Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

How to Live If You're Going to Die

--by Blanche Hartman (Dec 12, 2016)

I got a call that a dear friend of mine, who received precepts from me years ago when I lived at Green Gulch, was dying. I arranged with her husband to go and see her and give her the precepts again. One of the things that have been very helpful to me around this matter of birth and death—around this matter of my death, anyhow—is meeting death with great curiosity. What is it? We don't know. We can't know ahead of time. Can we be there for it and find out what this great mystery of birth and death is? When I went to visit my friend Jenny, I said to her, "Well, Jenny, it looks like you're going to find out about the great mystery before Pete and I do." She was on a hospital bed in her room, but she jumped up and threw her arms around my neck and said, "Blanche! It's all about love and joy!" This was less than a week before she died. And so I thank you, Jenny, for that teaching. It's all about love and joy. Can we allow that as a possibility in our heart as we study this great mystery? I know that I find myself, the older I get, imagining whether I could say such a thing on my own deathbed, but it certainly is what I've been talking about as I'm approaching my deathbed. That love and joy are really right here and available for us if we will open up to them. [...]

I came to practice because I discovered that I was going to die—me, personally. I just had never considered it before, but then my best friend, who was my age and had kids the age of my kids, had a headache one night when we were together. It was such a bad headache that she went to the doctor the next morning. She was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, went into a coma, and died. Whoosh! Maybe a month altogether from the first headache.

Well, that could have been me as readily as Pat. Oh, my god! I'm going to die! But the next thought was, "How do you live if you know you're going to die?" It has been such a gift to me that that question came up. And so I started looking for who could tell me how to live if I know I'm going to die. And I do know I'm going to die. So I'll just share with you these Five Daily Recollections from the Upajjhatthana Sutra of the Buddha:

I'm of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everything I have and everything I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape from losing them.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.

These Five Daily Recollections seemed to be, for me, some clue to how to live if you know you're going to die. Pay attention to how you live. Pay attention to your actions. Are your actions kind? Are your actions honest? Are your actions supported by the desire to help beings, to benefit beings? Are your actions selfish or generous? How are you living this life?

Zenkei Blanche Hartman was the first woman abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, practicing in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki.

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Previous Reflections:

On Dec 10, 2016 david doane wrote:

 In reading the essay, I thought of Mary Oliver asking in The Summer Day, "What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"  For me, the five daily recollections are true and profound, and I plan to make a copy of them and keep it nearby to reread.  I became aware of death in a personal and intimate way when my father died, when my best friend died instantly and unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage, when other friends have died, and when relatives have died, each of which deaths shook me to various depths.  The deaths of other people my age heighten my awareness of death.  Reminding myself of the five daily recollections -- that I am growing old, that sickness is part of my life, that I will die (drop this body as I've come to think of it), that everything is temporary, and my actions very much define me -- help me to remember to pay attention to my actions, to love and enjoy, and to not waste any of this precious and brief life.

On Dec 10, 2016 Jagdish P Dave wrote:

 I know what is born is going to die. There is a connecting line between the two points-the line of life. The two points, birth and death, are beyond my control. I can make a choice how to live my life  knowing and accepting the fact that I am aging everyday, knowing that I am going to have more pain in my growing body and a day may  come when I may not be able to walk. As I am going through these changes, I am accepting them gracefully. I love living, taking care of myself as a whole being, serving others and filling the cup of my life with , love,joy, happiness and gratitude.

I accept myself as a human being with its frailties and follies, ups and downs and turns and twists- plays taking place in the doing zone. When I witness the plays of the doing zone, I move into my being zone, the zone of awareness, that keeps me centered and balanced and freed me from my self-created pain and pleasure cycle. I feel at peace with myself and feel the fullness of the flow of the here and now.

Four years ago,  Vanleela, my better half passed away. All the members of our family were watching with sadness the last hours of her passing away.She opened her eyes with a smile on her face. She looked at everybody standing in front of her, and said these last words, "Is everybody OK?" She died the way she lived her life, caring for others, serving others joyfully.These  last words came from her being zone touching the heart of everyone standing in front of her. Her life was a message and her death also was a message.

It is up to us how to live our life-the line between birth and death.

May we all remain awake as we are going through the journey of our life offering gifts of love and joy to ourselves and to others!


Jagdish P Dave

On Dec 12, 2016 Patjos wrote:


On Dec 13, 2016 ryandavid wrote:

 " If one truly grasps that all that is born
              will end in death ,
      then there will be love ."            Buddah

On Dec 13, 2016 Ingrid wrote:

 I remember seeing people who lived to be 100 being interviewed with the question, "What is the secret of life?"  The common answers were 2 things. #1 Life is change so you must embrace change and not resist it.  #2 You must keep building relationship of all generations because you keep losing relationships throughout life.   #3 is mine, live each day as if it were your last and never leave anything unsaid that needs to be said.

On Dec 19, 2016 me wrote:


On Jan 12, 2017 Susan wrote:

Interesting that this is article for reading and reflections as I had been mulling over this question all last week!!! I said to myself as we moved into 2017 that this year I am going to as it these were my last days.....last year a did alot of internal cleaning and this year I decided that I going to be more spontaneous and have more fun. The secret to happiness is to be joyful, laughter and smiles. 

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On Oct 13, 2018 David wrote:

 In perusing the paper, I thought of Mary Oliver asking in The Summer Day, "What do you intend to do with your one wild and valuable life?" For me, the five every day memories are valid and significant, and I intend to make a duplicate of them and keep it close-by to rehash. I wound up mindful of death in an individual and cozy way when my dad kicked the bucket, when my closest companion passed on quickly and out of the blue of a cerebrum discharge, when different companions have passed on, and when relatives have kicked the bucket, every one of which passings shook me to different profundities. The passings of other individuals my age elevate my attention to death. Helping myself to remember the five day by day memories - that I am developing old, that affliction is a piece of my life, that I will kick the bucket (drop this body as I've come to consider it), that everything is transitory, and my activities particularly characterize me - assist me with remembering to focus on my activities, to adore and appreciate, and to not squander any of this valuable and brief life.

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