What is the thing that we fear most? Some will say death, others will name other catastrophes, but it all amounts to the same thing: the loss of the certainties we cling to.
This is the heart of all that scares us, and so it is the fuel that powers every horror story. In Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary
, there is a scene so chilling that nothing that follows matches it, even though there are 300 pages left.
A boy’s dog has died, and the town drunk takes him to a certain place and tells him to bury it there. Later, the dog comes home, alive. The boy sits outside with the dog and nervously waits for his father to get home from work, wondering how he’ll react when he sees the dog. When his father gets home, he simply tells the boy, “He needs a bath, Jud. He stinks of the ground you buried him in.” And he goes inside the house.
More frightening than a burial ground that brings the dead back to life is the realization that his father knows about it, and so does everyone else in town. Things are not they way the boy always thought they were. Life and death no longer make sense. His reality has collapsed.
The reason horror novels are so enduring is that they are essentially true. However hard we try to construct, organize and control life, it never works. We fear the dark because of what we cannot see.
Zen practice is frightening because, if we really do it, it collapses our realities, and does not replace them with others. Nothing we believed turns out to be true, including any beliefs about Zen. Nothing can be held on to, including who we think we are. How much we suffer depends on how invested we are in our beliefs. Meister Eckhart wrote:
The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life: your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away, but they’re not punishing you, they’re freeing your soul. If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth.