What Should We Think About Death?

The video above has been making the rounds of the Internets lately. It’s narrated by Stephen Fry and put together by the British Humanist Association. It’s titled “What Should We Think About Death?” The basic message is that we’re all going to die and none of us really knows if there’s an afterlife or not. Furthermore, we have no reliable evidence of an afterlife. So we should treat each other kindly in this one life we know we have.

The matter of how we should think about death is a bit of a hot button topic among people who study Dogen, the founder of the school of Zen that I was ordained in. The question for them is; How does Dogen say we should think about death? In a number of my writings and videos I have stated that Dogen called reincarnation a non-Buddhist idea that was grafted on to Buddhism later.

These videos and writings set off a debate in an on-line Buddhist forum called Dharma Wheel. Here’s what one person who calls him/herself “Indrajala” said:

“I have a MA degree in Buddhist Studies from Soto Zen’s university in Tokyo. The point though is that the Buddha and Dogen all believed in this post-mortem continuity called rebirth. Modern revisionism is a whole other matter and while they may personally reject rebirth, they cannot deny the aforementioned figures all believed in rebirth. You really only find self-identifying Buddhists rejecting rebirth in the 20th century.”

A Dogen scholar associated with San Francisco Zen Center sent me an email that said, in part, “I appreciate what you say about how we can’t know what happens after death, and therefore Zen doesn’t emphasize that teaching. However you also say that Dogen ‘was very adamant that there is no reincarnation, that the idea of reincarnation is a non-Buddhist idea that was grafted onto Buddhism later on and isn’t originally part of Buddhism.’ Wow. I am concerned that others will actually think that is Dogen’s and Buddha’s view. As you probably know, there are many, many early Pali Suttas in which the Buddha talks about rebirth (I don’t like to use the word “reincarnation” which seems to imply there is some kind of “self” which reincarnates), including his description of his own night of awakening in which two of the three knowledges he realized involve seeing into rebirth (of course no atman is involved in Buddha’s view, and like karma and everything else for that matter, rebirth is only conventionally true). And Dogen, though it’s true he doesn’t emphasize the teaching, clearly teaches rebirth in the Shobogenzo fascicles Sanjigo, Shinjin Inga, and especially Doshin. Statements such as ‘death does not turn into birth’ in Genjo Koan are just talking about abiding in a dharma position, like ‘winter doesn’t become spring.’ I was wondering where you got the idea about Dogen’s adamant view that there is no reincarnation.”

My statements about Dogen’s denial of reincarnation/rebirth mainly come from things he said in Bendowa (A Talk About Practicing Zazen), Genjo Koan (The Realized Universe), and Soku Shin Ze Bustsu (Mind Here and Now is Buddha). All of these are available for free on-line at this URL. That’s the Nishijima/Cross translation. If you want a second opinion, Shasta Abbey has made their complete translation of Shobogenzo available free on-line too at this URL. There are other translations also on line if you do a bit of research and plenty more are in print, such as the excellent edition edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi.

In all three of these chapters, Dogen describes the common view of reincarnation/rebirth. Essentially, it’s the idea that after you die, your true essence leaves your body and enjoys a post-mortem continued existence a new body. He then denies this idea in the strongest possible terms. The most telling single line appears in Genjo Koan.

There Dogen says, “Firewood, after becoming ash, does not again become firewood. Similarly, human beings, after death, do not live again.” Although there are lots of variations in the English translations of Shobogenzo, every translation I’m aware of says pretty much the same thing at this point. Kazuaki Tanahashi’s says, “You do not return to birth after death.” Nishiyama/Stevens‘ says, “When human beings die, they cannot return to life.” Thomas Cleary’s says, “After dying a person does not become alive again.” Shasta Abbey’s translation says, “After someone dies, he does not come back to life again.” And just in case you want to know what Dogen himself says in Japanese it’s, Hito no shinuru no chisara ni iki to narazu.

However, as the guy from SFZC pointed out, there are other places in Shobogenzo in which Dogen appears to express a belief in something some might call “rebirth.” In Shinjin Inga (Deep Belief in Cause and Effect), he tells the story of a guy who gets reborn as wild fox for 500 lifetimes. In Sanjigo (Karma in the Three Times), he says that if you do bad things in this lifetime you will get bad effects even if they occur several lifetimes later. And in Doshin (The Will to the Truth), he says that it’s so important to revere Buddha, Dharma and Sangha that even during the “middle existence” between this life and the next, when you’re in a special kind of body that lasts for only seven days, you should still chant, “praise to Buddha, praise to Dharma, praise to Sangha.”

The key point for me, though, is when my friend at SFZC says Dogen “clearly teaches rebirth” or when people do things like describing Dogen’s presumed belief as one concerning a “post-mortem continuity.”

Dogen never “teaches rebirth” and he did not believe in a “post-mortem continuity.”

He never says anything like, “Hey kids! Here’s what happens after you die! It’s important for you to believe this!” In the instances I just mentioned in which he refers to rebirth, he is always using the existing belief in rebirth to make a different point. In Shinjin Inga (Deep Belief in Cause and Effect) the point is that we should always believe in cause and effect and never hold superstitious views that some kind of magical power or belief can circumvent it. In Sanjigo (Karma in the Three Times) the point is that no matter what you do, your actions will always have a reaction even if it takes a very long time to happen. In Doshin (The Will to the Truth), the point is that Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are so important you should always revere them no matter what happens to you, even if you die.

In contrast, the only times that Dogen directly addresses the belief in rebirth/reincarnation, he always very strongly denies it and teaches his students that it is important not to believe in such things.

Nor does he ever say that the kind of rebirth/reincarnation he describes in Bendowa, Genjo Koan and Mind Here and Now is Buddha is wrong and then follow that up by explaining that a different sort of “post-mortem continuity” is what actually happens.

Even so, I will admit it does appear that Dogen may have held a belief of his own that some people might call “rebirth.” Furthermore many of his latter-day followers also express such views. Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, who understood Dogen as well as anyone ever had, famously told a student of his, “You will always exist in the universe in one form or another.” When talking to me privately about what I should do with his group after he died, Gudo Nishijima, who always insisted that Dogen adamantly denied life after death, once said something like, “When I move on to another realm.”

However, whatever Dogen believed personally, it was clearly not a belief in any “post-mortem continuity.” If he believed in “post-mortem continuity” why would he say, “Human beings, after death, do not live again”?

Rather, when addressing what we should think about death, Dogen’s advice is much more like what Stephen Fry says in this video. Dogen says – again and again and again – something like, “Focus on this life. Live this actual day. Pay attention to just this very moment. This is where it’s all happening, not in some future lifetime, not in your next birth or your ‘middle existence’ between incarnations. Just here. Just now.”

What we truly are was never born and can never die. But even that part of us is just here, just now.

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Here’s my upcoming touring schedule:

Aug. 2 9:30 AM — 3:00 PM Half Day Zazen at Dogen Sangha Los Angeles in the Veteran’s Memorial Building 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230

Aug. 16 9:30 AM — Noon at Dogen Sangha Los Angeles in the Veteran’s Memorial Building 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230

Sept. 6 Houston Zen Center All Day Zazen

Sept. 9 Austin Zen Center

Oct. 1 Turku Panimoravintola Koulu, Finland– Movie screening

Oct. 2 Helsinki, Finland — Lecture Event

Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland Zen retreat at Helsinki Zen Center

Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland

Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany

Oct. 10-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany

Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany

Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany

Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany

Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 26: Movie screening in Eindhoven, Netherlands at Natlab

Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands

Oct 29: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands  at “De Roos” bookstore from 19.00-21.00  (P Cornelisz Hooftstr 183)

Oct 30: Lecture in Utrecht, Netherlands at “De wijze kater” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 ( Mariaplaats 1,  Utrecht)

Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov. 2: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands at ACU

Nov 6-8: Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK

Nov 9: Noon — 5pm  Manchester, UK

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74 Responses

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  1. Daniel
    Daniel July 24, 2014 at 5:56 am |

    Yawn…soto-sect scholars battling out what a guy who wrote a book hundreds of years ago in old japanese language could maybe have meant…remember the chan-teachers who destroyed the crappy books?

