Finding what life is

Death is something that every person experiences; that is certain. When it is going to be happening to each of us is uncertain, something which is very vague. If people here knew that it could be tomorrow, people would not be sitting here relaxed and okay about it. One person asked about dying and they said, “Dying?! I don't even know what living is yet! I'm still trying to think about what that means!” Another person said, “Dying? I’m not going to think about that now. Now I’m alive, so why should I think about dying?"

I am seventy now. I have things happening with my body that are clearly things about aging. In Buddhism, there are these four great teachings: being born, growing old, growing sick, and dying. For all of us these are part of a lifetime, and these are considered what we suffer with. We are alive just to be alive. But it’s not so very simple. We send off friends to die. We feel our own body growing older, and we know that it is coming for us.

In the Tang dynasty in China there was a Zen master named Master Dogo. He was going to a funeral of a friend of his, and he took his student Zengen. In the house was the coffin with a dead body in it, and Zengen began hitting the side of the coffin saying, “How about it? Is this person alive or dead?” Master Dogo replied, “I’m not going to say he’s alive, and I’m not going to say he’s dead; I’m just not going to say.”

It seems like this would be a strange question to ask, but Zengen was asking seriously about this grey area, about the point of this whole question that all of us our worrying about. What Zengen really wanted to ask was, “When a living person thinks about death and this person in the coffin’s death, are they the same thing or are they different?” A person who is alive imagining what death is like and the actuality which a person who has died is manifesting are two different things. Although it seems dissatisfying that the teacher would not say he’s living or dead, in fact that is a correct answer because the manifestation of that person in the coffin is not something we can know from a dualistic point of view. It is not an experience of death which is relative to an experience of being alive. Master Dogo can’t say he’s alive and that relative to being alive he’s dead. It’s not something that can be known in a dualistic way. If he were to say he’s alive or if he’s dead he would be speaking dualistically about something that is not a dualistic experience.

The answer of Master Dogo was accurate. If he were to speak about it, it could only be in relation to being alive, and a mental idea about death and dying. He’s not going to speak about it in an untrue way. He also knew the state of mind of his student. Zengen was considering very deeply what it means to be alive, what it means to be totally alive, and in that comes his consideration of what it means to be dead. What is death then? In what way does being alive have to do with being dead? Master Dogo knew very well where Zengen was teetering. And so that’s why he would not say, because it would only be a relative answer. Zengen was poised to know a deeper answer.

To look at this further we look at the words of Shido Munan Zenji. He was the grandfather teacher of the great Zen Master Hakuin Zenji. Master Shido Munan’s enlightenment poem is, “While being still alive to die and die completely.” What Shido Munan Zenji is saying is for us to be concerned with and only mentally anticipating this question of death. He is saying that when we are still alive to die completely while we are alive. What this means is to throw ourselves completely into whatever it is we are doing. In this poem he’s not talking about suicide. He’s saying when we become what we are doing completely, we let go to this dualistic approach of being alive or dying. We completely become what we are doing without a dualistic sense of a doer and a doing. We give our total life to it.

In the same Tang dynasty, the founder of the Soto sect Master Tozan was asked by a monk, “When it is so cold and so hot, isn’t there some way we can get out of that? When it’s so cold to not have to be in such a cold place, and when it’s hot to not be in a hot place? What way is there to get out of the pain and discomfort?” Master Tozan said, “When you’re so cold, why don’t you go where there is no cold? And when you’re so hot why don’t you go where there is no hot?” And the monk asked, “Where is this place where there is no cold nor hot?” To which Master Tozan replied, “When you are cold become completely cold. When you are hot become that hot so completely there is no longer any idea about hot or cold. When you are alive live so totally that you don’t even have an idea that you’re alive, and when you die to die totally and completely. To do these things so thoroughly that there is not an idea left.”

My teacher, Yamada Mumon Roshi, was from a place in the deep mountains. His father was a local politician and really wanted his son to be a lawyer, and when he was young went to Tokyo to Waseda University to be a lawyer. But he was discontented because he had read in the analects of Confucius some lines which had left him troubled and puzzled. These lines of Confucius said that we have judges and lawyers, but a true world would be one where we have no suspicions, so we would not need judges and lawyers. We have various businesses and companies, but in a true world we would not even need money, we would always be supporting and helping each other in the ways that we can.

Having read this, Yamada Mumon Roshi felt that this was the actual truth. He did not want to become a lawyer, he wanted to live in a world that could be a place of no suspicion. He was dissatisfied with what he was studying. Becoming a lawyer lost all meaning for him. He lost his motivation and started to fail his classes. As the other students were going up in grades, he was reading Buddhist texts and failing one exam after the next. He had a question. If he was not going to be a lawyer, how could he bring forth this world he felt was the right way to be, of a world with no suspicions, a world with no lack of faith in each other?

