One day Master Zengen went with his teacher Master Dogo to visit a house where someone had recently died to express their condolences. When they were alone, Master Zengen patted the coffin and said to Master Dogo, “Is he alive or dead?”
Master Dogo said, “I will not say alive or dead.”
Master Zengen said, “Why won’t you say?”
Master Dogo said, “I will never say. I will never say.”
On the way back to the temple, Master Zengen said, “Master! Please give me your answer now! If you won’t I’ll hit you!”
Master Dogo said, “You can hit me if you want. I will not say.”
Master Zengen hit his teacher several times with his fist, but Master Dogo still refused to answer.
On returning to the temple, Master Dogo said, “I think it would be better for you to leave this temple. But if the Head Monk hears you are leaving it will cause trouble.”
After Master Dogo died, Master Zengen went to the temple of Master Sekiso. He told Master Sekiso about the incident and asked him for his teaching.
Master Sekiso said, “I will not say alive or dead.”
Master Zengen said, “Why won’t you say.”
Master Sekiso said, “I will never say. I will never say.”
On hearing these words, Master Zengen finally understood.
This is one of the first koans I heard from my first teacher. It must have been something I was concerned about at the time. I started studying Buddhism for the same reason lots of people do. I was worried about death. I was unsatisfied with the Christian explanation of what death meant and what took place afterward. Yet I found atheism an unsatisfying alternative. I suppose this had a lot to do with my wanting to cling to the hope of an afterlife. But it also had a whole lot to do with the way I found the atheists I’d met or whose words I’d read seemed to be just as smug and self-satisfied with their certain knowledge of there not being an afterlife as the religious people I’d met were with their knowledge of all the details of what happens after you die. I found them both equally unconvincing.
For a while I was attracted to the idea of reincarnation. That scheme made more sense at least than the Christian idea. I mean, I always wondered what happened to a person in the Christian scheme whose sins weighed up to just a tiny bit more than his good deeds. I figure there must be a whole lot of people like that. Did they get tossed into Hell with Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin and all the rest of them? At least with reincarnation, you got another chance to make up that percentage. Still, reincarnation wasn’t wholly satisfying either.
I really liked this story when I heard it. It seemed like the most perfectly sensible explanation I’d ever heard.
Master Zengen wants to reduce the real world into just two categories that he believes he understands thoroughly. Either the guy in the casket is alive, maybe in Heaven or Hell or awaiting reincarnation, or he’s dead. But his teacher didn’t want to reduce reality to those categories. They are just descriptions, not the thing itself.
Life and death are just real states at the present moment. Even if you knew what happened after death, you wouldn’t really know. I mean, I know that on October 24th, I’m giving a lecture in Hastings, Nebraska. I have no idea what it will be like. I could gather every scrap of information ever written about Hastings, Nebraska and I still wouldn’t know the real situation that will happen when I get there.
This koan isn’t just about life and death, it’s about our whole approach to knowing and not knowing. We’re very keen to acquire knowledge. Zengen thought that his teacher possessed some knowledge he did not have. He thought that if his Master told him what he knew then he would possess that knowledge and the matter would be settled. But it’s never like that.
Years later when he puts the question to Sekiso, Zengen is a different person. His practice has matured. He’s stopped chasing after other people’s knowledge. So when he hears the very same answer once again, this time he gets it.