Saturday, December 01, 2012

ARTICLE - Firewood and Ash

'Firewood becomes ash, it can never go back to being firewood'

I don't have any personal memories of my birth, or for that matter the first years of my childhood, but I do have the photographs to prove that I had one. One of the earliest is a black and white photograph printed on stiff card, of me sat bolt upright in a pram. Both the pram, and myself, look like we are ready to storm a beach head at Dunkirk. My rather chubby face is framed by a woollen balaclava with a peak, that was part of an all in one romper suit. I'm beaming toothless, but enthusiastically, in the direction of the camera. I must have just started to walk, as around my waist and shoulders are the leather belt and reins of a baby walker. I look quite comfortable, surrounded by brushed flanelette blankets,  topped by a waterproof cover. Pushed back behind me, is a gabardine hood, which when erected made the pram resemble a rather large conch shell. The background, though out of focus, is recognisably a stone cobbled backstreet in Halifax, where I was born. There appear to be signs of snow on the ground, so, having been born in late June 1957, I would estimate I was about eighteen months old when the photograph was taken.

Without pictures such as this, I'd have no clear idea what I looked like then. My experience  as an infant is also indistinct and emotionally cloudy. When we are that age, we lack the language to form our thoughts into memories, that will be accessible, and comprehensible, to us as adults. What seems to survive is a less mediated form of recollection. A more direct instinctual, emotional response to experience. Our future adult psychology, appears to be built on the residue of these incipient, and primary reflexes.  The rest of our lives can seem endlessly spent either - reacting according to their subliminal volition, or trying to  unpick or change what prompts us to act in particular ways. Our first two years of human life, so we are told, sculpt the basic form of our future interactions with the world. It's not without some irony, that our conscious memories of it turn out to be so negligble. Where then does that vivid picture of ourselves as a baby come from?  Mostly it is enhanced retrospectively, from our adult encounters with babies, the oft repeated inculcation of family stories, and inheriting those unfocused, colour bleached photographs of ourselves as babes sat bolt upright in a pram. The often fuzzy nature of these snapshots exagerrates the vagueness about our formative years, a vagueness that means they can become anything we want them to be. Generally we choose to conceive it in rather conventional ways, as an innocent care free era.  Which can seem a banal and deceitful cliché.  

This is not to say that we were never innocent babes, it's just that our adult memories of it are in some way faked. From the moment we started stumbling around in the world, a continuous flow of disillusioning events began to perfume our psyches.Though we may not remember what it was really like, we do have an instinctual sense for how it felt when our unworldly naivete was dismantled. In the Bible, the story of The Fall, essentially portrays  humanity being expelled from the place of innocence. The Garden of Eden is an naked, carefree idyll, without artifice or self-consciousness, a place unfashioned by human civilisation. As this first human couple pursued independent thought and aquired knowledge, they found it changed the way they perceived the world, and their place in it. They founnd they were no longer prepared to blindly follow nature, or God's bidding, and began to question his authority.  Adam and Eve are driven from Eden, because God gets pretty pissed off with 'the sin' of their rebelliousness. They're mentally restless, they want to taste the forbidden things, they cannot be content to live in paradise, just as it is. The simple, uncomplicated, lives they were born into, will never be enough for them. As the writer G.K.Chesterton once said 'there will be fault finders, even in paradise'. It could be said that the story of Adam & Eve embodies this trait. Before they are expelled, God angrily reveals to them the basic truth of their carnal nature. Then, shame faced, they leave in the midst of a thunderous storm, never to return. A brooding cloud of melancholy still appears to hang over the human spirit, at the loss of innocence this story exemplifys. Which in someway goes towards explaining the human aspiration in later life, to reclaim that innocent care free paradise.

For the Buddha, he thought this despoiling of innocence was an intrinsic part of being human. At birth a 'tender young infant' appears without limitation, knowledge or guile, this innocence is deceptive, lasting only a few moments before our experience begins to disfigure it. He describes less palatable qualities, ones that lie dormant, shadowy, and unexpressed, beneath the soft skin and bright eyed blush of innocence. Given time, experience and opportunity they unfailingly will emerge.

“For the tender young infant lying prone does not even have the notion'identity,'
so how could identity view arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to indentity view lies within him.

A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion 'teachings,'
so how could doubt about the teachings arise in him? Yet the underlying tendency to doubt lies within him.

A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion 'rules,'
so how could adherence to rules and observances arise in him?
Yet the underlying tendency to adhere to rules and observances lies within him.

A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion' sensual pleasures,' so how could sensual desire arise in him?
Yet the underlying tendency to sensual lust lies within him.

A young tender infant lying prone does not even have the notion 'beings,'
so how could ill will towards beings arise in him?
Yet the underlying tendency to ill will lies within him.”1

So the innocence of a 'young tender infant' is fleeting, this we know it all too well. The Buddha understood this, but also realised that there was an even more basic state of ignorance which lies behind it. A form of ignorance which defines our whole relationship with existence. This ignorance never really goes away, though we may find more adult and ingenious ways of disguising it.  It remains there throughout birth, throughout life and throughout death.  Putting it bluntly -we have no sense of who or what we were before we were born - we don't know what the purpose of our life is once we have it - and we have no sense of what, if anything, we will be once we die. We enter into the world in almost the same state that we exit from it - in complete ignorance of what is to follow. The whole cycle of human life from birth to death is driven by it. In our lives between birth and death we may endeavour, at best, to become wiser and more compassionate beings, or at worst, to   struggle, suffer and flounder helplessly - 'not waving, but drowning' as the poet Stevie Smith put it.  We simply are in a constant battle with the impermanance, disatisfaction, & insubstantiality of our experience.  Our hard gained knowledge, intelligence, wealth and status will not outlast us, no matter how hard we might like to pretend otherwise. We may unwittingly fall out of innocence at the start, but we will all fall back into a more degenerative form of innocence, as old age, sickness and decay take there inevitable toll.

When we look back over our lifetime from the perspective of old age, how will we perceive it, how will we feel about what has passed, how confident shall we be that we're leaving something valuable or durable behind, once we are gone?  Our present human lives, so vital and tangible to us, can appear completely unconnected, if not cut off, from the death that will undoubtable close them.  This is a continued source of existential angst for humanit - how one can become the other - how could what was alive become dead? -  how could what was dead return to life once more?  What we know scientifically or spiritually, is often speculative, or assume an unquestioning belief in the instructions of God or logic. It just doesn't add up to anything conclusive, or feel convincing. This is an additional layer of ignorance, which further confuses what to make of our lives. Most of us, whether believers or non-believers, just make of them what we can, and hope for the best. The nature of life and death, is the main issue that Dogen explores in the extended metaphor ' firewood becomes ash'  taken from the Genjo Koan. He begins it, from the very first sentence,in an incontrovertible manner,

“ Firewood becomes ash. It can never go back to being firewood.”2

The human heart, has an imagintive need for the prospect of a return of some sort. Always it is a return to what has been lost – a life, or a way of being. Those of us who had a carefree childhood might dearly love to revisit it. Perhaps it was shorter than we would have wished for. To adult imaginations, the realm of the 'young tender infant' comes to represent an idealised state of being. One that our childishness itself allowed to slip from our grasp.  If we'd known then, what we know now, we would not have let it vanish quite so easily, so we think. There is often a backward glance, a look over our shoulder at what has been, with nostalgic yearning. Our emotional imagination grieves for the lack of something, that perhaps it never had, has no memory of, or can no longer experience.  It is the child's fascination and wonder, the absorbing interest and deep sensory engagement with life – that we frequently mourn the loss of. The perky freshness of our new born faces, brought with it a happy contentment, uninhibited by painful memories, a damaged psychology, or the rough education of life. It seems that this excited discovery of beauty in everday inconsequential things, can grow duller as we learn more about the world. Adopting a jaded, disengaged view of the world, can seem a sensible position to take, given how comprehensively we are informed these days about all its imperfections, uglyness and cruelty. So, as we take that backward glance, what we find absent in our present experience may weigh heavy on our hearts. It's no wonder we end up reassuring ourselves by knocking back a chilled bottle of cynicism. There is no way of going back.

All of our experiences in life are impermanent, soon lost in the acceleration of time. Shadowed by a vain hope that what has passed can be recaptured. Our civilised society requires us to adopt it's laws, it's social and cultural norms. We all hold a degree of underlying antipathy towards these civilised trappings, if we break free of them at all, its mostly in our dreams. Twentieth century artists often strove to regain a childlike sense of wonder in their art, to rediscover less circumscribed, freer modes of expression.  Cultures, like people. refer back to a past 'Golden Age' when things were better, when civilisation appeared in a better balance with human aspiration and creativity. The Greeks looked to Egypt, the Romans modelled themselves on the Greeks, Renaissance Europe modelled itself on the Classical world of Greece and Rome, the English Pre-Raphealite and Arts & Crafts movements self-consciously aped the Mediaval Renaissance, and so it goes on and on.  Though we refer back to the past its never fully reclaimed in the present, only restated through a contemporary lens and sensibility.  We remember it completely anew in the present, no corpse has ever been reanimated.  As the 'ashes' of the past can never be rekindled as 'firewood' in the present, likewise we cannot return to innocence, in quite the way we might imagine. Our first experience of impermanence, of real loss, is with the death of innocence. There is no way of going back.

