Skip to the content.

Home | Previous | Next

Katagiri Roshi discusses how we should practice with those who are ill or dying. We have to deeply understand human suffering and pain. There shouldn’t be an expectation that there is a certain way to die; lots of emotions come up, and we should be right there with it. Also, we should practice a feeling togetherness with those who are ill or dying, because there is no separation between us and them. We need to practice this in our day-to-day lives, or we will not be ready to offer compassion in difficult times. This everyday practice may seem to be small, trifling things, but it is very important for us; it makes our personality mature. It includes expressing emotions in appropriate ways and times, not recklessly. We need oneness, and also oneness needs us. We have to receive oneness, and deal with it, and make it alive. To illustrate the Japanese word ki, Katagiri Roshi talks about his love of the American television show Bewitched.

(Transcriber’s Note: An edited version of this talk, from a different transcript, is available on

Listen to this talk on

0:00 start of recording

(The recording begins with the community chanting the Verse of Opening the Sutras:)

Mujō jin jin mi myō no hō wa
hyaku sen man go ni mo ai-o koto katashi
ware ima ken-mon shi ju-ji suru koto o etari
negawakuwa nyorai no shin-jitsu-gi o geshi tatematsuran

An unsurpassed, penetrating and perfect dharma
Is rarely met with even in a hundred thousand million kalpas.
Having it to see and listen to, remember and accept,
I vow to taste the truth of the Tathagata’s words.

Katagiri Roshi: Next week, I’m going to see a person who is going to die in prison. He’s one of the friends who practiced here for a couple of years. He is going to die from throat cancer.

I think not only I but also most of you have to face this kind of reality, and we have difficulties because we don’t know how to deal with that situation. And also you don’t know how to deal with yourself, as much as you don’t know how to deal with the person who is going to die. I think, unfortunately or fortunately, in Buddhism we don’t have a particular way or particular program for how to deal with this kind of situation. I think in Christianity they have a long history of how to deal with those people. So in the future, I think we will have to think about – I don’t know how to say – a way to deal with this person when you see him or her, whether you are a priest or not. Anyway, we have to think about this. Today I would like to say a few points.

One point is that we have to really deeply understand human suffering and pain. Suffering and pain never go away. Even though you attain enlightenment, or even though you become a Buddha – or bodhisattva, or saint, whatever you call it – suffering and pain never go away. The more deeply you are a bodhisattva, the more you really see the minute vibration of suffering coming up from the depth of your heart.


Even in Japan, I think we have a certain preconception that when you become a Zen priest, you have to die in sitting position, in zazen, or that you have to die peacefully. But I think, strictly speaking, there is no particular pattern how to die. It’s completely free. I don’t think you should have a certain pattern of how to die peacefully or happily. You can have an idea of how to die, of what is a happy death. You can have that. But there is no guarantee. When you really face death itself directly, there are no guarantees, because [at that time] death is not something objectified. You want to see it, but you are right there; there is no space for you to look at death objectively. No way. You are there, and […] you must be alive there. So still you have to understand how to live from moment to moment, instead of looking at death objectively. That is not so easy for us.

So that is a very difficult situation. And also, the more one’s end is coming near, the more your feelings and emotions are very sensitive. And those feelings and emotions – and imaginations, memories, your knowledge – are really complicated, coming together. Among those emotions and feelings I think there is happiness there, unhappiness there, and also anger there. Particularly anger; anger is very strong there.

And also, if you really see a strong feeling of anger there, I think you face death as it really is, where you have to completely give up. That is called resignation. But still you cannot get over your resignation. You say “I give up,” but still you cannot get over a feeling of resignation. So that is really suffering.

I mentioned a little bit about silence in my book (Returning to Silence), in the first chapter. I think you should read that one. It is too strong, because it comes in the front of the book, [he laughs] so it’s very strong. I don’t explain so much about the Buddha’s silence, but that is a very good suggestion for you. You can offer a poem or sympathetic words, from you, or from saints, Buddhas, bodhisattvas, whatever. Particularly a poem: you can compose a poem about death, about you who face death as it really is. You can explain it. But the explanation of death in a poem is, for me, kind of an “exquisite scream.” Pretty beautiful; but still nothing but a scream. So that is really suffering. It’s very beautiful, but it’s still suffering.

Human suffering, human pain, is not something you try to create or you try to remove. It’s already there. Particularly at the last moment, that pain really comes up and is very conspicuous for you. That’s why it’s very difficult to be with it. So you should understand this. I don’t mean you shouldn’t give any words to him or her who is going to die; I don’t mean that. If there is something you want to give, you should give it. But a point is, you have to understand what is suffering. At peoples’ last moment, you should know this.


