by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

Kensho and Death

If a man, when he is about to die, can only regard the five aggregates [body; feeling; thought; volition; consciousness: in other words, body and mind] as void [meaning "void of a self separate from the Great Immaculacy"] . . . if he can only awaken to this in a flash and remain free from remaining entanglements of the Triple World (past, present and future), he will indeed be one who leaves the world without the faintest tendency towards rebirth. If he should behold the lovely sight of all the Buddhas coming to welcome him and yet feel no desire to go towards them, if he should behold devils and evil forms surrounding him and yet have no fear, remaining oblivious to self and at one with the Absolute, he will indeed achieve the formless state.

--Great Master Hsi-yun (Japanese: Obaku Kiun), quoted by Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett in Ch. 7 of Zen is Eternal Life

Trial Run

Rev. Master taught that the best preparation for death is to do correct spiritual training and experience kensho during one's lifetime. Kensho is "awakening to our True Nature." At the moment of death the opportunity to reunite fully with our True Nature manifests naturally--not just for the person who has experienced kensho, but for everyone. So kensho can give a very helpful "trial run" for death, provided that one has not abandoned training after experiencing kensho.

The Eternal does not judge us during our lifetime and does not judge us when we die. Whatever karmic shadows may accompany us to the moment of death, the manifesting of the Light of the Eternal at the moment of death is an opportunity to surrender fully into Infinite Love. The experience of that Love in our lifetime can greatly help us turn toward It in childlike trust and unconditional willingness at the time of death.

The Bardo Realm

Very frequently, however, beings die in ignorance and confusion so that, instead of offering everything into Infinite Love at the time of death, they look down in despair and self-blame. When this happens, the opportunity for full reunion with the Eternal at the time of death is missed. But that is not the last opportunity!

For a period of up to seven weeks (forty-nine days) after death, other opportunities manifest. At the end of this period (if not sooner), spiritual need that has not found its way back to recognized reunion with the Eternal is reborn in one or more of the realms of existence. Such rebirth is itself an introduction into a new world of opportunities: all spiritual need will eventually find its way to the Help of the Eternal.

The period of up to forty-nine days between death and rebirth is itself a kind of rebirth-realm in miniature--the Bardo realm--in which a "mind-body" (or "spirit-body") of the dead person undergoes a journey that begins in spiritual brightness and continues on in increasing darkness as the karmic shadows of past actions manifest in dream-like forms.

The initial period of brightness lasts ten days. If someone has shied away from the full brilliance and majesty of the Eternal that manifests at the time of death, the Eternal is willing to use forms that are more familiar, less intimidating, yet still recognizable as wholly good and compassionate. These benevolent forms are an encouragement to look up, let go of self-judgment, cease to cling to the illusion of a separate self, and accept the offer of full reunion with the Eternal.

Around the tenth day after death, the bright and benign forms are replaced by fierce and threatening ones--karmic consequences of "confusion of mind." There is no better teacher than karmic consequence, and the threatening "beings" that now manifest can be thought of as the expressions of a Compassion that is willing to appear not to be compassionate in order to try to get the message across: "If you continue along this downward-looking path, the wheel of suffering will roll on and on! Wake up! Let go! Look up!" In other words, if gentle persuasion does not work, the Eternal is willing to do some vigorous remonstrating.

If neither consolation nor remonstration is able to get the confused spirit to look up, then the karma of self-judgment comes fully due, and the stage is set for the process leading directly to rebirth.

Rev. Master always strongly emphasized that beings look into the "the mirror of Karma," which is the mirror of their own memory, and, seeing their past actions, judge themselves and sentence themselves to rebirth in a particular rebirth-realm.

Paths of Compassion

Some Buddhist traditions, including Soto Zen, identify six rebirth realms: a realm of ease and happiness (the heavens); a realm of intense suffering (the hells); a realm of striving to obtain power (the asura realm); the animal realm, in which killing, eating and reproducing are the main occupations; the realm of bodiless spirits afflicted with craving and doubt (hungry ghosts); and the human realm.

Clearly, each of these rebirth-realms is mirrored in certain aspects of human life. For human beings sometimes know ease and happiness; sometimes intense and unrelievable pain; sometimes ambition; sometimes animal needs and desires; sometimes unsatisfiable cravings and doubts; and sometimes responsible action deriving from concern for the welfare of others as well as oneself.

When beings sentence themselves to rebirth in various realms, I can imagine the Eternal saying, "You are free to reward yourself or punish yourself by rebirth in any of these realms; you are free to attempt to make repayment in any rebirth realm for karmic debts that you have judged that you owe; you are free to try a new course of action in any realm to which you sentence yourself.--In all realms, and in all circumstances and conditions, I will be right beside you, and you are free to seek my Help at any time and in any place."

And so spiritual need that has not been resolved either during a being's lifetime, or during the brief sojourn of the spirit in the Bardo realm, manifests in a new form of existence--a new being--in some rebirth-realm. This new being has inherited all, or some part, of the previous being's karma, and is now the custodian of all, or some part, of that being's unresolved spiritual need. The new being is also the beneficiary of whatever meritorious karma it may have inherited from that previous being and/or from any other source. The new being is not the same person as the previous being, nor is it entirely different from it: there is no enduring self, ego or personality that continues on from one lifetime to the next.

Each knot--or "jangle"--of spiritual need is a time-capsule of greed, hate, and/or delusion and it is the precious potentiality for enlightenment. These time capsules work their way toward the Help of the Eternal along tortuous and convoluted paths in the realms of rebirth.

Dark to Light and Light to Dark

How to Grow a Lotus Blossom describes Rev. Master's spiritual journey in 1976-77, beginning in great spiritual darkness and culminating in great spiritual brightness. Rev. Master sometimes pointed out that the progression from spiritual brightness to spiritual darkness so often experienced in the Bardo realm is the reverse of the progression experienced in kensho.

Dark to bright: in kensho, spiritual need finds its way through darkness to the Help of the Eternal. Bright to dark: when opportunities to receive the Help of the Eternal at death, and then in the Bardo realm, are missed, spiritual need must continue on in the darkness of ignorance, longing and pain.

The following diagram shows the return process in kensho (meaning the return to the Eternal) in the blue diagonal line on the left and the forward process in the Bardo realm (meaning the continued rolling of the wheel of suffering) in the blue diagonal line on the right. In kensho, there is a great enlightenment of spiritual need--the awakening to the Infinite Love of the Eternal. If the opportunity to dissolve into full oneness with the Eternal at the time of death is missed, and if subsequent opportunities are missed, spiritual need descends into darkness, eventually moving toward the light of one of the realms of rebirth (shown in the bottom right corner of the diagram--six colored beams of light for the six rebirth-realms).



The lights of the rebirth-realms are not opposed to the Light of the Eternal: as Rev. Master was careful to point out, they derive from that Light and signal that the Help of the Eternal never abandons any need. In our confusion and shame we may look down and turn away from a Love that is beyond our comprehension, but that Love will never turn away from us. It waits with infinite patience as we wander in realms of ignorance, desire, anger, ambition, and even happiness--and when we are ready to turn toward It fully, It welcomes us to our True Home.

In Part XXV of these Reflections, I will discuss some of the kinds of spiritual experience that support the teachings about death, the Bardo realm, and the realms of rebirth.


Click here to go to Part XXV, "From Death to Rebirth"


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