Commentary on Dogen's work on Birth and Death
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | June 14, 2006
Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum
It is unclear when this text was written, but it was included in later versions of the Shōbōgenzo. It's really a beautiful, pithy text, with a great ending. He begins, as he always does, with a quotation or two from Zen teachers of the past, which he takes to be his subject for this talk. The first statement is:
‘Because a Buddha is in birth and death, there is no birth and death.' And another teacher said, "Because a Buddha is not in birth and death, a Buddha is not deluded by birth and death.."
He quotes these two sayings, which were probably given in reference to one another. Often you see that - there is some famous Zen saying, and then somebody decides that to prevent one-sided understanding of that saying, he says it in the opposite way. So that is just what we have here.
Of course, according to the rules of logic of Western thought, whenever we see a contradiction, we say, "Ha! It must be a joke, a trick. Isn't that funny? Isn't that really Zen, that there's a contradiction there? It's so irrational." But there is a problem only by the law of the excluded middle, which is a logical proposition found in Western logic. In Buddhist logic, this is not a problem. So contradiction does not obviate the truth of something. There must be contradictions, because there have to be many different kinds of efforts to express an understanding of something that could never be encompassed in a propositional understanding. Every time you make a propositional statement about reality, it is always partial. So somebody else has to come along and say something different, and then somebody else has to come along and say something different again, and all of us together, shouting at the same time, somehow express reality.
So two teachers are shouting at one another across the centuries, one of them saying, "Because a Buddha is in birth and death, there is no birth and death," and the other, "Because a Buddha is not in birth and death, a Buddha is not deluded by birth and death." But these statements are telling us the same story. On the one hand, the first teacher is saying that if you look at birth and death - this endless cycle of living and dying that we're all part of - in its absolute sense, in its most profound sense, you realize that there is nothing there to grab onto. There's nothing that could be born. There's nothing that could die. There's only ceaseless transformation. So you really can't say there is birth and death - ‘I am born. You are born. You die. I die.' There is just endless flux.
From the awakened point of view, in other words, because there's a Buddha in birth and death, we understand that there is no birth and death. So we're liberated in birth and death. We see birth and death not as a problem, but as a joyous celebration, a sharing of reality.
So that's from the absolute point of view. But then the second teacher is expressing the same thing from the relative point of view, because if we only saw it from the absolute point of view, we would be superhuman. We wouldn't be able to be in the human world. The second teacher is bringing us back to earth, saying a Buddha is not in birth and death. In other words, birth and death also need to be seen from a relative perspective - sorrow and loss, longing, yearning, not getting what we really need, and so forth. So in this, there is no Buddha.
"Because a Buddha is not in birth and death, a Buddha is not deluded by birth and death." In other words, we can experience birth and death in its relative sense, and we need to experience it in its relative sense if we're going to live in the human world and not abstract ourselves in some absolutist Shangri-La. But we can experience the relative world of gain and loss and suffering without being pushed around by it, or spun around by it, or deluded by it, or confused by it.
"Because a Buddha is not in birth and death, a Buddha is not deluded by birth and death." Because we understand reality in its absolute sense, we know that reality is free and peaceful and beautiful. Because we understand reality in its relative sense, we feel the pain of it, and it's bearable, and even a path in itself.
"These two statements are the essence of the words of the two Zen masters, Chiashan and Tingshan. You should certainly not neglect them, because they are the words of those who attained the Way. Those who want to be freed from birth and death ..." I might put it differently. I might say, because, after all, this is an English rendering, I might render it, "Those who want to be free within birth and death should understand the meaning of these words."
"If you search for a Buddha outside birth and death ..." In other words, if you think that awakening and Buddhahood and freedom from suffering is elsewhere, outside this vale of tears - if you're looking over there for an escape from this world of birth and death - "it would be like going to the southern country of Yüeh with your spear headed toward the north." You know, going north when you're trying to go south. I guess that Dogen didn't know that if you did go far enough north, you would get south. [Laughter.] But never mind. "Or like trying to see the Big Dipper when facing south. You will cause yourself to remain all the more in birth and death, and you will lose the way of freedom."
If you search for Buddha outside birth and death, you will be going exactly in the wrong direction. Even though we have to admit this is what we do, you'll just cause yourself more entanglement in birth and death. We are looking for some relief and some way out, and we think the way out is out of here, that it is elsewhere. "This is a horrible predicament. Get me out of this!" Not seeing that the Buddha is in the predicament, not outside the predicament, we try to escape from the predicament and then become more enmeshed in it.
We often think that later on we will practice - when my children are grown up; when I make enough money; when I get to go the monastery. We have a whole list of different things that will take place later, enabling us, at that point, to practice. But he is saying, "No, the only place anyone ever practices is right where they are. No one has ever in the history of Buddhist practice ever practiced any other place, other than where they were at the time. There's no other way that you could practice." So there is no searching for a Buddha outside of your current predicament in birth and death.
"Just understand that birth and death itself is nirvana. There is no such thing as birth and death to be avoided, and there is nothing such as nirvana to be sought."
