Knowingly you die, and because knowingly you die…how can you die? Your knowing, your consciousness continues – knowingly you are born. There is no discontinuity between your death and your birth.
Your realization of this ordinarily would be called “the great life,” but there is some reason why Zen has chosen to call it “the great death.” The reason is that the great death comes first; behind it is revealed the great life. Unless you open the door of the great death, you won’t enter into the space of great life.
Joshu asked Tosu, “What if a man of the great death comes back to life again?”
Now another distinction has to be made which is not clear in the anecdote and is not commented upon by Setcho either. But without bringing in another distinction the experience remains incomplete; it is not entire.
There is death. There is the great death And there is the greatest death. In death you die unconsciously. In the great death you die consciously, but you are born again. In the greatest death you only die; you are not reborn, you simply disappear into the immensity of existence – you disperse yourself in the wholeness of the cosmos.
It is because of this fact Mahavira cannot be born again. There is no way for him to get back into any form; he has become formless. But there are meditators who have not reached the ultimate peak but who have some light, some consciousness, that remains while they are dying. They will be born again; they are not yet ripe enough to disappear into the cosmos. They have not learned the whole secret and mystery of life; they have to go on the pilgrimage a little more.
Joshu’s question is, What if a man of the great death comes back to life again?
His question seems to be relevant, because there is no precedence in which a third kind of death is recognized. He is asking: “I can understand the great death, that you die consciously, but what about a man dying consciously and coming back to life again?”
He is asking about the third distinction, because we have known of many people simply disappearing into air and they never come back again – and there are millions who go on coming back. They never learn their homework; their lives remain mundane and unconscious. But even if sometimes a few people become a little bit conscious, it is better than not being conscious at all. These people will be born – and from their very birth they will show distinctions, uniquenesses, which ordinary children are not supposed to show.
But this is not the ultimate death which everybody is seeking. Only in ultimate death do you relax totally into existence, not to come back. This coming back is not something great; it is coming back to the prison.