Priest Jianyuan of Tan once accompanied his teacher, Daowu, on a condolence call to a family funeral. When they arrived, he tapped the coffin and said, “Is this life, or is this death?” 1
Daowu said, “I won’t say life, I won’t say death.” 2
Jianyuan said, “Why won’t you say?” 3
Daowu said, “I won’t say, I won’t say.” 4
On their way back Jianyuan said, “You should say it quickly for me, teacher, or I will hit you.” 5
Daowu said, “Hit me if you will, but I will not say.” 6 Jianyuan hit him.
After returning to the monastery Daowu said to Jianyuan, “You should take leave for a while; I’m afraid if the head monk finds out about this he will make trouble for you.”
After Daowu passed away, 7 Jianyuan went to see Daowu’s successor Shishuang, told him the story, and asked for guidance.8 Shishuang said, “I won’t say life, I won’t say death.” 9
Jianyuan said, “Why won’t you say it?” 10
Shishuang said, “I won’t say, I won’t say.” 11 Jianyuan immediately realized it. 12
Grappling within the forest of brambles, Zen practitioners the world over probe the question of life and death. Before it is realized, it is like a ten-mile high wall or a bottomless gorge. After it is seen, it is realized that from the beginning the obstructions have always been nothing but the self. Lost in the double barrier of life and death, the monk has to know. Because of intimacy the old master won’t say. From the time of the Buddha down to the present, this is how it has been. However, if you think this old koan is about the corpse being alive or dead, then you too have missed the old master’s teaching. There is no place to put this gigantic body. When the universe collapses, It's indestructible.
In arriving not an atom is added,
Thus life is called “the unborn.”
In departing not a particle is lost,
Thus death is called “the unextinguished.”
1. Caught between two iron mountains, he wants to drag his old teacher into it.
2. Seeing the imperative, he compassionately points it out for him.
3. He doesn’t understand; the iron mountains prevail.
4. Hearing his anguished cry for help, the old adept kindly shows him again.
5. Separation always breeds confrontation.
6. Relentless in his kindness, he exposes his heart and guts and holds back nothing.
7. Tell me, where did he go?
8. His dullness is only exceeded by his persistence.
9. How new! How fresh!
10. How dull! How numb!
11. The waves of Sokei continue generation after generation, but they don’t resemble each other.
12. Within death, he has found life. But say, what is it that he realized?
The question of life and death is central to genuine Zen practice. Here at the Monastery we remind ourselves at the close of every day while chanting the Evening Gatha, that life and death are of supreme importance and that we should strive to awaken to the true nature of life and death.
Examining this question is a fundamental part of the Buddha’s teaching. What motivated Shakyamuni’s search were several questions: the question of pain and suffering; the question of old age and disease; and the question of life and death. Then after his own enlightenment, he taught for forty-seven years, and during those years he didn't bring up the question of life and death. Did he forget the question or the answer? Some of the sutras report dialogues with the Buddha in which people asked about this question. They wanted to know if it can be said that a person exists, does not exist, both exists and does not exist, neither exists nor does not exist. These questions are normally regarded in Buddhism as a group of questions that can't be answered, which the Buddha set aside without answering. One reason for his silence was that he saw that speculating over them was a time-wasting sidetrack from fruitful spiritual practice.
When one monastic told him that he would leave the sangha unless he was given answers to these questions, the Buddha told him a story. There was a man who was shot by a poisoned arrow. He refused to let the doctor cure him until he knew everything about the arrow and the person who shot it. Of course, such a man would die before he heard the end of the reports. The Buddha then said that he had clearly explained duhkha and the way beyond it, but that the undetermined questions were not connected with, nor conducive to Nirvana. This accords with the principle that the Buddha only taught what was both true and spiritually useful. But it would seem that the question of life and death is spiritually useful. Does Buddhism never deal with it at all, never take it up? What is it that’s born? What is it that dies? What is the nature of the self? Of course, this is the heart of what Buddhism is about. It does indeed deal, in one way or another, with the question of life and death.
