade Center, we instinctively want to make sense of what happened: we look for explanations, we look for someone to blame, we look to a belief in God or some ultimate judgement in an afterlife or perhaps in the idea of karma that will give meaning to what happened. Dogo's answer denies us any of that. What life is, what death is, we can't say. We all have our ideas about death, but the mystery and tragedy of death won't fit into our ideas about it. We all have a picture of how we want our life to go, but who us can honestly fit our death into that picture - especially the kind of horrible deaths so many suffered on Tuesday? We have all been hit repeatedly this week, yet in the end there is nothing we can say - we can only experience the pain and loss we all are going through. We may need to put that pain into words and share with one another what we've gone through, but our words can never encompass the experience itself, which truly is unspeakable. The Buddha said that there is one fundamental truth we all must come to terms with in our lives: the truth of impermanence. He said some poeple realize it immediately upon hearing of the death of a stranger far away. These people, he said, are like a racehorse who runs having seen the mere shadow of a whip. Others realize it only when someone they know dies; they are like the horse who runs when the whip touches its hair. Others realize it only when someone they love is dying; they are like a horse that need's the whip to cut into its flesh. And finally, some of us will only come to terms with death on our own deathbed - like a horse who won't run until the whip cuts through flesh all the way down to the bone. All week people have gathered and asked each other, "How close were you? how closely were you touched?" No one in our sangha was killed in the collapse, but many of us know someone who was. Some of us were driven from our homes and our jobs, with no idea of when we can return. And for others, the whole thing was something that played itself out on television. We've all been touched by the whip of death to varying degrees; we've been able to acknowledge its lesson in varying degrees as well. Make no mistake, this is what our practice is all about. If we are unwilling to learn this lesson, everything we do on our cuffin is just a game, merely an exercise in the service of our ego. On Tuesday, I walked home, one hundred blocks through the middle of Manhattan. The streets were filled with people, but most walked in silence, their faces frozen, grim. But suddenly in front of me was a young mother carrying an infant in her back pack and that baby was beaming, full of life, its arms and legs flailling away in sheer exuburance. Of all the sights of that day, that's the one I remember most vividly.