    People…say something on your own…or don’t. But what’s the point to try to figure out what a guy might have meant hundreds of years ago? You can’t even ask him anymore…like the jesus-guys arguing about the bible etc…so pointless.

    And totally not Zen. Here’s what zen patriarch Tony Parsons has to say about Death: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLu16QBGAx4

    Oh and while we’re at it…while not think about that good old Heart-Sutra you guys recite 100 times a day in old-japanese:

    All things are empty:
    Nothing is born, nothing dies

    Bingo. That’s enough.

  2. Happy
    Happy July 24, 2014 at 6:07 am |

    Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter.
    Birth, Death, Birth, Death.
    Breathe In, Breathe Out.

  3. Steve
    Steve July 24, 2014 at 6:10 am |

    This seems like a debate from two different perspectives – a philosophical and a phemonenological. On the one hand, from a early hindu philosophical perspective, you have true self as the underlying substance of all phenomena – one mind, atman. But this is premised on you to standing apart from the universe and objectively observing it. e.g. there is the one mind over there! On the other hand, you have a buddhist perspective of emptiness, recognizing that you can do no such thing. So atman becomes merely a concept to not be attached to. With rebirth, in a philosophical perspective, if all phenomena is a manifestation of this one mind substance, then you have constant manifestations or rebirth. From a phenomenological perspective, you don’t.

  4. minkfoot
    minkfoot July 24, 2014 at 6:23 am |

    I haven’t believed in rebirth for several lifetimes now.

  5. shade
    shade July 24, 2014 at 6:25 am |

    Well, judging from that video it seems there’s one at least thing that never dies: Snooty British condescension. (I imagine this is the exact sort of tone certain Anglican clergy once used in lecturing why their denomination represented the One True Church of Christ).

    I assume this abomination was made for children. Who apparently British Humanists consider to be inherently stupid. (For my part, Books and Cakes Forever is a pretty apt description of my concept of heaven)

    Pardon for straying; this post was about as clear as mud for me. Except one thing – the notion that spring does not turn into winter, nor ashes into wood? I’m not at all certain that’s accurate.

    1. Andy
      Andy July 24, 2014 at 8:44 am |

      “I assume this abomination was made for children.”

      Nice bit of snooty British condescension there, Shade.

      “Pardon for straying” a very British piece of rhetoric too.

      Satirical or unconscious?

      Stephen Fry has been cultivating his donnish persona for the British public for a good while. He likes to sprinkle his utterances with the odd low-brow swear word, in order to maintain his dual status as the ‘working man’s intellectual’ and ironical realist for a particular ‘upper-middle class’ set who also like to have it both ways too. I often find it/him irritating (despite the sweetness and good heart he often reveals) as one of the rest of us (millions of) Brits who don’t and never did (in the main) talk like that, and as an Englishman who would love the Queen to retire the monarchy (and its more invidious trickle down snooties) with her abdication.

      Spring is a concept. And it is a concept that relates to certain conditions and aspects. The concept becomes applicable when we notice, at that time, that the conditions and aspects fit our definition of spring. One concept doesn’t turn into another concept. There is a time when they are applicable. Without our concepts of Winter and Spring what is turning into what? Or, even, what has turned into what?

      1. Andy
        Andy July 24, 2014 at 8:48 am |

        ‘The foaming breakers of the void’ perhaps? Or the ‘Vortices of undying fortitude’?

        I don’t know, but I charge 0.333 pence for the use of those phrases.

        1. shade
          shade July 24, 2014 at 9:20 am |

          Not intending to denigrate the English. I can think of about a million English things and people I love without even trying. Nor did I mean to imply the English have a monopoly on condescension or snootiness. Only that the the condescending, snooty tone of this particular video struck me as a distinctively British.

          The only thing I know about Stephen Fry is that he played Oscar Wilde is some movie like ten years ago (badly in my opinion). He may be a perfectly cool person but somehow his form of diction or whatever is employed to an end here that just rankles with me. The problem is as much in the script as anything. Ie: “Some people do not like the thought of this, and do not accept it.” Why don’t they just say what they mean, “Some STUPID people.” You know, I think I prefer the caustic misanthropy of um, certain other proponents of secular humanism to this patronizing bullshit (though barely).

          But yeah, maybe “abomination” is a little much.

          What does this have to do with Dogen’s take on reincarnation? Nothing.

          1. Andy
            Andy July 25, 2014 at 1:03 am |


            “What does this have to do with Dogen’s take on reincarnation? Nothing.”

            I have no problem with you denigrating the English, especially that fossilized seam of bourgeois blue.

            What I was teasing you with, though, might have some relevance to all this rebirth stuff. The two phrases I quoted from your post appeared to me as of that particular English register ‘reborn’ in your own voice. I couldn’t work out whether this was a self-conscious parody or an unconscious thing. When folk talk about arousing the mind of the ancestors or when the Buddha spoke about his past lives as previous Buddhas and we refract this through the notion of no-self, I wonder if I’m pointing to a similar dynamic. Were you and Stephen Fry arousing a certain mind that predates both of you? And, perhaps, in a way that intersects with Proulx Michel’s ideas about memory, above?

            At the moment, I’m studying “The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A study of Madhyamika System”, by T.R.V Murti. It was written some time ago, but I really recommend it.

  6. mai_neh
    mai_neh July 24, 2014 at 6:50 am |

    I hope I never become so famous that people argue about what my beliefs were 900 years after I stopped having any 🙂

  7. Senjo
    Senjo July 24, 2014 at 7:38 am |

    Brad, I don’t believe in rebirth either but at the end of Bendowa, Dogen says:

    “when we recall the bequest of Vulture Peak, the kings, nobles, ministers and generals now manifested in hundred myriad kotis of realms all have gratefully accepted the Buddha’s decree and, not forgetting the original aim of earlier lives to guard and maintain the buddha’s teaching, they have been born.”

    This is clearly talking about the kings, nobles’ etc previous lives isn’t it? I think we just have to accept that what Dogen was refuting as the view of Senica earlier in Bendowa was the idea of a ‘permanent’ essence passing from life to life. Despite this, he still seems to accept the Buddhist concept of rebirth (as much as I personally wish he didn’t!).

    1. mtto
      mtto July 24, 2014 at 9:17 am |

      In this quote Dogen is referencing the Lotus Sutra. Dogen references the Lotus Sutra frequently in his writing, and he doesn’t label it as a quote, so if you aren’t familiar with the Lotus Sutra, you won’t get what he’s doing.

      Whether it is accurate to say that Dogen literally believed in the Lotus Sutra is a tricky question. In our modern sense of the word “literal,” I don’t think Dogen “literally” believed the stories in the Lotus Sutra, many of which are parables. Dogen did revere the Lotus Sutra, and his concept of time comes partially from his understanding of the Lotus Sutra.

      So no, this passage isn’t clearly talking about the kings, nobles, etc. previous lives. It’s talking about the Lotus Sutra. And the Lotus Sutra is talking about time and the expansiveness of the Dharma. “Visions of Awakening Space and Time: Dogen and the Lotus Sutra” by: Taigen Dan Leighton is the book to read if you want to go down the rabbit hole of understanding what Dogen is doing with his Lotus Sutra quotes. Also, obviously, reading the Lotus Sutra will help as well.

      1. mtto
        mtto July 24, 2014 at 8:51 pm |

        Specifically, this passage is refuting the idea that since Japan is a backwards barbarian country full of stupid people (unlike India and China) zazen is impossible in Japan.

        It’s a version of “I can’t meditate because my ‘Western’ mind won’t calm down.” Apparently, even Dogen had to deal with students saying this one.

  8. Hoetsu
    Hoetsu July 24, 2014 at 11:00 am |

    Surely the notion that there is some sort of autonomous self-phenomenal thing that comes and goes has no place in Mahayana, never mind early Buddhism. Perhaps speaking of re-anything, whether incarnation or birth, is the real problem, because it suggests coming and going.

