Death and Taxes: Letting go of Attachments

Mark Twain famously declared that “The only two certainties in life are death and taxes.” He wasn’t original with this quote – apparently it goes back to Benjamin Franklin and possibly much earlier.

So for a long time people have lamented, feared and railed against death and taxes.

But those of us who are dedicated students of Ch’an (Zen) wonder what the big deal is. Death? That’s okay. Taxes? They’re okay. Nothing to worry about or fear here.

A key tenet of Ch’an philosophy is that our suffering and hardship are directly linked to our attachments, and if we can let go of our attachments we can attain peace of mind.

Our biggest attachment, of course, is to life itself. We refuse to confront the fact that we are all just visitors here on earth and it’s a comparatively short visit at that. We disdain death, and go to all lengths to keep it at bay and pretend we are immune to it. But of course for most people, this preoccupation with death is precisely what results in the inability to truly enjoy life.

Our disdain for taxes is only slightly less than that for death. But again, our unhappiness with the tax man is due to our attachments. This time it’s the attachment to wealth and power: That’s my money the government is taking away, and that’s my power that’s being usurped when the government decides where my money goes instead of letting me decide.

The tax argument is politically polarizing in today’s society, but it’s really not a question of Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. It’s a question of whether money and power are as worthy of the attention they are paid in life, and people of all stripes have to determine the answer to that question.

The Ch’an adept answers the question with the principle that simple is superior. When we live a simple life we need few things, and we don’t need lots of power to acquire few things. Leading a simple life does not make us simpletons – a good deal of wisdom is required to fully understand the richness of a simple life.

When you can pay your taxes with a smile, and face impending death with a smile, then indeed you are getting to the point where everything in life is worth smiling about. And that’s the beauty of Ch’an practice: It teaches us how to get to that point.

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