I think there are many complicated emotions in the person who is going to die. The feeling of resignation, and anger, and despair, and also sentimental feelings. Most people go back to the past, or to the future, or to parents and native countries. I am here, but naturally I am going back to Japan, and being intimate with my parents – well my parents have already died, but still my memories and my imagination are going to my past life. That’s natural.

So the emotions are very complicated, like you have never known before. That’s why the older you become, the more you become a child: because gradually you can see human life as a whole, so very naturally you are going back to the past. The past means the childhood life: living with parents, with the trees, and circumstances. Not only living with the people, but living with the persimmons in your yard. You really feel something from the persimmons. I am here, but my imagination is going back to that. That is very natural. At the person’s last moment, there are many complicated feelings there. And then, there is no solution there, nothing to grasp. You just accept it, face it, and just live with [the feelings]. That’s it.

That’s why, finally, people realize there is nothing to grasp, no solutions to find about the emotions, about the imaginations about life and death, et cetera. Finally, you will come to reach a certain stage that is resignation. You completely give up. But in the realm of your resignation, still your emotions, your consciousness vibrate very minutely. That is called suffering which you never get over, the feeling of resignation. Do you understand that one? [Unintelligible]. Never mind. Okay. But that is human suffering.

I think if you go to the hospital, the doctor always tries to cure the sickness. But in modern society, not every one, but I think in general the doctor’s responsibility is just to cure the sickness, and nurses have the responsibility for taking care of the patient. All of the responsibilities are separated between nurses and doctors. But I think doctors and nurses should come together and work together. What I mean is that the doctor also should take care of the patient, understanding this very deep human suffering when people really face their last moment. I think ten out of a hundred are completely suffering from this, from death. Even though I say, “I’m ready to die”: no guarantee. Maybe I am struggling, and screaming, “Help!” Probably.

One Zen teacher, when one of his disciples asked him, “What do you think about death?” he said, “I don’t want to die.” The disciple didn’t expect such a statement, because they believed their teacher was exactly a great Zen Master, and a Zen Master should say, “I am happy.” [Some laughter.] I don’t think it is happy. Zen teachers are very straightforward toward death. I think that means you should understand really deep human suffering and pain. Otherwise you cannot be there; otherwise you cannot explain; otherwise you cannot say anything about suffering or pain.


Another point is, I think you should have a feeling of togetherness. Of course in terms of the idea of death, between you and the patient there is a separation. That is an idea. When you see the idea of death, there is a separation between you and the patient. But in terms of reality, true reality, there is no separation; you and the patient who is dying are exactly one. That’s why you want to be there with him or her, and also you want to serve him or her. If she wants to have a cup of water, you can give it, you know? You can serve her or him.

Ikkyū Zen Master talked to a person named Yamana, who was going to die. Mr. Yamana really wanted to see Ikkyū Zen Master before he died. He asked him, “Am I going to die?” Ikkyū Zen Master said, “Your end is near. But I am going to die, and others are going to die.” This is very important; do you understand? There is nothing particular to say to make him feel comfortable, but we can share. He can share his suffering with us, and we can share our suffering with him. We can share life and death with him, and he can share his life and death with us. Because his death is not something like a persimmon on a tree, which you can see objectively. Sooner or later – or not sooner or later, right now probably – you die. So no guarantee: any minute, you may die. You are going to die, but I am going to die, and also others are going to die. That’s what Ikkyū Zen Master mentions.

But this statement should come from a deep understand of human suffering when people face their last moment. Then, you can really share your life and death with him or her. So that’s why I say you should have a feeling of togetherness. It is not an idea of a feeling of togetherness, it means you should do it. That is the practice. Hold hands, or rub their back, or serve a cup of water. Or just be present by him or her. This is the actual practice of the feeling of togetherness. If your heart is very warm and compassionate, very naturally your presence really affects this patient, even though you don’t say anything.

That kind of feeling of compassion cannot be gotten overnight. Day to day you have to practice this. That’s why I always mention, day-to-day life. Even though you don’t like it or you like it sometimes, you have to do it. Even though you don’t like him or her, you should deal with human beings with compassion. That practice really affects your life, and that practice makes your personality mature. In other words, it makes the persimmon ripe. Otherwise, you cannot get such Buddha’s compassion, Buddha’s wisdom, overnight.

That everyday practice seems to be small, trifling things; very small things you can do. Someone comes who I don’t like, and I should make my mind kind and be kind to him, be compassionate to him or her. That’s it. It’s not fancy stuff, but this kind of practice is very important for us, day-to-day.