One day in Tokyo he went to a teaching of Kawaguchi Ekai Roshi, who had been in Tibet. There he had found and brought back the way of the Bodhisattva. The way of the Bodhisattva text that Ekai Roshi taught was this: if we all wanted everyone to walk comfortably on the earth we could cover the earth with leather and it would be soft for everyone. Covering the whole earth is impossible, but if we put leather under our own feet, everywhere we walk is the same as walking on the earth covered with soft leather. If we want to make an earth which is protected by a huge umbrella, that’s impossible to put something over the whole earth, but if we walk under an umbrella, where we are is guided and guarded by that. If we want to liberate all 6.7 billion people, that is fairly impossible to imagine. But if bring forth this Bodhisattva vow to liberate all beings, then every single person who has this deep vow to end the suffering of all beings, wherever someone has that vow, that vow spreads exponentially to others who also want to liberate people. In this way, from one person to the next, like one candle lighting another candle, this great vow to end suffering spreads around exponentially until the whole world is a sea of light.

For this reason, Mumon Roshi became a disciple of Ekai Roshi. Having been in Tibet, Ekai Roshi’s way of training was very severe, and Mumon Roshi became sick with tuberculosis. In those days there was no medicine for tuberculosis. The doctors said, “We can’t save him, just let him do whatever he wants to now.” He went back to his house in the country, was put into a room, and when the servants would come in to bring his food they would hold their breath and leave as soon as possible. Mumon Roshi began feeling like he was contagious and like he was really a burden. “People don’t want me here, I’m really just a problem.” He began to feel resentful and terrible that it was difficult for everyone to have him stay alive. He had failed miserably in school; then when he went to train he had gotten really sick, so sick that no one wanted to be around him. More and more he felt that there was no point in his staying alive, why would he want to stay alive and be a problem with so little value and worth?

It was a day in June. On this morning when he awoke he was feeling better than usual, not coughing as much, so he crawled onto the wooden porch. On that day there was a cool breeze blowing. In that cool breeze he could see the heavenly white bamboo flowers moving. He was feeling particularly good that day. Suddenly it hit him: this wind, this breeze, what is that? What is this breeze? And suddenly he realized he had all this time been given life by air. This air had always been supporting him; he had always been breathing this air without realizing it. All his friends had been passing him, he had been failing, all the servants hated him and did not want him around. But coming to find that out it was this air – not only the air, but this great nature, and water – these things had never deserted him. Air had kept him alive, these things he had not noticed, this great all-embracing energy, this energy which, without him even noticing, kept him alive to bring him to this day.

Suddenly he felt conked on the head by something heavy and he awoke to the fact of his being supported by everything in the universe to be alive. He directly got this. On that morning he was completely transformed by understanding these natural blessings. Water is given on this earth to us. Air comes right to us. We are given all of these natural ways of being supported for free. They are blessings that are given to us and from them we stay alive. He rediscovered his worth, his value being an alive person. He dropped the whole idea of being worthless and no one wanting him around and he got stronger and stronger; within a month he was walking outside and doing regular work. Forty years later he had never been to see a doctor, he was living a very full life and putting all of his energy into teaching Zen to people all over the world. I was able to see this right in front of me because I was his attendant.

Whenever I come to America, it is always following a morning ceremony in honor of the Buddha’s entrance into Parinirvana. There is a traditional scroll of the Buddha lying down in the Sala grove where he died. He was traveling to go to his home, but when he reached Kushinagara he could no longer continue and so he lay down. In this picture Buddha is lying down and he is surrounded by kings, angels, heavenly realm beings, animals, insects, and all kinds of creatures who are crying, grieving, and sad. This to me is a representation of each person’s death, not just the Buddha’s. This is our dying for each of us. It’s not because all the animals were gathered and crying like that. What this is saying is that the Buddha’s life was lived in such a way that he did not harm any animals, any insects, any life. When he would go on pilgrimage he would carry a stick with bells on it so large and small animals would know not to come near. He would carry muslin so he could pour water through it and not drink any creatures unknowingly. He taught always of non-harming.

Once the Buddha was asking his disciples, “What is the Buddha dharma?” A disciple said, “It is the length of one day; in this one day it is as if we are born and die.” Buddha said to this disciple, “You have realized the outer skin of the Buddha dharma.” The next disciple said, “It is the time during one meal; during this one meal a landslide could kill someone.” Buddha said, “You have realized the flesh of Buddha dharma.” A disciple said, “It is only one breath.” To this the Buddha said, “You have understood the marrow of Buddha dharma.” In this one breath we actually live and die. In this one breath we have a sharp focus. See death clearly. Don’t take your gaze away from it. But it can’t be in a blurry foggy way. It has to be this direct seeing with our precise focus right there.

Hakuin Zenji gave us the teaching of the ‘seeing within’ method, from the Night Boat, where he taught how with each and every breath to repeat and follow our breathing from the abdomen through the legs to the very bottoms of our feet. To again and again follow this ki, our energy, from the abdomen through our thighs to the bottoms of our feet, and in this we find this settled place in the midst of the greatest pain. By continuing with our breathing, one deep exhalation after the next, following it to the deepest place, we find a place of refuge in any deep pain.

We have the last poem of Masaoka Shiki: “The gourd flower is blooming, the phlegm is stuck in my throat now; is this the Buddha?” Before he wrote this poem, he wrote that zen was to be able to die any time any where, but he realized it was to live any time any where no matter what was happening.

I feel that in this we can see that we are missing something. We are missing a focus in this. To see this being-aliveness with this sharp exact focus, to really look into that and be absorbed and to find out what that actually is. Isn’t that the most important thing, to find out what life is?

 (This talk was given at Bayview Hall Sept 2011 for Enso House, now published in the book http://zencare.org/awake-at-the-bedside )

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