by Shoken Winecoff, Abbot of Ryumonji Zen Monastery
It is said: Life and death are the great matter. Impermanence is swift. However, we don’t believe it until it happens.
On April 4, 2012 Rev. Shoshin Bob Kelly passed away from this life. He was 87 years old. His body just gave out. I had just talked with him a week before his death. He was one of the founding members of Ryumonji. When I received the phone call saying that he had passed away, I knew it was coming but still could hardly wrap my mind around it. Impermanence is swift, like a bolt of lightning striking in the empty sky.
I can remember back when Ryumonji first began before we had any housing. Shoshin-san slept in a tiny Scamp trailer. He called it “sleeping in a tin can”. Those were the early days. When we started construction of the buildings he helped lay flooring in the Buddha Hall and lost part of his little finger when he was cutting oak boards with a chop saw. He also carved the Buddha statue and wove the main curtain for the Buddha Hall, and he carved the Manjusri statue for the new Sodo.
A life goes so fast. The Dalai Lama says, “We know death is part of life, but we’re never ready.” Impermanence becomes real when we lose someone close to us. It’s hard to let go.
We have our ideas about life, about what we want and don’t want. We have our ideas about how quickly things should go, how long things should last, how big things should be, and how much we can handle. But the Universe has its own flow beyond our ideas. Life has its own rhythm. It flows from beginningless past to endless future. We are a temporal manifestation of this flow.
It is said, “There is no life and death when Buddha is within life and death.” (Zen monk, Shan-hui, 805-881) And it is also said, “When there is no Buddha within life and death, there is no illusion about life and death.” (Zen monk, Shen-ying, 771-853)
Life is not “my” life. Our lives are the embodiment of beginningless past and endless future. In a sense you can say “no-life, no-death”. Zen master Dogen (13th C) says, “Accept life and death as nirvana, do not hate either one, and do not seek nirvana. Only then can you truly be detached from life and death.” (Shobogenzo, “Life and Death”)
So what’s left? Katagiri Roshi says, “The momentum of life-and-death is beyond our ideas. So when the time comes for you to face death, all you have to do is return to the very first moment.” This first moment is beyond any idea of how long you should live, what kind of death you should have, or what will happen next. It’s just the moment that is!
That’s why Zen master Dogen says, “When we say life there is nothing else beside life; when there is death there is nothing but death. This is why when life comes accept it as it is; when death comes accept it as it is. Do not hate or desire either one.”
Rev. Shoshin Bob Kelly’s death was itself his last teaching. Impermanence is swift. Still, it’s hard to see pedals fall.