Zen in daily life

Zen teacher Dogen and the Soto approach to Zen

Shoji (Life-Death)

Written by zen master Dogen Zenji translated by Prof. Masunaga Reiho

Translated in Soto Approach to Zen by Prof. Masunaga Reiho, Chapter 7, Layman Buddhist Society Press, 1958.


Dogen was one of the greatest religious and philosophical leaders in Japan. His greatness consists of three points - profound thought, thorough training and brilliant personality.

Let us now take up his view of life-death, a problem that is also being argued quite extensively in European existentialist philosophy.

Death is one of the limiting conditions that man tries hardest to transcend. This awareness of mortality opens the way toward finding the Self. For man death is something that cannot be avoided, and he knows not when it will come. This is the root of unlimited anxiety. We can not pass up death. It is the ultimate reality, and it belongs to everyone personally. When we face death, we can for the first time meet our original Self. Dogen' view of life-death is found in such chapters of the Shobogenzo as Shoji, GenjoKoan, Shinjingakudo, Zenki, and Komyo. I have organized this material as follows:

  1. Self-identity of nirvana and life-death.
  2. Self-identity of life and death.
  3. Self-identity of death with death and life with life.
  4. Full functions and life-death.
  5. Life-death and the life of the Buddha.
  1. Generally life and death are considered identical with delusion, and nirvana is identified with enlightenment. Accordingly life-death and nirvana are contradictory concepts. But to cling to this dualistic view strengthens the feeling of hatred and love; as a result this only increases arguments. Zen, therefore, dislikes choosing only one of the opposites; it emphasizes the unity of all things. To reject life-death and seek nirvana seems very religious, but Dogens higher standpoint does not permit him to take this attitude. In Bendowa, Dogen says: You must realize that life-death is itself nirvana. We cannot talk about nirvana without life-death. Accordingly, the world of constant arising and decaying is itself the area of nirvana. Instead of trying to escape life-death, we must remain in this world and, using life-death freely, turn delusion into nirvana and the world of the Buddha. As Dogen says in Shoji: If we understand that life and death are themselves nirvana, there is no need for avoiding life and death or seeking nirvana. Then, for the first time, there arises the possibility of freeing ourselves from life and death . . . when you no longer have the desire to reject life-death or seek nirvana, you can truly gain nirvana and free yourself from life-death.
  2. In the constant flow of life-death, that which does not stop even for a moment is form and appearance of life. If you oppose life death and believe that life precedes death or that death follows life, you have not yet penetrated the problem of life-death. In Shinjingakudo, Dogen says: Although we have not yet left birth, we already see death. Although we have not yet left death, we already see life. In Yuibutsuyobutsu, Dogen restates the same theme: Within death there is life; within life there is death. Life and death are the two sides of human existence. Viewed from one side, it is life; viewfrom the other side, it is death. We are living in each moment and dying in each moment. Life and death are a moment of arising and a moment of decaying, and there is death within life, and life within death. Both life and death are facts of the moment. Therefore, life is itself death and death is itself life. The essence of life is nothing more than the interrelation of life and death.
  3. Though life and death are mutually connected and following constantly, that arising is not the arising opposed to decay, and that decay is not the decay opposed to arising. Life and death remain in their respective positions and are cut off from before and after. They are discontinuous from moment to moment and are unextended absolute facts. In GenjoKoan, Dogen say: Life is a position of time, and death is a position of time . . . just like winter and spring. You must not believe that winter becomes spring - nor can you say that spring becomes summer. Winter is always winter; it is not spring. Spring is always a spring; it is not summer. In this way life is the life of absolute arising, and death is the death of absolute decaying. When you say life it is life alone. You see no trace of death. When you say death, it is death alone, you see no trace of life. In Shinjingakudo, Dogen says: Death is not opposed to life, and life is not op posed to death. They are life and death cut off from before and after, standing independently. This life is absolute life; this death is absolute death. Therefore this arising is not arising (out side of arising there is nothing); this decay is not decay (outside decay this is nothing).
  4. Life-death, while continuing constantly, is a discontinuous absolute fact in each moment. To pursue life outside the present and to tremble at death outside the present are delusion. Therefore, when facing death, you should die with thoroughness. Death is the complete manifestation of all functions Yuan-wa Ko-chin (died 1135) called it "the realization of all functions." This function is the ground that makes everything live and causes all existences while remaining formless it self. This can be considered Buddhahood.

