A Knock at the Door

buddist_advisorby John Price – Kabhir, the Buddhist Adviser

And who will It be?

Will it be a screaming little slimy lump, jerking in uncoordinated manner and beautiful only to the people directly responsible for creating it? People who are just now investing their entire lives in its growth and development? People who immediately look it over carefully for signs of wholeness and health, and who would be devastated by any tiny flaw it might exhibit?

Or would it be a shriveled and aged thing, long used to the point where it would offer little or no future. Would it strike terror in the people it encountered, aghast at the wasted ugliness of age and decay brought to the doorway as a direct sign of death:  age, moaning its last gasps of life as they gurgle out of a body in the throes of death?

Or, would it be somewhere in-between, showing those answering the door an image of robust life, offering the glow of a creature in the midst of life, offering nothing but striking beauty as in the smiles of true life, borne of midlife true existence, a creature in its prime, giving the image of growth and simple being?

So, we have the juxtaposition of birth and death, with life between, the baby just born and the grim reaper. Would the archetypes of life looking at us in its truly infinite beauty–the glory of birth and the image of decay?

Throughout the ages, we are offered steadfast symbols of a baby born, so beautiful in its ugliness only seen by parents who gave it life, gestation, and the pain first played against the impossibility of the birth canal; then the ugliness of impending death, a sight frightful in the personal horror only seen by those close to the end . These are longtime images of the mysterious beginning and end of days.

We generally associate encounters with archetypes of birth the death with the night. We imagine a knock at the door as a booming, “Knock, knock, knock, come to us,” disturbing our slumber, causing us to pad down the hallway to our front door, wondering, “who, or what, could it be?” Or, we associate being awakened in the night with an announcement of someone dying. There is deep apprehension associated with that knock, bringing us news of a baby about to be born or the news of someone dying.

As a two-edged symbol of life-death, in Buddhist monasteries, it is common to place little leftovers, like dessert treats, being left out for the “hungry ghosts,” to help themselves to goodies, much like western children leaving treats for Santa on the mantle overnight.

So, we have a stage set metaphorically for both darkness and light coming to our door. Again, it’s like the phone ringing at 3:00 am; we answer, expecting the worst. And usually, it is the worst. We awake abruptly to horrific news of death. But is it so horrific? Death comes inevitably and surely. It isn’t something to be feared. On the most healthy and enlightened level, death is just like any moment of life: a breath, or not. Traditionally, we are taught that death brings eternal judgment, and facing that judgment, we fear punishment for all our misdeeds.

The great Judgment Day: something to fear, whereby we are put before a vengeful God who knows of every little transgression we made in our lives. It knows of our shunning kids in elementary school, mistreating insects, lying to our parents with disrespect, straying from a committed relationship, on and on. We imagine a mighty God taking us to task for every bad thing we’ve done.

Then of course is the question of hell. Is it there? Are we doomed to eternal suffering? From the perspective of a Judgment Day, it’s pretty much all negative and fearful. If we’re Roman Catholic, just missing taking Holy Communion at Easter, our “Easter Duty,” brings hell and eternal damnation.

There is of course the other side, the side of all the good we’ve done. The side of us bringing blessing and happiness to the world and its creatures. Even though these are most definitely real, we dwell not so much on goodness at Judgment, but rather, at our transgressions. How strange it is that we judge ourselves more negatively than positively.

But the summoning in the night brings the greatly anticipated arrival of another kind of visitor. This visitor, often comes in the night; indeed, we often associate its arrival in the depth of the night, startling the home with a cry of, “It’s time!” And the bags, packed and waiting for this moment of excitement, are taken up for a hurried ride to the local hospital or the home birthing room. While the first visitor’s imminent appearance is associated with fear, this arrival’s emotions connote joy and expectation. Naturally, we’re talking here of birth in the arrival of the second visitor.

There is so much cliché associated with these two arrivals, it would be funny if it weren’t so tied with deep emotion. In other words, death brings slow mourning. Birth offers us joyous dancing. Both ushering’s imply a boat. The most famous of these boats bringing life is little Moses riding quietly in his reed basket; whereas the Grim Reaper arrives silently to take us away from earthly life in his ominous raft, across the river Sauran to the land of eternal death. Whether the newborn, pink with happiness, arriving on the banks of a new life or the old, stinking, decaying death, taking us into the netherworld pulling us on a raft into the knowing sea of eternal mystery of death. Each boat has its commonalities as it takes us to a new land.

It is profoundly interesting that the two greatest mysteries associated with our humanly life involve being conveyed across water. But truly, out bodies reside in water. A great percentage of our literal being is composed of water, which has throughout history involved water. And there is no escaping the human story of water, as both a building block of life and a means of decomposing our corporeal body by water, the universal solvent. It takes our bodies apart as it works it magic of undoing the life water has built for our bodies.

This column is laden with so many clichés it is nearly funny. But from a linguistic perspective, how can we paint a word picture of life and not fill our proverbial cup with the great metaphors of life, by not acknowledging the absolute importance water plays in birth and death. Do complete the sewing of our garment into a whole, can we not say with certainty that our very existence is a weaving of water. From before our being born, the great mystery, to the Grim Reaper’s coming to get us with his dark raft, we are faced with the greatest mysteries:  where were we before we were born; and where are we going after we die?

John Price-Kabhir, is a retired public school educator and a writer. He is an ordained householder in the Rinzai Zen tradition. He welcomes your input at 920-558-3076 or

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