  9. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel July 24, 2014 at 11:13 am |

    I was always quite interested in the “former lives” thing, especially since the day that my dad, in hypnosis, said he had been an orthodox priest in the Island of Syros, in the Cyclades. But one of the aspects of all accounts of “former lives” that has always stricken me, is the unaccuracies that are frequently observed. The last being the report of that Scottish boy of Glasgow who’d always talk about his former life in the Isle of Barra, more than 500 km west of Glasgow and the quite accurate things he’d say about that Isle and his former “life”.
    See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgOBfCrxS3U
    But what strikes me in all those reports are the discrepancies. In my opinion, the discrepancies are the gist of the thing. Just as when I dreamt of an accident as I was riding an invisible motorbike, accident which DID happen a month later, with an actual motorbike: the fact that the bike was absent in the dream was the indication that it wasn’t a symbolic bike (which appeared in many other dreams).
    This would mean that the kid does not remember a previous life of his, but has memories of the life of someone else, memories which collide with other memories (hence the discrepancies). You may, for example, remember some episode of the life of Alexander the Great, from some reading you had. That doesn’t mean you are a reincarnation of Alexander the Great.

  10. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer July 24, 2014 at 11:58 am |

    Belief or non-belief in rebirth is, as far as I can tell, a matter of faith. And if this is so, finding and quoting a scrap out of a sutra or Dogen can’t possibly prove anything.

    My Mom, who was and is a practicing Christian, used to say that she would get her guard up when someone would quote a section of the Bible and then proceed to say “What this really means…”.

    I frequently get the same feeling when someone explains some piece of Dogen, like, how the hell do you know what this piece of nonsense really means? Sometimes over the course of years, some piece of Dogen will start to make sense to me and I take this as a sign that maybe my practice is going OK after all.

    The bottom line for me is that thinking and arguing about previous lives and rebirth can be really interesting but not much more than that.


  11. buzzard30
    buzzard30 July 24, 2014 at 1:16 pm |

    I’m coming back as a cloud.

  12. shade
    shade July 24, 2014 at 1:19 pm |

    From what I can make out, Dogen is referring to the doctrine of reincarnation the same way some Christian theologians refer to pagan mythology and philosophy. That is, not because they really “believe” in such notions (or crazy stories), but in order to illustrate some point from their own belief system in a way that will be comprehensible to an pagan audience . Or to put in another way, figuratively, not literally. You know, like with St. Paul and “The Unknown God” in the book of Acts? He wasn’t saying that “The Living God” was just another member of the Athenian pantheon that hung out at that particular shrine; but rather that that this “unknown god” was the closest the Greeks had come to an accurate understanding of the God he was preaching (At least, I think that’s what he was saying.)

  13. Wibble
    Wibble July 24, 2014 at 2:07 pm |

    Stephen Fry’s a smug twonk of ever there was one.
    He’s TV audience death here in Blighty, all his shows are being canned for want of viewers.
    Hence this Humanist voiceover gig perhaps.
    We’ll all know soon enough what happens once we cash in our chips.
    No rush to find out here but rather hoping to come back as someone slightly richer next time.

  14. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon July 24, 2014 at 3:03 pm |

    “Last night I saw upon the stair,
    A little man who wasn’t there.
    He wasn’t there again today,
    Oh, how I wish he’d go away…”

    1. Andy
      Andy July 25, 2014 at 1:10 am |

      That’s intimacy for you!

  15. jason farrow
    jason farrow July 24, 2014 at 3:45 pm |

    I cannot escape birth and death. It’s like walking around with a hot cup of tea, and the water spilling over the sides.

    Drives me bloody insane.

  16. jason farrow
    jason farrow July 24, 2014 at 3:50 pm |

    Dogen doesn’t make any sense unless you’ve met him. Those who’ve met him, they can explain it. But they will never really be able to explain too those who’ve never met Dogen.

  17. jason farrow
    jason farrow July 24, 2014 at 3:51 pm |

    ZEN MASTER DOGEN’S VOW (Eihei Koso Hotsuganmon)

    From this life throughout countless lives,
    we vow with all beings to hear the true Dharma.
    Hearing it, no doubt arises, nor is faith lacking.
    Meeting and maintaining it, we renounce worldly affairs,
    and together with all beings and the great earth
    realize the Buddha Way.

    Past negative actions accumulate and cause the arising
    of many obstacles to the practice of the Way.
    May all Buddhas and Ancestors who have realized the Way
    extend their compassion and free us from these karmic effects,
    allowing us to practice without hindrance.
    May they share with us their boundless compassion,
    and fill the universe with the virtue of their enlightened teaching.

    Buddhas and Ancestors of old were as we.
    In the future, we shall be Buddhas and Ancestors.
    Revering Buddhas and Ancestors, we are one Buddha and one Ancestor.
    Awakening Bodhi-mind, we are one Bodhi-mind.
    As they extend their compassion freely to us,
    we are able to realize Buddhahood and let go
    of the realization.

    The Chan Master Lung-ya said:

    “Those unenlightened in past lives will now be enlightened.
    In this life, take care of the body, the fruit of many lives.
    Before Buddhas were enlightened, they were the same as we.
    Enlightened people of today are exactly the same as the ancients.”

    This is the exact transmission of a verified Buddha,
    so quietly explore the far-reaching effects of these causes and conditions.
    Repenting in this way, one never fails to receive help,
    deep and unending, from all Buddhas and Ancestors.
    Revealing before Buddha one’s lack of faith and failure to practice
    dissolves the root of these unwholesome actions.
    This is the pure and simple manifestation of true practice,
    of the true mind and body of faith.

  18. r72rock
    r72rock July 24, 2014 at 4:11 pm |

    Cool post. I love this topic. Thanks for sharing all those translations too.

    This stuff’s interesting, but I always feel that the more interesting part of “how we should think about death” is in living our day to day lives with the knowledge of our mortality. How to learn being mindful of our fears of death (after all, it is considered the great matter in Zen) and learning how to live with them. That’s something I feel everyone’s learning.

  19. dougleader
    dougleader July 24, 2014 at 5:23 pm |

    Thou shall not question Stephen Fry.

  20. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 24, 2014 at 8:45 pm |

    Proulx Michel, thanks for that.

  21. Andy
    Andy July 25, 2014 at 1:07 am |


    “What does this have to do with Dogen’s take on reincarnation? Nothing.”

    I have no problem with you denigrating the English, especially that fossilized seam of bourgeois blue.

    What I was teasing you with, though, might have some relevance to all this rebirth stuff. The two phrases I quoted from your post appeared to me as of that particular English register ‘reborn’ in your own voice. I couldn’t work out whether this was a self-conscious parody or an unconscious thing. When folk talk about arousing the mind of the ancestors or when the Buddha spoke about his past lives as previous Buddhas and we refract this through the notion of no-self, I wonder if I’m pointing to a similar dynamic. Were you and Stephen Fry arousing a certain mind that predates both of you? And, perhaps, in a way that intersects with Proulx Michel’s ideas about memory, above?

    At the moment, I’m studying “The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A study of Madhyamika System”, by T.R.V Murti. It was written some time ago, but I really recommend it.

  22. Mumbles
    Mumbles July 25, 2014 at 4:55 am |
    1. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon July 25, 2014 at 1:28 pm |

      Ancient Chinese secret, huh?

      1. Mumbles
        Mumbles July 27, 2014 at 7:37 am |

        Thin, without fever, not cold, not warm, with empty eyes, without a shirt, the young man under the stuffed quilt heaves himself up, hangs around my throat and whispers in my ear, “Doctor, let me die.”

        – Excerpt from Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor”

        1. Mumbles
          Mumbles July 27, 2014 at 7:39 am |

          The above comment was supposed to go below. Mysterious.

          And now it is.

          As above

          So below.

