/ The Great Matter /

“The Great Matter of Life and Death”

Synopsis, July 9, 2019

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

The project will contain my thoughts on a number of ways we humans have confronted the fact of our death: the absolute end of our existence, a possible gateway to an extension of it in one way or another, most often found in “the next world,” or possibly a fact that requires us to change our fundamental way of thinking about both life and death from the way we have always followed until now.

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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 education. 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 three following writers, among the many who have pondered these questions: Sin-leqi-unninni, the ancient Sumerian compiler of the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” 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 of these, Sin-leqi-unninni, opens a window into at least one way of viewing death from the dawn of written language and thus of history; we see humans pondering what might be beyond that dark wall of death, and how we should live in the face of it.

The second, Paul, perhaps the most influential preacher of the early history of Christianity, insists that there is in fact a way through the dark wall, contrary to what Gilgamesh discovered, and this man 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, Dogen, 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?

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

1. Introduction

The lay of the land ahead: why I think it is important to study these writers’ thoughts, in particular.

2. Starting With Prehistory

Archeological evidence suggests that, before they invented ways of writing and history appeared, humans were very much concerned about life and death in some ways. Although we cannot know much about this phase of human existence, pondering this evidence is probably where we should start our exploration of the ways we have dealt with this concern. In this and the next chapter, we will begin to look at the nature of myths, especially the mythology of death.

3. The Search for Immortality in Ancient Mesopotamia

Beginning in about 2100 B.C.E., Sumerians wrote legends about their highly esteemed King Gilgamesh of Ur. This hero 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. 

4. The Greek Beginnings of Scientific Research

Science as we know it today goes back to sources in several ancient cultures, but the most important, in some ways, was in classical Greek philosophy, beginning around 600–500 B.C.E. I trace an outline of that starting point because it shows clearly some early phases of the famous conflict between science and religion that has surrounded thought about the relationship of death to life since then. As a bridge to the next figure of my story, Paul of Tarsus, I look at how Plato understood this science/religion tussle. 

5. Life and Death as Paul Saw Them

Starting with a passage in which the Apostle Paul picked up Plato’s quarrel with the materialists (Romans 1:18–20), we examine his view that the resurrection of Jesus (or, better named, Yeshua) proved that those with the right faith would be transformed after death into a new kind of body, a spiritual one. Why did he think this, how was it related to his other ideas, and why did it help to make him perhaps the greatest single influence on the Christian world view for the next two millennia? As we meditate on these matters, we will come back to the question of how religion and myths are related to the scientific world view that was opened up in Chapters 2 and 3.

6. Life and Death in Feudal Japan

As a transition to the last writer I will take up, I will briefly outline the thought world of Japan in the 10th to 11th centuries in the Western calendar. 

7. Dogen’s Zen View: “Lifedeath”

Zen (in the true sense, not the “Zen Perfume” sort of meaning) is not at all familiar to most people, and Eihei Dogen’s version is even more difficult to understand, even for those who know something about Buddhism. He made it very hard to penetrate quite deliberately. But if we can get some sense of why he insists that life and death are not at all different from each other, that they are a kind of unity that one can call “Lifedeath,” I think we will find that this understanding of life and death is very significantly different from both the standard mythological and the materialistic world views, and much more enlightening. 

8. Conclusions

Some reflections on where we might head after going this far on this path.


Here is a second draft of the Introduction.

And a second draft of Chapter 2.


qedd© Jon Johanning 2011