Alive or Dead?

aitkenroshi"Dogo and Zengen went to a house to express condolences. Zengen rapped on the coffin and asked, 'Alive or dead?' Dogo said, 'I don't say alive or dead..' Zengen asked, 'Why don't you say?' Dogo said, 'I won't say! I won't say!' On the way home, Zengen said, "Teacher, please tell me right away. If you don't I will hit you.' Dogo said, 'If you want, go ahead and hit me, but I'll never say.' Zengen hit him.

Later, after Dogo passed away, Zengen went to Sekiso, and told him this story. Sekiso said, "Alive, I don't say. Dead, I don't say.' Zengen asked 'Why won't you say?' Sekiso said, 'I won't say. I won't say!' With these words Zengen was enlightened.

One day Zengen appeared in the lecture hall with a hoe and walked from East to West and from West to East. Sekiso asked him, 'What are you doing?' Zengen said, 'I am looking for the bones of our late master.' Sekiso said, 'On the billows of the great ocean, whitecaps swell to the sky. What do you search for as our teacher's sacred bones, other than that?'

Setcho's comment: 'Alas! Alas!'

Zengen said, 'That is good for my training.'

Daigenfu's comment: 'The sacred bones of our late teacher still exist.'" Case 55 from Blue Cliff Record

Two days ago, on August 5, 2010, Robert Aitken Roshi passed away at the age of 93. Many years ago, when I was living in Hawaii, I had the good fortune to do some koan study with him. In a seven-day sesshin at the Palolo Zen Center,  I worked on this koan with Roshi, and I struggled with it then, as I do now, not really able to completely accept that he is no longer with us.

In my early 20's I lost both my parents. My father died of leukemia just before I took Skukke Tokudo with Maezumi Roshi at the Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA). My father fell into a coma, and I spent many hours at his bedside in the hospital room. I was with him when he took his last breath, and in that moment there was no fear or sadness. It was a kind of birthing – something mysterious and compelling. My mother's death a few years later was a very different experience. She was killed instantly, when a drunk driver struck her in a cross walk as she was leaving a music concert. Unlike my father, who I watched go through the process of dying, in the case of my mother, she was gone with no warning or time to prepare. I remember vividly receiving the phone call from a friend of our family, Ruth Klotz. She called me on the phone at ZCLA and broke the news to me as gently as she could. I remember how my body went into shock as I heard her words, unable to comprehend what she was telling me. I immediately returned to our home in Fullerton where family and friends had gathered.

It was hard for me to accept that my mother was no longer with me. Against my family's advice, I insisted on visiting the mortuary to view my mother. They led me to a viewing room where she was laid out in a coffin, wearing her favorite blue-green dress that she often wore to Sunday church. As I sat there with my mother, like Zengen, I was asking this question, "Alive or Dead?" It seemed clear that her body was just a shell of what I had known her to be. Still, even after that, I returned several more times to the mortuary to view her because I was not yet convinced that she was really gone.

Zen asks us to take up this question of life and death. The great Zen Master, Baso was unwell, and an attendant asked him how he was feeling and he answered,

"Sun-faced Buddha; Moon-faced Buddha."

We don't find that Baso is preoccupied with unhappiness or disappointment, as we might expect. He might agree with William Blake who said,

"He who binds himself a joy does the winged life destroy; but he who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity's sunrise."

We often feel cursed by time. There never seems to be enough of it. We are bound by our doubt and our fear, unable to sustain our gaze; unable to remain with the question.

In Buddha's time, like our own, their were many different religions and philosophies. Some believed in a kind of eternalism, that held a spiritual self or soul existed apart from the psychophysical personality. Others believed the exact opposite. They held a materialistic philosophy that doubted anything they couldn't see or touch. The materialists believed that once one dies, nothing remains at all. But the Buddha said his teaching was neither of these. And he went on to give his great  teaching of paticca samuppada or "dependent co-arising". The short version is a four-part formula: "This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises; this not being, that becomes not; from the ceasing of this, that ceases." This is a difficult and subtle teaching, so if you would like to learn more about it, I would recommend you read Joanna Macy's book on the subject, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems.

We come back to the subject at hand, our own mortality. How do you resolve your doubts about this? What will happen when you pass away? Can you sustain your gaze? If so, then perhaps you'll begin to appreciate Zengen behavior, as he passes back and forth in the temple looking for the bones of his late teacher. A great teacher's blessing can never be fully repaid. We can begin by clarifying, appreciating and realizing what it means to live a Zen-inspired life. And in the case of Robert Aitken Roshi, we can begin by helping others, by working to bring our environment back into some sustainable balance. We can work for social justice and continue his courageous resistance to war.

Alive or dead?

If you are still wondering, remember Sekiso's parting words,

"On the billows of the great ocean, whitecaps swell to the sky. What do you search for as our teacher's sacred bones, other than that?"

Robert Althouse