  23. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 25, 2014 at 9:40 am |

    Something I just came across:

    “Sensory Integration in Child Development

    One of the most distinctive contributions that Ayres made to understanding child development was her focus on sensory processing, particularly with respect to the proximal senses (vestibular, tactile and proprioceptive). From the sensory integration viewpoint, these senses are emphasized because they are primitive and primary; they dominate the child’s interactions with the world early in life. The distal senses of vision and hearing are critical and become increasingly more dominant as the child matures. Ayres believed, however, that the body-centered senses are a foundation on which complex occupations are scaffolded.”

    (from here)

    Ayres’ theories regarding the importance of the “proximal senses” in “ameliorating cognitive functions such as learning disabilities” is apparently controversial.

  24. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 25, 2014 at 10:14 am |

    My guess is that the “proximal senses” can also dominate an adult’s interactions with the world. Could it be that amygdala becomes engaged in the experience of the proximal senses– reflection on impermanence, the “great matter”, and yet the amygdala also is the mechanism of positive response, say to inner happiness.


    1. Fred
      Fred July 25, 2014 at 1:58 pm |

      “. Kazuaki Tanahashi’s says, “You do not return to birth after death.” Nishiyama/Stevens‘ says, “When human beings die, they cannot return to life.” Thomas Cleary’s says, “After dying a person does not become alive again.” Shasta Abbey’s translation says, “After someone dies, he does not come back to life again.”

      It depends on what you mean by “you.”

      A you that is the universe continues on forever.

      A you that is a personality born in the contingencies of conditioning, existed as
      an illusion anyway.

  25. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon July 25, 2014 at 1:22 pm |

    Too Deep… The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger…

    …inspired by…

  26. A beginner in Texas
    A beginner in Texas July 25, 2014 at 8:32 pm |

    I am a beginner in Zen but I’ve seen death. From the practice in American culture of showing off the remains of a person, looking upon the face of relatives and co-workers I moved into the medical field. From teenage cancer patients gasping their last, agonized breaths to centenarians who die in their sleep I’ve been there.

    What I’m grasping intellectually from reading the various authors on Zen is that one effect (not goal) of this practice is seeing how the ego is something of a fiction. A collection of memories that assumes it is the “real” me.

    Most beliefs in life after death seem to be wrapped around the survival of the ego after death. Ghosts? Egos without physical form hanging around after the corpse is taken away. Heaven? Where your ego is supposed to go if you were devout or just made a good death bed contrition (or maybe predestination?) Ancient Egyptians made belief in the survival the ego into a major centerpiece of their culture. From tomb construction to supporting a major industry to appeal to the egos of the departed for help in their present, or in their eventual future, life.

    How, then, would one rationalize the realization of the ego as a fiction with a belief that the ego is reincarnated?

    If it’s not the ego that is reincarnated then what is the “you” that is reincarnated?

    1. Leah
      Leah July 25, 2014 at 9:27 pm |


      That’s a really interesting comment. It took me two readings to wrap my head around it. Here’s part of the reason why:

      I see “ego” and “self” (or the self we believe we have) as two separate things. To me (this is probably coming from Thicht Naht Hanh’s teachings; I forget), if there is any “ghost” or some “true essence,” it’s the self, not the ego.

      Then again (someone will correct me, I’m sure), self might be synonymous with ego to some. Terminology aside (not a Buddhist scholar here), what I’m differentiating between is the “ego” (and who or what we believe we are to feed our needs and so on and for self-preservation or whatever psychological stuff) vs. the true self (or essence).

      “If it’s not the ego that is reincarnated then what is the “you” that is reincarnated?”

      As I see it, if anything is reincarnated or reborn it’s the essence of us (spirit, soul perhaps), or the observer who watches the mind and ego at work while we meditate or do whatever else. The part of us that reminds ourselves to just “do the dishes” when our egos are whining that we don’t want to, that we have better things to do, or that this shouldn’t be something I have to do. The part that tells us to drink our tea or walk or do anything fully in the present, the part that consciously ignores the thoughts that tumble around in our heads. The part of us that can comment about our own egos or observe our neediness, our reactions, our anger and other emotions and so on.

      So, as I see it, the ego goes nowhere because it doesn’t exist. It sort of does because it’s all these beliefs and ideas we have about ourselves that we cling to, but it’s not anything real, it’s not our essence. So when we die, ego is gone. And all that is left (if anything is left) is the “true essence” (as Brad put it–though not in this context) and a heap of ashes or a carbon-based body all pumped up with chemicals, stitched together, and laid out for all to observe. Or rotting somewhere, or whatever.

      1. The Grand Canyon
        The Grand Canyon July 26, 2014 at 5:30 am |

        The Buddhist concept of emptiness is closely related to the concept of “dependent origination.” A simple explanation is that all phenomena lack an essence and are simply the results of causes and conditions. Causes and conditions are also phenomena which lack an essence and are simply the results of other causes and conditions.
        Some people propose that “emptiness” is the essence of all phenomena, or that all phenomena somehow “come from emptiness,” or that “emptiness is the ground of being,” but Nagarjuna and others explicitly and logically argue that emptiness is also empty. Emptiness is not a thing, it is the absence of a thing, specifically, any type of essence.

        1. Conrad
          Conrad July 30, 2014 at 2:34 pm |

          I think it’s useful to combine dependent origination with the scientific concept of an “emergent phenomena”. The body-mind changes all the time, and the ego-self is simply an emergent phenomena in the midst of all those changes. Whatever state of mind or body exists in any given moment, the ego-self emerges in that form, and thus changes as the body-mind changes as well.

          This goes on at the subtler levels of the body-mind also. And it accounts for how even in rebirth, a different kind of ego-self emerges, because it’s a different physical body and mind. It changes from childhood to old age, and from birth to death to rebirth. There’s nothing permanent about the ego-self. But it’s also foolish to pretend that the emergence of this ego-self won’t keep happening so long as we remain ignorant of the whole mechanism.

  27. mb
    mb July 25, 2014 at 11:58 pm |

    OK, let’s flesh this ego/self/reincarnation thing out a little bit more (long as we’re on the subject)

    #1) Ego reincarnates into another ego. “I was Genghis Khan and Julian Caesar in 2 of my past lives, but have incarnated into the soul of Joe Schmoe to learn lessons in my present life”

    #2) Ego (personality) dissolves at physical death but what continues is the “soul”, and it is this “soul” that reincarnates into a new personality and body to continue learning meaningful lessons

    #3) Ego as such can’t possibly be truthfully treated as either a solid subject or a “solid” object, but more as an ongoing process, which maybe through meditation, can be interrupted sometimes. Therefore reincarnation is then just so much hooey and quite meaningless.

    #4) Great spiritually-advanced personages, like Tibetan lamas, can, with years and years and years of preparation, study, training, discipleship, etc. can choose their next incarnation. Hence the little kids and trinket-recognition ceremonies prevalent in Tibetan culture even today…

    #5) Souls of great merit (and those well-versed with the Tibetan Book of the Dead) don’t reincarnate! At least not at first – they get to live in heaven worlds (until the bliss runs out after xx eons).

    #6) The Mormon meritocracy award their devout deceased with entire planets!
    (I’m waiting for someone to report back on the verity of that someday)

    #7) Heaven, Hell and Purgatory (x-tian)

    #8) What if, after death, the ego (personality) remained, but the world (both internal and external) disappeared entirely and all you were left with was an infinite inky blackness, which extended in all directions? Would that be some form eternal torture, akin to being buried alive or going to hell? Or is it actually the Void, the very source of manifestation?

    #9) etc.

    Just trying to further the discussion. (Hope I didn’t derail it!) Any attempt to answer any of the above rhetorical questions are done so at the responder’s risk, and may be laughed or appreciated, or possibly both.

  28. Jason
    Jason July 26, 2014 at 12:24 am |


    I think the word “ego” has sort of a bad rap in our culture, like it just means the selfish, scared, petty aspect of ourselves. I think what Mr. In TX (and the entire history of Buddhist thought) is getting at is the illusory nature of the ego not just in terms of your “egotistical” identity, but in terms of the entire idea of your “self” as an individual entity separate from the rest of the universe.

