This whole world is nothing but a speck of moonlight reflected in one little dewdrop. -Dogen
Most of us come into Zen training with a problem. We’re unhappy. We don’t know why we’re here. We experience pain. And injustice. And loss. We suffer. We get sick. Then we die. Sure, we can try and shore up some buffers against this but they will inevitably be stripped away like chaff. No matter if like Alexander the Great or Bill Gates or Rupert Murdoch we have conquered an empire. We will still lose every last piece of it. On the face of it how could anything help? That’s just how it is.
From a philosophical point of view, we can’t change it but we can reconcile ourselves to it. This is the main approach, in one form or another, of the more practical side of western philosophy which evolved in Greece in the first millennium BCE. Acceptance, moderation, agnosticism, not taking things for granted, questioning our basic assumptions, a dose of fatalism – all these can significantly help us accept our curious lot as human beings.
But the Zen approach is different. From Zen’s point of view the key thing is simply to find out for ourselves who we really are – what our nature actually is. Or rather, to give up what we have believed ourselves to be.
Then we may see all the above issues in a different light. For example, it then becomes no longer baffling to say that there is no life and death. Or that life and death are one thing. Or that we never die. Or that what is unborn and undying is this life and death.
This whole world is nothing but a speck of moonlight reflected in one little dewdrop, Dogen tells us.
The great earth is nothing but a flicker of summer lightning, a bubble on a rushing stream, the Diamond Sutra says. Why these strange statements? The world seems solid enough. Life seems like something I indubitably know I have and will one day lose. What are the old masters talking about? Of course the road I am driving down and the mountains I see in the distance are solid, real and indisputably there. What does it mean to say they are just a reflection in a dewdrop?
When Master Dogo was mourning the death of one of his students, another monk asked him: “Alive or dead?” What do you say now, eh, master? He looks pretty dead to me! the monk might have been thinking.
But Dogo could not agree. “I don’t say alive, I don’t say dead!” he cried through his tears. Even when the monk hit him, demanding a clear answer he still didn’t budge: “I can’t say alive! I can’t say dead!”
Why not? How can this be? Doesn’t it fly in the face of all we know to be true? Some of us may have been at the bedside of a dying person. Isn’t it obvious they die? Who could dispute that?
Well, Dogo apparently did. Alive or dead: he just could not say. Why? Please find out why.
Message from Henry taken from our September 5, 2016 Newsletter
Image: LEafDew6, by Norman, CC by-NC 2.0, from Flickr.com