A monk asked a Master: "Before my parents gave birth to me, where is my nose?"
The Master replied: "When you are already born of your parents, where are you?"
(Transmission of the Lamp; Studies in Zen; D.T. Suzuki)
This mondo addresses a common theme in both Taoism and Zen, but adds a novel twist. In the Zhuangzi it is suggested that one return to that which one was before his parents were born. This is echoed in the Zen literature in the question, "What was your original face before your parents were born?" Here, the implications of that answer are brought to bear on the present experience of life. The apparent lack of a 'you' before birth suggests the lack of a 'you' after birth, just as death suggests a lack of 'you' after death.
If we consider life and death as a single thread, that thread stretches into the past as well as the future. Death precedes life, just as it follows it. But this would make death something other than simply the end of life since it already precedes life. The implication is that death is no longer defined in terms of the extinction of the individual, but also as the source of the individual. In this sense, death is a return. Reality after death is a return to Reality before birth.
A you-less past and a you-less future in some sense suggests a you-less present. I qualify this statement because there is some sense of a you-fullness in the present. Yet it is now a qualified you-fullness. You are and you are not. And being this, being what you were (and were not) before you were born and what you will be (and will not be) after you are dead, is to realize the point of Zhuangzi's single thread here now in the present. This unites the life experience "into a Totality", as he has it. All is securely hidden in the One.
This is a strategy for understanding and being reconciled to death. Is it a valid one? I do not think so, if it is understood as somehow explaining Reality. Yet as a metaphor, as an upaya, it has practical validity; it works.
Chen Jen wrote, "Ready to die you are ready to live / Free from fear and grasping / is free to live indeed." When life and death have become a single string, life is free to follow its natural course; there is nothing to fear, nothing to grasp. This is life in its fullness.
When the you-lessness of the past and the you-lessness of the future are realized in a you-lessness of the present, this is freedom. This was the experience of Yan Hui when he exclaimed, "I have not yet begun to exist!" This is the meaning of Zhuangzi's summation of his philosophy: "It's just being empty; nothing more."
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