    What we are as individuals is a temporary matrix of circumstances that’s actually a part of a larger, infinite web of cause and effect. The illusion isn’t just the negative thoughts and emotions you experience. The illusion is the idea that your particular knot of circumstances makes up an actual individual entity that’s separate from the rest of everything. In fact, who “you” really are is, as you say, the awareness observing the thoughts and sensations you experience. That awareness is the ground upon which all phenomena occur.

    So I’d argue that the part of you that tells you to do the dishes or anything else, is just another part of the ego, i.e. the network of conditions that imagines itself to be a separate entity. “Just do the dishes” is just another thought that your “true essence” is aware of, just another circumstance the Awareness is experienceing.

    So the problem with the idea of reincarnation, as I see it, is that if your “true essence” is the Ground Of All Being, it can’t really die or be born because individual circumstances (and the matrices thereof) are the figures that come and go against the backdrop of The Ground, while your true essence is not one of those circumstances, it’s The Ground itself. That which dies and is born is the content of the Awareness. The Awareness, i.e. your true essence, is sort of the place things are born into and die away from. So it makes no sense to me that your “true essence” survives the death of the network of circumstances we call our “selves,” and is then reborn into a different “self.” It looks more like an infinite succession of “selves” are born and die within the context of what we’re calling your true essence, all of them having that same essence, which can’t come from or go anywhere because it already is everywhere.

    This stuff is really hard to put into words. Reading what I just wrote–I stand by it as a fairly decent linguistic approximation of the situation, but I apologize if I just sound like a total crazy person.

    1. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon July 26, 2014 at 5:47 am |

      “Ground” is just another word for dirt. We come from dirt, and we return to dirt. Our food grows in dirt, food becomes our bodies after we eat it, and then we poop out dead body cells and digested food that fertilize the dirt. If you are looking for the “ground of being”, it is right under your feet.

      “Be noble, for you are made of stars.
      Be humble, for you are made of dirt.”

    2. Leah
      Leah July 27, 2014 at 12:05 am |


      I re-read what I wrote, and I see I didn’t explain well at all. Hard to do when I don’t explain much less think about this stuff very often. Well, I think about it, but not with terminology that I can communicate easily.

      By ego, I don’t mean the “bad rap” ego or the Freudian (or Jungian) ego but the “me” that we call ourselves. Our ego identity. Who and what we believe we are or the stuff we cling to: I am a writer, a sister, a friend, a good person, a lazy slob, a hard worker….and so on. All sorts of stuff, emotions, reactions, judgments. I can’t think of the Buddhist terms that might be part of that..the aggregates?

      And to me this is not what might be reborn–if such a thing actually happens. That stuff changes over time; the ego identity of a child is not the same as the adult’s, and an adult’s ego identity can change–as you say, “a temporary matrix of circumstances .”

      “So I’d argue that the part of you that tells you to do the dishes or anything else, is just another part of the ego,”

      And I’d agree with you 🙂 That’s a part I messed up. What I meant was the part of us that is all calm about washing the dishes. The awareness behind the ego that tells us to just wash the dishes….there’s a better term. What is left when we’re just a shining light. Sort of. Don’t some call that Nirvana? Not as a place to go or the final incarnation but the ego-less or self-less state–the no-thing state, just pure energy or awareness (aka spirit, soul in other traditions). I really should scholarize myself a bit!

      “So the problem with the idea of reincarnation, as I see it, is that if your “true essence” is the Ground Of All Being, it can’t really die or be born”

      I don’t know what the Ground of All Being is but I looked it up. Tillich and God-as-being? I don’t know.

      “So it makes no sense to me that your “true essence” survives the death of the network of circumstances we call our “selves,” and is then reborn into a different “self.””

      Could be “true essence” isn’t the right term. But what I mean is something that we are which knows no death but is energy that carries on.

      What I have trouble imagining is something like: OK you die, and this essence slips away, and it goes around and somehow finds a body to insert itself into, whether at the moment of conception or at birth or whatever….I don’t know about that. Sounds like something from The Exorcist, if you ask me.

      But then again, I’ve seen some interesting things that can’t be explained any other way. Some things in my own life–a cafe in Paris I dreamed about repeatedly (before I’d ever been to Paris) and found it–and knew exactly where the bathroom was (quite hidden down a winding staircase in the back). A dog that seemed to be the reincarnation of another dog who had died…..it was uncanny. People I meet, and we just know we knew each other before..all subjective, of course. Arguable.

      “This stuff is really hard to put into words.”

      Agree 🙂

  29. minkfoot
    minkfoot July 26, 2014 at 3:49 am |

    Ancient Hippy Wisdom: “Whatever you think about it, it’s actually something else.”*

    We are, most of us, heavily influenced by the modernist paradigm, whether we agree with it or oppose it. This paradigm offers several assertions as truths supported by reason when they are actually assumptions chosen by emotion in reaction to the medieval paradigm. Among the elements of this modernist paradigm are assertions like,
    God does not exist.
    Reality is only what can be observed with the senses.
    Material existence is the basis of reality.
    Consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter organized by evolution into a brain.

    A paradigm functions in such a way that the elements of the paradigm framing our thought seems obviously true. The emphasis is on “seems.” It operates on a level below conscious thought, though it heavily influences thought. We are usually aware of our paradigms only when reality slaps our face with heavy contradictions and we are forced to change paradigms.

    It’s well worth often going back to reexamine what assumptions our thought is based on and ask how valid retaining them is.

    Couldn’t quickly find the Sutta, but in at least one place, the Buddha says that the assertions
    I will survive after death, and
    I will not survive after death,
    are both wrong. What does this mean?

    I think it means at least being cautious about believing too strongly in anything we think about it. Yet, at the same time, buddhist teaching lays out a grand career of many lives walking the Path. I think that’s a noble and worthwhile paradigm.

    *The actual acid slogan is: “Everything you know is wrong.”

    1. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon July 26, 2014 at 5:01 am |

      Yeah, man, but if EVERYTHING that you know is wrong, then KNOWING that everything that you know is wrong is ALSO wrong.

      “Buddha says that the assertions I will survive after death, and I will not survive after death, are both wrong. What does this mean?”
      The most likely error is in assuming that “I” exist before death. It’s comparable to making assertions about the wife of a bachelor. After a bachelor dies, can his wife collect on his life insurance policy?

      1. minkfoot
        minkfoot July 26, 2014 at 6:05 am |

        The slogan is the acid talking. It’s not wrong until you believe it.

        What you say in your second paragraph is certainly part of it.

        In any case, logic gets tricky around these matters. To compound things, there are lots of assumptions that haven’t been fully thought through behind some of the reasoning offered. Frinstance, one argument against rebirth goes, how can there be rebirth when there’s nothing to be reborn? Well, if there’s nothing to be reborn, what can keep it from rebirth?

        1. The Grand Canyon
          The Grand Canyon July 26, 2014 at 8:47 am |

          “Well, if there’s nothing to be reborn, what can keep it from rebirth?”

          Condoms. And if condoms fail, there is always abortion.
          That sentence contains a semantic illusion that gives the appearance that “nothing” is a thing that could be reborn, instead of the absence of any thing that could be reborn. Unless the “it” refers to something else, in which case it is so vague as to be meaningless. If someone threw nothing at you, how could you prevent it from hitting you? (Most of the time nothing is hitting me and I actually prefer it that way.)

        2. minkfoot
          minkfoot July 26, 2014 at 6:17 pm |

          Very good. However, the point is that one was nothing, gets born, and is still nothing. Pretty interesting nothingness!

          The semantic illusion is still there, but that’s how people, even Buddhists, think.

          Some say a self is the result of a continuity of consciousness supported by a body. Thus rebirth is impossible as there is no physical connection between bodies. Others say there is momentary birth-and-death without continuity, with a self each moment. Contemplating either way is useful, but do they give us useful information about the possibility of rebirth?

          Myself, I am inclined to accept the traditional teachings since that is how generations of Buddhists have practiced. I take rebirth and other realms and other doctrines involving non-material reality lightly, though they do provide a certain grand vision for my practice. I cultivate the triple faith: in my teachers, in the teachings, and in my ability to carry out the teachings, but the teachings I accept without any intentional provisos are those dealing with practice itself. Thus far, every step in practice has confirmed that the Buddhas and Ancestors haven’t lied.