Psychologists maybe won’t say it in that way. They might say, “If you are angry, you should express anger.” Maybe so. But you should think about the appropriate place or time, how you express your anger. You cannot express your feeling of anger recklessly. So I think this is a practice for us as Buddhists.


One more point is that I think you should be constantly in the realm of oneness.

I think the Buddhistic understanding of the world is a little different from the usual human way of understanding the human world. According to human knowledge, first we try to classify all beings: trees, vegetation, human beings, pebbles, water. Next, you have to analyze how many trees, how much vegetation there is in the world. And then you try to analyze again and again, and then finally, you can see the sameness. The pebbles, and the water, and human beings, are all separated first and then analyzed again and again, and finally, your analyses comes together to one point.

This is our usual way of understanding, our way of having human knowledge, but in Buddhism it’s a little bit different. Before you separate all things, human beings and also trees, birds, pebbles, and death and life, and air, and all sentient beings, all the stuff visible and invisible: all are one. That is first. And then you say, “This is one.” This a case of the grasses. And then, “it is one.” Because it is one. The table is one. Katagiri is one being.

So in terms of the usual knowledge or common sense, if you say “this is one being,” at that time this is one, but another being is there, separated from this. But in terms of Buddhistic ideas, “this is one” means already we accept [sameness] and oneness completely from the beginning, before you poke your head into the separations. All are one, and then, pick up this one: it’s called one being. So can you see that it’s a little different?

In the Buddhistic view, if I say “this is one being,” at that time this one being exists in the big, huge realm of existence. But in terms of usual human knowledge, if you say “this is one,” that is in the realm of separation. So that’s why all are separate beings there, around the one. At that time, this “one being” is nothing but one of the “all”. But in Buddhism, one is all. One in all. In other words, one is exactly one. That’s it.

For example: if the people call me crazy. Let’s imagine that I am actually behaving in a certain crazy way, and at that time people say, “You are crazy.” But at that time, I don’t know it. I don’t say, “I’m not crazy.” If you are exactly one, you don’t know it. You don’t know it, but really say, “Yes, I am crazy, but I am doing something in a crazy way.” That is one being, one being exactly. In my knowledge, I don’t know it, how crazy I am. But reality is exactly clear. I know it, you know it, trees know it, skies know it … all sentient beings know me, how much I am crazy. Is that clear, a little? [Some laughter.]


In terms of Buddhistic ideas, I think in the beginning I mentioned that you shouldn’t have a particular way of death, a particular happy way of dying. It’s not necessary to have this. Whatever kind of way of dying, it’s alright, because you are in the huge realm of existence, the universe.

So, in your last moment you are screaming and struggling, while the other person is dying very peacefully. That person is dying while sitting in zazen, chanting the names of Buddhas, et cetera, while you are expressing anger and hatred, and fighting, et cetera. That’s fine. Whatever kind of way of dying, it’s fine.

But a point is, I think that whatever kind of type of death you are in, your mental and psychological “footwork” must be light, flexible. In other words, you must always be right in the middle of the broad scale of the universe. Because, the broad scale of the universe is sameness or oneness, we say, but this is nothing but the momentum of energy; that’s it. “Momentum of energy” is kind of a stream or flow of energies, completely beyond your speculation. Beyond good or bad, right or wrong, you just be there. That is the last moment. That’s why the last moment is very quick; that’s it. If you are exactly in the last moment, you don’t know it.

We say that is called the dharma, or the whole universe. Dogen Zenji mentions that life is the total manifestation of life, death is the total manifestation of death. Totality is the dharma, or the whole universe. Or in other words, that is nothing but the momentum of energy. It is beyond your speculation. We can say this is called wholeness, or totality, or the universe.

But this is not something abstract from us. We should believe in that totality, or sameness, wholeness, or the whole universe, cosmos – that principle called dharma. But the question is how you make it alive in your life. For this, there must be the person who makes it alive. The principle of dharma, principle of the universe, or principle of totality is still an idea. So we need a person who receives this principle, or truth, or totality, whatever you call it. There must be a person who lives in the modern societies. That is called sangha, we say.

So we need you; the world needs you. Totality needs you. Oneness needs you, whoever you are. Oneness is open to everyone, and it needs you always. That’s why we have to receive it, and deal with it, and make it alive.

When the totality appears in the actual [facets] of your life, at that time totality is called ki. In Japanese, ki means momentum. Ki means a kind of … there are no English words, but ki is usually translated as device, or work, or chance, or opportunity. But still we don’t understand what ki means.

