Herbert Guenther: “…the thought of death is rather a powerful stimulus that brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for the search for the meaning of life…”

What kind if meaning of life can Guenther be speaking about? Often people live as though death is the negation of meaning. The question is how to whole-heartedly include our consciousness of death, and to find what meaning is present in that inclusion. Of course, the meaning of life is itself a living, not at all satisfying as mere belief. When the Dalai Lama was asked, at a teaching: “What is the meaning of life?” he shrugged his shoulders and said: “I don’t know.” What kind of ‘don’t know’ is that? How do we live it, feel it, know it intimately? And, how do we relate to our loved ones, once this is digested thoroughly?

If it is truly living ‘don’t know,’ it is a luminous matter. If it is a ‘don’t know’ perfumed with avoidance, it’s a dull, and dulling, quality of awareness. But, lived, it is openness of Being.

This is something worth unpacking slowly, as I will do throughout this project. Perhaps, these aren’t two, the evanescence of life and life’s value. Avoid the thought of death, and we live a false version of life. When the haiku poet Issa Kobayashi (1763 – 1828) alluded to the traditional teaching that this is a “dewdrop world,” in his poem written on the death of his daughter, he may have been thinking of the Diamond Sutra’s famous last verse:

“This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence:
Like a dewdrop, a bubble; like a flash of lightning,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

Yet, Issa brought this great matter home to the ever-so-human fact that love always perfectly has a natural hurt implicit  implicit in its vibrant life. He  wrote:

this world of dew
is, yes, a world of dew.
And yet…

Issa’s poem was life living itself forward in a new way. He doesn’t recoil from intimacy with the dewdrop world. It suggests that even in the face of his daughter’s death Issa knows her life is (in Mary Oliver’s way of saying) “one wild and precious life.”