          I find the arguments against rebirth unconvincing. Agnosticism is fine with me, but utter denial seems based on modernist assumptions that have not been debated. Like, is time absolute to existence, or can existence be timeless, or of a different scheme of time?

          If you find the idea of rebirth bizarre, maybe you haven’t been paying enough attention to science these days.

          1. Jason
            Jason July 26, 2014 at 11:15 pm |

            I don’t know that this is necessarily an “argument against rebirth,” but there seems, to me anyway, to be a contradiction in the Buddhist system of metaphors that explain and describe reality. If it’s a given that the separate and fixed individual identity is an illusion, and that identity is really just a particular conglomoration of temporary circumstances–then what, exactly, is it that’s being “reborn?” Is it that a set of conditions exists, then dissipates, then recurs in a form that’s similar enough to a previously existing set of conditions that we think of the two sets as the same person?

            I’m not trying to make an assertion for or against the idea of rebirth. I’m trying to understand what exactly the idea is.

          2. minkfoot
            minkfoot July 27, 2014 at 4:42 am |

            If it’s a given that the separate and fixed individual identity is an illusion, and that identity is really just a particular conglomoration of temporary circumstances—then what, exactly, is it that’s being “reborn?” Is it that a set of conditions exists, then dissipates, then recurs in a form that’s similar enough to a previously existing set of conditions that we think of the two sets as the same person?

            I’d say so.

            Ever stare from a bridge over a river with good currents? In certain places whirlpools form and whirl for a bit of time, only to disappear for awhile, then reappear. They are conditioned by the shape of the riverbanks and bottom. The question of whether the whirlpool that reappears is the “same” as the one previously in that spot is similar to asking whether an individual that remembers a previous life is the “same” as the individual remembered. Or, if that is objected to as presupposing one individual can remember another’s life, take yourself now, and yourself at ten years old (assuming you are older than ten). Are you the “same” as that ten-year-old? Both yes and no are correct answers.

            But if you say yes, how is that identity carried through time? With the river, it’s in the conditions which include the shape of the riverbottom. In the human, it’s in the body and the history of consciousness.

            Some teachers say what’s reborn is the complex of karmic results. This would correspond to the shape of the river. However, people question what carries the karma between life and life. One scheme could be other realms or invisible infrastructure.

            Consider the Big Bang, when time began and all the matter and energy in the universe exploded out of a single point. Obviously, the potentiality of this happening had to exist. Where?

            But maybe there is no need for karma to have a carrier, like light has no need of æther as a medium. The idea that we understand spacetime is overly flattering to ourselves.

            In an old issue of Whole Earth Catalogue, Alan Watts compared stars in a galaxy to a succession of lives. At first, they seem a random jumble but when you come out to a sufficient scale, you can see that they are in a pattern caused by hidden forces, and they compose a greater unity. Likewise, the ripples of karma that go out upon the world and reflect back to another focus, can form a string of lives with hidden connections that could be called an “individual” across many lives.

            Does this include memory? Speculation aside, there are instances of meditators and others claiming that possibility. If karmic patterns can propagate themselves, perhaps memory is included.

            Without memory, whether an individual is reborn or not is moot. Yet karma itself is a form of memory, no?

  30. The Idiot
    The Idiot July 26, 2014 at 4:38 am |

    Maybe we identify too much with the physical body that can be seen. We may be unaware that this body is like the flower on a plant that falls off in autumn and blooms again in spring. The whole plant, which has a tendency to produce flowers is that which through practices experiences cessation.

  31. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 26, 2014 at 11:55 am |

    “… it is on the conjunction of three things that there is conception. If there is here a coitus of the parents, but it is not the mother’s season and the gandhabba is not present– for so long there is not conception. If there is coitus of the parents and it is the mother’s season, but the gandhabba is not present– for so long there is not conception. But if… there is coitus of the parents and it is the mother’s season and the gandhabba is present, it is on the conjunction of these three that there is conception.”

    (MN I 265-266, Pali Text Society volume 1 pgg 321-322)

    In the footnotes, attributed to “commentary on the Majjhima Nikaya”, is this explanation of gandhabba: “the being who is coming into the womb… the being about to enter the womb… about to come into that situation, being driven on by the mechanism of kamma (karma).” A second explanation offered is “samsaric being in the intermediate stage (between birth and death).”

    This, from a lecture where Sati the fisherman’s son is rebuked for representing the teaching of Gautama as being that “it is this consciousness that speaks, that feels, that experiences now here, now there, the fruition of deeds that are lovely and that are depraved”.

    Gautama goes through the entire teaching in response, beginning with “apart from condition there is no origination of consciousness”, and in particular “it is because… an appropriate condition arises that consciousness is known by this or that name: if consciousness arises because of eye and material shapes, it is known as visual consciousness (and so forth through all six senses, the Aristotelian five plus the mind as the sixth).

  32. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 26, 2014 at 12:19 pm |

    The question of whether or not Dogen believed in conception the way Gautama understood it, can’t say. But I wonder how much access Dogen had to the Pali Canon. From what I’ve read of the Chan teachers, they had access; in particular, Ru-jing, Dogen’s teacher, in his statements about “no long or short to inhalation and exhalation” appears to be referencing Gautama’s practice, where mindfulness of the “long inhalation as long, the short inhalation as short, the long exhalation as long, the short exhalation as short” constitutes the second element of the practice.

    Right off the top, I can’t remember anything in Dogen’s teaching that indicates he had read any of the Pali Canon; he riffed on other sources in most of his writing (if not all), but all based on Chinese sources.

    The details in Gautama’s teaching are difficult to get a handle on. And once you get a handle, he advises you to remember the parable of the raft, and forget it (well… bury it under a bush or submerge it in the water, but don’t carry it along).

    I don’t claim to understand Gautama’s views on reincarnation. The thing I get is that maybe what we really identify with as the self is really a function of some of the senses, though not the ones he named.

  33. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel July 26, 2014 at 2:21 pm |

    He would not have known the Pali Canon, but he would have known, at least partially, the Agama Sutras, which are the equivalent of those of the Pali Canon, in the Chinese Canon. Many of which are much the same.

  34. SamsaricHelicoid
    SamsaricHelicoid July 26, 2014 at 6:54 pm |

    I personally like Julius Bahnsen views. Based off my own experiences on the cushion and solitude, I feel it to be true. Here is quote from a friend:

    “Having finished the excellent “Der Widerspruch im Wissen und Wesen der Welt/The Contradiction in the Knowledge and Nature of the World”, I’d like to share share a choice bit with some explanation thereafter, to pass the time while why food unfreezes in my sink – since the passages are somewhat long, I’ll kind of paraphrase:

    Near the end of his metaphysics, in which he has discarded all abstract conceptual thought and logic (making him probably the most extreme empiricist/phenomenologist I have heard of) as ways in which to explain the world, he comes to the discussion of what exactly singular beings of will are: due to biological findings and inner emotional continuity of consciousness, we see that there is some sort of unified entity at work, however to hypostasize this as an entity that is something over and beyond its parts would be to create something out of thin air that does not present itself to us.

    On the other hand, abstracting from this unity the different parts we are “made up of” denies the unity just mentioned, as well as the qualitative new information created by the union of the parts (rather than merely abstract mathematical and quantitative new information, as reductionists that completely ignore qualitative difference are wont to do).

    Bahnsen concludes: both views cannot be denied – we are entities which have been torn apart previously and now reunited in the eternal quagmire of cyclical time. As individuals, we only ever exist when we are organically whole, but our individuality, upon our deaths, is torn asunder again to become part of other organisms, or the free-floating particles of matter/will-substance in this universe.

