From the Fall 2017 Buddhadharma, Norman Fischer looks at the koan “Dasui’s Aeonic Fire” and takes on the end of the world. It’s happening right now, he says, but probably not in the way that you think.
Obliterating all opposites and relativities, cutting off all doubt—what phrase can we use? The Capitol is not an inch of a step away. The greatest mountain only weighs three pounds. But tell me—on what principle do you stand to see it like this?
—Translation by Thomas Cleary
This is the introduction to Case 30 in the Book of Serenity, a collection of one hundred Zen stories. It tells us that if we can really understand the story that follows, we can be free of our various oppositions and dualities—in other words, free from our normal fearful ways of conceiving ourselves and the world. We think our goals and ideals are far away and we punish ourselves for not having realized them—but they, like the Capitol, are not far away. They are right here. We think we have problems as weighty as mountains—but our human problems are light as a feather. Here is the story:
A monk asked Dasui, “When the fire at the end of an aeon rages through and the whole universe is destroyed, is this destroyed or not?”
Dasui said, “Destroyed.”
The monk said, “Then it goes along with that?”
Dasui said, “It goes along with that.”
A monk asked Longji, “When the fire ending the aeon rages through and the whole universe is destroyed, is this destroyed or not?”
Longji said, “Not destroyed.”
The monk said, “Why is it not destroyed?”
Longji said, “Because it is the same as the universe.”
The story seems to be talking about the end of the world as we know it—a very contemporary theme. These days, we are quite fearful about the future. We seem, on many fronts, to be facing serious limits. It’s scary.
Perhaps humanity has never before faced such a moment. But it’s quite likely that at other times in history as well, people felt quite convinced that the end of the world was at hand. Perhaps during the Black Plague in Europe, when people believed that every third person died for no apparent reason other than collective human sinfulness. Or perhaps at the time of the demise of the Mayan civilization, when it seemed everything would come to a sudden halt as the cycle of cosmic time ended. We think we have better information now than we had then, so this time it’s really serious. Maybe we are right. Or maybe a hundred years from now, when we have even better information, we will look back at the fears we have now and consider them naive.
These days, we are quite fearful about the future. We seem, on many fronts, to be facing serious limits. It’s scary.
Anyway, this story reminds us that in ancient Buddhist cosmology, the end of the world and of the many worlds was considered an ordinary everyday inevitability. Universes were destroyed all the time, giving way to new universes. In the story, the inquiring monk is assuming this and wondering whether the thing in which he has ultimate faith—what he calls this—will be destroyed when the universe is destroyed. And Dasui very harshly says, yes, this too will be destroyed. Nothing lasts. As they used to say on storefront posters at liquidation sales, everything must go.
Later, a monk asks the same question of Longji, who answers in the opposite way: this is not destroyed. Why? Because this is the same as the universe, which is destroyed. Which doesn’t make any sense, at least according to the way we understand things.
So the story is giving us problems. It is casting doubt on our idea of the world. If there is a world, there must be something beyond the world: this. But no, we learn that this and the world are not different. Which means that the world and what is beyond the world are not different. So what is the world? Not the world we think we know.
The story further casts doubt on the difference between destroyed and not destroyed. This is not destroyed because it is destroyed, or so we learn. But this also makes no sense at all! Unless, of course, the way we are used to making sense doesn’t make sense.
And then, on top of these problems, we have the two Zen masters seeming to contradict one another, which also casts doubt on the reliability of Zen, which perhaps we have been depending on.
As always, these stories are not theoretical. For Zen students, they are personal. It isn’t just the world that is beyond the world: my life is beyond my life. It isn’t just the world that is destroyed and not destroyed: my life will end but it will not end. We sit in meditation with these truthful paradoxes for as long as it takes to feel them deeply in our bodies, minds, hearts, and breath.
In Zen Master Wansong’s traditional commentary to this story is another story worth telling:
A monk asked, “When the fire at the end of an aeon rages through and the whole universe is destroyed, is this destroyed or not?” This question originally comes from the Scripture on the Benevolent King Safeguarding the Nation: King Kalmashapada, believing in the words of the non-Buddhist Rata, took the heads of a thousand kings to sacrifice them in a graveyard to the god Mahakala, hoping to prolong the fortune of his nation. King Samantaloka begged a day’s reprieve and provided a meal for a hundred Buddhist teachers, in accordance with the teaching of the seven buddhas. The first teacher spoke a verse for the king: “In the raging of the aeonic fire the whole universe is destroyed….” The verse is thirty-two lines in all. As King Samantaloka was going to his death, he recited it for the other kings. Kalmashapada, in doubt, asked about it, and he too heard this verse. When he did, his mind opened up to understanding; he gave the kingdom over to his brother, left home and society, and attained forbearance.
This is a teaching of radical impermanence. It’s the essence of Buddhism: nothing lasts, everything passes as soon as it arises, because in reality there never have been any separate things.
