Carlos Castaneda: Death is the Benefactor
“Vom Tode und nur vom Tode fängt alles Erkennen an.” — Schiller
(Roughly translated, “The presence of Death is the beginning of all knowledge.”)
Last year I was in Vancouver, and, as is my custom while there, I visited some of the antiquarian bookstores. In one I found a Buddhist book by Judith Lief entitled Making Friends With Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality, which I purchased (much to my mother’s horror when I showed her my find). I have yet to read it (you can read a brief excerpt here), but I was drawn to the book by the title which reminded me so much also of don Juan’s attempt to teach Castaneda to accept death as a friend, a teacher, and a benefactor.
To “die to oneself daily” is even an instruction in the New Testament to those who would follow “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”. It has been trivialised and made petty as “born again” fundamentalism, which is just another evasion of the ever-present immanence of our death — our situation as Nietzsche’s tight-rope walker over the abyss in Zarathustra, or his image of the dancer on black ice. Yet in our supposedly “Christian” influenced culture and society the unpleasantness of reflecting upon our personal mortality led Ernst Becker to write an important book called The Denial of Death as a social critique of our society’s inability by such denial to attain full freedom, adulthood, consciousness, and a mature and fulfilling attitude towards life and experience of the fullness and wholeness of all life.
No one who seeks freedom, truth, self-transcendence, self-overcoming, transfiguration, metamorphosis and metanoia can avoid the issue of personal mortality. Familiarity with death is the beginning of all wisdom. It is for that reason that the very first step don Juan took in guiding Castaneda upon the path of knowledge and into the new shaman’s cognition was to have him meditate constantly on the immanence of his own death, and to recognise and attune his ear towards death as a warrior’s most valuable teacher, counselor, and benefactor, as well as a strategy for overcoming the “first enemy of the man of knowledge” — fear.
“Vom Tode und nur vom Tode fängt alles Erkennen an” means also, no awareness without the recognition of death, the experience of the abiding presence of one’s death, and the power that is bestowed by the touch of death. No new life and vitality can enter the days of our lives without a prior death — to become nothing except “dust on the wind” or Shakespeare’s “brief candle”. Old growth always suffocates the possibilities of new and renewed life.
Recognising that we are all creatures on our way to dying sets up the parameters for the cultivation and discipline of the warrior’s spirit and the new cognition or metanoia. It cuts through all the pettiness and triviality of human behaviour and thought as well as being the essential condition for realising common empathy or compassion. The true equality of all living beings was no mere Enlightenment abstract value or idea for don Juan. Equality was the heart-felt acknowledgement that all living beings share the same fate — we are all beings on our way to death. Death makes a human being equal to a plant or an ant or, for that matter, a planet or a star. Death teaches humility and the vanity of all self-importance — our transience, our impermanence, and our nothingness.
It is Nietzsche’s incinerating stare into the abyss. “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you”. That is a poignant description of Nietzsche’s own experience of his own mortality and of the shared tragedy of physical life faced by all living creatures. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. When Nietzsche-Zarathustra carries his own ashes up the mountain for a ten-year’s sojourn in the wilderness, one must understand this about Nietzsche and his philosophy. He had experienced the touch of death. This is what gives Nietzsche’s subsequent philosophy such potency. It has been touched by death. And yet Nietzsche managed to escape becoming merely morbid. He became, instead, a joyous “free spirit”.
Death, in other words, is the infinite. It is the loss of all boundaries and definitions. Rumi (and Buddhism too) call it “emptiness”. It is the dissolution and disintegration of the human form, but which is an essential transformation and restructuration. The infinite is what you are, but there is no escaping the fact that the loss of personal definition that is death is at the same time a loss of a fixed form, rigid outline, border, and boundary that Blake calls “the Selfhood”. One becomes this infinity or abyss oneself — death being a movement beyond the boundaries of oneself and beyond all definition of “the human form” or “the human mold”. Becoming infinite or no-thing, one becomes All, which Buddhism calls “the Ultimate Truth”.
Essence is emptiness.
Everything else accidental.
Emptiness brings peace to your loving.
Everything else, disease.
In this world of trickery emptiness
is what your soul wants. — Rumi
Emptiness is, nonetheless, death. And yet, the strange paradox of it is this — that in dying to oneself into this Emptiness or Nothingness, one also becomes All. And that is what Castaneda also experienced in his “leap into the abyss”, for the man called Carlos Castaneda definitely died in that leap. He expanded beyond the boundaries of himself, well beyond the “common sense” definition of what is “man”.
Seth has a subtly interesting imaginative practice which is, in some ways, the equivalent of this “leap into the abyss”. In Seth Speaks, he recommends imagining one’s consciousness expanding to fill the entire cosmos, which is infinity. That sly devil (affectionately) is actually encouraging the reader to surrender to personal death and dissolution just as don Juan tried to teach Castaneda directly. For to become “one with the cosmos”, to hurl oneself into the abyss in this way, is to surrender to infinity, to acquiesce to death, and death is the loss of definition, outline, boundary, or form. But here is what Rumi experienced when he accomplished this “emptiness” or nothingness and gave up the boundaries and denied all definition of himself.
Say, I Am You
I am dust particles in sunlight.
I am the round sun.
To the bits of dust I say, Stay.
To the sun, Keep moving.
I am morning mist,
and the breathing of evening.
I am wind in the top of a grove,
and surf on the cliff.
Mast, rudder, helmsman, and keel,
I am also the coral reef they founder on.
I am a tree with a trained parrot in its branches.
Silence, thought, and voice.
The musical air coming through a flute,
a spark of stone, a flickering in metal.
Both candle and the moth crazy around it.
Rose, and the nightingale lost in the fragrance.
I am all orders of being, the circling galaxy,
the evolutionary intelligence, the lift, and the falling away.
What is, and what isn’t.
You who know, Jelaluddin,
You the one in all, say who I am.
Say I am you.