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Birth and Death

January 18, 2013

by Stephen Damon

I would like to share an insight I’ve had recently. Like most insights I’ve had, it didn’t occur while sitting or chanting or doing kinhin. And it didn’t happen while I was reading Dogen or a Sutra or Katagiri Roshi. It happened in the middle of my day. It was an experience not unlike remembering, all of a sudden, a scene from a dream from the night before. Sometimes you wake up in the morning and no matter how hard you try, you can’t remember any part of a dream. And then walking down the sidewalk an image of a dream will appear—out of nothingness. These insights always seem to come from nothingness or what you might call, “out of the blue.”

So, the other day while walking my dog I suddenly realized that what we call life and death were really a matter of our attachments, of our avoidances and grasping. I avoided “death” and clung to “life.” Death was terrifying because it meant giving up my attachments. I saw that if I didn’t have these attachments, death would be just another day, another transformation in the endless flux of comings and goings. For a moment, “death” became just another word to describe the same reality described by the word “life.” These words were just words and were not real, nor did they refer to anything real.

In Shoji, or Birth and Death, Dogen says that birth and death itself is nirvana. There is no such thing as birth and death to be avoided, and there is nothing such as nirvana to be sought outside of life and death. When we understand the real nature of birth and death, of our life on this planet, we realize there is no such thing as birth and death that we can avoid. Birth and death and nirvana are different words, different perspectives that describe the same situation, but they are not the situation itself. In one case we are bound by the situation and in the other case we are free from the situation. But it’s the same situation, the same reality. Reality cannot be divided into subject and object or between life and death. When we realize this we are free from birth and death.

But what does that mean? It means that birth, death, and nirvana are only words and concepts and not real entities. There is really nothing that we can hold onto. They are partial understandings of one situation that goes beyond all our ordinary understanding. And these concepts, not the reality itself, cause us a lot of suffering. The point is that we must not to cling to or avoid birth and death. We must experience what is without any emotional reactions to it. Birth and death express parts of the same reality. To understand all of reality we need to understand and experience birth and death as one continuous and endless flux.

This is the secret of how to live our lives. I think we can make substitutions here, “birth” is what we like—the joyous, wonderful, vital part of life—and death is what we don’t like—what we want to get rid of. We need to face and actualize both equally. We must not avoid the bad and desire the good. This is how we need to live our lives and it is also how we need to practice. Our spiritual practice is not about getting us more good things in our lives and getting rid of the bad things in our lives. No matter how many times we sit, we are not going to become a Buddha. ‘We need to face whatever comes in our lives. When something good is coming, face it and make use of it. When something bad is coming, face it and make use of it. Don’t avoid anything. Don’t desire anything. Just, whatever comes, embrace it.


From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. There is a deep preciousness in the everyday, the seemingly mundane. Thank you for sharing, be well~

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