What can Zen and Gustav Mahler offer in answering the question?

The pleasant resonance of the mildly ringing bell propagated up the stairs and tickled the eardrums, gently waking us up from the slumber. It was 4:30 AM at the Zen center—cold, dark, and early. I clambered out of the bed and descended downstairs to begin the practice. Because of the mutually induced peer-pressure with a friend, I signed up for a brief meditation retreat over the long weekend. This silent practice consists of focused 8-10 hours of meditation per day and formal meals. Also, during the long sittings, each participant gets a private interview with the guiding teacher—an opportunity to ask any questions, Zen or not, or get a specific advice on practice.[1]

On a warm Saturday morning before the lunch time, it was finally my turn. The teacher's bell rang, and I entered the room. After some pleasantries and questions, the teacher gave me a kong-an training. He picked up and shuffled through a book, the binding of which was about to disintegrate—probably due to its age. Eventually, he handed me an aged page containing a poem and asked me to recite it out loud (originally written in traditional Chinese characters):

Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed — that is human.

When you are born, where do you come from?

When you die, where do you go?

Life is like a floating cloud which appears.

Death is like a floating cloud which disappears.

The floating cloud itself originally does not exist.

Life and death, coming and going, are also like that.

But there is one thing which always remains clear.

It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death.

Then what is the one pure and clear thing?

(Zen Master Seung Sahn)

When I finished and handed back the page, he immediately returned to me with a question "so when you die, where do you go?"[2]

Back in the 19th century in Austria, there was a musically gifted person who pondered upon the same question: Gustav Mahler. The clouds of death casted dark shadows throughout Mahler’s life. From a young age, Mahler was no stranger to mortality, as many of his siblings perished young from illness and suicide. It's not surprising that many of his work touch the topic of death. Perhaps as an empathetic expression to Friedrich Rückert, Mahler wrote Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), a song cycle based on 428 poems written by Rückert after his daughter died of scarlet fever. He finished the composition around the time when his daughter was born, and this act of “tempting Providence” undoubtedly upset his wife Alma. Not many years later, their daughter Maria died of scarlet fever. In addition to losing many of his loved ones, Mahler carried a frail body and a overly sensitive mind, suffering from congenital heart conditions and manic depressive disorder.[3] Facing death and suffering was an inescapable part of his life, which naturally directed him to meditate over the human condition:

"What now? What is this life and this death? Do we have an existence beyond it? Is all this only a confused dream, or do life and this death have a meaning?"
(Mahler, on his program notes)

Mahler says that "we must answer this question if we are to live on," and he offers us, as an answer, his second symphony, the Resurrection.

To answer the question, Mahler creates a grand journey by expanding the force, length, and harmonic boundary of the genre of symphony, producing something quite unusual. Even today, Mahler’s works are sometimes perceived as deeply nihilistic, loud, and incomprehensible with "atrocious, tormenting dissonances."And the merciless critiques were much sharper back in his time. Mahler once presented Totenfeier (later modified to become the first movement of the 2nd) to Hans von Bülow, a prominent musician and a supporter of Mahler. As he was playing it on the piano, Bülow reportedly covered his ears and later commented that "Totenfeier made [Wagner's] Tristan ... like a Haydn symphony." The unusual nature of the 2nd extends beyond what it sounds like. It's large, requiring about 110 performers.[4] It features a pipe organ, off-stage instruments, and a full choir. He provides highly specific instructions such as this:

"Muss so schwach erklingen, daß es den Charakter der Gesangstelle Celli und Fag. in keinerlei Weise tangiert. Der Autor denkt sich hier, ungefähr, vom Wind vereinzelnd herüber getragene Klänge einer kaum vernehmbaren Music"(Must sound so weak, that it in no way affects the melodic passage of the cellos and bassoon. The composer thinks here, roughly, of the isolated sounds of a scarcely audible music, carried over by the wind).

With the expansive palette of sound and emotion, Mahler delivers you a high dynamic range experience—from utter turmoil to merry childhood memories and from eternal solemnity to playful satires. Finally after the ~80 minutes of tireless journey, the famous climactic and cathartic finale comes with the full force of the orchestra and the choir. This typically leaves a strong impression on people, but it deeply impacted Gilbert Kaplan, who describes his first experience in his 20s as "a bolt of lightening."[5] Many decades later, after making millions, Kaplan acted on the cherished memory.[6] First he studied the original autographed score and became an expert in the symphony, contributing new discoveries and insights. Also, he went back to school to study conducting, and eventually he recorded an album with the Deutsche Grammophon and toured around the world conducting, only the Mahler 2nd. This is a work that touches something deep inside you.

On our way back from the retreat—on a cold April early evening with gentle snow flurries, my friend asked me, "which music would you first listen to?"[7] I didn't have any idea in my mind at the moment, so I answered "probably, Beethoven Piano Concerto No.5"—looking for something jubilant and majestic, as a contrast to the silent weekend. Later I ended up listening to the 2nd since there's a forthcoming performance by the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra.

As the bells ring in the finale, a realization emerged in my mind.[8] The answer from the Mahler 2nd and the teaching from Zen share a striking resemblance. There's no life and death,

What was created — Was entstanden ist
Must perish, — Das muss vergehen!
What perished, rise again! — Was vergangen, auferstehen!
(the finale of the 2nd)

and the ultimate answer is compassion and love:

“There is no judgment, no sinners, no just men, no great and small; there is no punishment and no reward. A feeling of overwhelming love fills us with blissful knowledge and illuminates our existence”
(Mahler, on his program notes)

As I closed my eyes to get up early in the morning—for the morning bell chant at the Zen center, the bells from the Mahler finale still rang in my head, resonating with equanimity and love.

  1. Someone supposedly even asked a chemistry question (on NMR), perhaps as a joke, since the guiding teacher was also a chemistry teacher. ↩︎

  2. Out of the scope of this post, but Zen actually isn't about directly answering this sort of questions—I answered the teacher's questions without using words. ↩︎

  3. Mahler was a patient of Sigmund Freud. https://www.gustav-mahler.eu/index.php/plaatsen/244-netherlands/leiden/3056-meeting-with-freud ↩︎

  4. Mahler 8th takes about 1000 performers, hence its nickname, The Thousand. ↩︎

  5. Kaplan on BBC interview describing his experience (starting at: 7:14) https://youtu.be/cFzRZpjxJug?t=7m14s ↩︎

  6. Kaplan founded the magazine The Institutional Investor ↩︎

  7. Context: we both enjoy and appreciate music ↩︎

  8. Yes, the bells. Mahler instructs 3 bells with "steel rods with deep, unpitched sound." ↩︎