Most parents try to protect their 'young tender infants' from encountering their own impermanance too soon. Though slowly bit by bit chidren do get the gist of it.  We learn  by observing  how plants, animals and birds die, watching the weather, the seasons and people changing, and not always for the better. It's not a pleasant to discover how changeable your own state of wellbeing can be - the delight of play in one moment becomes the wailing anguish of a gashed knee in the next.  Once we are hurt, we examine the causes of our suffering, and that 'underlying tendency' to ill will rear its head. Quickly to be followed by the desire for revenge, recompense or reciprocal damage to other people, or things. In trying to protect ourselves from external sources of pain, we withdraw, learn to be cautious. Our receptivity becomes constricted, less open, less vividly engaged, as a consequence. Gradually the brightness of the 'young tender infant' becomes scuffed, dented and inhibited by the corrosive nature of suffering. It takes a tumble with every bump and graze. Why a happy state becomes unhappy, or an unhappy state becomes happy, eludes our mastery? We find our sense of well being to be completely at the mercy of circumstance,  and 'firewood becomes ash' before we know it.

Childhoods are fortunate if they are free from traumas – great or small.  When these tragedies do occur they may form indelible stains upon a mind and being. They arise mostly out of a sense of loss, of being abandoned, abused or betrayed. Dogen was not unfamiliar with this, born into one of the most turbulent periods in Japanese history. His childhood was disrupted by the sort of emotional storms no parent would ever wish upon their infant son or daughter. In thirteenth century Japan, two great aristocratic dynasties were fighting to obtain or retain political power. Dogen's family was related to one of them - the Fujiwara. The Fujiwara's influence, though weakening, still held a fragile supremacy in court circles. Status, connections and influence had to be maintained or the Fujiwara would inevitable loose power - which within the span of Dogen's lifetime they did.  He was two years old when tragedy struck, with the death of his Father. Due to his ancestral connections Doegn become an innocent pawn in this dynastic tug-of-war. He would have been just learning to walk, and perhaps know a few words. Yet, for such a 'tender young infant', how would the death of his father have affected him? He was able, no doubt, to raise a smile of recognition when his Father appeared, but would he really be able to know, or love him?   What would death mean to a two year old child?  If it meant anything at all, it meant a familiar face disappeared, he knew not where too. Did Dogen, in later years, have any personal memories of his Father that did not have there origins in the stories told to him by other members of his family?

In the last century, the father of the poet Edwin Brock died when he was eight. Over his adult life Brock wrote a few poems, which attempted to reconstruct a sense of him from the flimsiest of personal memories. The last verse of a teenage poem describes eloquently how, as a child, he didn't fully understand the significance of what was happening.

“But on the day my father died
white faces fell from every window
and every house found rooms of tears to hide
while I, joy-jumping, empty-eyed sang on the day
my father died.”3

In later years he wrote 'In memory of my father', a poem where he tries to salvage some meaningful memories of his father, and acknowledges his failure to do so in any real sense.

“ This is said to please someone I never
consciously pleased, someone whom
I carry with me here or there, or take
out from my pocket and examine carefully.

But when the sun shines, accurate and
clear, there is nothing I remember;
nothing which I could not draw as well
from a memory of other people, or swear

that this was so because it is ennobling
or pure, yet purity and nobleness are
nothing here, so that really I begin
with a sort of emptiness, and hope

that slowly I may probe it out. Despite
this you appear always to be telling me
some inappropriately tiny thing: a way
to handle knives and forks or comb my hair.

I presume we cannot always have been eating,
or preening half-forgotten heads in bedrooms.
In fact I do recall that once we walked
together past a well-known grammar school

and you insisted on and on that I make this
a kind of goal. Although you never knew,
it was a goal I scored- though nobody bothered
about it very much, least of all me.

And that I suppose is our main difficulty:
that the image that I make you have of me
is one that you would never have enjoyed;
and yet continually I wish that you were here,

if only that we talked on knives and forks:
it is a sort of emptiness I bear; it is
a kind of charm which never works and which
in dragging from my pocket, I may tear.”4

Those last three lines, give a keen sense of what the premature death of a father can leave you with,- 'a sort of emptiness' that is stoically born - 'a kind of charm which never works',in bringing that person,or those missing memories back into consciousness. What you do remember feels insubstantial and frail. Now Dogen as he grew up, must have found the lack of concrete memories of his father frustrating.  As a sensitive child, he may have been aware how distraught and distracted his Mother had become. The effect on her, as a single mother, in a society where status remained a masculine preserve, would have been immense. Struggling with her own sense of grief and loss, combined with an increased vulnerability to outside pressure from the rest of her family. She sought the help of her brother in protecting, educating and preparing Dogen for the inheritance his ancestry, seemingly, placed him in line for.

Five years after the loss of his father, death once again visited his young life – when his beautiful,caring and artistically cultivated Mother, also died. Dogen, though no doubt a bright boy, with a level of maturity and self possession rare in someone approaching his eighth birthday, could not have been prepared this. His mother's brother suggested he should formaly adopt him. This would mean he'd be better able to protect him from becoming embroiled in the internecine rivalries within the royal court.  However, his Mother had different ideas, and on her death bed had urged Dogen to devote himself to a monastic life. Perhaps she'd understood all too well, from her own experience, that the future prospects for their family within the court were not looking fruitful. The refinement and poetry of court circles,though appealing, concealed beneath its beautiful surface a world of barely supressed hatred and nefarious intrege. This was unlikely to provide the stable, secure future she wanted for her intelligent, thoughtful son. Whilst the death of his Father may have passed without a substantial sense of loss, that of his mother shook Dogen to his very core. It thrust him uncermoniously into an ugly world, requiring him to make very adult decisions about his future path. Though he was not without the talent or sensibility, It was abundently clear to him, that a duplicitous life of an aesthete at the royal court, was not to be his chosen profession.  He followed his mother's wish, moving as far away from Kyoto as possible, and joined a monastery run by an uncle.

The early death of his mother remained the vital spark for his spiritual practice for a further forty five years. Dogen's future life as a monk proved to be adventurous, contemplative and full, yet his life too was brief, dieing when he was only fifty three. His discourses and writings are peppered repeatedly with comments abd reflections on the nature of impermanence, reminding us how ever present the possiblity of oue own death is.

“ Today's life does not guarantee tomorrow's.
The possibility and danger of dying are always at hand” 5

This seems a matter of fact, an obvious statement. We've all just read it, and no doubt think we've understood and agreed with it – yes, this is how it is.  If this is so,and we really have grasped it- why then does the death of a loved one continue to catch us off guard? - how come death is forever like the unexpected guest turning up at a dinner party?  Whilst we may intellectually be ready for the arrival of death, we are rarely emotionally prepared for it. Nor are we primed for the questions that the nearness of it provokes. Dogen's parents might have hoped to protect him from an early experience of death. Unfortunately their own premature deaths became an object lesson in how sudden and inexplicable mortality can be. We all try to shield ourselves, and others, from such a close intimacy with death.  We tend to place any such feelings and emotions we have into an immortal, deathless vacuum, where as Dylan Thomas put it  - 'death shall have no dominion.'  So, death, when it does come, comes as a rude awakening. Like an unpleasant smell which grows more pungent, the more we try to ignore it, or an elaborately told joke whose concluding punchline turns out to not be at all amusing, or worth the wait.

The first person whom I remember dying, was my Great Granddad Walker. I only knew him in his twilight years, when he'd grown too infirm to live at home. He was looked after in the geriatric ward of a small district hospital, converted after the First World War from the shell of an old Victorian workhouse. On Saturday mornings, my Father would take my Sister and myself for a walk down to the local library. On our way back, if there was time, we'd call in the hospital to see Great Granddad. These visits began when I was three or four years old.  I remember him as a likeable, but essentially frail old man. This is only an emotional sense, without a photograph I wouldn't be able to picture him at all. My delight in these visits wasn't entirely altruistic. I also had a more selfish expectation. Great Granddad was always generous, presenting us either with pocket money, or half a packet of Fruit Gums, every time we went. There appeared, therefore, never to be any resistance on our part in visiting him. A few weeks passed without us calling in to see him, and eventually we were told he'd died. This was what happened when people died, you stopped seeing them. Unbeknown to us, his health had been deteriorating for quite sometime, and on the day before his ninety ninth birthday, he'd passed away.  Apart from being robbed of a regular source for money and sweets, I don't remember his death as being the cause of any real sense of grief. I certainly appreciated him, but to be honest what was this death business about?  Great Granddad had gone, but he couldn't have gone very far away, could he?  Why was this the cause of so much emotional upset?  

