Q: I understand that I must die, but the idea of dying does not seem terrifying to me. That is why I don’t understand “the crucial matter of the afterlife.”
A: Nyugen Cao Ky, the former leader of South Vietnam on the eve of its destruction, shouted “Defend the motherland to the last soldier!”—while he turned and ran from the burning city of Saigon to the refuge of an American aircraft carrier. The Americans laughed: “The guy who scolded deserters has deserted.” After that he ran a liquor store in the United States, apparently. Even in Japan, such behavior is not exceptional. Some of the generals who sent kamikaze pilots to their deaths wrote their own transfer orders to escape home.
An oncologist reported, “When neither the patient nor his family is told that the cancer is incurable, the patient can live over five years; when even just the family is told, the span shrinks to two years. And if the patient himself is told, few people can live as long as a year.”
People on the battlefield, or overexcited in a fierce fight, say, seem able to die with surprisingly little fear—but that feeling doesn’t last long.
When Oishi Kuranosuke, leader of the famous Forty-seven Ronin, came to commit ritual suicide by harakiri, he bared his belly and gripped his dagger, but his hand shook so that he was unable to stab himself.
Legend has it that the man tasked with assisting him in harakiri, unable to bear the sight, cut off Oishi’s head before he disemboweled himself, in order to protect Oishi’s glittering reputation. Kuranosuke wrote a poem expressing his grim determination to seek revenge. When the time finally came and he entered the Kira residence, death may have been far from his thoughts, but such high-strung emotions do not last.
In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare has Claudio cry out “Death is a fearful thing,” and Victor Hugo, in The Last Day of a Condemned Man, writes, “All mankind are condemned to death, with indefinite respites.” Everyone’s greatest tragedy is that sooner or later, they must die.
"All this time I thought only other people die, not me— now I find I’m dying too; it’s too much to be borne.”
A physician wrote the above poem shortly before dying. The difference between someone else’s death and one’s own must be something like the difference between seeing a caged tiger in the zoo, and coming upon one wild in the jungle.
“I forgot, completely forgot that someday I would die.” They say those were the dying words of a famous man of letters.
People all die. But no one expects to die soon. That’s because we don’t truly believe we will die.
So no matter how we try to imagine what death is like, right up to the moment of death we are wearing blinders. When the blinders come off, nothing will be the same as when we were wearing them. The crucial matter of the afterlife is something we won’t understand unless we are nurtured by the light of Amida while we are alive.