[From the Genjokoan:] Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot become firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after. Although before and after exist, past and future are cut off. Ash stays in the position of ash, with its own before and after. As firewood never becomes firewood again after it has burned to ash, there is no return to living after a person dies. However, in Buddha Dharma it is an unchanged tradition not to say that life becomes death. Therefore we call it no-arising. It is the established way of buddhas’ turning the Dharma wheel not to say that death becomes life. Therefore, we call it no-perishing. Life is a position in time; death is also a position in time. This is like winter and spring. We don’t think that winter becomes spring, and we don’t say that spring becomes summer.
This passage of the Genjokoan is about Life-and-Death. As Shohaku Okumura explains in Realizing Genjokoan, “Life and death” is an English translation of the Japanese word shoji. Sho means “to live” or “to be born,” and ji means “to die” or “to be dead.” Okumura goes on to explain how the term shoji has many meanings and uses in Buddhism. It can refer to the period of time between birth and death. It can refer to the process of myriad beings taking birth, living, and dying over and over, according to the idea of rebirth. Shoji can also refer to the arising and passing away of life in the present moment.
Essentially, shoji sums up our primary spiritual concerns as Buddhists and human beings. Who are we if everything is constantly changing? What is the substance of our life? If only the present moment is ultimately real, how do we relate to our past and future? What do we do about death? Is there life after death? If there is no life after death, how can we avoid despair?
I think most of us expect our religion to offer us some solace when it comes to dealing with Life-and-Death. If it doesn’t, what is it good for? Only a small fraction of people feel compelled to understand the nature of life and death purely for the sake of understanding. Most of us primarily want to understand more about Life-and-Death so we’ll know how to live happier and more skillful lives; if reality is actually just depressing, we’d be better off ignoring it as best we can.
So is Dogen offering us anything useful for our lives in this part of the Genjokoan? I hope you’ll find his teaching – Zen teaching – can provide the strength, clarity, guidance, and solace you’re looking for – but I have to admit these things are not easily attained in Zen. Well, honestly, they aren’t easily attained period – at least not in lasting, stable way – no matter what spiritual path you’re on. Simply accepting nice, comforting ideas doesn’t tend to cut it when you’re personally faced with the reality of Life-and-Death. You really attain strength, clarity, guidance, and solace when you’ve personally wrestled with the Great Matter and glimpsed the truth in an experiential way. So Dogen isn’t offering us any easy, cheerful Buddhist explanations of Life-and-Death that will instantly make us feel better.
What is this Great Matter you’re invited to wrestle with? Basically, when you experience something completely, there is no problem. Experiencing something completely – this moment of birth, this moment of life, this moment of dying, this moment of death – means living it directly, without relying on reference to past or future. In one sense, past and future are present in the reality of this moment because of causality, but in another sense they don’t really exist.
For example, let’s say you’re dying. That’s the full luminous reality of the present. It may sound strange to describe death this way, so don’t get me wrong. Dying may involve pain and confusion and messiness and grief, but ultimately all of that can be okay as long as you don’t define the moment in terms of past and future. The moment you think of your past life and health, or the moment you think of the future you’re not going to have, you’re not directly experiencing the present anymore. You’ll feel great suffering. Of course, you probably won’t be able to help thinking about the past or the future, but that’s not the point: in the moment of your dying, solace can be found in wholehearted experience of the present.
Whether we’re talking about death in the literal physical sense or in the more metaphorical moment-by-moment sense, the practice is the same. We recognize that our concepts are not reality itself. We use our minds to make sense of our world and our life, creating concepts to explain and predict. We create narratives about our lives to create a sense of coherence and make plans. These are natural activities, but if we mistake our ideas for reality itself, we create problems for ourselves.
Creating problems for ourselves is what Dogen is talking about when he reminds us that spring does not become summer. This is a great analogy he has chosen, because a season is rare example of a concept we don’t tend to reify. We think, “Of course spring doesn’t become summer!” When we’re enjoying the flowers that appear only in spring and that dry up and die in the summer heat, we naturally feel some sadness because we know things will change. However, we don’t concretize the idea of springtime and think with bitter regret, “This spring is just going to die,” as if the spring were a thing unto itself, naively producing flowers even though it’s doomed.
If we can take the same approach to life as we do to the seasons, we will taste some of the solace Zen can offer. Whatever has come before this moment has had its own reality; whatever will come after will have its own reality. We can wholeheartedly do the work of this moment – cultivating as much wisdom and compassion as we can – without worrying about past or future except to use them as convenient concepts. When things change and we feel sad, it’s a natural response to loss. Even grief has its own luminous reality – as long as it’s allowed to change like the seasons. Something always comes next, and that something has its own reality, and its own before and after.
It may be that you don’t find any solace in the thought of wholeheartedly dying, or of wholeheartedly letting someone or something die. That’s because it’s not the thought that’s the source of solace, it’s the experience. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you describe it. Many Zen teachers have tried, and sometimes their words help guide people toward their own experience of wholeheartedness. But ultimately you have to explore this teaching for yourself.
What does it actually feel like let go of the narrative that ties past to present to future? What happens when you meet death eye-to-eye, without regret and without pleading? This isn’t a matter of learning to like the ending of things, or of cutting off your taste for life. After all, Dogen says, “flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them.” Despite our love and aversion, we face reality directly. It feels pure, clean, and ennobling. It feels unrestrained: being continues, time continues. In a moment of literal death, the season changes but nothing is subtracted from reality Itself.