    This is because Buddhahood is the root of all existence and the ground of all values. This Buddhahood manifests itself completely in both life and death. It is the absolute free vitality of death. In Zenki, Dogen says: The expressing of all functions in life and the expressing of all functions in death - you should study and experience this saying. It is well to work with all your effort while you are alive. When you have to die it is well to withdraw quickly. We must be true to ourselves here and now.

  5. For most people life and death are nothing but transmigration. A human being, as long as he is enslaved by his ego, is caught in the flow of life and death and loses the freedom of detachment. If man abandons his passionate search for constancy, he realizes that transitory life and death are themselves the full expression of Buddhahood, sand he can make greater use of life and death. Because a great sage penetrates to the true meaning of continual rising and decaying, he does not fear life and death; instead he turns human life and death into an occasion for training. For this reason Dogen says in Shinjingakudo: Although birth and death are the transmigration of the unenlightened, the Buddha is free from all this. Life and death for those who make good use of them become like the flickering of light. So in Bendowa Dogen says: To think that birth and death are things to be avoided is a sin against Buddhism. Though for most people life and death mean transmigration from life to life, for the great sage, they are the area of absolute freedom for self-joyous samadhi. In Gyobutsuiigi Dogen says: You should realize that life and death are the training ground of Buddhism and the tools of Buddhists. In Komyo he says: The coming and going of life and death is like the flickering of light.
  6. In Shinjingakudo, Dogen says: The coming and going of life and death is like the body of the true man. In Shoji, Dogen says: This life and death are the life of the Buddha. If you try to throw them away in denial, you lose the life of Buddha. No one but Dogen has even made such a statement. In Gyobutsuiigi, Dogen says: From long ago, when man penetrates to the great way that transcends life and death, the following has been said: The great sage leaves life and death to the mind; he leaves them to the body; he leaves them to the way of the Buddha. He leaves life and death to life and death. This meaning - unlimited by time past and present - appears spontaneously as the conduct of the Buddha.

Text (Shoji)

If the Buddha is within life and death, there is no life and death. Then again If there is no Buddha within life and death, we are not deluded by life and death. These are the expressions of Chia-shan and Ting-shan, two Zen masters. Since these are the words of enlightened men, they are not frivolous. Their meaning must be clearly understood by all those who would free themselves from life and death. If a man seeks the Buddha without life and death, it is like turning the cart to the north and heading for Esshu (Yueh-chou), or looking south to see the North Star. We will gather the cause of life and death more and more-and lose the way to liberation. If we understand that life and death are themselves nirvana, There is no need for avoiding life and death or seeking nirvana. Then, for the first time, this arises the possibility of freeing our selves from life and death. Do not fall into the error of thinking that there is a change from life and death. Life is one position of time, and it already has a before and after.

So in Buddhism it is said that life itself is no-life. Death is also a position in time, and too has a before and after. So it is said that death itself is no-death. When it is called life, there is nothing but life. When it is called death, there is nothing but death. If life come, this is life. If death comes, this is death. There is no reason for your being under their control. Don't put any hope in them. This life and death are the life of the Buddha. If you try to throw them away in denial, you lost the life of the Buddha. You only cling to the appearance of the Buddha. If you neither deny Nor seek, you enter the mind of the Buddha for the first time.

But don't try to measure this by your mind. Don't try to explain it by your words. When you let go of your body and mind and forget them completely, when you throw yourself into the Buddha's abode. When everything is done by the Buddha, when you follow the Buddha Mind without effort or anxiety - you break free from life's suffering and become the Buddha.

How can you then have any hindrance in your mind? There is a very easy way to the Buddha. Those who do not create various evils; those who do not try to cling to life and death but, with deep compassion, work for all beings, respecting their elders and sympathizing with those younger; those who do not deny things or seek them or think and worry about them - they are called the Buddha. Don't look for anything else.