Wednesday, August 22, 2007

life and death

A couple of days ago, I was remarking to my wife Neal about the idea that life and death cannot be separated from one another.

In one of those peculiar synchronicities which keeps arising, the very next morning when I was reading Dogen I came across some comments of his that seem to ponder the same questions.

In the Shobogenzo, Chapter 37, "Learning the Truth with Body and Mind," (Shinjin-Gakudo) he says, among other things, the following:

"The reason we need not fear life-and-death is that even before we are through with life, we are already meeting death in the present. And even before we are through with death, we are already meeting life in the present. Life does not hinder death, and death does not hinder life...

Life is not the primary occurrence, and death is not the secondary one. Death does not oppose life, and life does not depend on death. " (Shobogenzo, book 2, as translated by Nishijima and Cross, Dogen Sangha press.)

Dogen goes on to say that life-and-death is "beyond all functions."

I don't think he is examining philosophical constructs here. Dogen is raising questions about our direct and immediate perception of reality.

My own question about this matter arose because, as my wife and I were driving home, we discussed the fact that even though the forest around us looked quite peaceful, it was an absolute certainty that millions and probably even billions of creatures within the range of our eyesight were dying at that very moment, as a vast assortment of birds, mammals, arthropods, and bacteria killed each other for food in the ongoing struggle for survival.

None of that death is directly evident in a sylvan, wooded landscape. Yet it is there, always, and it is everywhere.

We live within a sea of death, yet all we choose to see is life.

Death itself supports life. Life is impossible without death, because life feeds on the death of other life. How can we separate life from death? It is all part of one single thing that keeps transforming itself. It might not be going too far to say that all of organic life is a single organism that is perpetually living and dying at the same time.

Every human being finds themselves concerned about the end of their own life. I am no exception. This is probably inevitable; it takes a special kind of insensitivity to ignore this question. Nonetheless, I wonder why I am concerned, when absolutely everything has to die, and a stunningly vast, yea, uncountable number of deaths have taken place upon the surface of this planet since life began to evolve.

It strikes me that we do not understand death. We have little or no perspective on death. To take refuge within the Dharma is to take refuge equally within life and within death, yet our impulse is to reside only within life. Instead of seeing life-and-death when we see nature, we see only life.

Does it ever occur to us consciously that we are erasing half of the picture? Is it possible to see that all the life around us arises directly from death? Do we inhabit death at the same time we inhabit life?

I do not know the answers to these things. I do know that to consider the question of death and life a bit differently, I need to take a look around me in these very ordinary conditions and try to understand the manner in which they are penetrated, and determined, in equal measure by life and by death.

May your hearts be open, and your lives be filled.

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