Life After Life and Avocados

Before Thanksgiving I posted a piece on this blog called Maybe You Chose Your Family. It got some interesting responses. Certain people seemed upset by the idea. One person accused me of spreading “new age nonsense.”

I thought I’d present you with the source of what I wrote in that piece. It may or may not be nonsense, but it’s certainly not “new age nonsense.” It’s a few thousand years old and is an integral component of the standard Buddhist belief system throughout most of Asia.

As I’ve said many times, in the Zen form of Buddhism belief doesn’t really matter. It’s not about what you believe. It’s about what you do. Beliefs only matter when they affect actions.

Anyway, below is the thing I was mainly referencing. It’s a section of an undated piece of writing by Dogen. It was probably intended as part of Shobogenzo. It was found after Dogen died among the writings he left unfinished. It’s included in the complete versions of Shobogenzo these days. The title of the piece is Doshin, which means something like “The Mind of the Way.”

At about the middle of this very short piece, Dogen goes into some stuff about what happens after we die. Here’s what he says:

Next, we should profoundly venerate the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We should desire to serve offerings to and venerate the Three Treasures, even through exchanging a life or exchanging the body. Asleep and awake, we should consider the merit of the Three Treasures. Asleep and awake, we should chant the Three Treasures. 

Even between abandoning this life and being born in a next life—in which period there is said to be a “middle existence” whose life is seven days—even during that period, we should intend to chant the Three Treasures without ever lulling the voice. After seven days we die in the middle existence, and then receive another body in the middle existence, for seven days. At the longest [this body] lasts seven days. At this time we can see and hear anything without restriction, as if with the supernatural Eye. At such a time, spurring the mind, we should chant the Three Treasures; we should chant without pause, not forgetting to recite “namu-kie-butsu, namu-kie-ho, namu-kie-so” (respect to Buddha, respect to Dharma, respect to Sangha). 

When, having passed out of the middle existence we are drawing close to a father and mother, we should steel ourselves and—even when, due to the presence of right wisdom, we are in the womb-store [world] that will commit us to the womb—we should chant the Three Treasures. We might not neglect to chant even while being born. 

We should profoundly desire that, through the six sense organs, we might serve offerings to, chant, and take refuge in the Three Treasures. Again, it may be that when this life ends [a person’s] two eyes become dark at once. At that time, knowing already that it is the end of our life, we should strive to chant “namu-kie-butsu.” Then the buddhas of the ten directions will bestow their compassion. Even sins for which—due to the presence of contributing causes—we might go to an evil world will be transformed, and we will be born in the heavens above; being born before the Buddha, we will worship the Buddha and hear the Dharma that the Buddha preaches. 

After darkness comes before our eyes, we should strive unflaggingly to recite the Three Devotions, not letting up even until the middle existence, and even until the next birth. In this manner, exhausting life after life in age after age, we should recite [the Three Devotions]. Even until we arrive at the buddha-effect of bodhi, we should not let up. 

Dogen makes reference to reincarnation in a number of places throughout Shobogenzo. But this is the only instance where he goes into any detail. He didn’t make this stuff up. It’s very traditional. He probably learned this stuff when he studied Tendai Buddhism in his youth. The Zen tradition tends to stay away from this sort of thing.

You’ll notice that Dogen’s intention here is not to teach his readers what happens after we die. He is not saying, “Listen up! You wanna know what happens after we die? Here it is. Believe this!” Instead his concern is to emphasize the importance of venerating Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. It’s so important to venerate them, he says, that we should keep on singing their praises even after we die. 

I devoted a chapter of my book Don’t Be a Jerk to examining this material in detail. The chapter is called “Did Dogen Believe in Reincarnation and Does It Matter If He Did.” Spoiler alert: I concluded that Dogen probably did believe in reincarnation. 

I also said that it matters to me if he believed in it. Because Dogen got much more deeply into zazen than I ever will. I’ve often read things that he wrote which, upon my initial reading of them, were incomprehensible to me. But then, later on, after more zazen practice, that stuff made perfect sense. Therefore, when it comes to this sort of stuff, which seems a bit woo-woo to me, I have to assume Dogen had good reason to believe it. Maybe he was right and I just haven’t gone deeply enough into my practice to be able to confirm it.

In my previous blog post I asked if it’s possible that we choose our family. However, “choose” isn’t quite the right word. I used it to draw attention to what I wanted to say. But, even in the traditional Buddhist scheme I referenced, we don’t choose our families in the way you might choose a ripe avocado out of a pile of avocados at the supermarket.

Dogen talks about “having passed out of the middle existence [when] we are drawing close to a father and mother.” He’s referring to the idea that actions we have taken in the past — based largely on choices we have made —  draw us to those who will be our parents in the next lifetime, and by extension to their families. What the Buddhists are saying is much more complex than simple choices about avocados.

But, then again, maybe even simple choices are based on webs of complexity that are far more complicated than we usually imagine. The fact that I’m standing in a particular supermarket on a specific day with a specific pile of avocados in front of me is part of a chain of events that literally stretches back to the moment the universe burst into existence. In fact, it goes even further back than that, the Buddhists would say. 

As I said last time, I wouldn’t say I believe this is what happens after we die. I really don’t know what will happen after I die. But I’ve found it useful to sometimes pretend this is what I believe.

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