“One day in the neighborhood of Dogo’s Temple of Chang-chou, death occurred in a certain home and Zen Master Dogo took his disciple Zengen to express their condolences to the family.” During the visit Zengen tapped the coffin and asked, “Is he alive or dead?”
What is Zengen really asking? Obviously he knows that the person in the coffin is dead. So what is his real question? Perhaps it is, What happens after death? or What is death? or What will happen to me after I die? or Is there really death? or If he lies here, dead, what is the Deathless? Perhaps his deep concern—for it is a heartfelt question, as his subsequent actions will prove—grew from, or was intensified by, reciting the Heart Sutra: “None are born or die. Nor are they stained or pure, nor do they wax or wane. There is no withering nor death, nor end of them.” What does that mean, really? We chant those profound words daily, as do Zen practitioners everywhere. Well, what do they mean?
Zengen was deeply troubled by this fundamental problem of life and death. Deep down, aren’t we all? Our culture, however, papers this anxiety over with endless distractions: movies, TV, videos, computers, magazines, newspapers, shopping. There are countless potentially addictive distractions available to us. Life’s existential anxieties are so very close today, so very clear, perhaps we generate a wall of distractions to keep from feeling constantly insecure. The ancient belief in the harmony of the spheres has given way to one of violent and random catastrophe in deep space. Here on earth we are buffeted daily by reports of the dying of life forms, burning of the rain forests, pollution of the atmosphere and seas; of horrific ethnic cleansings, and the threat of massive political and economic destabilization brought on, in part, by the amazingly rapid evolution of new computer-based technologies. When we open the newspaper, impermanence hits us in the face. Our distractions multiply accordingly, making it hard to keep the real questions, the permanent, gnawing ones that grip our common humanity, in focus: Why was I born? Why must I die? Why is there so much suffering? Still, the questions are really there. Which is why sesshin is such a helpful practice. For a few days, at least, we can be out of the whirlwind and can let our real questions, the ones that persist lifetime after lifetime, generation after generation, arise and be faced head-on.
Zengen had a natural, spontaneously arising, full-time koan. Such a koan, growing out of our own life experience, can be the best koan of all. It raises an existential question and gives us no peace. It is a koan we must resolve. Obviously the master knew the depth of Zengen’s question, for he wouldn’t give in to it, wouldn’t placate Zengen with a reassuring answer. He didn’t say, Don’t worry. It’s all right. You’ll be reborn according to your thoughts and deeds. Rather, he said, “I won’t say alive. I won’t say dead.” Why not? His disciple was obviously sorely troubled by the whole subject of birth and death, specifically about what happens after one dies.
There’s a very good reason for such a response, as this koan makes clear.