My sister and I didn't attend the funeral, but we were taken to see his grave afterwards, it looked pretty much like a rose bed in our back yard, only with green stones and a vase.  Undoubtedly we were told the usual stories you'd tell a young child concerning death, which I'd obviously done my best to make sense of. So,Great Granddad had ascended into heaven, like Jesus had done.  This I understood, my Illustrated Bible showed me that one - Jesus being lifted up on a cloud, surrounded by cherubs, trumpets and  a splendid golden aura of bright light, all very spectacular. If this was what death was like, it didn't appear to be something we should be afraid of. This idea appealed to my rather theatrical  imagination  For me, Great Granddad's death was pretty much directly modelled on Christ's Ascension. Great Granddad, was respectably dressed in his Sunday suit, waistcoat, FOB watch and shoes. He'd been a much shorter and stockier man, than I imagined Jesus ever was. The abiding image I have of Great Granddads death and heavenly departure, is of him grandly and radiantly ascending from a flower bed in our back garden, hovering beatifically and saintlike over our dustbin and garden shed.  

This young engagement with death, though rich in imaginative detail, has still a remote and disconnected feel to it.  I had no substantial emotional attachment to Great Granddad, so my sense of loss was small. My first such emotional encounter with death, like that of most people, was not of a parent, sibling or any other close relative, but of a much loved pet – a canary. Neither of my parents had owned pets when they were children, due to the constraints of finance and war time. Pets were a luxury, costly to maintain, and in hard times you didn't need another demanding mouth to feed. My mother had a certain antipathy towards cats, she didn't like the slinky, slippery insubstantial sensation they gave when you held them, or they shifted on your lap. Dogs were excluded by virtue of them being hairy, dirty and requiring regular walks. Nevertheless, in the parenting manuals of the day, caring for a pet was considered beneficial to the development of young minds and hearts - so an acceptable pet, neither feline nor canine, had to be sought. One day, we returned home to find a bird cage installed  just to left of the fireplace in our front room. We  were taken to the local pet shop, each to return clutching a small canary in a box. I decided to call my bird Bob, though I had no idea at all what sex it was. All went well for a few weeks, they were fed and given water duitfully, and talked too incessantly. They seemed perky enough, and made a pleasant amount of background chirping. Then Bob's head feathers starting to look ruffled and thin, as if he'd been in a fight. The other bird had been regularly attacking and pecking him. Bob stopped chirping, and later moved so little on his perch you would have thought he was stuffed.  A few days later he was found lying motionless on the bottom of the cage.  Bob, so I was told, was dead.

I was about five or six at the time, but, armed with my knowledge of Great Granddad's death, I knew what needed doing for Bob, first I needed a coffin.  My Grandpa Tunnicliffe smoked a pipe, his tobacco came in green tins with a stags head emblem on the lid. Once empty, these tins were used by my father as storage for nails, screws, bolts, nuts and washers. I took one of these tins to use as a coffin, lined it with cotton wool, placed the fragile body of Bob in the middle,and laid a further blanket of cotton wool on top.  I dug a small shallow hole in our back garden, composed a funeral service, and with great ceremony placed Bob and the soil back into the freshly dug grave. I found a roughly rectangular off piece of plywood in my Father's workshop, and used this as a headstone. On it in black felt pen I wrote ' Here lies the remains of Bob', followed by the date of his death.

Now, having gone to all this trouble of laying Bob to rest, you'd have thought I'd have left the poor thing alone. Well, I did for a few days, then curiosity got the better of me and I dug Bob up, mainly to see if he'd been resurrected.  If he proved still to be dead, I was curious to see, in the uninhibited way only a child can, what death looked like. On that first occasion, nothing seemed to have changed, only the feathers seemed a bit ruffled.  After that, every time I dug him up I noticed more changes. His face appeared to shrivel, at first his eyes stood out in stark relief as the flesh tightened, but then wizened into empty dark hollows as it perished, his beak opened out wider losing some of its bright colour.  My parents tried to deter this interest in Bob's process of decay, yet I still managed to exhume him a few more times. My interest waned once the process of decay appeared to reach an end; the feathers fell off, and lay in a downy halo around the fine bones of his delicately wrought skeleton.  Bob, no longer looked like Bob. He was to be replaced by another canary, to be named - Bob the Second. Who also died as a consequence of vindictive pecking, to be buried alongside his namesake. Having viewed the process once, I stopped disinterring  the remains of my birds. Bob the Second was never replaced. When my Sister's bird eventually died ( from the lack of an outlet for its aggressive instincts, one must presume ) the birdcage was dismantled, my parents redecorated the front room, and any sign of the brief time when we'd kept canaries was removed. The plywood headstones in the garden weathering to an ashen grey and the inscriptions faded. For a while I did re-inscribe them, until we moved house when I was eleven, and we left their graves behind. Our earliest experiences of death are often like this, presence becomes absence, what was loved is now gone. We learn that all things decay, though not always right before our eyes, nor by constantly digging them up.

“ Firewood becomes ash. It can never go back to being firewood.” 2

The experience is clear; once the tinder of life is set alight, firewood will become ash.  Yet what makes firewood - firewood, what makes what is alive- alive in the first place?  We understand on a social and biological level what creates life- it's the result of a confluence of events.  There's an attraction between two people, there's a desire, there's arousal, there's sexual  intercourse, there's a sperm meeting an egg, that initiates a chain of genetic causation that ends in the creation of a new human life. Approximately nine months later a baby is born, that we give a name, and school into the many charms and vicissitudes of human life. From conception onwards huge amounts of human energy is created and consumed in the process of making and maintaining that life.  Every life has an uncertain, but finite, length. As a fire will run out of material to burn, and firewood will become ash – so too does birth eventually exhaust its inherited life energy and become dead. This universal consequence is the common inheritance for all forms of sentient life.  Death stands in relation to life as a shadow does to a body, and this shadow grows ever longer, broader and more significant as the sun begins to set.

As a child, with my canaries, I experienced for the first time how it felt when something I loved died.  I observed the process of decay once it was dead, until what had been my pet bird, could no longer be so lovingly conceived – what was firewood was now ash - my own eyes had shown me so. Though these evidential perceptions of death could seem conclusive, our emotional perceptions always take a while to adjust. We can't get used to  the deceased not being there, we think we can sense the presence of their ghost, like a phantom limb.  For a while we find ourselves juggling two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, firewood has become ash, so there is the painful process of letting go, the overwhelming sense of loss, adjusting to the absence of a loved one whose intimacy was once so tangible. On the other hand, we don't want to let go of them, we want the ash to become firewood again, we want to hold onto them, resurrect them, to find a charm that will work, to bring them back, restore their presence and intimacy to us. These two emotional pulls are only natural, and are the earlystages of our coming to terms with their loss.   

Death throws up so many questions. It is such a sharp, insensitive sword, effectively piercing the armour that we create to shields us from it. Dealing a significant blow to our own sense of stability. Someone has been taken from us against our will. In the early days of grief, unanswerable questions echoe across the empty space, where the deceased once stood; why them? why me? why now? why so much pain? - why follows why after why.  Nothing makes any sense,so we longingly ask - why?  Questions shift from an external person that has died, to internal thoughts about death - was there any purpose to their life, to my life, to their death, to my death?  Does anything follow after life, what, if anything, is there after death?  Does' ash' go back to being 'firewood' again? From an objective perspective, what we see in the here and now is  – 'firewood becomes ash' – life becomes dead - and that's the discomforting, but painful truth of it.  What we'd like to imagine, is that somewhere else, somewhere other than here, in a place we may loosely call heaven, it might be otherwise – hearts can conjoined - wounds can be healed - life can be restored.  Despite these heartfelt imaginings, grief born and poignant though they may be, any idea that firewood might be resurrected from the ash, in this, or any future life, seems implausible - it just doesn't happen. Dogen would seem to be making this ultra clear when he says,

'Firewood becomes ash, it can never go back to being firewood'2

though is he?  He is sounding didactic, leaving an impression that this is empirical and resolutely a matter of fact. On an evidential, observable level this is so, and perhaps this may be all Dogen is really saying here. From our perspective once someone dies they never return, or more precisely, once a specific person dies, that specific person never returns.  The circumstances that led to this unique human being appearing and having a presence on this Earth, have now ceased.  It would be a mistake to say Dogen is ruling out an after life perse, just particular conceptions of why and how that afterlife comes about. If we look at conventional religious explanations of what happens in the after-life, a common theme is of some form of triumphe over the whole paradigm of life and death. After all who wants to live only to die? The salvation, when it comes is either instantaneous or eventual, usually the result of divine intervention, intercession or the consequence of meritricious spiritual practice I'd like to briefly review four ideas about what can happen after life – reanimation, resurrection, reincarnation, and re-birth

