Zen Talk: Dogen’s “The Issue at Hand” Waxes about Being As Is

“Kindling becomes ash, and cannot become kindling again. However, we should not see the ash as after and the kindling as before. Know that kindling abides in the normative state of kindling, and though it has a before and after, the realms of before and after are disconnected. Ash, in the normative state of ash, has before and after. Just as that kindling, after having become ash, does not again become kindling, so after dying a person does not become alive again. This being the case, not saying that life becomes death is an established custom in Buddhism – therefore it is called unborn. That death does not become life is an established teaching of the Buddha; therefore we say imperishable. Life is an individual temporal state, death is an individual temporal state. It is like winter and spring – we don’t think winter becomes spring, we don’t say spring becomes summer.”

These words from Dogen’s Shobogenzo essay, “The Issue at Hand,” reassure me not only about the nature of time but also about the nature of life and death. The notion of individual temporal states removes the usual power that the idea of death has.

I have never been particularly scared of death. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to die and when confronted with the prospect of immediate death I am scared. However, the actual idea of death, which is to say, no longer being a part of this life on earth, doesn’t upset me. I am not scared of death as an unknown. Perhaps it’s this lack of apprehension regarding death that has never made me feel the need to pursue religions that insist on making me feel better about what happens after we die, with notions of Heaven and Hell, salvation, etc.

Those ideas are all meant to fill a need: to comfort people and their fears about the great unknown, death. For instance, Christianity is a very ‘other-worldly’ religion. That is, this life is about guaranteeing salvation and a ticket into Heaven and eventually about being resurrected back into life. These concepts are all central to the purpose of Christianity and are meant to address a very basic and understandable human fear about death. The purpose of Christian ritual and belief, then, is aimed primarily at seeing these things through – in a manner of speaking, at preventing, or beating, death.

On the other hand is the Buddhist approach above. Life and death are both individual temporal states: they are times, or periods, and they each have an equal value as such. We are not meant to prize life and cling to it obsessively, insisting that it is all that matters. Yes, life should be valued, no doubt, but we should also embrace its fleeting nature, seeing existence not as our conscious self in time but as ourselves among everything else as existence.

Did you read this week’s essay? Did you enjoy it? What do you think about when you read the quoted section above? What is your philosophy about life and death?

I have spoken in brief about a fraction of a concept in part of a paragraph in this essay. I recommend you read “The Issue at Hand” in Dogen’s Shobogenzo to begin getting the full effect. Then read it again. I read it three times before anything started to register.

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4 Responses

  1. There are a growing number of people who resist organized religion as overly structured and dictatorial, preferring instead to believe that we are all connected, and everything each of us does affects many others. Therefore, we have the ability to shift energy widely, merely by acting a certain way. Hopefully, that way is with a “live and let live” attitude, otherwise defined as tolerance. That, of course, requires reigning in one’s ego and the belief that only our way is the right way. I think it is outrageous to believe that any one way (meaning my way) is the right way and therefore you should act/believe that way, too. Who says? Who’s writing the rules? Who’s dictating the belief system? It is all about control, and always has been. Needing to control others and have (misplaced) power over them has led to so much violence and death over the centuries, all in the name of religion. How ridiculous. Why can’t there be acceptance? Does it really matter what one’s sexual orientation is? Is it so important to dress a certain way? Must everyone worship the same god (who’s to say there is one)? Can it not be that each of us is honored for whatever is right for that person (as long as it isn’t harmful to our fellow human beings and animals and the planet that sustains us)? Ash and kindling, indeed…since none of us knows when our last breath will be drawn, how can we judge others? If you were dying right now, with only moments to live, would it matter if your neighbor were gay, if your boss observed different rituals, if your child studied different ideologies or worshipped something you didn’t? As we are “ending” this lifetime (my belief system is that each body is a vehicle for the soul’s growth during this lifetime, with specific goals having been set up for whatever number of earthly years were experienced), wouldn’t it be nice to be able to look back and know that we’d helped as many people as we could, shared as many smiles and love as we could, and whenever possible, made this planet a little bit beter than it would’ve been without our existence? Does religious conformity support that? Not so much for this reader.

  2. […] woman I’ve ever loved, take me or leave me. And as it happens, this Sunday does happen […]Zen Talk: Dogen’s “The Issue at Hand” Waxes about Being As Is August 3, 2008“Kindling becomes ash, and cannot become kindling again. However, we should not […]

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