Nothing But Birth and Death (Zenki, part one)

by Koun Franz

I’d like to share my crude understanding of Dogen’s Shobogenzo Zenki. It was written when Dogen was forty-two years old. I’m now forty-six, and I can see how my view of this text, and those like it, has changed over the years, sometimes almost invisibly and sometimes with a sudden lurch. Like all of Dogen’s best writing, Zenki is something to chew on, something that changes flavor the longer you hold it.

I’m not a scholar of Buddhism, or of Zen, or of Dogen. So I am indebted to those who are better able than I am to contextualize this writing: Shohaku Okumura, in his series in Dharma Eye; everyone connected to the Soto Zen Text Project; Norman Waddell and Abe Masao in Dogen’s Shobogenzo; and others. I won’t try to replicate their work here. I’m just someone trying to make sense of it for myself.

In this series of articles, I’ll refer primarily to the translation by Ed Brown and Kazuaki Tanahashi (Moon in a Dewdrop), who translate the word zenki as “undivided activity”; others have translated it as “total dynamic function” or even “the whole works.” Zen () literally means “whole” or “all,” and ki () means something like function—not in the sense of a role, not in the sense that it’s my function to do such-and-such, but in the sense of actual functioning. It’s how something works. In modern Japanese, the character ki is sometimes appended to another word to indicate a machine; for example, laundry is sentaku, and sentakuki is a washing machine. So it has a very concrete element to it. In that light, we might translate zenki as “the whole machine” or—my favourite—“The Everything Machine.”

zenki 1 buddhaThe text begins, “The great way of all buddhas, thoroughly practiced is emancipation and realization.” The great way of all buddhas is—not was. It’s important for us to understand from the start that Dogen is not describing people of the past. He’s providing a definition of buddhas of the present, of something alive, in the same way that the precepts are not merely rules, they are a description of how a bodhisattva lives her life.

The great way of all buddhas, thoroughly practiced, is emancipation and realization. Emancipation means that in birth you are emancipated from birth. In death, you are emancipated from death.

We’re only three sentences in, and already we can sense the scale of this teaching—we’ve been handed the concepts of emancipation, realization, birth, and death, none of which is small. This is, after all, a teaching about the whole works.

What’s translated here as “emancipation” is a wonderful word: todatsu. It’s an abbreviation of a longer phrase, todai datsuraku, which we hear echoed in shinjin datsuraku, the dropping away of body and mind—one of Dogen’s favorite phrases, and according to what we’re told, the phrase that led to his own realization. Shinjin is body and mind; here, todai means penetrating to the substance. So literally, you’re penetrating to the substance and dropping free. That’s emancipation, though the word emancipation doesn’t quite cover the depth of this phrase.

What does it mean to penetrate to the substance and drop free? There’s an old Chinese saying about draining the ocean to find the ocean floor. It’s used as an example of folly, because of course once you’ve drained the ocean, there’s no such thing as an ocean floor. There’s only land. That image, for me, comes to mind here as well. When we penetrate to the center of something, we move beyond those things that defined it, and it’s just what it is.

zenki 1 owlThe other image that comes to mind for me is a favorite commercial from when I was a child. Every Saturday morning during cartoons, there were these ads for Tootsie Pops: a little boy asks a turtle, “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?” and the turtle says he doesn’t know because he can’t ever stop himself from biting. So the boy asks an owl, who licks it three times, then bites it, then says, “Three.” I always thought that was funny. But here again, by performing that action, by penetrating through to the center, you take away the center because now there’s nothing around it anymore. It’s no longer the center of something; it’s no longer defined by limitations because now, when you arrive at that—and it was actually a Tootsie Roll inside there—when you arrive there, that’s all there is. There’s nothing more than that. So when we hear the word emancipation, we have to imagine that we’re penetrating something, not that we’re being liberated from it in the sense of distance, in the sense of somehow getting away. The thing itself is emancipated from our constructs of it.

Dogen is saying emancipation means that in birth you are emancipated from birth, and in death you are emancipated from death. And just to make this a little bit more complicated, I’ll add that this character for birth can also be read as “life.” So you’ll find translations saying one or the other, “life and death” or “birth and death.” But I think “birth” is useful for us because when we hear “life,” we bring a lot to that word. We throw it around. I say, “How’s life?” Or something happens that I don’t think is positive and I say, “Ah, well, that’s life.” “Life,” here, is more than that. It’s arising, just as death is ceasing or falling away.

Life, in our most basic understanding of it, means being subject to death. We understand this in our stories. Stories about vampires, for example, beings that are immortal—one might logically come to the conclusion that we would view vampires as symbols of life, but we don’t. The fact that they are not subject to death actually makes them seem in a way more dead. And in science fiction we do the same: there are countless stories of robots and computers that are more intelligent than we are, machines that develop emotions and even desire. Yet they are always viewed as being only half alive because they lack the experience of death. And we can’t really relate to that.

zenki 1 fliesJust recently, my son and I were talking about insects, and he asked me, “Do bugs know they’re going to die?” I told him I don’t know, but I suspect not. We thought about that a while and both wondered, if you didn’t know you were going to die, would you know you were alive? Without the idea of death, what would aliveness mean?

I can tell you that your whole life is here and is present and it’s not about tomorrow, and it’s not about the next day or the day before. But the fact that you are here is inseparable from the fact that your life has an end. All of us, in different ways, are choosing to spend the time we have in the way that we think is best. We’re always holding both, the arising and the ceasing.