This koan is in the collection of koans that Master Dogen brought back from China. Daowu (Jap., Dogo), is the main character and teacher. He was a Dharma brother of Yunyan (Jap., Ungan), the teacher of Dongshan (Jap., Tozan) who was one of the founders of the Soto school. The case almost parallels the dialogue between the Buddha and the monastic. The Buddha was essentially saying, “I won’t say.” The monastic was saying, “Well, if you won’t say, I’m going to leave the sangha.” The same thing is going on in the koan, except Jianyuan was a little more aggressive: he hit the teacher.
Daowu said, “I won’t say.” He didn’t say, “I can’t say.” He didn’t say, “I don’t know.” He didn’t say, “Go away.” He didn’t say, “I forgot.” He said, “I won’t say.” What was he pointing to? Clearly, the monastic truly needed to know the answer to this question. Clearly, Daowu was pointing to something.
I have added footnotes to clarify this koan line by line so you have a sense of what is going on in the dialogue, because there is a teaching here. Priest Jianyuan of Tan once accompanied his teacher, Daowu, on a condolence call to a family funeral. When they arrived, he tapped the coffin and said, “Is this life, or is this death?”The footnote says, Caught between two iron mountains, he wants to drag his old teacher into it. The priest is coming from a particular perspective; this is not the perspective Daowu sees from. The next line says, Daowu said, “I won’t say life, I won’t say death.”The footnote says, Seeing the imperative, he compassionately points it out for him. What’s he pointing out? What’s Daowu saying when he says, I won’t say? Jianyuan said, “Why won’t you say?” A very logical question. The footnote says, He doesn’t understand; the iron mountains prevail.In other words, Daowu’s words didn’t take him out of his double bind. In the next line, Daowu repeats it, “I won’t say, I won’t say.” The footnote says, Hearing his anguished cry for help, the old adept kindly shows him again. Clearly, something is going on with that statement, “I won’t say.” What is it? That answer contains the fundamental point of this koan.
On their way back, Jianyuan said, “You should say it quickly for me teacher, or I will hit you.” The footnote to that reads, Separation always breeds confrontation. That’s where this student is coming from — separation. Daowu said, “Hit me if you will, but I will not say.”The footnote to that says, Relentless in his kindness, he exposes his heart and guts and holds back nothing. What is he giving him? What is he giving all of us? After returning to the monastery, Daowu said to Jianyuan, “You should take leave for a while; I’m afraid if the head monk finds out about this [that you have hit me], he will make trouble for you.”
The next line says, After Daowu passed away, and the footnote says, Tell me, where did he go?
Jianyuan went to see Daowu’s successor Shishuang, told him the story, and asked for guidance. The footnote says, His dullness is only exceeded by his persistence. And: Shishhuang said, “I won’t say life, I won’t say death.” The footnote to that says, How new! How fresh!And Jianyuan said,“Why won’t you say it?” The footnote to that says, How dull! How numb! Then Shishuang said, “I won’t say, I won’t say.” The footnote says, “The waves of Sokei continue generation after generation, but they don’t resemble each other.”
Sokei is the birthplace and home of the Sixth Ancestor of Zen, Huineng. The waves of Sokei are the Dharma teachings that persist, continuing generation after generation. But no two waves are alike. The implication here is that what Daowu’s successor is doing is quite different than what Daowu did. Something else is going on. What is it? Finally, Jianyuan immediately realized it. The footnote to that says, Within death he has found life. But say, what is it that he realized?
What is it that’s born? What is it that dies? Is there life after death? In the different schools of Buddhism there are different ways of looking at the question of life and death. Whatever your understanding, it is very easy to justify it by some teaching. Whether the views are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian, they are all equally valid and true within their own particular system or method of understanding. This koan is just one view to ponder and sit with. Daowu was asked a question, and whenever a question is asked the teacher always answers. So “I won’t say” is one answer to the question: “Is this life, or is this death?”
People interested in Buddhism frequently want to know about rebirth. Every time we have Tibetan Buddhist teachers here talking about reincarnation, there’s a flurry of questions among the Zen practitioners who want to know, “What’s he talking about?” “Is it true?” and “Why don’t we deal with that?” In order to appreciate what’s being said in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, you need to appreciate and understand the nature of the self. What is the self? Is it this bag of skin? Why is it that in Zen we say that life is the unborn, death is the unextinguished? It always comes down to the same thing: who are you?