When you understand the real nature of birth and death, you realize there is no such thing as birth and death that you can avoid. Birth and death and nirvana are different words to describe the same situation - in one case being bound by that situation, and in the other case, not being bound by that situation. But it's the same situation. When you realize this - and only when you realize this - you are free from birth and death.
So, nirvana and birth and death are just words, just concepts. They're not real as entities or experiences. They are real as concepts and designations, and they do twist us around, but it's our own minds that are twisting us around. When you really let yourself enter any moment of your living, it's only pure love. Whatever you call it - nirvana, birth and death - it's pure sharing.
Now there's a passage here that you might recognize, because it's practically the same as the famous passage about firewood and ash that we studied in Genjokoan. Did you notice that? Almost the same. He says here,
"It is a mistake to suppose that birth turns into death. Birth is a phase that is an entire period of itself, with its own past and future." In other words, every moment of living is full and complete. It's not leading to something else. It's not in the process of turning into something else. It's absolutely complete in and of itself, and all of time is included in that one moment of experience. If we were able to live it truly enough, we would feel the weight of it. "For this reason, in buddha-dharma, birth is understood as no-birth."
I think the entire discussion of Zen was warped in the very beginning when some said that Zen was about being irrational and transcending the rational mind. So after that everybody thought, "Oh, look, they're just trying to get us to transcend our rational mind with all these riddles and tricks." But it's just another kind of logic. It's perfectly intelligible. It's just a different style of logic.
Birth is understood as no-birth, because when you look closely at birth, you can't find something called birth. You only find something flowing, moving, and changing. So there is no substantial thing, or identifiable, graspable experience that we can call birth. Life - you can't grasp it. You can't say, "Oh now I get it. This is life. This is what it is." The closer you look, the more you lose your grasp. The wiser you are, the more you see there's nothing there that can be held onto. You realize: "No wonder it has been so painful all this time, trying to hold onto something that you can never grab. No wonder I have been so frustrated for so long, because I'm grabbing all the time, and there is nothing there to grab. I'm thinking, ‘Why can't I grab it?' Well, now I know why I can't grab it, because there isn't anything to grab. What a relief it is to know that.
"Death is a phase, with an entire period of itself, with its own past and future. For this reason, death is understood as no-death." The same saying, only applied to death.
So these statements point to the decisiveness and absolute integrity of every moment, which is complete and poignant in itself. Of course, on a conventional level, on a relative level, we do say that birth turns into death. One who is alive, dies. So the statement Dogen is making here is on the absolute side, because that's the side that we usually don't see and don't appreciate. When we see the absolute side, then we appreciate the relative side in a completely different sense. When we don't see the absolute side, we are stuck in the relative side, stuck grasping at things that you can't grasp, and so, being frustrated.
I'll remind you of the passage in the Genjokoan, which is on the same point, with a little bit different imagery. There he said,
"Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is future or the firewood past. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood, which fully includes past and future, and is independent of past and future."
So everything arises as a phenomenal expression of ineffable reality. There is no ineffable reality elsewhere, flying somewhere in the sky and appearing here. Ineffable reality can only appear as relative reality. As the Heart Sutra says, "Form is emptiness/emptiness is nothing other than form." There is no other place, other than in being, where ineffable reality could manifest. So everything is a phenomenal expression, you could say, of something much deeper. You and I are phenomenal expressions of something immeasurably mysterious and deep, and every moment of our lives is that phenomenal expression.
So firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood, which fully includes past and future and is independent of past and future. Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash, which fully includes future and past.
"Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death. This being so, it is an established way in Buddha-dharma to deny that birth turns into death. Accordingly, birth is understood as no-birth." Just the same as he is saying in our present fascicle. "It is an unshakeable teaching in Buddhist discourse that death does not return to birth. Accordingly, death is understood as no-death. Birth is an expression, complete this moment. Death is an expression, complete this moment. They are like winter and spring. You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring."
So I think we talked before about the fact that in the Western way of thinking, we make a huge distinction between the physical and the non-physical, and there is this dichotomy between birth and death. Birth and death are opposites in our way of thinking. But in Asian thought, and especially in Buddhist thought, there isn't such a hard and fast distinction between physical matter and non-matter. It sees physicality as basically being a slower, thicker form of non-physical stuff. Therefore, the dichotomy is not between birth and death; the dichotomy is between birth-and-death, as one hyphenated experience, and nirvana. Those are the logical opposites. Birth-and-death is one thing, and nirvana is another thing, recognizing that birth-and-death is a process of life. Rather than ‘Life goes on, and then there is death,' there is the recognition that birth-and-death is the process of life. Which is true, of course. Every minute you die to the previous minute. Otherwise, nothing is there if it doesn't die to the previous moment. So when you die, it's definitely a big transition. But it's not as shocking as if you had never died before. You have been dying the whole time, slightly, and then at the end of your life, you die more seriously. [Laughter]
Going back to the Shoji, birth and death, "In birth there is nothing but birth, and in death, there is nothing but death."