Reanimation, we know as the literal bringing back to life of that which was previously dead.  To re-animate an existence, not in Heaven, but on Earth. One can see how this idea might have an appeal, to be in control of life, and not left at the mercy of impermanence. This must be an almost universal desire. It may, from a modern perspective, seem more an imaginative aspiration, than an actual ability that anyone could possess. It has echoes for us of folk customs in early or primitive cultures, the voodoo priests and shamans who were said to have mastery over life and death. However, even Christ is said to have raised Lazarus from the dead, though perhap this is OK if you're the son of God. Reanimation is primarily an activity done by humankind, and rarely by a God. Perhaps its because we fear our lack of omnipotence will inevitable result in disaster. Though in folk tales, ancient or modern, raising the dead back to life, have frequently taken on for us a more horrific,nightmarish journey.  Mary Shelley, explores this theme in her story of Frankenstein. Frankenstien is a man of the Enlightenment, who believes that through science the secrets of eternal life can become known. The result is a monster, a horrific composite of dead bodies reanimated in a new form. It taps into those feelings about this power to reanimate life being unnatural, occult or pagan, of being the devils work, of man playing God. Though we might wish a loved one could be brought back to life, the actuality of reanimating the dead, holds some disgust and fearful responses too. Science may eventually triumphe over death, though at what cost we cannot be sure. Today we hear that scientists have mapped the genetic code, and in future will be able to clone life forms, cure diseases, prevent aging and extend life. We may feel admiration, but also a feeling of apprehension about where this knowledge and ability will take us. Though it could, perversely, present us with eternal life, something we have craved for millenia. Whether eternal life would be a dreadful mistake for humanity, is a question rarely given serious consideration.  It's usually over ruled by our fear of death, and the unknowable question of what will follow afterwards.

Resurrection could be seen as being identical with reanimation.  Though resurrection in its broader sense, steps a bit beyond the literal reanimation of what was dead.  It's impetus is more spiritual than an earthly triumphe. Resurrection is divinely, as opposed to humanly inspired. The resurrection is from Earth to Heaven,and not Earth bound. At whose behest are they resurrected? Usually at God's. The dead, because of their faith, are restored to their former glory on their arrival in heaven. Christ's death and resurrection, besides being a cruel and gruesome event, is also symbolic of a divine promise God makes with all who believed in him; believe in me and you too can defeat death and know the certainty of heaven. This is the dominant ideal of resurrection in the christianised West, though there are other variants. For a period of about four years,I was a regular attender at a Spiritualist Church. During the meetings, the medium attempts to demonstrate there is life after death. To do this, they need to prove conclusively that they are in communcation with a deceased relative of a member of the congregation. A common reassurance, that supposedly comes from the deceased, explains that their relative is now happy and whole, that all their physical and mental powers had been restored. Usually this is to a particular age and period in their life when they could be considered to be in their prime. The person having been resurrected in heaven, stays exactly the same as the earthly person they knew and loved, only much better.  'Ash' here became recognisably 'firewood' again in the after life. Sometimes this is achieved through the benevolence of a deity, or a saintly intermediary, or as the consequence of a virtuous life. Irrespective of whether the outcome is heaven or hell, everyone will get what they deserve. If it's heaven, all is perfected and resolved, suffering is overcome, it is a care free place of great beauty and peace. Our nature regains the same innocence and delight with which we characterise our childhood. The primordial firewood is only eternaly rekindled at the hand of God.

Reincarnation though not unknown to Western culture, has more of a shadowy place in it. Contemporary Spiritualism, has it's philosophical roots in Madam Blavatsky, and the nineteenth century Theosophical movement. It's religious philosophy is a composite, drawing on common  themes and threads from all the main religions. It drew heavily on Hindu  concepts of the after life, where reincarnation was part of a huge cosmic cycle, whose length, though indeterminate, will eventually come  to a conclusion. There is no immediate and eternal place in the realm of heaven, but a sequence of short stays in heaven, interspersed with reincarnations on Earth of a specific  individual, sometimes over thousands of lifetimes. 'Firewood' becomes 'ash' to become 'firewood,' not once, but again and again and again. The perpetual nature of this cycle is said to be worn down, and eventually broken, by the accumulated effects of good deeds, lessons learned and greater spiritual maturity, These deterrmining factors are refered to as 'the generation of good karma.' Our place in heaven, according to these traditions, will only be a temporary residence, whilst the process of perfecting our eternal soul is still taking place in our  numerous earthly existences.

Re-Birth as an explanation of what happens in the afte-life, is a varient unique to Buddhism. It is easily mistaken as identical with reincarnation. The differences between the two, can seem to be just a small matter of emphasis. It does hold some similarities in it's use of the 'karmic' process. Though what is said to be re-born, has a certain ambiguity surrounding it. It isn't a specific individual, but more a form of volitional consciousness that creates an impetus to re-birth.  The strength of that volition being dependent on the level of spiritual ignorance about the True Nature of Reality. This fundamental ignorance fuels the karma, that drives the cycle of re-births. This determines 'how' something is reborn, but not 'what' is re-born. Just to say a consciousness is re-born, still sounds like it is something specific to an individual, because of the prefix  'a' - a consciousness is re-born. Perhaps it would be better to simply say – consciousness is re-born. This still leaves open to question what sort of consciousness that is, though perhaps this is impossible for us to fully grasp. Our imaginations are limited. Unless we move away from any conception of consciousness being a specific person, toward a view of Pure Consciousness as a more diffuse and interconnected phenomena. Imaginatively it shares similarities with animism, where specific qualities of the deceased are conceived to manifest in, or be an influence on, a number of individuals, animals, trees, clouds or breezes, the behaviour of water, the colours of mountains, the constituent elements of life.  Anything can be animated by the presence of Pure Consciousness, acting like a guiding force. Dogen explains the phenomena of earthly reality in this manner in his major work - The Shobogenzo. There Buddha Nature, is described as an elemental form of Pure Consciousness actively present in all things. Though it is said that only through re-birth in a human form, can a consciousness find the best conditions for reaching this state of Buddha Nature.

Dogen might be saying that all these ideas are either incorrect, partial, or potentialy misleading.  Humanity  tends over time to turn metaphors into literal descriptions of how things are. No matter how detailed a definition is given of what is, or is not re-born, at some point we start envisioning a specific soul, spirit or animating principle. We appear not to be able to help ourselves. After all, we have known a specific person, a person with an individual personality, and a concrete identity confimed by photography. Where does that uniqueness go too after death? It maybe that it goes nowhere. That there is just life and death and nothing else before of after ? Life is a simple biological process, empty of any universal purpose and meaning – our current experience is all there is, nothing else happens afterwards. Whereas, with reanimation, resurrection, reincarnation, or re-birth, all project a narrative forward, there is some form of continuity over and beyond what our current experience can encompass.  We could dispute or conjecture about what does or doesn't happen after death, but no one has yet come back from death to tell us about it.   Would we believe them if they did?  Despite any assertions to the contrary, we can never truly know beyond all doubt.     

Our present experience is realy all we have to go on. The Buddha encouraged us  to test out his teachings, and to practice and believe only what our own experience found valuable. If they proved themselves to work, then fine, if not, cast them aside. We are under no circumstances to blindly take his word for it. It is hardly surprising then that controversy emerges once we turn to matters of - what happens after death – or – whether the state of enlightenment exists - both are questions which take us beyond what is immediately knowable in the present. They also bring us directly into tricky areas for our more contemporary quizzical minds – what is reasonable to doubt, have faith in, or believe?  Sangharakshita says that there should be three grounds for faith (sraddha) – our intuition, our reason and our experience. These three combined can enable us to be clear what we are basing our faith on, to establish what is reasonable about our doubts, and what experience informs our intuitive beliefs. Any doubt, faith or belief that we find ourselves holding inflexibly or dogmaticaly, should really be called into question.  However, when we are considering issues such as what happens in the after-life, we do not have the experience to inform or complete our judgement. We are left with just our reason and intuition, which is an unbalanced and insufficient place to speak authoritatively from. So, if someone says 'there is no life after death,' should really have a question mark placed after it. It can only be a speculative belief, not a definitive statement. In the area of death and the after life, it seems sensible to remain provisional in our opinions, holding both 'reasonable doubt' and 'intuitive faith' in check, or we cannot  proceed further.

