Monday, January 24, 2011

Birth and Death

As the focus of our two week intensive practice experiment at the zen center - not a full retreat, but 2 or more hours of group practice six out of seven days - we are studying two small teachings from Dogen. It's funny. Having written awhile back about how us Soto folks seem to over-emphasize the founder at times, it seems I've been swamped with Dogen almost ever since. I can almost hear The Zennist's shit talking turning up a notch.

Seriously, though, there's room for questioning any teacher or teachings, while also deeply appreciating the jewels within the offering. And so the eclectic spirit I have always had, as well as a love of discovering forgotten or marginalized wise folks, gets to take a back seat for a few weeks in favor of good old Dogen.

One of the pieces we're studying is Shoji, or "birth and death." And as I sat in zazen this morning, the question came to me "What is birth and death?" It was interesting that it came as "is" and not "are" - and when I rephrased the question as "what are birth and death?" it didn't feel right. So, I left it as "is."

A few minutes after the question came, I heard water run through a nearby pipe. After it had gone, I thought "Is the sound dead now that I can't hear it? Can a sound be born and die? Does it even matter if "I" hear it or not?" Perhaps these questions seem silly. Maybe they are.

But consider human birth and death. When is a person born? How do you know? When is a person dead? How do you know? Even if you just consider the fluctuations of the physical body, it's pretty hard to determine a fixed birth point and a death point. Taking a last breath is a convention marker that helps us navigate death territory, but I think it might be foolish to say "that's it."

What is birth and death? There's your question for the day (or for life). Enjoy!


Robyn said...

The word that comes to mind is prana.

Also, seeing my father die, it was immediately clear when he actually died. He was like another person, or at least, so not the person I knew while he lived. The difference seemed instantaneous and profound.

Just some random thoughts that came to mind....

kevin said...

I agree with keeping birth and death together as a single concept. You can't have one without the other.

Sojun Roshi told us once that every inhalation is a birth since that's the first thing we do, every exhalation a death since that's the last thing we do. Made sense to me so until I find something otherwise, I'm sticking with it.

Another thing to think about is do you still hear the sound in your mind? Sure, it will not sound like it did because you're not hearing it with your ears as well, but in memory, do you still hear it? Kind of a "wind moves, flag moves, mind moves" thing.

As far as the original question, the ideas bouncing around my head have mostly to do with the eternal nature of the moment and the part of Genjo-koan about firewood and ash:

"Firewood becomes ash; it can never go back to being firewood. Nevertheless, we should not take the view that ash is its future and firewood is its past. Remember, firewood abides in the place of firewood in the Dharma."

In the same way the sound exists as sound in the Dharma, there is no birth and death.

The only issue with this answer is that birth and death do exist as phenomena. For that problem we turn to the Sandokai or the Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi.

Then we run in mental circles until our brains collapse like a good Rinzai, or chill out and know that the truth hides itself when we seek it like a good Soto.

Thanks for the post, it's a good question to ponder. Guess that's why they call it the "Great Matter"

Anonymous said...

Before we get too much into our heads (and beloved teachers' words), we might practice sitting with our breath. Sitting-with, not thinking-about. There it is, inhaling one more time. Exhaling
all the way: death. Again ...

That's the best I can do right now. My 'self' is incapable of imagining its own demise.

This from a hospice worker who has witness dozens of deaths.

With love, daishin

Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...

I agree completely with Anonymous. I was going to post this, clicked on the reply link and saw Anonymous' comment.

So I'll just state exactly what I was going to say anyway ... I gave this teaching in meditation class the other day.

Breathing in, there is birth,
Breathing out, there is death.
In each moment, life and death is manifest and apparent.
If you examine life carefully, in all phenomena you can see this.
In it's arising, birth,
In it's ceasing, death.


Nathan said...

Dean and Daishin, I agree with both of you - and, there is nothing wrong with a little investigation, even thinking about it all. The way I see it, sometimes we need to work with the thinking mind in order to be able let go of the thinking mind.

Robyn, what you wrote about your father makes sense to me. I've witnessed that instantaneous difference as well.


I've had this line from the Sandokai come up repeatedly the past few days:

"Phenomena exist like box and lid fit." I have nothing more to say about that right now, but it's interesting that this line has appeared.

kevin said...

The more I study the Sandokai, the more I see it almost as a kind of Soto Zen Creed.

Karen Maezen Miller posted a short section of the Sandokai containing that line and now it seems to have infected us all a bit.

I think it's very appropriate right now since there seems to be a lot of virtual drawing of lines in the sand about what's "true" and not and what you have to do or how to behave to be a real Buddhist. The irony of this never ceases to amaze me.

Nathan said...

"I think it's very appropriate right now since there seems to be a lot of virtual drawing of lines in the sand about what's "true" and not and what you have to do or how to behave to be a real Buddhist. The irony of this never ceases to amaze me." No doubt. The whole "real" and "not real" Buddhist thing is an old argument, but with the easy access of the internet, print media, etc., it seems to be that much more common.