by Koun Franz
Life neither comes nor goes. Life neither appears nor is already existing. Thus, life is totally manifested, death is totally manifested. Know that there are innumerable beings in yourself. Also there is life, and there is death.
Quietly think over whether life and all things that arise together with life are inseparable or not. There is neither a moment nor a thing that is apart from life. There is neither an object nor a mind that is apart from life.
—Dogen, Shobogenzo Zenki
“Life neither comes nor goes.” Sometimes we think that we have a life that is worth living, and so we say, “I have a life.” But when our friends ask what we did last weekend and there’s nothing interesting to say, then we say, “Well, you know, I don’t really have a life.” We imagine that there’s a quality to life that is sometimes present and sometimes absent. “Life neither appears nor is already existing”—when we’re young, we tend to think that this isn’t our real life, that our real life is something that’s going to happen to us. And sometimes when we’re older, we think the same thing. The first time I lived in Japan, I left early because I was convinced that my real life was waiting for me back in the United States (and everyone else seemed to think so too). I got back and realized that I had been alive the whole time, even though I’d spent two years believing I was in some sort of limbo or that I was on a vacation from reality.
Sometimes people think that monastic life is a little bit shady. They’ll say, “But what about in the real world? What about in real life?” We encounter this when we meet people who are in any institution, whether they’re in school or in prison: there’s always this idea that real life is happening to someone else, somewhere else. Even just saying it out loud points out how absurd that is.
There’s no place you can go that is not your life. You are not currently in a dress rehearsal for a life that’s going to happen only on Friday and Saturday nights, when the curtain goes up. For that reason, I wish that we’d found a word other than “practice” for practice, because of course, we aren’t practicing for anything. We’re doing it. In this practice, you are not cultivating a self that will one day actually do the practice. You are not cultivating a life that will one day be a reflection of this practice. This practice is now. Period.
Dogen writes, “Thus, life is totally manifested.” It’s not about my life or your life, or my real life, or my so-called life. Life is the total working of all things, and you’re a part of it, and there’s nothing you can do about that. We could substitute “life” in this sentence with anything. Eating lunch is the total functioning of the present; shoveling snow is totally manifested. Because if not, what is it? What is your life but this moment and what you are doing in this moment? Your life is not a convenient story. It’s not something with an elegant beginning, middle, and end. It’s always the beginning. It’s always the middle. And it’s always the end.
In Fukanzazengi, Dogen writes, “The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice.” We run into this constantly. We don’t have a good word for zazen in English, but to be fair, we don’t have a good word for it in any language. “It is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice–realization of totally culminated enlightenment.” Dogen is telling us in this text, Zenki, that life is the total functioning of the present moment; the present moment is the totality of life. So when we say zazen is “the practice–realization of totally culminated enlightenment,” we’re saying the same thing. This activity—and it doesn’t have to be zazen—this activity is the beginning, the middle, and the end. It’s not a step. He writes, “It is the koan realized. Traps and snares can never reach it. If you grasp the point, you are like a dragon gaining the water, like a tiger taking to the mountains.” This can be dangerous: as soon as we read “If you grasp the point,” we might let ourselves off the hook. We might think, oh, well that’s not for awhile. That point is far away. I don’t grasp it yet. But it’s not about where you are now compared to where you will be. This point is what’s right in front of you. You don’t have go on a long journey to find it. You don’t have to wait and and bake in the oven until you’re done. You just reach out and grab it.
Fukanzazengi continues, ”For you must know that the true dharma appears of itself so that from the start, dullness and distraction are struck aside.” We all know dullness in zazen. We know what it is to be sleepy. And we all know distraction in zazen (we know it very, very well). But Dogen is reminding us that zazen is present—it’s happening even in dullness, even in distraction. But in dullness and distraction, we may miss it. The room you’re in is filled with air, but it’s probably not the first thing you thought about when you entered. In fact, more of the room is taken up with air than with anything else, but you could spend days or months or lifetimes in this room without ever noticing it, without ever taking that breath and becoming truly conscious of what’s all around you all the time. It’s an amazing capacity we have, to miss the biggest thing, the one that dominates our field of vision.