Intuition, if left to roam unfettered, can lead to frothy empty headed of fancies being given unwarrented credence. It can be so ungrounded as to be perilously out of touch with reason.  If reason were to go unchecked it can create an insensitive and  arrogant mindset, out of touch with what might be intuitively felt in the heart.  The corrective and  balancing element in both cases is experience. What does your experience tell you about what you intuit, or what you reason to be so? What do you actually know from experience? A scientist, for instance, in presenting a new theory about the functioning of the universe, has partly to base it on evidence, and partly on conjecture. He has to present what he discovers with objectivity, otherwise his partiality would undermine the credibility of his theory. Beliefs are similar to such untested theories. We should be provisional in the faith we place upon them, even if our present experience, reason and intuition indicates that they may turn out to be true. But just because we don't yet have the full evidence to support them, doesn't mean we should abandon having theories, or holding beliefs, either. Evidence and conjecture perform a sort of interactive dance, each changing the other as it progresses. The point is that what we doubt, have faith and believe in, should always be in an slowly evolving state. We all too easily become over attached to theories, beliefs or viewpoints ( our own or other peoples), particularly when it comes to those surrounding the after life. We should be prepared, to let go of them all, if needs be. I find it helpful to bear in mind the words of Padmasambhava, that semi-mythical figure of Tibetan Buddhism, when he says,

“I do not have, I do not understand, I do not know,”

At the same time we need to hear this without it damaging our faith, doubt or the determination to know. Our present experience may be of a death - we know all about the firewood and its life in the past, we have a sense of what came before the death of the person who has now turned to ash. We may conjecture about them continuing on in some imagined future life. However, from the perspective of current evidence - a specific person cannot return to life – be reanimated 'back to being firewood' - be ressurected 'back to being firewood' – be reincarnated 'back to being firewood – or be re-born 'back to being firewood.' - for we have little concrete experience, in the here and now, to support any of these ideas?  

The Buddha refused to make catagorical declarations on such questions, he called them 'imponderables' because for an unenlightened person they were unresolvable on the basis of experience, intuition or reason.  He refers to himself as 'the Tathagata,' which roughly means 'the one who has gone beyond', ie. is Enlightened. He refuses to be drawn on what happens to an Enlightened person after death, let alone what happens to an unenligthened person.

“ remember what I have left undeclared as undeclared,
and remember what I have declared as declared.
And what have I left undeclared?
'The world is eternal' – I have left undeclared.
'The world is not eternal'- I have left undeclared.
'The world is finite'- I have left undeclared.
'The world is infinite'- I have left undeclared.
'The soul is the same as the body'- I have left undeclared.
'The soul is one thing and the body another'- I have left undeclared.
'After death a Tathagata exists'- I have left undeclared.
'After death a Tathagata  does not exist'- I have left undeclared.
'After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist'
I have left undeclared.
'After death a Tathagata niether exists nor does not exist'
I have left undeclared.”

He did  not consider it useful to conjecture about these issues, declaring them to be 'unbeneficial'. He thought such questions hindered our progress towards achieving the  liberation of enlightenment. What he declared to be beneficial was quite simple - understanding the nature of our suffering, and what would lead to its cessation. He refuses to engage in theoretical speculations and turns our attention right back to the substance of our earthly lives, something we can all experience, intuit and reason about. He's saying put all your energy and effort there, understand it fully on the basis of your  experience of life. Leave the rest of it alone, it really wont help you.  

Yet, Dogen does appear to be taking us into the most speculative of areas – the realtionship of life to death.  In the next sentence of the paragraph Dogen advances the debate further, and begins to subtly undermine the apparent definitive nature of his own initial sentence. He begins to question any viewpoint which limits the sequence of events only to what happens between birth and death.  

“Firewood becomes ash, it can never go back to being firewood.
Nevertheless, we should not take the view
that ash is its future and firewood its past”2

Human beings have a tremendous memory and imaginative faculty. We can envisage ourselves and others in our minds eye, and project them back into the past or forward into the future – conjuring up the drama of another time or place. Human lives can be recounted as a series of flashbacks or fascinating episodes, as if they're part of a popular long running series. The demise of a human life can seem a concluding episode, a literal dead end, death is after life, life is before death – firewood is before ash, ash  is after firewood. The watershed appears fixed and inflexible.  Our lives can have all the dramatic deductive sweep of a Sherlock Holmes novel.  Such stories are usualy told sequentially, in a straight time line, with no breaks, pauses or discontinuity. Only in the final chapters does a surprising revelation come, and the truth is revealed. This modern form of mystery play captivates and holds our interest. It draws  logical conclusions for why someone has died – the Butler did it!  I can imagine Dogen shaking his head in disbelief, and in saying 'Nevertheless' his brow would furrow sardonically.  'Nevertheless', inspite of the stories we weave, and the time lines we draw comfort from, all may be not as it seems. With that 'Nevertheless', he pushes aside conceptions we hold as misconceptions. He asks us to call in to question any linear sense of time. It's as though suddenly in the last minutes of a thoroughly engrossing film, everything we've interpreted as true turns out to have been untrue, and only a dream. 'Nevertheless' we persist, and turn over the well thumbed pages of our experience. Modelling ourselves on Sherlock Holmes, we searches for clues and answers to our own unexpected death.  It would all be much easier if birth, life, death and the after-life could be entirely submitted to logical deduction.  

It was a long long time after the deaths of my canaries, before I saw my first dead human body.  I was actually in my late thirties, living in Norfolk, self-employed, running my own Art Shop, and beginning to become serious in my Buddhist practice.  A few years before at my first meditation class in the local Sixth Form College, I'd met a man called John Stokes, who within a year of that beginners class was ordained becoming Stirabuddhi. These early years of mine as a proto-buddhist were dotted with significant meetings with Stirabuddhi; he took me in his car to my first day retreat; introduced me to the concept of a right livelihood business, and what one looked like; and listened patiently whilst I asked my earnest, but quizzical questions.  There were a few years, whilst I ventured into Spiritualism and out again, when I hardly saw him.  On returning to Buddhism he was still running the local group in an outlying village.  This small disparate group could only have been an act of selfless devotion for Stirabuddhi, others less charitably might have called it thankless. Eventually, even he called it a day as numbers dwindled from a handful, to three, to two and some weeks to just Stirabuddhi on his own. It was Stirabuddhi to whom I first talked when I wanted to take deeper my commitment to Buddhism. So far as I know, I'm the only person to be ordained out of that particular incarnation of the Diss Buddhist Group.  

It was shortly after this meeting that Stirabuddhi became the first dead human body I ever saw.  A few days or so before he died, his stiff and slightly hunched form came into my shop. He was dressed in track suit bottoms and a pale blue un-ironed shirt, whatever the time of day he always looked as if he'd just got up.  An aura of stale cigarette smoke hung around him wherever he went, it followed him now as he walked in. The expression on his face had its usual self-amused air, a sort of knowing smile that appeared to understand you, almost winking an internal recognition as he greeted you. He wanted to photocopy some leaflets for a friend who was running Tai Chi classes in Norwich, as many as I could do for two pounds. Whilst I did this, we had what was a fairly innocuous and frankly unmemorable chat. Apart from the Buddhist practice we had in common, we shared little else, so our conversations would sometimes flounder if we failed to find compatible ground quickly.  After a series of uncomfortable periods of silence between us, punctuated often by polite but empty comment, he paid for his photocopies, said thanks, and waved a silent goodbye as he left.  In retrospect I could have regretted the perfunctory nature of our last meeting, wishing it had been more significant, or at least a bit memorable. I would  probably have tried much harder had I known this would be my last opportunity to speak with him. Though in many ways it was a fitting summation of how he and I related – in a sort of sparsely spoken shorthand.  

Ten days later, sat in the Norwich Unitarian Chapel I was attending a service to celebrate his life.  Before me a handmade coffin, beautifully painted in blues and greens, lay open topped.  From where I sat, just to one side, I could barely see in to it.  The friend for whom Stirabuddhi had so recently photocopied leaflets, led a devotional puja in his honour. This was interspersed with spontaneous recollections, rejoicings and speeches from friends and family. At the end everyone filed passed the coffin, making offerings of flowers as they took one last look at the outer form of what once was Stirabuddhi.  He'd lived alone, and unfortunately had died alone after having some sort of seizure. Whether his death was instant was impossible to ascertain, but it was three days before his body was discovered. My turn to pass by the open coffin came - it took one look, followed by a sort of perceptual double check, a startled, disbelieving blink of the eyelids. The face infront of me was just about Stirabuddhi's, though heavily made up in an orange tan colour to disguise the pallor of his decay. Beneath it the flesh around his mouth still showed itself to be a blueish purple, and resembled the translucent spread of an inky bruise. His lips, slightly sneered to one side, had started to curl back from teeth which were set in a tense pain filled grimace. His last few seconds were frozen in the remaining flesh and bone of his features, and bore an expression which was as if he'd been tortured by voodoo. It was Stirabuddhi, but rigid, devoid of suppleness, as if he'd been carved from the same wood as his coffin. No trace of that self-amused knowingness I'd seen barely a week ago was left, it had drained away, his essence was completely absent.  

