What is Death?

Bill Ellis - What is Death?When Sarito,  a writer and editor, who had helped Osho write his autobiography and also wrote the texts for his exquisite Zen Tarot deck, learned, in 2003,  that I had just been diagnosed with cancer, she sent me a twenty-five page text of one of his talks.

The title is A SNOWFLAKE DISSOLVING IN PURE AIR, The Zen Way of Death and Dying. And what follows is taken from that talk which has been a great inspiration to me since then because I now (2014) have a much greater understanding and appreciation of his teaching

Death is not the enemy. It appears to be so because we cling too much to life. The fear of death arises out of the clinging. And because of this clinging we are unable to know what death is. Not only that, we are unable to know what life is too. The man who is not able to know death will not be able to know life either, because deep down they are two branches of the same tree


A man who is afraid of death clings to life too much; but the irony is that even if he clings too much to life, he is not able to see what life is. His clinging to life becomes a barrier to understanding life too. He cannot understand death, he cannot understand life; he remains in a great misunderstanding, in a great ignorance.

So this is one of the most fundamental things to see: that death is not the enemy. Death cannot be the enemy. In fact, the enemy exists not. The whole existence is one. All is friendly. All is yours, it belongs to you and you belong to it. You are not strangers here.

Existence has given birth to you: existence has mothered you. So when you die, you simply go back to the original source to rest and be born again.

Death is like a rest. Life is activity: death is rest. And without rest activity is not possible. Life is like the day and death is like the night. And without the night, the day cannot exist on its own. It is night that prepares you for the day, it is night that rejuvenates you, gives you energy back. You move in your deep sleep to the very point where death will lead you.

Every night you go into death ~ it is a small death ~ hence in the morning you feel so alive. Unfortunate are those people who don’t die every night. In the morning they are more tired that they were before they went to bed. They were dreaming, they were still clinging to life in their dreams. They didn’t go in a let-go. They didn’t allow death to take possession of them and mend many things and give rest, relaxation, new energy. These are the unfortunate people. The fortunate people are those who go into a tremendous deep sleep, a dreamless sleep. In the morning they are alive, ready to face life in its manifold forms, full of joy, full of response, ready to take any challenge that life proposes.

Death is like the night. Life is yang and death is yin. Life is male, death is female. Life is aggression, ambition – a great effort to conquer many things. And death is relaxation from all aggression – an inward journey. One relaxes into oneself. Zen people call it ‘the asylum of rest’….

Life is a promise for happiness, but only a promise. It never fulfills. Death fulfills it. Hence, I repeat: Death is not the enemy. Death is your home where you come after many many, journeys – tired, frustrated exhausted — to seek shelter, to seek rest, to gain again the lost vitality. One thing.

Second thing: life and death are not so much apart as we think. You think life happens the day you were born and death will happen the day you die…. it is not so. Birthing and dying go on together your whole life. The moment you start breathing you start dying too. Each moment there is life and there is death – two wheels of the same cart. They go together…. they are there every moment. Every moment something is being born in you and something is dying…. So there is no need to be afraid….

If you love life too much and you don’t want to see the fact of death … [then]  …death will be there hanging around like a shadow.

Zen says: See both – they are one piece, they are together. Seeing them together, without any choice, any prejudice, you transcend them. Seeing them together you are no more identified with life and no more identified with death. When you are not identified, you are free, you are liberated…. Unidentified, one is free. Identified, one is encaged.

Zen says: Don’t be identified with anything whatsoever. And then, naturally transcendence happens…. When you can see thoroughly, when you can see transparently, and you don’t choose, you are something transcendental – the witness. That witness is never born and never dies.

Death is a great friend…. it unburdens you of] all that you have accumulated. Once this unburdening is allowed voluntarily, death becomes Samadhi. If you don’t allow it voluntarily … then death is a pain. Now see the point. The same thing can be utter pain, and the same thing can be utter joy. It depends on your interpretation … [and] … how you look at things.

If you are a clinger, very possessive, then death will be very painful and a great anguish You will suffer not because of death but because of your clinging, because of your possessiveness, because of your attachments, because of your greed and all that.

But if you are not a clinger, you are not very possessive, you are not greedy, you are not egoistic, you are not aggressive, suddenly death’s quality has changed. It comes like a fresh breeze from God. It comes and it cleanses you…. It takes you into the eternal source from which you will arise again….

There is nothing to be worried about. You will disappear like a snowflake in pure air. You are not going to die, you are only going to disappear. Yes, you will not be found in the individual form. The form will disappear into the formless – the snowflake into the pure air. But you will be there – and more so. When the river disappears into the ocean, it is not dying – it is becoming the ocean, it is spreading, it is becoming bigger, huge, enormous, infinite….

Then there is great joy. A man who can die like a snowflake disappearing into the pure air is blessed. There is great ecstasy, great silence and peace, utter joy. There is celebration in the very heart of your being.