This is an outrageous story. But when you think about it for a moment, it begins to sound familiar. King Kalmashapada wants to preserve his reign. So he takes some non-Buddhist advice—to offer the heads of a thousand kings as a sacrifice. That will work, he thinks, as crazy as it sounds to us.
But is this so far from what we do today? To preserve our nation, we feel compelled to kill a lot of people who we think threaten it. We feel compelled to protect our borders with walls and guards, surveil our entire population, spy on the entire world. And we intend to go on doing this indefinitely, which is not much more rational than sacrificing the heads of a thousand kings. I doubt it will be any more effective.
But one of King Kalmashapada’s victims convenes a Buddhist assembly and receives some teaching. King Kalmashapada happens to hear this teaching, and it completely turns him around; he gives up his destructive ways and becomes peaceful. He goes beyond preservation, beyond nations.
And what was the teaching he heard? “In the raging of the aeonic fire, the whole universe is destroyed.”
This is a teaching of radical impermanence. It’s the essence of Buddhism: nothing lasts, everything passes as soon as it arises, because in reality there never have been any separate things. Everything is radically connected. Things arise and cease together, as one.
Impermanence in its fullness and breadth is a teaching that makes you peaceful and loving. Impermanence is love. When you are on a sinking ship, as we all are, you don’t want to be fighting with all the other passengers, making a bad situation worse. You want to be hugging and kissing as the ship goes down. It can be a beautiful moment.
But there is more. The next sentence of Wansong’s commentary says, “In the teachings, it says that thousands of thousands of thousands of universes become and disintegrate as one at the same time.”
This is the great Mahayana view of impermanence. Things do not exist for a while, then not exist. That’s the sad sinking boat—the sinking boat of our individual lives and the sinking boat of our poor world. The boat really is sinking, but that is just one side of things. In fact, in each moment of time, all universes arise and cease as one. And this keeps happening, all the time.
So impermanence is permanence. Permanence is impossible. It is an idea, a concept, that exists because there is a concept of impermanence. Both permanence and impermanence are ideas, not realities. They are inherently self-contradictory, as are all our ideas about ourselves and our lives. This is why Zen stories always seem paradoxical—not to be tricky but because our basic ideas about everything really don’t make any sense. If you analyze them, they all turn out to contradict themselves, as Nagarjuna, the great philosopher of emptiness, shows in his works.
The story of Dasui’s Aeonic Fire demonstrates this. There doesn’t need to be anything beyond the world because the world is already beyond the world. There doesn’t need to be anything permanent because permanence is right here in the middle of impermanence. And this is true of our lives, as well. With concepts of permanence or impermanence comes fear—we are apt to become King Kalmashapada, desperately trying to shore up what can’t be shored up, desperately trying to fix what is already perfect in its brokenness.
The consequence of appreciating this story deeply in meditation is that we can finally let go of acting out of fear. Our doubt can be set to rest, as the introduction says. We can recognize that the conceptual frameworks necessarily underlying our lives are just that. They are not realities; they are ways of thinking and looking at the world. It’s not that we are searching for the correct perspective. Any perspective will be partial. Knowing this, we don’t hold on to the perspective that we will inevitably have. So when we find that we are afraid, we don’t completely believe in it; we study our fear and challenge it. We don’t know what this world is, we don’t know what will happen in the future. We are not supposed to know, we can’t know. That’s our practice: sitting in the middle of the beautiful question that is our collective life.
We don’t know what this world is, we don’t know what will happen in the future. We are not supposed to know, we can’t know.
We need this teaching to cope with the environmental and political catastrophes in which we are living. King Kalmashapada is raging on, destroying people and pouring carbon into the atmosphere at an insane rate. What we are doing every day is not that different from beheading a thousand kings—probably it is worse. It makes sense to be upset by this and to get active in whatever way is given to us. Probably massive political and economic changes will be necessary. No wonder the businesses and governments of the world resist going to a carbon-neutral economy. There will be upheavals. I don’t think anybody knows what to do.
To practice dharma is to have great confidence and great faith—not in a party or leader or a particular solution but in the process of living and dying itself. In the hope that we will together go forth into some future, whatever it is, hugging and kissing. This will not be destroyed because this is always destroyed, moment after moment.
Wansong’s commentary goes on to say that buddhas are themselves the aeon-ending fire, and arhats and bodhisattvas are the ashes. The worst has already happened. The worlds have already been destroyed; our lives are the ash. This is of course literally true—as Crosby Stills and Nash sang, “We are stardust.” We carry the becoming and ending of all the worlds in our bodies and minds. Each of us sits in meditation at the exact center of the universe, at the very beginning of time. There, we can be fully confident, fully joyful. And then, fortified by that joy and confidence, we can get up and do something to help, as we must, as we have always done and always will.