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Reinterpreting Our Lives

January 23, 2013

by Stephen Damon

I would like to continue our discussion about the Great Matter of Life and Death, otherwise known as “The Great Matter.” How we understand “life and death,” and “nirvana” will significantly change our understanding of everything, and as Suzuki Roshi said, it will change our interpretation of our lives. While we all have some idea of what our life is, we have no idea of what it was in the vast period of time before we were born and what it will be after we die. From the standpoint of Zen practice that should be the question of our lives. Living with that question both in and out of the Zendo puts our entire lives in question. We become that question. Living in this way, we are able to find a new interpretation of our lives.

Before we were born there was no one to distinguish our lives from the universe and after we die there will be no one. It is only when we live our deluded lives that there is “someone” to make such a false distinction. When I was a young boy I told my mother that I knew that before I was born I was no different from the Andromeda Galaxy and I would be no different from it after I died. I remember how puzzled she was when she told me to “think about it for a while.” It wasn’t until I read Suzuki Roshi’s chapter, “Nirvana, the Waterfall” in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind that I felt that this question has been acknowledged and addressed.
He says: I went to Yosemite National Park, and I saw some huge waterfalls. The highest one there is 1,340 feet high, and from it the water comes down like a curtain thrown from the top of the mountain. It does not seem to come down swiftly, as you might expect; it seems to come down very slowly because of the distance. And the water does not come down as one stream, but is separated into many tiny streams. From a distance it looks like a curtain. And I thought it must be a very difficult experience for each drop of water to come down from the top of such a high mountain. It takes time, you know, along time, for the water finally to reach the bottom of the waterfall. And it seems to me that our human life may be like this. We have many difficult experiences in our life. But at the same time, I thought, the water was not originally separated, but was one whole river. Only when it is separated does it have some difficulty in falling. It is as if the water does not have any feeling when it is one whole river. Only when separated into many drops can it begin to have or to express some feeling. When we see one whole river we do not feel the living activity of the water, but when we dip a part of the water into a dipper, we experience some feeling of the water, and we also feel the value of the person who uses the water. Feeling ourselves and the water in this way, we cannot use it in just a material way. It is a living thing.

Before we were born we had no feeling; we were one with the universe. This is called “mind-only,” or “essence of mind,” or “big mind.” After we are separated by birth from this oneness, as the water falling from the waterfall is separated by the wind and rocks, then we have feeling. You have difficulty because you have feeling. You attach to the feeling you have without knowing just how this kind of feeling is created. When you do not realize that you are one with the river, or one with the universe, you have fear. Whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water. Our life and death are the same thing. When we realize this fact, we have no fear of death anymore, and we have no actual difficulty in our life.
When the water returns to its original oneness with the river, it no longer has any individual feeling to it; it resumes its own nature, and finds composure. How very glad the water must be to come back to the original river! If this is so, what feeling will we have when we die? I think we are like the water in the dipper. We will have composure then, perfect composure. It may be too perfect for us, just now, because we are so much attached to our own feeling, to our individual existence. From us, just now, we have some fear of death, but after we resume our true original nature, there is Nirvana. That is why we say, “To attain Nirvana is to pass away.” “To pass away” is not a very adequate expression. Perhaps “to pass on,” or “to go on,” or “to join” would be better.

He concludes by saying, Will you try to find some better expression for death? When you find it, you will have quite a new interpretation of your life. He might have asked us to find our expression for “life” and “nirvana” as they are different words for the same reality. Try to find your own expression for any of these words and notice how everything changes. Your moment to moment experience of everything from bird songs and sunsets to the dirty sidewalk in front of your house will never be quite the same.

Original mind, Buddha Nature, whatever you want to call the fundamental reality of the Universe is expressed in myriad ways. There is the Andromeda Galaxy, Mt. Everest, and your living room. We need to express this fundamental reality in our own way. There is only one original face, but your original face does not look like mine. We need to express our original face, our own expression for birth, death, and nirvana. When we practice in this way, we will be able to live our lives fully and completely.


From → Zen Buddhism

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