I looked on, emotions seized as if struck by lightning, suddenly I felt hungry, acid was attacking my stomach lining which felt as if it were dissolving. I left the chapel in a stunned state. I stayed that way, to a degree, for well over a fortnight.  Whether I was awake or asleep, a constant state of alarm chimed within me. The shock of a sudden fall can be disorientating for a short while, likewise, the effect of seeing one's first dead body, despite its evident potency, does wear off over time. Life inevitable resumes its blinkered progress.  Where then does the immediacy of that specific moment, or of any specific moment for that matter, go too?  Does it go anywhere? What if it were to stay in its own time and moment? According to the linear model of experience, that event is now the past, never to be reclaimed in quite the same way. We assign things to memory, usually in a very different manner to how it actually was. The original experience and our memories of it are never identical, the latter is really a wholly new experience taking place in the present moment - the act of thinking back and remembering. Though any new experience takes place in the present, it bares some connection with the past, in that remembering is one of the consequences of it.  So, if we were to say - ash is the future of firewood, that death is lifes future, this would not be wholly true.  Ash is a consequence of there having been firewood. Death is a consequence of there having been life. The experience of firewood, and the experience of ash, like those of life and death, are experiences separated by time and space. The experience of life, and the experience of death, should not to be taken as coterminous events. Dogen brings us to this point and then introduces some further twists in the tale,

“Firewood becomes ash, it can never go back to being firewood.
Nevertheless, we should not take the view
that ash is its future and firewood its past.

Remember, firewood abides in the place of firewood in the Dharma.
It has a past and it has a future.
Although it has a past and a future, the past and the future are cut off.
Ash exists in the place of ash in the Dharma.
It has a past and it has a future.”  2

It's perfectly acceptable when faced with sentences like these, to hold up our hands and confess “Look, I don't know whether this meant to be comprehensible or not, but it's beyond me what he's on about, I'm getting outta here.”  The universe that Dogen describes can seem so radically different to how the rest of us ordinary mortals operate. Given a degree of perseverence and a patient curiosity, his writing does eventually open out to reveal a more earthy practical insight, buried beneath the convoluted, if not confusing, surface.  In 'The Instructions to the Tenzo', one of his most popular discourse, he urges that we should,

“not lose sight of either the absolute or the practical”6

His own presentations never lose sight of either perspective, no matter how elevated the discourse he will return at some poinr to something which is grounded in a more common place experience of reality. This is worth bearing in mind when the apparently impenetrable face of a Dogen discourse stares blankly back at you. This 'firewood & ashes' paragraph comes from the Genjo Koan , the opening lines of which are a densely allusive description of five viewpoints from which an enlightened person might describe the experience of True Reality,

“When all dharmas are the Buddha-Dharma,
there are delusion and eligthenment,
practice, birth, death, buddhas, and sentient beings.
When the myriad dharmas all are without self,
there is no delusion, no realisation,
no buddhas, no sentient beings, no birth, and no death.
Since originally the Buddha way goes beyond abundance and scarcity,
there are birth and death, delusion and realisation,
sentient beings and buddhas.”7

which I think you will agree is pretty intense and lofty stuff.  Yet, after a terse exposition of these lofty absolute positions, he brings it tumbling down to earth via a deceptively simple yet bitter metaphor, that demonstates the human tendency to operate our lives according to unrealistic expectations,

“Yet, though it is like this, simply,
flowers fall amid our longing
and weeds spring up amid our antipathy”7

It is so easy to become intoxicated by either our own abstract theorising or our sensory experience. We need to keep both aspects in balance and not lose our sense of perspective. Holding rigidly to any viewpoint would be an error - we must bear in mind at all times that the state of being unenlightened, is a state of delusion.  There are two delusional streams running in parralel through human experience; first, our sensory experience, and second, the evaluations, interpretations and concepts we bring to that sensory experience.  We need to remain warry if either becomes too dominant.  To counter these biases, Dogen moves too and fro with deceptive ease, from the abstract to the practical and back again, whilst never fully refuting or endorsing either viewpoint. In our current realm of 'firewood and ash' we are still exploring the absolute view, but the everday relative reality we know is only ever a short nudge away. So, lets see if we can tease some strands of tangible experience out from its opaque abstraction.

When we see the dead body of a person we knew or loved, its common to encounter an emotional severance, a disjunction between the person we knew in the past, and the cold, impersonal form we are now looking at. I certainly felt this as I looked upon a lifeless  Stirabuddhi.  It felt like a huge chasm had opened up, and into the immense gap all my disbelief, shock ,regret and grief helplessly tumbled.  What Dogen is saying however, goes much much further than - the past experience is cut off from the present – however real both might feel.  Firewood and ash - though undoubtedly connected by a causal process, remain independent entities, each has there own past and future. Life has its own past and future which is independent of there being Death. Death has its own past and future which is independent of there being Life. All of which raises a further questions - what is it that makes something alive, and what is it that makes something dead? It might help if for a moment we stop to look in greater detail at what makes firewood – firewood, and what makes ash – ash.  

In London on the 5th of November 1605, Guy Fawkes failed to blow up the Houses of Paliament, and James 1st with it. Though this was over four hundred years ago, the tradition of burning fires in England in celebration still continues. For weeks before, all sorts of sources are plundered for firewood, and stacked in sheds, garages, cellars and bunkers ready to be brought out and formed into a huge bonfire on or near the day. Traditionally on top of the fire is placed an effigy of Guy Fawkes. In earlier centuries it was sometimes The Pope, as the origins of The Gunpowder Treason and Plot arose out of religious conflict and disscent, as most bombing campaigns continue to do to this day.  What these huge piles of firewood  possess is the potential to become kindling, to be the tinder for an enormous fire. This potential for fire emerges only once the kindling has caught, it burns then with a raging passion, flames burst forth to the heavens in a rich range of vibrant reds, oranges, yellows, releasing energy in a scorching, blistering incandescent heat.

Any fire is devastating, fires burn the very thing that brings them to life - the firewood - fire and firewood are finite things. This means the intial intensity of a bonfire can never be maintained, over time the height and ferocity of the flames diminshes. Into the scarlets and golden yellows appear subtler tinges of blue and  halos of green. As the night progresses the height of the flames drop until they almost vanish, becoming radiant embers which crackle and glow, sometimes on and on until dawn.  The next morning these embers are often still smoldering. Though a casual poke beneath the grey mantle of ash reveals a bloody red  inner core, still consumed in combusting the last dregs of fire potential within the wood.  Eventually all this residual energy is spent, its insulated warmth cooling beneath a cloak of ash.  Once firewood is burnt to the level of ash it cannot be reduced any further. Ash having no fire left within it cannot be brought back to fire.  As we discovered earlier, firewood once it has burned to ash cannot be brought back to being firewood again.  Once we reach the level of ashes there is no where else for us to to go, for as Seneca put it,

“In the ashes we are all leveled”8

I worked for eighteen months in a Crematorium as a Chapel Attendant and Cremator Technician.  It surprised even me how such a challenging work environment could so easily become just what you do.  Work in a crematorium  never  lacks potential  for reflection.  I walked a line day by day, between two opposite points, one side was clearly insightful, the other was willfuly blind.  Whilst the mortality of others is obvious and tangible, ones own was easy to ignore even in the midst of a very busy crematorium. Even the sharpest edge of receptivity  can be blunted and dulled by mindless repetition. Daily I observed the consequences of bereavement on a family, I heared and found myself responding strongly to the emotional tone of funerals. Sometimes they were very personal, moving and inspiring, on other occassions dispiriting, boring, desultory rambles, or at there very worst impersonal and perfunctory. You'd hear significant sound bites about the deceased, sense what their life energy was like, the passion and focus of it.  Also, the events leading up their death, the suffering they endured as they struggled with their body malfunctioning. Eventually everyone ran out of the will to fight and let go of their hold on the last strands of life. Like firewood, our bodies appear to use up the very thing that gives them energy – life itself -  this life too is a finite thing – a thing that ends in ash.  

A cremation oven is an extremely warm place, burning at around a thousand degrees.  At my Crematorium we had four ovens, each oven was equiped with a small peep hole through which you could check the progress of a cremation. I found watching the cremation process fascinating. My emotional responses varied, sometimes I was emotionally present and  aware of what my job consisted of, at other times I was horrified and anxious, or blithely indifferent and alienated. None of these responses prevented me from frequently pulling back the shield and peeking, not solely as part of my duties you understand, but out of curiosity about what happens to a body once the coffin has been charged into an oven. I’ll spare you the intimate details of what happens. It can all sound ghoulish or inappropriate when put into words, as if it's undignified or in some way disassociated from feeling and though all I’m watching is bread baking. Sometimes peoples interest in these details can border on an unhealthy type of voyerism. Perhaps for me it helped not to have known any of the people I've burned, when they were alive and kicking. How I would have felt if I known the person, was never  put to the test.  I can only imagine I’d have mixed emotions, feeling love and a needy sort of attachment very very strongly, whilst simultaneously sensing the cremation as a liberation of consciousness from an ageing body wracked with pain, as if lifted up and enveloped by the firey wings of a phoenix.