    While probably a horrifying view if thought further, I find it grande and unusual as well – of course it breaks quite a few laws of logic, but there’s nothing unimaginable about the view (an important part of Bahnsen’s overall argumentation relies on differentiating conceptual and logical reason from perceptual/emtional/spatiotemporal imagination and descriptive language), and he did take 400 some pages of arguments and examples to get there. In any case, I will probably have to revise my views regarding mystical monism and throw it out entirely for Bahnsen’s concrete monism of an internally torn about continuous material/will substance that despite its continuity, still has distinct “parts” within itself. I’m quite amazed I must say.”

  35. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 26, 2014 at 7:55 pm |

    Proulx Michel, ok, Agama Sutras, that’s the Pali Canon as far as I can tell. But can you cite a passage where Dogen is referring to something in the Agama Sutras, something more than “the five skandas” or what have you?

    For example, in Eihei Koroku volume 5 390 Dogen reports:

    “My late teacher Tiantong (Rujing) said, ‘Breath enters and reaches the tanden, and yet there is no place from which it comes. Therefore it is neither long nor short. Breath emerges from the tanden, and yet there is nowhere it goes. Therefore it is neither short nor long.'”

    That’s the reference to the practice in so many places in the Pali Canon-Agama Sutras, which begins:

    “Mindful [one] breathes in. Mindful [one] breathes out. Whether [one] is breathing in a long (breath), breathing out a long (breath), breathing in a short (breath), breathing out a short (breath), one comprehends ‘I am breathing in a long (breath), I am breathing out a long (breath), I am breathing in a short (breath), I am breathing out a short (breath).’ Thus [one] trains [oneself] thinking, ‘I will breathe in experiencing the whole body; I will breathe out experiencing the whole body. [One] trains [oneself], thinking ‘ I will breathe in tranquillizing the activity of body; I will breathe out tranquillizing the activity of body.’”

    Dogen, however, in his commentary on Rujing’s statement, says nothing to give a clue that he is familiar with the original teaching or that he is familiar with the reference (“although it is not the great vehicle, it differs from the lesser vehicle. Although it is not the lesser vehicle, it differs from the great vehicle.”).

    Do we have any passages that indicate he ever saw the Agama Sutras? He was only in China a year or two, and he spent a lot of time copying the literature of Chan, I believe. I can’t think of a passage I’ve read that indicates he’s seen the volumes of the original teaching, only the quotes in the Chan literature of that teaching. But I haven’t spent that long with Dogen’s writing, so I could just be unaware of an instance.

    1. mtto
      mtto July 26, 2014 at 11:38 pm |

      The agama sutras are not the pali canon, but many sutras in the agama collection have parallels in the pali canon. The history of Buddhist scripture is actually really messy and can not be traced to one original transmission, despite the mythology around the origin of the sutras.

      The agamas are part of the tientai school, or tendai in Japanese. Dogen was a tendai monk before he got interested in zen, and he was very well read. I can’t give you any sources or scholarship, but it stands to reason that we would have been familiar with the agamas, probably at a fairly young age.

      1. mtto
        mtto July 26, 2014 at 11:41 pm |

        My point being that Dogen wouldn’t have been that interested in the rest of the Chinese canon while in China, because he’d already read all of it during his tendai training.

  36. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon July 27, 2014 at 3:31 am |

    This might be relevant to the discussion. The first minute of this clip briefly addresses the Star Trek Transporter Paradox.

    “That dude who comes out on the other side? He’s not you. He’s a color Xerox.”

  37. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel July 27, 2014 at 4:32 am |

    Question: “What should we think about death?”

    Answer: That we’re going to die anyway.

    My father was a GP, and for 15 years a countryside GP. Once, when I was a teenager, along with my sister, we asked him about the people he had seen die. He gave us two extreme examples: one of an old maid who had all her life been active in charities, and died quite serenely. The other a cripple, who had had nothing of life, and clung to the last bit of life when he had to swallow it.
    His conclusion: if you had had a meaningful life, you die serenely. I f you’ve had a meaningless life, you have trouble departing.

  38. Mumbles
    Mumbles July 27, 2014 at 7:37 am |

    Thin, without fever, not cold, not warm, with empty eyes, without a shirt, the young man under the stuffed quilt heaves himself up, hangs around my throat and whispers in my ear, “Doctor, let me die.”

    – Excerpt from Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor”

  39. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 27, 2014 at 1:20 pm |

    “The history of Buddhist scripture is actually really messy and can not be traced to one original transmission…”

    With you for the Indian and Chinese literature after the Pali Canon, which last is only an historical record, and one that claims to have been based on personal experience and not transmission.

    I still think it’s curious that I don’t recall anything in Dogen that is an obvious tipoff to his familiarity with the material in the Agamas. I don’t think there’s any reason Dogen would have necessarily studied the Agama sutras, as they were considered an inferior teaching by the Tien-tai school, and there would have been plenty for him to have studied apart from the inferior teachings.

    “These are not the teachings you’re looking for; move along…”

    1. mtto
      mtto July 27, 2014 at 4:12 pm |

      Th Pali canon is not the oldest surviving transmission of the historical Buddha’s teaching: the Gandharan canon is older. It seems that going all the way back there were multiple versions of the same sutras: different wording, paragraphs in different orders, or paragraphs added to one version and omitted from another, etc. Different organizational systems for the sutra collections. Also, a variety of languages, not just Pali. This makes sense, as the Buddha taught many people over the decades of his career, and his teachings spread over the Indian subcontinent in the following centuries, a language-diverse region even now. The Pali canon is special because it survived intact, not for it’s accuracy over the versions that were destroyed by invasion, persecution or neglect.

      Within the Pali canon there are suttas that directly contradict each other regarding certain meditation instructions. If you are looking to ground Buddhism in the 100% accurate, straight-from-the-Buddha’s mouth words, it isn’t going to happen. Luckily, buddhadharma does not require this.

  40. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 27, 2014 at 10:12 pm |

    mtto, I think you and I have done this dance before.

    “The Pāli Canon (Pali: Tipitaka) is the standard collection of scriptures in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, as preserved in the Pāli language.[1] It is the most complete extant early Buddhist canon.[2][3] It was composed in North India, and preserved orally until it was committed to writing during the Fourth Buddhist Council in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE, approximately four hundred and fifty four years after the death of Gautama Buddha.”

    “…Several scholars who specialize in the field of early Buddhism have said that much of the contents of the Pali Canon (and its main teachings) can be attributed to Gautama Buddha. Richard Gombrich says that the main preachings of the Buddha (as in the Vinaya and Sutta Pitaka) are coherent and cogent, and must be the work of a single genius: the Buddha himself, not a committee of followers after his death.[20][21] Peter Harvey also affirms the authenticity of “much” of the Pali Canon.[22] A.K. Warder has stated that there is no evidence to suggest that the shared teaching of the early schools was formulated by anyone else than the Buddha and his immediate followers.[23] J.W. de Jong has said it would be “hypocritical” to assert that we can say nothing about the teachings of earliest Buddhism, arguing that “the basic ideas of Buddhism found in the canonical writings could very well have been proclaimed by him [the Buddha], transmitted and developed by his disciples and, finally, codified in fixed formulas.”[24] A. Wynne has said that the Pali Canon includes texts which go back to the very beginning of Buddhism, which perhaps include the substance of the Buddha’s teaching, and in some cases, maybe even his words.[25] Hajime Nakamura writes that while nothing can be definitively attributed to Gautama as a historical figure, some sayings or phrases must derive from him.[26]”

    that’s Wikipedia.

    I think it’s reputed that the lectures that begin “thus have I heard” were reported by Ananda, and that Ananda had a photographic memory for sound. That was apparently not uncommon among the monks, as memorization of a complete book was a requirement back in the day.

    Yes, there’s a sutta where Gautama says “I like walking on the highway with no one in front or behind better than answering the calls of nature”, followed by a sutta where Gautama is reputed to have said “I like answering the calls of nature better than walking on the highway with no one in front or behind”. Well, yes, I can see the reason for including the latter as it would not do to have monks burst their bladders in an attempt to emulate Gautama on the highway, but I don’t have any problem figuring out which one really represents what Gautama had to say.

