Case #29 from Shinji Shobogenzo Book One


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 wont 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 wont Ill 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 wont 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 Id met or whose words Id read seemed to be just as smug and self-satisfied with their certain knowledge of there not being an afterlife as the religious people Id 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 Id 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 hes dead. But his teacher didnt 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 wouldnt really know. I mean, I know that on October 24th, Im 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 wouldnt know the real situation that will happen when I get there.

This koan isnt just about life and death, its about our whole approach to knowing and not knowing. Were 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 its never like that.

Years later when he puts the question to Sekiso, Zengen is a different person. His practice has matured. Hes stopped chasing after other peoples knowledge. So when he hears the very same answer once again, this time he gets it.

15 Responses

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  1. The Very Left Reverend
    The Very Left Reverend September 28, 2006 at 8:30 pm | |

    Just to be clear, there are many many many more ways to view post-death in the Christan world that simply counting up good and bad deeds. A little guy named Martin Luther got into a bit of a stink for challenging that round about 1517.

    I know some have had a bad time with Christians, but don’t crucify all of us.

  2. Jordan & The Tortoise
    Jordan & The Tortoise September 28, 2006 at 9:01 pm | |

    Brad,
    good post and thanks for geting back to the good stuff!

    Gassho!

  3. Lone Wolf
    Lone Wolf September 28, 2006 at 9:27 pm | |

    Radio station WMUB at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio has a talk show that comes on at seven (this is my favrotie station being that they broadcast NPR as well). On Monday the topic of the show is Buddhism’s view on life after death, so I’m interested on who will be the speaker for Buddhism and what they will say about the subject. I might write a short summery on here. I have a feeling it will be a load of crap, but you never know.

    I enjoyed the post Brad. Pretty much the one and only reservation have about Gudo Nishijima’s teaching is this topic of rebirth. I get the whole idea of refuting reincarnation, who wants to worry over something like that when they have the present moment to deal with right here. But Gudo Nishijima seems to insist that there is nothing after death, and to say this to me implys the same mistake as putting it into a category. I mean we don’t what happens, why not just leave it at that. To make any claim and put that idea into some sort of box doesn’t sound like Buddhism to me. I could be miss interpreting. I mean, if there is no seperate I in the first place, who is there to get reborn or to go to the land of nevermore. The world goes on.

    I’ve studied quite a few different renditions of Buddhism and I seem to gravitate towards Gudo Nishijma and Brad (or You if you ever read these comment sections amymore) as what true Buddhism is.

    But as I said, I have questioned this one topic of rebirth. But this post seems to sum up how I feel about the topic, so thanks for posting it.

  4. tricam
    tricam September 28, 2006 at 11:15 pm | |

    How does anyone really, truely know they are going to die? Just becasue you’ve read all that there is to read about Hastings, Nebraska, and everyone seems to go to Hastings eventually, how do you know you will?

    eric

  5. MikeDoe
    MikeDoe September 28, 2006 at 11:58 pm | |

    For the life-after-death question I think the only answer can be in this Koan – an honest not knowing.

    Some in Buddhism teach there is no life after death. Some teach multiple lives. Some teach variations. None of them Know. It is all beliefs that are held dearly.

    These beliefs may influence how you live your life but they are just beliefs.

    I do not know the answer to what happens after I appear to die. I’ve ditched the christian ideas. I cannot find anything which is separate from this body that could reincarnate anywhere else but I also have to accept that despite all of this I do not know and any conjecture I make is in fact a belief not a fact.

  6. Snarkey
    Snarkey September 29, 2006 at 12:34 am | |

    Oh for fuck sakes. Dead is dead.

    This is one of those stories that just bugs the shit out of me.

    Let me tell it another way:

    Johnny Cash and Elvis are standing over Buddy Holly’s coffin. Elvis says: “Shoot man, is he really dead?” Johnny Cash says “Yeah man, he’s dead.”

    Why beat around the bush with this “will not say, will not say” nonsense?

  7. Jinzang
    Jinzang September 29, 2006 at 5:40 am | |

    Why beat around the bush with this “will not say, will not say” nonsense?

    This koan really isn’t concerned about life after death, any more than one hand clapping is concerned with acoustics. It’s about pointing back at who is asking the question. It’s really asking who are you right now?

  8. oxeye
    oxeye September 29, 2006 at 7:04 am | |

    It is interesting that zengen was referred to as a master even though he was a total prick at the beginning of the story. I guess just being a zen master doesnt mean you have your shit together yet.

    zengen thought that his teacher possessed some knowledge he did not have. dogo did not necessarily possess more knowledge.. He might have even possessed less knowledge. knowledge aint what its all about.

    Landon, the story was not an attack on Christians. it just points out that all Christians believe in something or other while many Buddhists do not.

    good stuff Brad.

  9. PA
    PA September 29, 2006 at 7:40 am | |

    I guess that means no youtube/podcast then :-)

  10. Esmerelda
    Esmerelda September 29, 2006 at 10:20 am | |

    Snarky said

    Oh for fuck sakes. Dead is dead.

    This is one of those stories that just bugs the shit out of me.

    It supposed to bug you, until you get it. Let me tell it another way. Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are standing over Keith Richards and Charlie says ‘Hey do you think he’s dead?’ Mick replies ‘Who the hell cares? He can still play great!’

    And he can, so why care?

  11. Anatman
    Anatman September 29, 2006 at 12:31 pm | |

    Esmerelda, thanks for that. Never saw it coming. Almost choked on the food I was eating. I supposed an advanced Zazen practionioner would show no reaction? ;-)

  12. Jules
    Jules September 29, 2006 at 1:53 pm | |

    Won’t say reaction, won’t say no reaction. :-)

    There’s a pretty famous guy named David Carradine who spent years figuring out what he thought “advanced Buddhist practitioners” SHOULD be like, and forcing himself to conform to that ideal. Dull as a sack of rocks, if you ask me.

  13. lkjlkjlkj
    lkjlkjlkj September 30, 2006 at 2:32 pm | |

    This koan is good example of the actual koan practice in the rinzai tradition.

    Think of it!! The Chinese monk hits his master because he wants to know!! Hitting your Master in ancient China was absolute no no(these names are japanned versions of actual Chinese names). You may think this is funny, but you can bet the monk was distressed beyond all comprehension. This question was not intellectual or academic to him. It was the question of life and death.

    Rinzai style koan practice emphasizes that there must be three aspects in practice: Great belief, great doubt and great determination. Great belief is the belief that this question is the important question. Great doubt is the constant asking without knowing. Great determination is the constant questioning. Zen person must concentrate on his koan without rest. This may take years. In this case the monk could not stand the not knowing mind. He wanted answer. Master of course could not give the answer to him. He must do his practice himself. And when he finally passed his koan, it was not the philosophical knowing of what happens when body dies. It was enlightenment (Brad kindly translates that to understanding). It was actual dying on the spot.


    If you die before you die,
    you don’t have to die when you die.

    In rinzai tradition, koans are used as shikantaza is used in soto tradition. They are not open for intellectual discussion.

  14. earDRUM
    earDRUM October 5, 2006 at 12:28 pm | |

    It ain’t black and white… we are dying as we live.

    Our hair and fingernails are dead cells. Some of my skin cells are dying right now. Are those skin cells going to heaven? Or will they be reincarnated? Was there some “soul” in those cells? If so, where did it go?

    Never mind about what happens when we die. I want to know where we came from before we were born. Have you ever wondered about that?

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