Looked at on a purely practical level cremations take about an hour and a half to complete, longer if the person is obese.  With levels of obesity growing, average cremation times are also expanding, as are the amounts of energy consumed in the process. Once completed, what remains in the cremation oven is raked into an open topped steel box  What this consists of is wood dust and an assortment of pure white bone fragments. These bones, revealing their honeycomb centres, are so fragile they crumble like a biscuit between your fingers. All the large bits of metal, hip, knee or shoulder joints and the metal tubes used as drains for failing organs which resemble primitive nose flutes, are removed.  What is left goes into a Cremulator, inside this hang two short chains which whizz around at great speed inside the steel box, breaking down the remaining bone fragments to a fine granular ash.  After two minutes, all the ashes are miraculously deposited in a plastic container on one side, whilst all that's left in the steel box are a few dozen coffin staples rattling around like spare change.  The ash looks like a granular form of cement or cat litter, one can only associatively refer to this as being human.  Which is why a label is affixed to the urn to say whose ashes they are. This label, or name plate if its a casket, is the only means of identifying it as belonging to a particular individual.  If, for example, a murderer  wanted to completely remove all trace of their crime, and the individual they killed, cremation would be the most effective way of doing so. All of which gives rise to a huge amount of legal paperwork and bureaucracy around cremations, and some commonly asked questions :-  Do you get all the persons remains ? - about 95%, but not everything. How will I know these are the right ashes ? - you wont, but they will be -  though there nothing to identify ashes as anyone specifically, you just have to trust.  Ashes weigh on average about 4lb. Generally, ashes of a male are heavy and large in quantity ,whilst ashes of a female are lighter and smaller in quantity. This is partly genetic, to do with  height and build, but also relates to age; bone density weakens as you get older, and woman do generally live longer than men.  Talking of ashes as being literally male or female can from this perspective seem quite ludicrous. It is probably more useful to see them in a more mythic representational way, because who we were before, all sign of gender and identity is destroyed - we are all literally leveled to ash.

Another part of the job was ‘witness scattering’, where the ashes of the deceased were strewn with family members present. Each family approached this event uniquely.  Some appeared to hold the ashes as literally being their recently deceased reative. One lady rang up the Crematorium Office distraught at the idea of scattering her husbands ashes on the lawns of the crematorium. Lawns obviously need regular cutting and wouldn’t that mean his ashes would get hoovered up by the lawnmower and redistributed, nay mixed up with other peoples​?  Other families are more associative and want the ashes scattered under trees, because ‘ she never liked strong sunlight’ or amongst beds of roses because’ he was a keen gardener’ or  in the woodland area because the deceased ‘loved being in touch with nature’  At this most decisive of moments the deceased isn't here to ask what they want. So they search through their own memories for guidance. Bereavement sometimes highlights quite painfully for families how little anyone really knew about the deceased. The motivations of  people can remain a closed book for a whole lifetime, an internal world that was resolutely private and clouded in mystery. Sometimes there are unexpected distressing and shocking things discovered when their letters and personal effects are gone through. Death is a painful revelation on so many related levels - personal, family, social, or spiritual.  Overwhelmed by the unpredictable tides and currents of grief, and often lacking a religious compass to guide them, when faced with the impersonal nature of ashes  families can struggle to know what's the right thing to do. Do these ashes have anything to do with their dearly beloved?  Devising their own rituals makes a simple yet significant connection, such as spelling out the persons name with the ashes, placing a picture on the spot, planting a tree or a rose bush, or buying a bench seat complete with a name plate. Anything to remind them of a living person, a  living thing to represent a living memory.  Cut off from the past and cut off from the future, the experience of absence fills the present moment of ashes.  All these approaches  attempt to fill that empty space meaningfully.  By the use of family sayings and tales, the talismans, spells and oracles of past experience, which magically invoke the shadowy presence of the deceased for a fleeting moment.

I often found the scattering of ashes intensely moving, and felt privileged to participate in this simple concluding ritual. From my own perspective as a Buddhist, it seemed at first a little puzzling that families personified the ashes of the deceased so much, but what else could they do?  When you're experiencing profoundly an absence you do want some sense of presence, however incongruous and unrepresentative the ashes may be. Its a stage in the bereavement process, where, for a time, the ashes become a symbolic repository for emotions, a channel for their grief.  They were once an alive human being, who  momentarily became ‘firewood’ in the cremation oven, and is now ash. On less conscious levels we know that this ash is not alive and aware of the fuss going on around it. This amalgam of wood and bone dust, high in magnesium and potassium, cannot be the person we loved.  So the scattering of ashes across a green sward develops into a cathartic ritual, demonstrating conclusively, as if proof were really needed, that the person we once knew has gone. A pile of gray dust scattered roughly in the form of a circle or a rough square, cannot be them.  A delusion falls away at this point, you can see it blanch across the faces of the bereaved.  No matter how stoic, impassive or lighthearted they might have seemed previously.  It's as if they were stood the day after bonfire night, poking around in the ashes with a stick, looking for the last lingering vestiges of fire, only to find more and more ash – a cold, unresponsive lifeless powder- the state of ash can never be fully grasped mentally, only felt.

Ash is characteristicaly devoid of energy, it lies there as an inert lifeless dust. a concluding link in a natural cycle – the dust of the earth that nourished the tree - which became the firewood -returns to become earthly dust once more - ashes returns to ashes, dust returns to dust.  Death can be seen as a form of returning, as well as a parting. The external signs of death are that the body becomes devoid of all fire, warmth and personality, it too has returned to an inert state. Whatever inhabited the body, animating its flesh and bone has either left, has been extingushed, or has burnt itself out.  It is as though this life spirit inhabits a body for only a short period of alloted time. It appropriates ore conjoins with a human form to exist within, like some sort of a bodysnatcher or incubus. Once the body runs out of its ability to rejuvinate itself, and dies, this cohabiting spirit leaves and moves on. The Ancient Egyptians imagined this inhabiting spirit as having two aspects – the first was the ba – similar to the idea of a psyche, it hovered as a winged bird over the mummified body of the deceased, assuming any form it wishes – the second was the ka – the potent creative power of the intellect and spirit, which was a kind of shadow or dopple-ganger of the deceased that needed to be sustained until it reached the source of its divine origin.  The Christian concept is of a soul or a spirit inhabiting a body, seems dependent on the quality of that soul or spirit at death, it either ascends into the loving arms of God in heaven or descends onto the unloving hell of Satan's three pronged fork.  

The Buddhist view returnd to the fundamental idea of pratitya samutpada and its  conceptual derivative – karma.  Everything is considered to arise out of a complex network of conditions, the present moment being created by a multiplicity of influences, interactions and interjections, both past and present. The inhabiting animating spirit is consciousness. That this consciousness arises in this moment is dependent on there being a vessel – a mind and a body – to contain it. That there is a  mind and a body present is a consequential outcome of what arose in previous moments. That consequential outcome is believed to extend beyond one life, to include past lives and future ones - each present moment has its own distinctive ancestry and future inheritance.  Pratitya samutpada is the raison d'etre for all Buddihist practice – to change what arises by transforming the nature of the conditions which cause it – primarily to change the nature of consciousness. The Buddha describes how conditions relate to consciousness in a clear imaginative similie, very like Dogen's,

“consciousness is reckoned by the particular condition dependent upon which it arises.... Just as fire is reckoned by the particular condition dependent on which it burns – when the fire burns dependent on logs, it is reckoned as a log fire; when the fire burns dependent on faggots, it is reckoned as a faggot fire; when fire burns dependent on grass, it is reckoned as a grass fire; when fire burns dependent in cowdung, it is reckoned as a cowdung fire; when fire burns dependent on rubbish, it is reckoned as a rubbish fire – so too, consciousness is reckoned by the particular condition dependent on which it arises.”9

The fire of consciousness then, is affected by the character of the mind and body it burns within.  So what we experience as an individual human being, is consciousness embodied in a unique and particular body. This must also mean that there are forms of consciousness which depend and arise in conditions other than that of a human being. It is through this perception of how pratitya samutpada works, that Dogen, like every Buddhist for two and a half millenia, has understood how consciousness, life and death have arisen and interacted. This is the fundamental  truth about reality, or Dharma, that Dogen is refering to when he says that,

“firewood abides in the place of firewood in the Dharma”2

Or put another way - consciouness abides in the place of consciousness in the true nature of reality, is codependent on there being a human form for it to inhabit. Once a consciousness arise in a body the two become indivisible, what was consciousness and flesh and bone, becomes sentient human life; what was fire and wood, becomes firewood.  Dogen appears here to be interested in parting them, so he can examine the nature of the fire, seperate from the nature of the wood, each with their own past and future.