When we sit in zazen, we naturally want certain qualities. We want to feel powerful. We want to feel confident. We want to feel sure. Instead, we become even more aware in zazen of our own fear, of our uncertainty, of our apparent weakness. It can be painful. But if life is totally manifest in the present, then it is also totally manifest in your experience of the present, which means whatever power you imagine to exist in the world is part of it. You are fire, you are water, you are earth, you are sky. You are all those things—even if you don’t feel that way, even if you’re lost in what you think zazen should be.
Zazen is a place of total honesty. I have friends who meditate in different traditions, and they tell me the most exciting things about what goes on inside their minds. They see wonderful colors; they have visions. It’s a wonderland of the mind. They describe a kind of trance—they get in the zone, they go somewhere else. People often speak of meditation in terms of blocking out the world: “I went so deep I didn’t know anything was going on around me.” That’s fine, but that’s not zazen.
In zazen, you are not quietly training yourself to be skillful when you stand up, or when you wake up tomorrow. You’re awake and skillful now, where you are. In zazen, you’re relaxed but you’re completely alert—to everything. You’re completely receptive—to everything. When you move your legs, you might feel self-conscious—you might think, oh, I hope people didn’t hear me. But if we’re doing zazen, we do hear you. We hear everything. And that’s okay, because the net that we cast is much wider than just the sound of someone moving their legs. We can enjoy all the sounds of the moment—the cars on the street, the person shifting next to us, the ventilation system, our own breathing, a toilet flushing, the voices inside our heads. We hear all of it. If it’s there and we don’t hear it, then we’re tuning it out, we’re pushing it away.
When you sit, just sit, but sit with all of your energy. Imagine trying to touch your toes—if you bend over to touch your toes and maybe they’re a little bit out of reach, there’s a great clarity in what you’re doing. You’re just trying to touch your toes. It’s not complicated. It doesn’t mean anything. You don’t carry with you an image of someone 2500 years ago who could touch his toes very, very well, nor do you carry an image of yourself in the future bathed in light, touching your toes in the way you always dreamt of. You just reach. In the same way, when you do zazen, you literally just sit. You concentrate every cell in your body on the action of sitting. You let it be a complete activity, the most important activity. That’s not some lofty philosophical construct, because in the moment that you’re sitting, it’s the only thing that you’re doing. There can be no more important activity than that, and so we say, “Don’t sit like a buddha. Sit as a buddha.” A buddha is one who comes and goes. A Buddha is one who does just this, whatever this is. Don’t worry about breathing in a particular way. Don’t worry that you can’t cross your legs the way that you wish you could. Don’t imagine that you’re imitating zazen. Simply sit still with all the force of the universe.
Zenki continues, “Know that there are innumerable beings in yourself.” Here, Dogen is uncharacteristically direct about a few things. “Innumerable” here is infinite. It’s the same as when we say, “Beings are countless; I vow to free them all.” Dogen is saying, “Beings are countless; they are in yourself.” It’s very complicated. We’re brought back to this image of two things mutually being inside one another. We’re asked to hold the notion of infinity.
Perhaps this is a good time to mention that we don’t have to believe any of this. We don’t have to take Dogen at his word, that life is the total manifestation of the present, or that the total manifestation of the present is life or death.
Dogen rarely speaks in terms of the possibility that he’s wrong. Even here, it isn’t that he does, but I think he recognizes how much he’s asking of us. He writes, ”Know that there are innumerable beings in yourself. Also there is life, and there is death.” So this all-pervading all-actualizing life, and all-pervading all-actualizing death are the nature of each being— literally each dharma—and those dharmas are infinite, and those infinite dharmas are contained within yourself. It’s a lot. So he pauses here and tells us to stop and think about it: “Quietly think over whether life and all things that arise together with life are inseparable or not.”
