Monday, August 24, 2009

Dogen's Genjo Koan: Section Five

Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is after and the firewood before. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood, which fully includes before and after and is independent of before and after. Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash, which fully includes before and after. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death.

This being so, it is an established way in buddha-dharma to deny that birth turns into death. Accordingly, birth is understood as no-birth. It is an unshakable teaching in the Buddha's discourse that death does not turn into birth. Accordingly, death is understood as no-death.

Birth is an expression complete this moment. Death is an expression complete this moment. They are like winter and spring. You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring.

This analogy about firewood and ash is really pointing to the nature of human existence. It's sometimes interpreted to mean that Dogen taught that there was no such thing as post-mortem rebirth and initially I interpreted it this way too. However, I don't think this is correct. However, having said that, there are other important Zen masters such as the 6th Patriarch who do point to rebirth in other realms in terms of states of being in this life - psychological interpretations of rebirth are not just a modern phenomenon. This section is an introduction to Dogen's theory of Uji, 'Being-Time'.

Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again.
Change occurs only in one direction. In modern physics we have a concept of the 'arrow of time' and this corresponds loosley with that. This is change from the conventional perspective.

Yet, do not suppose that the ash is after and the firewood before.
Having said that, since entities do not have a self or identity that is continuous or carried forward through time, it is incorrect to say that one state changes into another. Before it burns firewood is just firewood. By the time it is ash, the firewood is already gone. The 'firewood' nature or identity is not preserved and carried forward within the ash - it is always only exactly what it actually is at a given moment. One thing does not change state, because there is no 'one thing' that continues from the before to the after. Existence is momentary. This corresponds to an understanding that could be expressed as 'only the present moment exists - the past and future are illusions'.

...fully includes before and after and is independent of before and after.
Each moment or state includes its past and future - the universal laws of conditionality (causality) are what allow things to be what they are at any given moment - and there is no phenomena other than those laws of conditionality. And yet, simultaneously each moment or state is completely just itself, independent of it's past and future, because no self is carried forward through the change - from the before to the after.

Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death.
This is the line that is perhaps most tempting to interpret as a denial of rebirth. But (as I recall, please correct me otherwise) Dogen makes reference to literal rebirth elsewhere in his writing, so this can be taken as a reiteration that there is no self which is carried forward from one life to another. As one state never returns to its previous state, death never turns into life. That is, no self is ever carried forward to be reborn.

it is an established way in buddha-dharma to deny that birth turns into death
Yet, in Buddhism it is taught that life does not change into death. Because there are no selves, nothing is ever born, nothing really comes into being. In this sense there is no birth. It is also taught that death does not turn into life. Nothing is carried forward through death into the next life. In this sense there is no death. Since there are never any substantial selves, nothing ever comes into being or is destroyed. What we commonly see as birth and death is ultimately no birth and no death, that is The Unborn.

Birth is an expression complete this moment. Death is an expression complete this moment.
The Unborn isn't something that exists in addition to phenomena, it is phenomena just as they are. Things are always just as they are, and without the continuity of a real self to unite them, each state or moment is just itself, one does not become the other.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Sickest Buddhist

Bit of an abrupt change of tone here. But I thought you guys might appreciate this video by Arj Barker of Flight of the Conchords fame.

Sickest Buddhist from GenerateLA on Vimeo.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Impermanence and suffering: Our story

Can I share something with you all?

My wife suffers with anxiety. We've been trying for a child for about a year. She is afraid that she'll never be able to have one. She miscarried in January and again in April. Many people have no idea what miscarriage can be like, thinking of it as nothing more than a 'heavy period'. In fact, it can really be a bereavement. Now she's pregnant again, which is great in a sense, but in another means a great deal of stress and worry for her - especially during this early period.

My role, of course, is to give her whatever support I can. And mostly this means listening and being there for her. My own practice has helped me tremendously. As a Zen Buddhist and someone learning to teach MBCT of course I've suggested meditation, but she can't - the silence and doing nothing makes her feel anxious - perhaps she feels too strongly that she has to 'try to relax', I'm not sure. But anyway she's not inclined to keep trying and it's not beneficial for me to pressure her.

She is sympathetic to the 'Buddhist approach' and gets some benefit from listening to the wisdom of Edward Brown (SFZC), Pema Chodron and Ekhart Tolle. Yoga, pilates, the gym and having a dog also help.

After losing her pregnancy symptoms the second time, she had a scan but had to wait for another 12 days for a second scan to confirm it. That period was possibly the most difficult period of her life. Even though she has a great career, and a loving family and plans for the future, she found it so intensely distressing that she was contemplating suicide.

After we confirmed the second miscarriage, she had a breakthough. She realised that she couldn't go on like that and at some level she decided that things had to change. She simplified her life as much as possible and decided just to stop ruminating about the past and future so much and live more in the present. It was borne of sheer necessity but influenced by Buddhist thought, and Ekhart Tolle too.

My brother-in-law also found Eckhart Tolle helpful while he was splitting up with his wife (he now does Soto Zen practice). And he gave her some valuable 'spiritual' support at that time too. One of my Soto Zen teachers cited 'The Power of Now' as one of his favourite Zen books even though it's not technically Zen. I also quite like it myself, although there are parts about the evolution of consciousness that I'm happy to leave.

For me the fundamental principles of Buddhism are universal and different approaches suit different people. Something that occured to me was that perhaps 80%+ of the population would benefits from applying these principles to the way they live and yet 95% of the population are put-off by the trappings of traditional Buddhism. This is why I started to study Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. And hearing face-to-face how MBCT is helping people with chronic depression and other problems - people who would never practice Zen - just reinforces this view.

I'm all for ways to make these principles accessible for people who wouldn't go near a traditional Zen dojo.

Thanks for listening.

_/\_ Justin

Dogen's Genjo Koan: Section Four

When you ride in a boat and watch the shore, you might assume that the shore is moving. But when you keep your eyes closely on the boat, you can see that the boat moves. Similarly, if you examine myriad things with a confused body and mind you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. When you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self.

This part is a quite straightforward account of the relationship between delusion of self and the reality expressed by the Buddhist concepts of Anatta, Sunyata and Annica.

Although there are only ever impermanent phenomena arising and passing, without any constant component, the delusions of our subjective perspective give us the illusion that we have an absolute, continuous existence through time. Just as when you are onboard a boat it may appear that the boat is stationary, and everything else is moving, so it appears that the self is stationary or continuous while the phenomena it perceives are changing. But in fact, the boat is moving and the mind is constantly changing. The is the principle of Anatta (no-fixed-self) taught in Buddhism from earliest times.

The same principle applies to all entities - sentient and non-sentient - even though our minds attribute them continuous identity or existence, observed carefully, it can be seen that nothing at all has a continuous, separate existence. In this respect there are really no 'things' except as provisional ideas of identity and continuity. This is the principle of Sunyata (emptiness of self).

Because nothing has any constant part, or fixed identity, there is nothing to obstruct reality from changing. There is nothing that is not always changing. This is the principle of Annica (impermanence).

Buddhist practice allows us to see this original reality of change and inseparability clearly, and to bring ourselves into harmony with it, being free of deluded notions of continuous self.