Now he tells you the practical point of the whole thing, which is, "When birth comes, face and actualize birth, and when death comes, face and actualize death. Do not avoid them or desire them."
That is something we can practice. And we don't usually practice that. You can substitute for ‘birth' and ‘death,' and I think this is also what he means, things like birth, meaning what we like - the joyous, wonderful, vital part of life - and death, meaning what we don't like - what we want to get rid of; what we think is negative and bad and not good for us. Do we face and actualize both equally? Do we avoid them? Do we desire them? Yes, we avoid those things that we don't like, and we desire the things that we do, and that's the way we live. And we even bring that very same mentality into our spiritual practice. Is our spiritual practice going to get us more good things in our lives and get rid of the bad things in our lives? That's the whole point of spiritual practice, isn't it? Get more good. Get rid of the bad. That's what he is saying. When you have that attitude, then that's not living in accord with this reality that he has just been describing.
So, that's the punch line and the part that is important to us, because - regardless whether we follow this or believe this - the philosophical argument that Dogen is making is telling us: ‘Face whatever comes in your life. When something good is coming, face it and make use of it. When something bad is coming, face it and make use of it. Don't avoid anything. Don't desire anything. Just, whatever comes, embrace it.'
So that's the practice. That is what we have to do.
"This birth and death is the life of Buddha. If you try to exclude it, you will lose the life of Buddha. If you cling to it, trying to remain in it, you will also lose the life of Buddha. And what remains will be a mere form of Buddha. Only when you don't dislike birth and death, or long for them, do you enter Buddha's mind."
Just meet birth and death when they come. When birth comes, meet birth. When death comes, meet death. Don't long for something, and don't dislike something. And then you enter into Buddha's mind.
He says, however, after he just finished analyzing and talking about this, "However, do not analyze or speak about it. Just set aside your body and mind and throw yourself into the house of Buddha."
I've always been very inspired by these words of Dogen. Forget about your life and just throw yourself into the house of Buddha, and then you don't have to worry about a thing, because Buddha will take care of everything for you.
Now when he said this, one might think, ‘Oh no, we're not going to abandon ourselves. What about taking our vitamins and things like that? How about that?' Well, I think it's all right to take your vitamins. I don't think Dogen is saying ‘Don't take your vitamins.' I don't think he means that. I think he means, ‘If you're going to take your vitamins, take your vitamins in this spirit. It won't do you any good if you take your vitamins with the hope that you will preserve your life forever. This will not help you. You can only take your vitamins knowing the true nature of your body and mind, and take your vitamins with loving care and concern for this impermanent body and mind, trusting not in the vitamins per se, but in the larger reality to take care of you. It's not really up to you. If you are going to do battle with the forces of impermanence and the entire world, I feel sorry for you. How are you going to survive this? Even for one day, this is really tough!'
But this, I think, is how most of us live. We get up every day, doing battle with the forces of impermanence; and the forces of evil that are around us everywhere; and the bad government and human ignorance; and the global warming; and everything like this. We're out there every day, doing battle. But this is too hard, and it really doesn't work. So forget about your life. Throw yourself into the house of Buddha, and then trust Buddha, who will take care of everything. ‘When you follow this, you are free from birth and death, then you become a Buddha, without effort or calculation."' Without effort or calculation. He then says,
"Who then continues to think?" [Laughter.]
This is a great practice. I recommend as you sit on your cushion, ask yourself, "Who is thinking these things?" One takes it for granted. "Well, I'm thinking those things!" I'm not so sure that's true. So you should ask, "Who, who[DR1] , is thinking all this?"
And then here is the ending, which is so wonderful. I recommend that we copy this down on our little pieces of paper that we tack onto our refrigerator, or computer screens, or desktops, or whatever it is. This is all a prelude to his last statement:
"There is a simple way to become a Buddha. Refrain from unwholesome actions." So do your best to refrain from unwholesome actions, and when you fail at that, then next time try harder. "Do not be attached to birth and death." And when you are attached to birth and death, you should notice that and try to let go. "Be compassionate to all sentient beings." Not just the ones you like or approve of, but all of them. "When you are respectful to seniors and kind to juniors ..." Now he is speaking to his monastic community, probably. But this is also relevant to us. In other words, understand your position. Understand whatever your temporary role is at this moment in life, and appreciate that role. If it is a high role, then give benevolence to those who are dependent on you in a lower role, and if it is a lower role, then give respect to those in higher roles, and benevolence to people in lower roles. In other words, this is not who you are, but is the phenomenal expression that is being expressed through your life at this particular time. Honor it and make use of it. Don't try to escape from it or deny it. "Not excluding or desiring anything." And when we do exclude or desire something, understand what we are doing and try to let go. "With no designing thoughts or worries, you will be called a Buddha. Do not seek anything else."
That's pretty simple. Not too easy, but pretty simple. This would be it, if you just did this, and did not do anything else. Refrain from unwholesome actions. Do not be attached to birth and death. Be compassionate toward all. Respectful to seniors and kind to juniors. Don't exclude or desire anything. Have no designing thoughts or worries. And that's it. That's all you have to do.