Normally when we talk about the self, when we talk about who we are, we are referring to the aggregates. We talk aboutit every month at our Introductory Zen Training weekends. Ask somebody “What is the self?” and what you get is a list of aggregates. But that doesn’t address the question, “What is the self?” Ask “What is a tree?” and you get a list of aggregates. What’s “treeness” itself? What’s “roomness” itself beyond walls, ceiling, doors, windows, floor — beyond those aggregates? What’s “selfness” itself? When you take the aggregates away, what is left? Most philosophies will say that what is left is an essence. Most religions confirm that. There is an essence of a room, an essence of a tree, an essence of a self — and that essence of a self we call a soul.
However, the Buddha’s experience was that when you go beyond the skandhas, beyond the aggregates, what remains is nothing. The self is an idea, a mental construct. That is not only the Buddha’s experience, but the experience of each realized Buddhist man and woman from 2,500 years ago to the present day. That being the case, what is it that dies? There is no question that when this physical body is no longer capable of functioning, the energies within it, the atoms and molecules it is made up of, don’t die with it. They take on another form, another shape. You can call that another life, but as there is no permanent, unchanging substance, nothing passes from one moment to the next. Quite obviously, nothing permanent or unchanging can pass or transmigrate from one life to the next. Being born and dying continues unbroken but changes every moment.
Life and death are nothing but movement. It’s like a flame that burns in the night, moment to moment. It’s changing, it’s different. It’s not the same flame in every moment, nor is it another. Who you are now and who you were when you were three years old is not the same. You don’t look the same, act the same, think the same, or feel the same. The Buddha said, “Oh, Bhikshu, every moment you are born, decay, and die.” We’re born and we die, moment to moment to moment — that is the Buddhist perspective. Underlying everything is impermanence, constant change, a constant state of becoming. Who you were yesterday, the day before, a year ago, five years ago, is not who you are now — not physically, not mentally, not intellectually. There is not an atom or molecule in your body right now that is the same as it was five years ago. We are in dynamic equilibrium with the universe. The universe passes through us. So what do you call the self? What is Jianyuan calling the self?
This koan also appears in a couple of other traditional collections including the Blue Cliff Record where it continues beyond the point where Dogen ends it. In the Blue Cliff Record version it says that at Shishuang’s words, Jianyuan had an insight. It goes on to say that one day he took a hoe into the teaching hall and crossed back and forth from east to west and west to east. The teacher said, “What are you doing?” Jianyuan said, “I’m looking for the relics of our late master.” Shishuang said, “The vast waves spread far and wide, foaming billows fill the skies, what relics of our old master are you looking for?” Xuetou (Jap., Setcho) added a comment, saying, “Heavens, heavens!” Where are the ancient master’s relics? Where are Buddha, Zhaochou, Daowu? Where are our ancestors? It’s the same question as “Where are you?”
In another koan, there is a story about seven sisters, seven women sages, who were traveling through a forest of corpses. One of the women pointed to a corpse and asked her sisters, “The corpse is here, but where is the person?” The eldest sister said, “What!? What!?” and all seven together experienced enlightenment. What’s going on there? Is it the same point or a different point than the one being made by Daowu or Shishuang?
The commentary says, Grappling within the forest of brambles, Zen practitioners the world over probe the question of life and death. Before it is realized, it is like a ten-mile high wall or a bottomless gorge. After it is realized, it is seen that from the beginning the obstructions have always been nothing but the self. That is where this priest was coming from. The old teacher was coming from the perspective of intimacy, no separation. The priest was coming from the perspective of differences. It is the same with all barriers. The only way through a barrier is to be the barrier. All that means is to return to reality. Our tendency is to put everything outside ourselves, and to think that who we are is this bag of skin. The bag of skin is part of who we are, but it’s not the whole thing. The whole thing encompasses the universe. The commentary goes on to say, Lost in the double barrier of life and death, the monk has to know. Knowing is very important when you are separated. Because of intimacy, the old master won’t say. Intimacy with what? Intimacy means not falling on one side or the other, or both, or neither. “Death” misses it “life” misses it, “neither life nor death” misses it, “both life and death” misses it.