Do you know the American TV series Bewitched? [Laughter.] I love it. [Laughter.] You know the woman, both the daughter and the mother, are witches. Do you know how the daughter always moves her nose? At that time, I always feel I want to pinch that nose before she does it. [Laughter.] The first moment of her nose moving, I want to pinch it, that’s what I am feeling. I am curious about that. That is called ki. [Laughter.] The whole works. In other words, you have to come back to the very first moment of your doing – gassho, or moving your nose, or zazen – and when you return to the very first moment, if you can grasp it, pinch it, that is called ki. That is a place where the dharma, wholeness, really works.

So that is what? That is the simple practice of zazen. If you do it, you can experience it. That is called sameness, totality, wholeness. That’s why Dogen Zenji says life is the total manifestation of life, death is the total manifestation of death. That means when you face death, you have to return to the very first moment of death, that is very minute, which is called silence. It’s very silent, but very active; [this is the] so-called momentum of energies. This is what everyone returns to; and already we are there. But we don’t pay attention to it, usually. That’s why we have to practice: day to day, return to that place, return to the source. The source is something you should believe in, but next, source needs you. You have to make it alive. That is our practice, day to day.

If you need source, so-called dharma or truth, then naturally truth or dharma needs you. That’s why Dogen Zenji always mentions that when you become a cook, your concentration is always going to the vegetables you are dealing with; naturally vegetables are coming back. I don’t mean you should always be imagining that. It means, day to day, from moment to moment, you have to deal with the vegetables, water, pans, and your clothes, and toilet paper; you should deal all things in that way. Then, all sentient beings are coming back to you. You need all sentient beings, and all sentient beings need you. That is our practice, day to day.

And then, [if you are practicing,] even though you see a person who is senile, or a person who is vegetative, or a person with cerebral death, you can deal with them as Buddha from the beginning to end.


I think always there is some problem when you deal with a person who is vegetative or senile, because we always deal with one being in terms of separation first. Separation means we analyze all sentient beings intellectually. So we say cerebral death is the definition of death; we say a senile person is already kind of not a human being. And then very naturally, if your expenses of medication are getting high, we don’t take care of it, and also we think a person who is vegetative shouldn’t be taken care of for a long time, because he or she is not a human being.

I had one of my relatives who was vegetative. His son put him in a nursing home in Japan, and he died, finally. I think if you see that person in terms of intellectual understanding, there are lots of problems coming up: how much we should take care of him, how long we should take care of him; should we kill him, or put him to sleep, or not… always lots of questions coming up. But I think from the beginning to the end, the person who receives that person and deals with him or her should be in oneness. Even the person who is vegetative is the same as the trees, birds, winter, snow… what’s the difference? Can you cut down trees recklessly? Trees or persons who are vegetative or senile are the same. We should stand up there, from the beginning to end, and then you can deal with him or her. When the time comes to die or not to die, you can decide. At that time, that decision is completely beyond your speculation. People accept you. But this is not intellectual understanding; that is your practice day to day. You have to do it.

So that’s why everyday life is very important. No matter how long you see that person who is senile or vegetative, and think about how we take care of him or her, […] we don’t understand it. The point is, you must be buddhas and bodhisattvas who have lots of compassion and deal with all sentient beings in the same way.

That’s why Dogen Zenji says, in the chapter Birth and Death, “This birth and death is the life of the Buddha.” We should practice this again and again, until we can accept a person who is vegetative or a person who is senile as a Buddha. We have to practice this.

The opportunity to see a person who is senile or vegetative does not always occur in your life, it’s very rare. But even though it is rare, your life is exactly the same as a person who is senile or vegetative. So you should take care of your life exactly according to Buddha’s understand of human suffering, the human world. That is your [personal] responsibility.


If you have something to say, or if you want to send a card to him, I am willing to bring them with me and give them to him.

Question: When are you leaving?

Katagiri: Next week. The twelfth.

Question: Thank you.


(Closing chant:)

Shu-jō mu-hen sei-gan-dō
bon-nō mu-jin sei-gan-dan
ho-mon mu-ryō sei-gan-gaku
butsu-do mu-jō sei-gan-jō

Sentient beings are numberless;
I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible;
I vow to put an end them.
The Dharmas are boundless;
I vow to master them.
The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable;
I vow to attain it.

[Closing bows with bells.]

54:55 end of recording

This talk was transcribed by Kikan Michael Howard. Audio recordings of Katagiri Roshi are being used with permission of Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

Home | Previous | Next