Life Is for the Living

March 21, 2020

What this time of the COVID-19 pandemic brings home to us, beyond the danger, is that we are meant to live and won’t let anything keep us from doing that. Life pledges itself to live, and if need be, to fight to live. On a venial level, we see survival of the fittest in the hoarding of toilet paper or even surgical masks. Of more interest is our being called on to stay indoors not so much to protect us from getting a virus that a great majority of people are unlikely to suffer much from, but so as to reduce the chance of the health of others being seriously compromised. This suggestion to do things for the sake of others should sound natural to Zen Buddhists, as it simply recommends that we act like bodhisattvas. To be fair though, Christians shouldn’t have a problem with this either, as it is equally reminiscent of the “Golden Rule” of Jesus that we learned as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Indeed, all religions must have something similar.

I’m reminded of a story that Dainin Katagiri Roshi told me when we were traveling together. He said he had heard it from his mother. It is about the difference between heaven and hell, starting with the fact that they are physically exactly the same. Both are infinitely long rooms with people sitting on either side of an endless table with all sorts of delicious-looking food on it. The only stipulation is that people have to use the chopsticks left there. However, as these are about forty inches long, they are impossible to eat with. In hell, everyone is trying over and over to feed themselves and not succeeding, while in heaven everyone is feeding the person opposite them. This is how a Bodhisattva lives.

Though it may be insensitive now for me to say this, Buddhism teaches us that in a sense death is merely a thought in that it is like any of the other thoughts that pass through our minds when meditating. As they may be there for a moment and then be gone, what they are about doesn’t matter much. Thoughts are only a problem if in paying attention to them, we get caught up in emotions.

Dogen dealt with the relationship between life and death in the Genjo Koan. He compared it to that between firewood and ash. As firewood has with its own past and future, and ash its own past and future, they are independent of each other, and so it cannot be said that firewood becomes ash. Firewood is firewood and ash is ash. The same is true for life (or ‘birth’, one word meaning both in Chinese, and death). Life doesn’t become death because life is complete within itself until the moment it ends. W can sort of see the truth of this on those screens in hospitals rooms showing vital signs; the heartbeat pulse line has disappeared when the flat line appears. Neither is there at the same time. The two sides of a coin provide a similar analogy. If the head is up, the tail isn’t. It follows that where life is, death isn’t. If life is life then, and death is death, then death is not our concern, and it doesn’t make sense for us to be afraid of it. And in fact, more people seem more anxious about the future than fear death itself.

What we become more as we practice is bodhisattvas, ‘enlightened’ on one side (bodhi) and ‘beings’ (sattvas) on the other, doing our best to take care of ourselves and others

Legend has it that it was shock at seeing instances of actual sickness, old age, and death that caused Gautama to leave the family palace. One of his answers to why we suffer is found in his simile of the two arrows. While we can do little about the pain from a real arrow, something can be done about that from a second arrow, which comes from our having unnecessary thoughts and feelings about the first.

Much of our life is spent in dealing with suffering from the three most common types of these thoughts, the so-called poisons of avarice, hatred or fear, and foolishness. The importance in practice of getting rid of these mainly likes and dislikes is featured in the second of the Bodhisattva Vows: “Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.” It implies that it is not life but our thoughts about it that are the problem.

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