The total nature of things. One face in the mirror at a time. Barry Magid October 16th 2009

Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot turn back into 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 it has its own before and after. Although there is before and after, past and future are cut off. Ash stays at the position of ash and it has its own before and after. As firewood never becomes firewood again after it is burned and becomes ash, after person dies, there is no return to living. However, in buddha dharma, it is a never-changing tradition not to say that life becomes death. Therefore we call it no-arising. It is the laid-down way of buddha's turning the dharma wheel not to say that death becomes life. Therefore, we call it no-perishing. Life is a position at one time; death is also a position at one time. For instance, this is like winter and spring. We don't think that winter becomes spring, and we don't say that spring becomes summer.

Genjokoan, Dogen

From the Genjokoan:

Firewood becomes ash. It does not turn into firewood again. But we should not hold to the view that the ash is after and the firewood is before. Know that firewood abides in its dharma position as firewood and has its past and future. Though it has its past and future, it cuts off past and future. Ash in its dharma position is ash and has its past and future. Just as this firewood, after it has become ash, does not turn into firewood again, so a person, after death, does not take rebirth. Therefore, we do not say that life becomes death. This is the established way of the Buddha-dharma. For this reason it is called unborn. Death does not become life. This is the established Buddha-turning of the dharma wheel. For this reason it is called undying. Life is its own time. Death is its own time. For example, it is like winter and spring. We don’t think that winter becomes spring. We don’t say that spring becomes summer.
[tr. Paul Jaffe (1996), Yasutani, Flowers Fall. Boston: Shambhala, 103-104.]

Actually we’re very much in the habit of saying spring becomes summer. We’re very much in the habit of saying young becomes old, health becomes sickness. We are very much caught up in the language of becoming. Now the paradox of this section in Dogen is that usually we think in terms of the dharma being about change and impermanence. Nothing has any fixed essential nature and is in constant change. This passage, while it doesn’t contradict that, points to another side in which each thing has its total nature expressed fully in the moment, not as something that hasn’t passed or something that’s going to have a future. But entirely what it is, is its nature at this moment. Firewood has its complete existence as firewood. Ash has its complete existence as ash, and even though we can say one turns into the other, there’s a side in which we need to experience each as complete in itself and not part of any sequence whatsoever.

This language is very important to Dogen when he talks about zazen as the nature of realization. He wants to emphasize that zazen is not a process by which we become enlightened, that we are deluded in the past, we sit a long time, and then we have realization. But the fulfillment of our practice is happening completely in each moment. When we hear a section like this, when he ties it into life and death, it can stay abstract. Life is entirely life, death is entirely death, but we need to watch all the ways in which we get caught up in the language of becoming or the fear involved in change. He might as easily have said, Youth has its full expression, its full existence as youth. Old age has its complete existence as old age. Don’t think that youth becomes old age. That’s harder for most of us. It’s harder not to make a comparison, harder not to feel that youth is something we’ve lost, that old age is in some way a running down, a diminishment of the health and youth that we once enjoyed. But Dogen says our life is fully expressed in old age as well as fully expressed in youth.

The same thing is true when we face illness. Our common way of thinking about that is that we’re healthy, we get sick, we hope to get better. But health has its whole existence, illness has its whole existence. One does not become the other. I spent this week sitting in a chair. I had a very minor problem as such things go. About once a year I get an attack of gout which makes my knee painful and makes me unable to bend it, so I sit in a chair for a while with my leg stretched out. Every year up until now it resolves itself in a week, but one of these years it won’t. One of these years it will become just the way my knee is and it won’t change back to anything else. I’m not going to put a smiley face on that and say, “That will be OK!” I won’t like that. But that is how our life is. It both changes and having changed, it’s an entirely new thing. It’s not a bad version of the old thing. It’s the new thing, entirely, and that is our practice, to really fully occupy the stage that we’re in.

We say as much as possible without judgment in comparison. We look in the mirror of the moment and say “That’s me.” Because we’re creatures of memory, perhaps we can’t help but remember what that face in the mirror looked like yesterday, or ten years ago, or fifty years ago. But there’s only one face in the mirror at a time. That’s who we are.

Previous Talk

Barry Magid September 4th 2009 Buddhism as a religion

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