by Koun Franz
Imagine that you have a painting on the wall—some fruit in a basket, maybe. Just a very simple still life. You see this painting every day—maybe you painted it yourself. And then I visit and one day and I paint a little flower on the same canvas, just next to the fruit.
The first time you see that little flower, maybe you won’t even notice. Or maybe it will seem very striking. But as you look at that painting that now has this flower on it, you can ask yourself, is this the same painting that I had before?
No. It’s not. But if you ask yourself if it’s a different painting from the one that was on the wall before, then the answer again is no. Is it new? What is it? Is it actually just a painting of fruit, but someone added a flower? When our friends come over, we might tell them, yeah, there’s a flower there, but really it’s a painting of fruit. But of course that’s not true—the flower is right there, whether you like it or not. This used to be a painting of fruit, but now it’s a painting of fruit and a flower. It changed. Well, that’s not quite true either. We may have all these ideas about this painting, but over time, as we look at it every day and get used to it, we’ll just see it as a painting that has flowers and fruit. So then, let’s say I sneak into your house and I take the flower away from the painting. Now, what if we say, there’s supposed to be a flower there, but there isn’t. That’s not right. If we say, well, now it’s the original painting, again, that’s not correct either. We might sense some absence in that painting, just as when the flower was added we sensed that something was extra.
What is separate from you? What is separate from your life? What’s missing? Does the person you want to become possess qualities to which you don’t have access? What do you hope is separate from you?What it is that you might be pushing away?
Both the entire earth and the entire sky appear in life as well as in death. However, it is not that one and the same entire earth and sky are fully manifested in life and also fully manifested in death: although not one, not different; although not different, not the same; although not the same, not many.
The painting as it changes is not just one painting, nor is it two different paintings, nor is it three different paintings. And even as we say they are not different, we understand they are not identical; and although they are not identical, there are not multiple paintings either.
When we first encounter teachings to the effect that all things are one or that all things are connected, we can fall into a mistaken understanding. We imagine, I think—and I did—that reality, the universe, is like this amorphous blob, goo, and we’re all just in it. We’re all just made of it. This is a very simple description of the idea of a lack of inherent self. If we imagine that we share a self with everyone, then it may seem that we’re letting go of the idea of a self. This is “we’re all one.” But Dogen is suggesting that our commonality comes not from a shared definition but rather from a shared lack of definition.
Dogen continues, “Similarly, in birth, there is undivided activity of all things and in death there is undivided activity of all the things.” So in birth there is the total functioning of the present, and in death there is the total functioning of the president. He’s not describing reality as a solid thing. He’s describing it as a mechanism.
If you get on a bicycle and you push down on the pedal, then the tire moves. It’s a very simple machine. We might imagine, at the simplest level, that a bicycle is made of wheels. And as we learn how it works, our definition expands, and we say that it’s made of spokes and wheels and we see the physics involved: oh, this part moves. We think we understand the parts, so when we go past the bicycle shop and we see that bicycle hanging in the window, we think, that’s a bicycle. That’s the whole thing.
But it’s not the whole thing, because your foot isn’t on the pedal. Your foot is a part of that machine. Your hands that steer it are part of that machine. It’s very elegant. That doesn’t mean that when you see a bicycle by itself that something is missing. But because we imagine it to be separate in itself, something is missing in our view of that bicycle. We can be wrong in this way forever, so even when we ride the bicycle we are confirmed in the idea that we are separate in ourselves, that we are just a separate thing riding on top of a separate thing—not one body.
Dogen adds, “There is undivided activity in what is not birth and what is not death.” Here, he’s just making a little room for whatever you think is the exception.
This section concludes with “There is birth and there is death in undivided activity.” There is something new, and there is something lost. As you breathe right now, the entire universe is breathing. You breathe in and the universe breathes in. You breathe out and the universe breathes out—not just because you’re breathing in this moment but because there’s no alternate moment that’s different from this one. It may seem that you’re breathing the air, that your lungs are doing all this work, but we can just as easily say the opposite, that the air is functioning and your lungs are the space for that. You can feel, if you try not to breathe, how air becomes the protagonist and you become the antagonist—and how, if you just let yourself breathe, you take away the antagonist. There was no conflict. If you just settle into breathing as the most natural thing in the world, then “protagonist” loses all meaning.
Breathing just breathes. There’s no need to think, I’ll let this in but not that, or I’ll control this so that this breath is just right, or I’ll breathe in the scents that are coming from the kitchen but nothing else. Consider the possibility that you are not the protagonist in your own life. Consider the possibility that your story has no antagonist either. And as you consider that, notice that your life still moves and that you still move in your life.
William Harnett: English: Still Life with Fruit and Vase
Cornelis de Bryer: Fruit still life with a Wan-li bowl with strawberries
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.