At least half the organic matter you see on a walk in the forest is dead: dead leaves, deadwood, dead weeds, insect carcasses, maybe even the stinking corpse of some higher animal if you’re lucky. There are massive die-outs: suddenly the cicadas are silent, and the husks of their bodies litter the trail. Great plagues sweep across the vegetable kingdom: plagues of viruses, plagues of herbivores, plagues of invading plants, as the monastery’s gardeners know only too well. And then all this carnage is brought to an abrupt halt by that biggest mass murderer of all, the first hard frost. The katydid’s song grinds to a halt, the dainty jewelweed shrivels and collapses into putrid slime, the birds get out while the going’s good. Autumn’s splendid tragedy unfolds, and we have the beauty of a dying world. The spectacle makes us pensive: we think of our own demise, our approaching winter.

Civilization does its best to hide the extravagant abundance of death by allocating it to certain times and places far from daily life: slaughterhouses, garbage dumps, hospitals, funeral homes, cemeteries, war zones. This constant camouflage creates an absurd predicament: precisely because death is the one thing nobody ever talks about, it’s in our minds all the time, lurking in the shadows of our psyches, just as it’s been consigned to the shadows of our physical world.

One of the priceless lessons of the wilderness for those who have eyes to see is that death is perfectly ordinary—it’s no big deal. Not only is it as common as life, it gets confused with it. The boundaries blur, and from the perspective of a complete ecosystem it all amounts to one and the same thing: an exchange of energy.

Where do you draw the line between a live mushroom and the rotten wood that nourishes it, or between the maggot and the semiliquid flesh it throbs its way through in the corpse of a baby robin? After spending a lot of time in nature, our compulsion to draw that line starts to fall away. The question of life versus death, that awesome human dilemma, loses applicability here in the forest. Our judgments (life’s good, death’s bad) don’t get seconded in the blank stare and silence of the wild. Before long we begin to see beyond these self-centered concepts, finding ourselves examining a half-eaten meadow mouse with the same entranced eye that moments before was lost in the dewy calyx of a daylily, or studying a square mile of spruce trees killed by budworm with the same fascination we feel exploring a forest in its prime. We learn to be free of our constant commentary (Oh, how horrible! Oh, how beautiful!) as we become aware of a larger context. The critics fall silent in the face of the way things are.

Fine. But what happens when we enlarge the context even further and include a square mile of spruce trees killed, not by budworm, but by acid rain? Do we maintain the same all-inclusive composure? Is our devastation of the planet, our temporary glamour as a dominant species, any different from the summer plague of Japanese beetles in the vegetable garden? Is our judgment, this time toward ourselves, still irrelevant? Do we simply include humankind in “the way things are” and resign ourselves to the extinction of thousands of species? When we ourselves are the agents of death, the sense of responsibility demands that lines be drawn, judgments passed, that our critical faculty be brought to bear on the suffering our own glorious success has brought us.

Our own triumph over death—our reduced mortality rate—has come at the cost of the death of the biosphere as we know it. We find ourselves having to relearn the lesson of ecology (and the dharma) that life and death are interdependent—you can’t get one without the other. That’s the deal.

Nobody wants to die. We cheer medical science each time it develops another wonder drug that will eliminate another of the diseases that we coevolved.

And yet we can’t seem to accomplish similar miracles at the other end of life, at its start: there isn’t the same consensus on lowering the birth rate that there is on lowering the death rate. Everybody loves the brave jungle doctor saving lives—dispensing antibiotics to the children of a primitive people who for thousands of years survived with an infant mortality rate of ninety percent. Who could bear to let those babies die? Yet soon the tribe will suffer a population explosion, the jungle that fed it will be depleted, and that miracle-drug generation will grow up to languish in urban slums. We’d rather stay focused on the initial “humanitarian” effort that warms our hearts, unwilling to see the larger picture, the wider time frame, which demands that birth control must go hand in hand with reduced mortality.

Now we’ve bumped into that hornet’s nest—reproduction, with its swarms of sticky issues: sex, morality, parenthood, privacy, governmental control—quick, let’s leave before we get stung!

Ah! Where’s the peace of mind we had before we decided to include our own species in the picture, when we were still lost in fascination at the casual abundance, the profound ordinariness, the universal rightness of death in the Grand Scheme, in the wilderness? Where’s that calm acceptance we felt the day we watched a battalion of ants dismember a squirming grasshopper and drag the body parts back to the nest over seemingly insurmountable obstacles?

The fact is, the lessons of the wilderness are the teachings of the summit of the solitary peak. Sooner or later we have to come down to the human condition, where good and bad, right and wrong, pro and con wage war. Sooner or later it’s time to leave Catskill Preserve and go pack to work, to a job at the monastery, in the Hudson Valley, Albany, or New York City. Back among our kind, we find that death recovers its sting and that things are no longer so simple, as we start taking sides all over again. Death is profoundly ordinary and profoundly right, true enough—and yet we don’t want our friend to die of AIDS and will do anything to keep him alive. True enough, the despoliation of the planet by our species is as inevitable as a summer plague of Japanese beetles—and yet we fight to keep development at bay in the Catskills  and Adirondacks, we send checks to the World Wildlife Fund, we cast ballots for clean air and water bills. Why? Isn’t it hopeless? And yet compassion won’t be held back; we can’t help but act.

Image: Parinirvana, David Te Sell, pencil on vellum.
Image: Parinirvana, David Te Sell, pencil on vellum.

I often think of a dharma combat between Daidoshi [Zen teacher John Daido Loori] and a student, following last May’s sesshin. I wasn’t even there; I heard about it secondhand. But what I heard has come to haunt me over the months.

Student: “Everything I read in the papers and see on TV seems to point to one thing: the world is dying. Daidoshi, is the world dying?”

Daidoshi: “Yes, the world is dying.”
(Long pause, the student is weeping)
Daidoshi continues: “Are you dying?”
Student: “Yes, I’m dying. Everything is dying.”
Daidoshi: “Then become healed toward your dying first.”

The teachings of the insentient, the sermons of rock and water, the lessons from the summit of the solitary peak in the wilderness, give us the all­inclusive perspective from which we can become healed toward our own dying, which is none other than our living, our life-in-death and death-in-life as part of a process beyond ourselves. We have to start there—where the labels “life,” “death,” “good,” “bad,” no longer apply—before we can reenter the human turmoil of partial truths and do our job without fear of despair.

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