One day in 1242, at the residence of a former governor of Izumo Province, Dogen delivered this text, Zenki, as a talk. It was live. I like to imagine that just at this point, he looked out and he saw everyone’s faces and realized that he was about to lose everyone. Maybe they looked a little stunned, a little overwhelmed. So here he pauses and he says, just think about it. Think about infinity. He says, if you can accept, for just a moment, that the nature of truth is infinite, what does that mean? Where is truth then located?
If the nature of something is infinite, it has no borders. We postulate that this universe may be infinite, and even as we say it, I think most of us imagine that we are not part of it, that the universe is big, black, empty space, and we are residents there. But if the universe is infinite, it doesn’t stop at me. My skin is not a border between myself and infinite space. If it’s infinite, it doesn’t stop at all, nor does it go anywhere. Where could it go? If beings are infinite, then there is no place where they are not. They’re radically without boundary. And so Dogen says, if the nature of what I’m discussing is infinite, is there any aspect of life that can be separate from any other aspect of life? Are there any two points that don’t touch?
Consider Indra’s net. It looks like a fishing net, made of squares intersecting—filament, whatever it is—but at each intersection there is a mirror, and that mirror perfectly reflects every other mirror on the net. If you were to encounter that net now, in the room you’re in, there would be no place you could stand where you would not be perfectly reflected in each mirror. You’re there, reflected on each surface—and so is every other being. We struggle a lot with language in this tradition. Sometimes words like “interconnectedness” come up, and they’re useful, but what Dogen is describing is not connection because connection must be between two things. Dogen is describing perfect intimacy, things that cannot be separated from the start, that have never been apart. As we try to imagine this, it’s important for us to not get lost in an image of space, in an image of a big black vastness, or even in this image of the net. It’s about more than infinite space. What Dogen is asking, beyond this question of infinity, is for us to consider if there is anything that we imagine to be separate from ourselves personally. If you think have a simple answer, you might want to look again.
And then Dogen comes back to form. After asking this vast, open question of whether anything can be separated from anything else, whether anything can be separated from life, he says, No (in case you weren’t sure). “There is neither a moment nor a thing that is apart from life. There is neither an object nor a mind that is apart from life.” There is not a time that is apart from you. There is not a being that is apart from you.
And to stress this just a little further, he says, “There is neither an object nor a mind that is apart from life.” There is no thing. There is no event, no issue, no question and no mind that is separate from you.
This idea, for me speaks to the notion of a shared body. I think about this a lot: if, for example, the health of someone I loved was actually the same as my health, I wouldn’t eat all the things that I eat. Sometimes I eat junk. Sometimes I need to keep a really good distance from potato chips. I know they’re not good for me, but if I’m at some sort of social event and the chips are out and there’s some dip, I’ll kind of hover. I’ll spend time there. But what if my heart were literally yours? It would seem absurd to eat something that was bad for it. If my eyes where your eyes and you could only see what I saw, what would I choose to look at? It would be different, because every glance would be a shared act, an opportunity to give. If the activities of my day were the activities of your day, I think something would change, and sitting in the doctor’s office and reading about the scandals of celebrities might suddenly not seem like the best way to use my eyes or the best way to use my mind.
Dogen, here, is suggesting that all of this is actually the case. You comprise everyone and everything. There’s no gap. If this is true—if—then suddenly we find that we’re in a position to practice very deep generosity. If you’ve raised children or if you spend time with them, you know this opportunity that you have to share the world. You can expose children to things. You can take them to the zoo if you think it’s important, or you can read them a book, or you can play with them in a wonderful, free way. It’s limitless chance to give. People who have children understand that the child is contained within them. The parent’s anger becomes the child’s anger, and their joy becomes the child’s joy. I think Dogen is suggesting that all beings are our children, and we are the children of all beings. He’s opening the door to where we are and saying look—look harder.
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.