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 Dōgen, the founder of the school of Zen that I was ordained in. The question for them is; How does Dōgen say we should think about death? In a number of my writings and videos I have stated that Dōgen 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 Dōgen 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 Dōgen ‘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 Dōgen’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 Dōgen, though it’s true he doesn’t emphasize the teaching, clearly teaches rebirth in the Shōbōgenzō 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 Dōgen’s adamant view that there is no reincarnation.”
My statements about Dōgen’s denial of reincarnation/rebirth mainly come from things he said in Bendōwa (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 Shōbōgenzō 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, Dōgen 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 Dōgen 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 Shōbōgenzō, 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 Dōgen himself says in Japanese it’s, 人のしぬるのちさらに生とならず (hito no shinuru no chisara ni iki to narazu).
However, as the guy from SFZC pointed out, there are other places in Shōbōgenzō in which Dōgen 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 Dōshin (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 Dōgen “clearly teaches rebirth” or when people do things like describing Dōgen’s presumed belief as one concerning a “post-mortem continuity.”
Dōgen 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 Dōshin (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 Dōgen 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 Bendōwa, 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 Dōgen 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 Dōgen 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 Dōgen adamantly denied life after death, once said something like, “When I move on to another realm.”
However, whatever Dōgen 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, Dōgen’s advice is much more like what Stephen Fry says in this video. Dōgen 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