Dogen continues, “Thus there is detachment from birth and death and penetrating birth and death.” More literally, in the original, detachment and penetrating are “getting out” and “getting in.” So there is entering birth and death, and there is exiting birth and death. Of course, these don’t have to be literal birth or literal death. You find, just like with the Tootsie Pop, that our being there cannot be separate from the thing itself. No thing can be separate from its own realization.

There is the famous story about the Buddha and Mahakashyapa: the Buddha stands before all of his students and all the bodhisattvas and holds a flower up, and everyone leans in, trying to figure out, what’s he going to say? What does it mean? And Mahakashyapa just smiles. Here’s my simple take: it isn’t because Mahakashyapa understood the Buddha’s meaning without the Buddha saying it. It’s that Mahakashyapa was simply present with the Buddha in that moment. He asked nothing more of that moment than what it was. He didn’t expect more than just a flower because the flower was enough, and the Buddha recognized this, and now we call it a “flower sermon.” And yet it could just as easily have been that before the Buddha was going to speak, he picked up a flower because it looked nice—because there was a shared intimacy between two people, it changed the course of everything .

zenki 1 sunsetIt’s like watching a sunset with someone. Especially—and I say this because sunsets are kind of romantic—if you’re sitting on a hill and you’re watching the sunset in the early days of a relationship, you feel you have to say something. You feel you should interpret the sunset, or maybe give a story about the sunset that relates to your life. Or maybe you should take the opportunity of the sunset to say something meaningful, so that it will always be remembered just that way. And even if you don’t say anything, you might be sitting there thinking, “What’s he thinking? What’s she thinking?” Or “What does this moment mean for us?” And so there are two people whose eyes are pointed at a sunset but who are only watching their minds. They’re missing the whole show.

And yet anyone who has known true intimacy with a partner or with a friend or a family member knows how you can sit and watch that sunset together and not feel the need to bring anything else to that moment. It’s just very rare. Dogen writes, “Such is the complete practice of the great way.” “Such” meaning both these things, detachment from birth and death and penetrating birth and death, but when he says “such is the complete practice of the great way,” he’s not referring to you practicing the great way. This is the great way practicing. This is the practice of the universe, or it’s the practice of this moment. It’s not dependent on you. So when we go back to the first line and read, “The great way of all Buddhas, thoroughly practiced, is emancipation and realization,” we see that thorough practice is complete. It’s practice that includes all, and that is performed by all. It’s total. It’s whole. Here, we start to get a hint of what he’s talking about in this word zenki, the total functioning.

In this text, as with any text of Dogen’s, I think, there’s a degree to which he is calling people to practice. But to an equal degree, he is simply describing how things are and saying, notice that. Engage in that. You don’t have to make it something. You don’t have to alter it or clean it or tidy it up. You have to show up, see the moment for what it is, and touch it.

Dogen continues, “There is nothing but birth totally actualized, nothing but death totally actualized.” Another way to say this might be, “Nothing that is not total actualization of life exists in the moment of actualization. Nothing that is not the total actualization of death exists in the moment of actualization.” All of this is a pretty way of saying that actualization, within this definition, is total. You can’t actualize this without actualizing everything. As we continue through this text and we hear “birth and death” or “life and death,” those can be useful to us because they are the extremes of experience, and because we give them a lot of power. Dogen is suggesting that we attribute a great weight to our actions, so we can just as easily substitute out “birth and death” for something as simple as “this and that,” whatever we think of as opposite or somehow separate. We let go of that juxtaposition, and in doing so we make something vital.

zenki 1 zazenWe can see this in a very obvious way in zazen. We come to zazen with all sorts of ideas about what it’s supposed to be. We read about it, or maybe our friend does it and has had all sorts of wonderful experiences, so we’re kind of waiting for those experiences for ourselves. We’re expecting something. Or maybe it’s not that—maybe we picture the Buddha beneath the Bodhi tree and we want to manifest that. But zazen is none of those things. We carry those things with us, but that’s not zazen. Zazen is vitalized when we let go of what we think it should be and we find ourselves just sitting. It’s easy to say, “Just sit.” It’s not so easy to do. And even when it does happen, then we catch ourselves and think, whoa, that was exciting. We think, that was zazen. Or worse: Oh, this is zazen, and then we’ve stepped completely outside of it.

What’s happening in zazen is just a very stripped-down version of ordinary activity. It’s what’s happening all the time, but we miss it because we’re looking at something else. We bring it to light when we stop asking for it and we let it happen.

In this letting go, we truly let go, and so we say that an enlightened person may not recognize herself as an enlightened person. I remember reading that for the first time and thinking, well then, what’s the point? I would want to know. But if you penetrate yourself, and in doing so let go of yourself, who will be there to have this idea about who I am? Your actions will remain—and you’re there, you don’t dissolve—but at that point you’re witnessing something quite vast.

“At the time of realization, there is nothing but birth totally actualized. Nothing but death totally actualized.” In this sentence, for the first time but not the last, Dogen is saying explicitly that birth and death are the same. “At the time of realization there is nothing but birth. At the time of realization, there is nothing but death.” They can only be the same thing—it’s simple math. So this kind of realization is inclusive of both birth and death. It’s inclusive of past and future, of subject and object. It excludes nothing.

No Subject, No Object (Zenki, Part 2)

koun franz bwKoun Franz

Koun Franz was born in Helena, Montana, but has spent more than half of his adult life in Japan. He was ordained in 2001, then trained at Zuioji and Shogoji monasteries. From 2006 to 2010, he served as resident priest of the Anchorage Zen Community in Alaska. Koun and his family now live in Canada (Halifax, Nova Scotia), where he leads practice at Zen Nova Scotia


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