Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"Just make up your mind to learn the Way and die today."

The quote for today's title is from a talk in Dogen's Shobogenzo-zuimonki, in which he implores his students to remember that death could come at any time, so you better get moving on letting go of worldly ideas and pursuits. I've been thinking a lot about death recently. My grandfather died about 6 weeks ago, so I was faced with the end of life in this body once again a little more personally.

But I'm not just talking about bodily death, but the small deaths we experience every day, every moment. Each breath is a death in a way. You can't go back to what you were before taking it.

Writing this blog, with honesty and a questioning spirit, could potentially kill the positive reputation I have with some people. Or maybe not, if few end up reading these posts :)

Even though there are threats of snow today and tomorrow, another winter is gone, past, finished.

There is probably at least one person in my life I will never see again, even though I don't know it right now.

Sitting in zazen, watching thoughts arise and die. Even the thoughts that are repetitive aren't completely the same each time around. You never step in the same river twice, as the old saying goes.

Reflecting on this line from Dogen, there is yet another death he is speaking of: the death of attachment to the things and people of this life. Even though Dogen is from a different time, speaking to a select group of monastics, his words are still of value to us living in the middle of the world today. "Just make up your mind to learn the way" is about setting down all the wild thoughts and games in your life, and truly aspiring to learn to be wholly, completely who you are. I don't think this has to be some awful task of sacrifice, although even in my not too many years of practice, I have surely given up some things. This isn't some call to dourness, joyless experience either. In fact, it's really a call to the deepest joy of all. And I don't believe it's about being Buddhist or not either. One can discover this deepest joy in their life in many ways, on many paths - but I think Dogen's words remind us that without deep aspiration and commitment, none of this will probably happen.

Personally, I still often have anxiety about death, not only the end of my bodily life, but also about some of these "smaller" deaths, which are everyday visitors. This is not unique. Most of us, even if we have years of devotion to a spiritual path, still experience these anxieties. And in a way, knowing this is a step towards letting go of it. Anxiety about death is a human condition, a shared bit of suffering that we need not each have to carry alone. Belief in a separate self not at all connected to life around it seems to begin in this view that we are carrying something alone.

Who is dying today in Dogen's quote? It could be the one that believes in carrying alone. That's a possibility for all of us, if we just aspire and make a commitment to, as Dogen put it, "learn the Way."

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