死門 Shimon: Gates of Death

Old City Gate photo by cliff1066™
Hatsumi Sensei tells us that we should awaken to the fact that we are only living in the space between life and death.

I've had a lot of death in my life recently. Every year that goes by, it seems that I know more and more people who are no longer around. That is natural as I grow older I guess. But in noticing this I also determine that death is always there, I just am not aware of it.  This awareness is an important quality in Budo.

People can misunderstand the famous quote from Hagakure, "The way of Bushi is the way of death." I think Soke is leading us to different understanding of that phrase. He says,
"All worldly things are impermanent; life and death are but one. Bushido is what runs through the Wabi and Sabi (transient beauty) of nature. Yet I feel compelled to say that enduring to the end no matter what happens, persevering with life despite being prepared for death at any time, is actually the secret of Bushido."
This "secret" has opened up important lessons for me in my training and my life. That space between life and death exists in the kukan. One day in class Soke told us to make space in the kukan where we could live. It confused me at the time. But I'm beginning to discover how to use that in the midst of danger. This is one aspect of the idea 九死一生 (kyuushi isshou, nine-deaths-one-life), meaning “a narrow escape from death,”

Sensei quotes the famous Zen Samurai Suzuki Shōsan,
"Knowing life and death; therein resides enjoyment."
Being aware of death in this way can get us intimately aquainted with the effects of impermanence. Shōsan taught that no one should forget their own mortality. But how does one find enjoyment in that?

As I write this, the founder of Apple, Steve Jobs just passed away. Here is his take on death awareness,
“Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement Address
If you take this lesson to heart you won't waste time being a 八方美人 (happou bijin, eight-directions-beautiful-person) or someone who tries to be all things to all people. You may quickly find yourself at the 死門 shimon gates of death. In buddhism this is the gate, or border of death, leading from one incarnation to another.

As I think of all my friends and family that I have lost recently, I try to remember that there is a connection from birth, through life to that 死門 shimon. I cannot honor the joy that their lives brought me without also accepting their death. Or that my own path will follow theirs. Sensei says,
"Life and death are connected. Like In-Yo. Like a magnet and metal, life and death are attracted to each other, always getting closer."
So if you truly want to understand our training, it won't be morbid or wrong to do as Shōsan suggested: "Make the one character "death" master in your heart, observing it and letting go of everything else."

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