People generally have the wrong idea about living and dying at will. They think it means that someone decides on one day that he will die on the next, or that he predicts the day and month in the following year when he is to die and then does indeed die a natural death on that date, or they think it means the ability to extend one’s lifetime so many days or months.
Such are the notions many people have. I myself won’t say that they aren’t examples of living and dying at will; obviously, in a sense, such people do live and die very much at will. But since their ability is the result of training and practice, it’s sometimes seen even in those whose religious eye has not yet been opened. Even some nonreligious people may know when they’re going to die. But in such cases, since their religious eye is not opened, they don’t have the slightest idea of its real meaning.
A man of the Unborn is beyond living and dying (samsara). What I mean by that is: Someone who is unborn is also undying, so he is beyond both birth and death. What I call living and dying at will is when someone dies without being troubled by life and death, the continuous succession of birth-death, birth-death that is samsaric existence. Moreover, living and dying is taking place at every instant throughout the twenty-four hours of the day; dying does not occur only once in your life when you cease breathing. When you’re living without being concerned about life or death, you’re always living in such a way that whenever death does come, even right now, at this moment, it’s no great matter. Now; that’s what I call “living and dying at will.” It means living confirmed in your unborn Buddha-mind. To make a declaration that you’ll die at a certain time on a certain fixed day and to have that on your mind—can you imagine how confining and un-free that would be?
Bankei had the knack for transcending all notions concerning the matter of death. There was an avid fascination of being able to ascertain, through the power of one’s own will, when the moment of death would arrive. Throughout the millennium, certain dharma-masters, ascetics, sages, yogi’s, even those with no affiliation with any form of spiritual or religious observance had the ability to directly discern when their own death would come. Bankei never denied, or seemed too acutely concerned with these kinds of assertions. For him, the real focus was not “when” the imminent arrival of dearth would occur, but never “being concerned” about such an eventuality in the first place. One ought to simply live with the realization that death, in some form, is occurring throughout the 24 hours of the day. Consider this: Billions of cells die each day. New ones take their place and they, in turn, die. Relationships come and go—they die and new ones take their place. No one is exactly the same as they were yesterday. No, everyone, in some form, is dying little by little each day. But the trick is just living not being concerned about it. Don’t become obsessive about when the “big-day” will finally arrive, because the big-day is already occurring little by little throughout this samsaric journey. I used to paraphrase the emphasized text above in funeral homilies. Substituting “living as one baptized in the Lord” for living in the Unborn; yet, Bankei’s Zen goes beyond any Christian notion. At-One-Ment in the Unborn is “beyond” BOTH living and dying—is no longer spinning on the diurnal wheel of samsara. There is no death for one in the Unborn; one is in the imageless and deathless realm of the Dharmakaya Itself. Hence, the epitaph written on the tombstone of one who is Unborn and Undying would read: Never Born, Never Died.
You often hear religious people talking about samsara, or living and dying, being the same as nirvana. But when they speak about it, they do so from the standpoint of samsara, so in fact it has nothing to do with nirvana. They make this mistake because they haven’t grasped yet that the unborn Buddha-mind they always have with them sets everything right this very day by means of the Unborn. To look for “samsara is nirvana” anywhere else and involve yourself in words and letters is pointless. What they’re doing is changing the unborn Buddha-mind into the thought “samsara is nirvana” and senselessly spending every second of the day and night, without a moment’s rest, confined within samsara. Since the Buddha-mind takes care of everything by means of the Unborn, it has nothing to do with samsara or nirvana.
Seen from the place of the Unborn, both of them are like the shadows in a dream. But because the Buddha-mind has the marvelous dexterity it does, if a person who until just yesterday was busily engaged in samsara should today realize his mistake and henceforth stop changing his Buddha-mind into the three poisons, he will henceforth dwell in the Buddha-mind free of all concern with such things as samsara. When the time comes for his physical elements to disperse in death, he will give himself completely to the dispersal and die without regret or attachment. A person like that is living the truth of “samsara is nirvana” and is, at the same time, living and dying at will.
For Bankei “living the truth of samsara is nirvana” was quite a different matter when contrasted with someone who was caught-up into the game of being preoccupied by thinking, through incessant word-play based on the sūnyatic sense, that both are empty of any separate and distinct realities. For one living the Truth of the Unborn, samsara is nirvana as seen through the Eyes of the Absolute since the deathless Realm of the Dharmakaya is really all there is. While having to make the act of mentally asserting that samsara is nirvana is exclusively Samsaric-based, since the thought-motivator behind the predication is skandhic-spawned and therefore cannot adequately recognize the Pure Mind Realization of the Nirvanic Kingdom of Self. Living and dying at will in the Unborn assures there will be no more future unfolding of birth, life, and death.