/ The Great Matter /

I am currently working on a writing project with the working title "The Great Matter," which is a Zen expression referring to life and death, the ultimate concern of anyone who begins to probe beneath the surface of things in one way or another. 

There is a basic difficulty that we run into immediately when we try to deal with life and death, and specifically our own lives and deaths. This is the matter of anticipating and planning for the future. If we want to retire comfortably in this society, we generally choose some sort of savings plan. To generate the savings to put into it, we need a good-paying job. To get that job, we generally believe, we need to get a suitable job. And so on. If we want long-term companionship, sexual satisfaction, and perhaps children, we may decide to arrange to marry someone. This also requires step-by-step anticipation and planning, which may very well interact with our planning for education and employment. In many other ways, we spend many hours of each day thinking of what our future lives will be like and how to make the best of that time.

But there is one inescapable fact which cuts all of this anticipation of the future short: death. It has often been called a “black mirror” or “dark wall,” and these are very apt expressions. Ordinary ways of thinking, based on our experiences and reports of others’ experiences, can serve as the basis for the planning I have described just now, but we are uncomfortably aware that something, which could happen at any moment, call a sudden and permanent halt to this natural process we are constantly engaged in.

At least, this is true unless we can somehow see through or around this mirror or wall, and it appears that at least some humans have always believed that that is possible. Hence, we have painted many imaginative pictures of the world beyond and the pleasures or terrors it contains. Others, especially in recent times, have come to the conclusion that seeing through the black mirror is impossible, and insist either that there is no way of knowing what is on the other side, at least until we hit the wall, or that there simply is nothing beyond it, in terms of the conscious, experiencing self we feel ourselves to be now.

Thus, I will be comparing and commenting on the thoughts of the following writers, among the many who have pondered these questions: Sin-leqi-unninni, the compiler of the Akkadian Gilgamesh epic; the apostle Paul; and the 13th-century Japanese Zen teacher Eihei Dogen. I have chosen them because I think they represent some of the main avenues we humans have come up with to approach death. 

The first gives us the tale of the hero Gilgamesh, who accomplishes many miraculous adventures with his companion Enkidu without ever considering the possibility of his death until Enkidu dies. He then becomes perhaps the first character in literature to yearn for immortality, but learns that it is impossible for humans (all but one, actually), and finds that the meaning of life is not to extend it beyond death, but to live it fully as long as it lasts. 

The second tells us that there is in fact a way through the dark wall, contrary to what Gilgamesh discovered, and he is confident of his ability to tell us what that is. What we find in the letters to the early Christians, whether or not they are all by Paul himself or (more likely) by a number of writers, is a quite different picture of the world from what the Sumerians and Akkadians saw, though one that I consider equally mythological.

The third, who is probably much less well known to most people in this culture than Paul or even the poet of the Gilgamesh story, suggests a unique and fascinating way to deal with death which I think may be more adequate than theirs, although his message seems very difficult to understand and put into practice.

Besides analyzing their writings and interpreting what meanings they have for me, I will try to put them into the contexts of what was going on in their societies at the times they were writing. Along the way, I expect to be trying to clarify some important philosophical issues, such as: what is science, and why should we accept what it tells us? What kinds of things are religions, which claim to tell us the truth about life and death, and should we accept what they say when they disagree with science? And what does picking over these sorts of questions have to do with how we should live?

The list of chapters I have in mind at this point is:  

1. Introduction

2. Starting With Prehistory

3. The Search for Immortality in Ancient Mesopotamia: The Epic of Gilgamesh

4. The Greek Beginnings of Scientific Research

5. Life and Death as Paul Saw Them

6. Life and Death in Feudal Japan

7. Dogen’s Zen View: “Lifedeath"

8. Conclusion

Here is a second draft of the Introduction.

And a second draft of Chapter 2.


qedd© Jon Johanning 2011