How would you answer this priest’s question, “Is this life or is this death?” It is a very important question. We remind ourselves constantly how important it is. Aside from all the intellectual explanations about the Buddha’s reluctance to explain and the upaya involved in not explaining, there is something else going on here. Daowu is not saying, “I won’t say life, I won’t death,” because it’s an undetermined question. That’s why the commentary says, However, if you think this old koan is about the corpse being alive or dead, then you too have missed the old master’s teaching. It’s not about that. Jianyuan came back to the teacher walking back and forth carrying the hoe. The teacher said, “What are you doing?” “Looking for the master’s relics.” The master’s relics, our ancestors’ relics, countless generations of human and non-human life, mountains, rivers, this great earth itself — all of it — like the Buddha, are buried deep in years of conditioning in each one of us. It’s buried under layers of ideas and positions, under a lifetime of confusion and frustration. Underneath it all, where it has always been, there is a Buddha. That Buddha means this very universe itself; nothing is excluded.
People get frightened about forgetting the self. “To forget the self,” is to realize the ten thousand things. “To forget the self” means to really be yourself — not to separate yourself from yourself. It means to realize yourself. When you realize yourself, you realize the nature of the universe; it is not two things. To really be yourself means to free yourself. That is what Daowu was trying to do for Jianyuan, help him slip out of the cage he had created for himself, a cage that placed him inside and everything else outside. Being Buddha is not some kind of an esoteric state. It means being yourself. It is a way of using your mind, living your life and doing it with other people. It is not in the realm of the cosmos. It is right here now, moment to moment. This question of life and death is a central aspect of it. If you are going to work with death and the dying you must settle the question of your own death and dying, your own birth and life.
The final line of the commentary says, There’s no place to put this gigantic body. That means that any conceivable resting place is contained within this very body. Thus there’s no place to put it. There’s nothing to compare it to; it’s not like something. Do you see what I mean? When the universe is destroyed, It is indestructible.
The capping verse:
In arriving not an atom is added,
Thus life is called “the unborn.”
In departing not a particle is lost,
Thus death is called “the unextinguished.”
Even the laws of thermodynamics tell you this much. I remember once giving a talk on this koan and dealing with it completely in terms of thermodynamics and the chemistry of life. When I look back through the years, what drew me into science was the desire to resolve the question of life and death. As a scientist for seventeen years, one of my pet projects was the origin of life. I figured that if I could get to the bottom of the origin of life, I would have some insight into what death is all about. I did a lot of research. At some point I saw that this was not a scientific question; it was a spiritual question I was dealing with. I was in the wrong profession.
So, who are you? What happens when you die? Where do you go? Where do you arrive from? The verse is making all this pretty clear. How do you understand it? If you figure you understand it, please answer the question for the old master. When the priest asks, “Is this life, or is this death?” how would you respond? In fact, how would you answer without even opening your mouth?
Often when we complete our week of training we do a Nenju service. The liturgist chants, “When this day has passed, our days of life will be decreased by one. Like fish in a little water, what sort of comfort or tranquility can there be? Let us practice diligently and eagerly as though extinguishing a fire upon our heads. Let us contemplate impermanence and not squander our actions.” It’s very important to find that peace and tranquility in ourselves. When we do, everything we come in touch with is nourished by it. One of the ways to learn about the question of life and death is from the people who are struggling with it. The simple experience of being with someone who is preparing to leave this life creates a lot of anguish and fear in us. But, the experience also has something to teach, and the more we learn about ourselves, the more we’re able to nourish others. It is no small thing to deal with this question. It is not something only great sages and Buddhas realize. It is within the realm of possibility of every single one of us. Indeed, we were born with the ability to answer the question that is being raised here. We carry the answer with us from cradle to grave, whether we realize it or not. The answer is there, but it takes effort to get to the bottom of it. Like everything else in this practice to realize this question is not about form; it is about engaging the question. You can sit cross-legged from now until your body rots, but unless you are engaging the practice moment to moment you will never see it. Going through the motions is not enough. You’ve got to make it your own. That is the way you give life to the Buddha.
©2003 Zen Mountain
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