    1. mtto
      mtto July 28, 2014 at 2:22 pm |

      I’m not disagreeing with anything that you copied and pasted from wikipedia. Especially the word “extant.” Certainly the “ideas” in the Pali canon mostly come from the Buddha. But there were many variants/translations that are not extant. They probably also conveyed the “main preaching” and “basic ideas” of the Buddha as well. The Agamas and the Gandaharan canon aren’t THAT different from the forms in the Pali canon, after all. There were 18-20 schools of early Buddhism and they all had their own (not unrelated!) versions of the canon. Some passages in the Dhammapada may predate the Buddha. The Gandaharan canon which is older than the Pali canon, has texts not contained in the Pali canon.

      I have a sutra translation and commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh in which he translates multiple versions of the same text, maybe the Anapanasati or the four foundations of mindfulness? Very interesting if you’re into that sort of thing, although if you BELIEVE in the Pali canon, like a Biblical literalist in the Southern USA, perhaps you’re not into that sort of thing.

      All the repetition in the Pali canon is a great device for memorization and chanting, but it isn’t the way people talk. That doesn’t mean the ideas in the Pali canon aren’t the ideas of the Buddha.

      An interesting discussion here: http://newbuddhist.com/discussion/11592/significance-of-gandhari-scrolls-to-mahayana-theravada-split

      Certainly some of the Mahayana sutras have origins hundreds and hundreds of years after the Buddha. The Lotus Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra were both complied over hundreds of years and do not have one single author. But there are Mahayana texts in the oldest extant collection. There are also texts in the Gandaharan canon that do not exist in any other extant tradition, which I find EXTREMELY interesting.

      Finally, I find it impossible to believe that a genius like the Buddha, who taught people from all castes and stations in life, would only have spoken only one language. I have no evidence for this and have done no research, other than that smart people everywhere throughout history have been poly-lingual, plus that the Buddha taught anyone interested, regardless of station.

      1. mtto
        mtto July 28, 2014 at 2:23 pm |

        Here’s the site for the Gandaharan Canon, The Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project: http://www.ebmp.org/index.php

        1. mtto
          mtto July 28, 2014 at 2:40 pm |
  41. jason farrow
    jason farrow July 28, 2014 at 8:52 am |

    idk man…there are a bunch of issues here….

    one is, it is impossible to say what sakymuni taught. there was no real written record. and as we all know, history is written by the victor.

    an example of poor written history, is that mahadeva. mahadeva seems to be a total metaphorical concoction of the ancient theravada’s.

    the notion of reincarnation associated with buddhism, is that with the bhavarcakra, is that it was a a pictorial koan. it doesn’t represent reincarnation…it represents liberation of a “sign-less transmission.” reincarnation was later popularized with the jakata tales, but from a point of entertainment.

    the other issue as well is that, there is sometimes too much focus on dogen, and not enough focus on sakyamuni.

    but i think one of the good aspects of a hyper-focus on dogen is that we learn a lot that was lost during the buddhist prosecution in china. dogen seems to know a lot about sakyamuni that seems to have been lost over the years in china. ( i guess too, another huge amount was lost during Chairman Mao’s rise to “fame.”)

    but, i think it is impossible to think that sakyamuni, or dogen, talked about literal reincarnation. however, i wouldn’t put it past either one to attempt to mold our realities as they need to be molded, for liberation.

    but, it’s commonly accepted that sakyamuni didn’t teach from a point of doctrine, or scripture; but utilized doctrine or scripture as to counteract delusion as he travelled.

    liberation in buddhism is based upon movement in stillness. this movement that evolves as a result of movement in stillness can continue on for kalpas. just look to sakyamuni’s movement.

  42. Conrad
    Conrad July 30, 2014 at 1:27 pm |

    “Firewood, after becoming ash, does not again become firewood. Similarly, human beings, after death, do not live again.”

    In the first place, this is completely false. Firewood ash is a wonderful nutritious compost that helps new trees grow. This is why after a wildfire, there’s a great regrowth of the forest, fueled in great part by the ash of the old trees. That ash literally becomes a part of those new trees that grow to replace the old.

    So both literally, and metaphorically, Dogen is quite wrong. Death brings about more life – that’s the law of the universe. Everything that dies becomes manure for rebirth. If one is to judge the validity of rebirth merely by looking at physical nature, the answer would be a resounding yes.

    On the other hand, that answer is not the same as some individual tree coming back to life again and again in the exact same form. But that’s not what rebirth/reincarnation is claimed to be in any case. When you are reborn, you don’t have the same body or mind as before. Brad Warner is not reborn. He dies, and his ashes become food for more life, but not for another Brad Warner.

    So in that sense, there is no such thing as reincarnation. Perhaps that’s what Dogen meant. There’s one and only one Brad Warner, and his life begins and ends here on earth, and he’d better attend to this life because he doesn’t get another. On the other hand, what Brad Warner thinks of as “himself” perhaps isn’t limited to this short-lived Brad Warner ecentricity.

    I can’t recall exactly how the Buddhists see the body-mind, but in Hinduism, for example, they see the body as composed of many “sheaths”, including the physical sheath and the vital sheath, which do “die” at the death of the physical body, but the subtler sheaths live on. One can still apply the Buddhist principle of annata to those sheaths and bodies, and not presume some sort of immortal core to it all, a soul or Atma-Self. But the existence of such subtler sheaths is, I think, commonly acknowledged in Buddhism. So one can see that physical sheaths can come and go quite often, while the subtler sheaths last longer, but still change and are subject to the laws of dependent origination, meaning that there is no core that exists as some sort of essential soul, no essential “Brad Warner”, and yet that the process of rebirth goes on just as the forest regrow after wildfires.

    As for Fry’s silly notion that “we can’t reliably know” what happens after death, this too is nonsense. He can’t, of course, because he hasn’t developed the spiritual sensitivity to the subtle body and its connections that would give him that kind of knowledge. But others have. And there’s plenty of reasonably reliable accounts and studies done on this sort of thing, even among doctors and psychologists like Weiss, Newton, Stevenson, Tucker, etc., that gives some pretty strong evidence about both afterlife experience and rebirth. So it’s not like we should just throw up our hands and say it’s impossible.

    The advice to concentrate on this life here and now is of course sound, but not if that means excluding subtle experience and knowledge from the here and now. These people probably have no objection to astonomers and cosmologists spending their lives investigating distant galaxies with light billions of years from the past, or digging up fossils from the earth’s past, and I gather they don’t think that makes people neglect life here and now on earth. So the idea that if we could know that we’ve lived before and will live again in some new form, that would be terrible, because it would take us away from the present, is sheer nonsense. It wouldn’t. It would just give us a bigger picture of what our lives are, what their past has been, and what the trajectory of our future is. No one gets upset when science does this sort of investigation and considers it important. So why be upset if spiritual inquiries look into such things?

  43. otaku00
    otaku00 August 7, 2014 at 2:33 am |

    Fry is wrong with one thing: Living in the Here and Now does not mean that one will get bored of cakes and cookies. I can eat the tomato soup of my mother again and again and I could probably do that for thousands of years and will miss it someday (if she goes before me). I’d also be interested to see how we explore space in the future. Without physical exhaustion, life could surely last longer. Maybe I could set myself a goal to fuck a woman of every country in the world. So isn’t Fry fooling himself and others here?

    Certainly, at the end of his clip there should have been earthworms and bugs instead of butterflies …

  44. otaku00
    otaku00 August 7, 2014 at 3:14 am |

    About rebirth/reincarnation and Dogen: If we do not understand that the early Dogen differs from the late one (maybe even due to an onset of early aging), we try to get his contradictory arguments, metaphors, texts in line. The chapter about retribution in three lives requires a belief in reincarnation, anything else would make the passage totally senseless. It is common that Shobogenzo-interpreters just talk about the more “modern” parts of this book. It is also a mistake not to take into account all the other writings attributed to Dogen, esp. the Eihei Shingi which clearly shows his strict attachment to a monastic code.

    The question is: Why should we assume that the Palicanon or Dogen can’t be wrong? They were wrong about other things (the Palicanon e.g. about the evolutionary process, [the late] Dogen about lay buddhism etc.).

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