The essence of consciousness that abides within us, the fire in the wood,  has a past and a future independent of the present life. Clearly, whilst the human body is alive consciousness is married to its bodily characteristics and personality. At death, the codependency of consciousness on that particular body is cut free, and once released  departs its deceased host.  It maybe that these terminations of connection and moments of liberty are the reason why we hold no memories of past lives, because they are cut off from each other.  Consciousness has a past and a future consisting of a series of co- dependent arisings within a human body and mind. I envisage this consciousness as a huge expansive endless ocean. It is subject to tidal influence, and through climatic pressure waves of varying size rise up and descend, one wave of consciouness quickly following another, each wave affected by what has happened immediately before.  Waves of consciousness manifest in a moment and are gone, but each leaves a legacy that another wave will take up and ride upon.  The arising of consciousness in a human body is like the crest of a wave on that ocean, it runs for a little while then dissappears. Each curling crest of water is a unique event in the life of an ocean. At the same time that wave is completely interdependent with the conditons that surround it, and these affect what form it takes.  

So there is this continuity to the behaviour of consciousness - it arises in a specific person by whom it is influenced, but consciousness never becomes completely indentical with that personality. I can remember times when I've shared a flat with friends, and I couldn't help but be changed in some way by living with them. You pick up a few of their behaviour traits, find yourself using some of their phrases, and to some extent adopt some elements of their world view. After all, they would not be your friends if there wasn't a degree of indentification and sympathy between you. Friendship is often dependent on proximity, as much as the close sharing of common values and interests. Once you cease living with them, the influence of those friendships may linger, but unless you continue to meet up, the strength of that bond will fade over time. We have all found ourselves moving on to new places and making a whole new set of friends, each dependent your specific home and work circumstances for context and meaning.  Consciouness similarly changes and adapts to whatever friendly circumstances it finds itself in. For an individual lifetime, consciousness and a human body and mind are such very good friends, they become inseperable. That bond of friendship at the point of death will be broken.

The essential elements of the body remain after death, the human body unable to breath air or be fired by its own warmth, and deserted by consciousness, will then decay to earth and water.  These consituent elements of what was flesh and bone have their own past and future, independent from once having been animated by a consciousness. Ash has its own future as ash, even though it once was firewood.   Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Space and Consciousness, each has had a past independent of human life, each has then shared a human life, and each has a future to follow that is independent of human life.  In this way firewood and ash  (consciousness and flesh & bone) can have a past and a future which is independent and cut off from each other.

“Firewood becomes ash, it can never go back to being firewood.
Nevertheless, we should not take the view
that ash is its future and firewood its past.

Remember, firewood abides in the place of firewood in the Dharma.
It has a past and it has a future.
Although it has a past and a future, the past and the future are cut off.
Ash exists in the place of ash in the Dharma.
It has a past and it has a future.”  2

This only briefly touches on the core elements in this specific paragraph. Many further questions arise out of it, such as - what happens to consciousness between re-births? - what sort of consciouness is this anyway?- how can we know that consciousness behaves in this way?  All reasonable questions to ask, but again essentialy unanswerable from the level of our current experience and consciousness. Our past, present and future experience remains cut off from definitive proof, until that present moment of enlightenment comes. From the point of view of scientific rationalism this could easily be seen as a bit of a cop out. It's as if I'm gazing out from a beach across a vast ocean and saying, 'look, I know for you there is only a fixed determined horizon, but I assure you there is something beyond it, but you'll only discover that by going beyond that limited horizon yourself.'  Our desire to definitely know, to be convinced via our present understanding and experience can be really frustrated by this.  Yet, in any spiritual life, you frequently have to wait for experience to catch up and provide the evidence for the efficacy of a belief or practice. This is a function of faith; an ongoing trust that a future confirmation will arise if the conditions for it are correct. So, I'm well aware a provisional belief in the concept and role of karma is fundamental to this exploration making any sense at all.  It is what underpins Dogen's discourse, and whilst neither he nor I can explain it fully or incontrovertable, it needs to be held as at least  a theoretical possibilty.  Dogen continues by seeming to merely recapitulate what he's said earlier,

“ The firewood, after becoming ash, does not again become firewood.
Similarly, human beings, after death, do not live again.”2

The appearance of this recapitulation reminds us, incase we've forgotten, that all this talk of the past and future of 'firewood & ash' should not be taken literally- to imply continuity of life after death. For the first time Dogen breaks out of the confines of his similie to make a direct link to the lives and deaths of human beings. Our concerns about life, death and what happens after life are, after all, very real one's, and become of increasing concern to us as we age. At first, its a slightly distanced empathy for the loss of others, but gradually the proximity of those deaths draws closer to us. Unless you lose relatives early in your life, like Dogen, most of us don't encounter the death of our intimate loved ones until we are well into adulthood. With every death of grandparents, parents, siblings, partners, sons, daughters and lifelong friends, our own mortality becomes a more regular companion.  Grief, as a feeling, is incomparable to anything else because it occurs on so many levels; we mourn the loss to others; we mourn the loss to us of others; and we mourn the loss in the future of ourselves. These people have been with you since birth, and often guided, encouraged and supported you. They've inhabited your life, emotionally as well as physically, and now part of that heart connection feels as if its been surgically excised. A recognised element in the landscape and orientation of your life has been irrevocable changed.  The final disappearence of a parent, a sibling, a partner or friend is similar to a supporting buttress being removed from a wall, there is always an apprehension that the whole edifice will collapse as a consequence.  At the same time the removal of such a support can also liberate us from what may have become a habitual dependence upon it. The death of a loved one does bring a sense of instability, we are very open and vunerable, but this also  gives us the freedom and opportunity in the future to become more fully ourselves. The period after the death of a loved one can be emotionally turbulent, as we find our way through this complex mix of grief and release.  

So, as I enter my fiftieth decade I am increasingly led to reflect on my own death. In the years preceeding I found myself reviewing what my life seemed to have been about so far, and what the purpose of my remaining decades (if I were to be so lucky) might be.  Looking back, my early adulthood seems characterised by a degree of certainty about defining my appearance and making my presence felt creatively in the world. Looking forward to what lies beyond my middle age, can be bedevilled by concerns about my future disappearence, making my presence felt creatively in the world seems increasingly a pointless endeavour. The death of the generations preceding us throws the spotlight very sharply on our present life and the unknown moment of our death.  Our lives can become the very thing that Montaigne warned against,

“ We confuse life with worries about death,
and death with worries about life.
One torments us; the other terrifies us”

What to do with the time I've got left – however long or short that may be, can become too dominant a concern, and rob me of the ability to live life to the full.  Time is eaten up with anxiety and concern about my immenant disappearence. This sense of existential alert can mean I dither indecisively, and make the panic over mortailty worsen. Was the prognosis for the length of my life good or not, and how was I to know?  

I look to the lives of my Great Grandparents, Grandparents and Parents, sometimes for inspiration, but quite often for more selfish reasons; to gauge what I've inherited from them in terms of longevity. My GreatGrandma Walker died at the age of .....  GreatGrandad Walker, was nearly 99 when he died. However, on the level of genetics this is a bit of a none starter, as their daughter, who became my Grandma Tunnicliffe, was adopted. My Grandad Lumb died when he was not much over fifty.  My Grandma Lumb lived till she was 93.  Grandad Tunnicliffe, died at the age of 77.  My Grandma Tunnicliffe, lived until she was 102.  Both my Parents are still alive, my Father currently is aged 81, and my Mother 78.  So dependant on the gender bias of my longevity genes,and barring accidents,nuclear holocaust, climate catastrophy, or any other, as yet unidentified, genetic predispositions kicking in before then, I've possibly got between thirty to fifty years more life. It's no wonder then that my disappearence has become such a big issue.

On a practical level, human life is all about beginnings and endings, and making meaningful, productive use of our time alive. By the time we've reached middle age, our sense of who we are, what we like doing or not doing, is pretty well established. Our sense of Self has reached a certain, well defined stasis, and is almost immovable.  We believe we know ourselves all too well. Our consciousness still appears bright and youthful,despite our advancing age, but as a gradual decline of our physical strength and dexterity becomes perceptable, we begin to worry.  How much longer before an independent exhilerating life becomes an increasingly uncontroled descent into a humiliating dependency?  We all work on the premise that the journey of our lifetime will be a long one. We undertake that journey with a brand new body, like a car straight off the production line. At first all seems to be going fine, a few minor teething troubles perhaps, but with some fine tuning things go pretty smoothly. By about half way the car is showing some early signs of rust, the engine occasionally makes spluttering noises. You ignore them for a while, but gradually the symptoms start becoming more extreme and dramatic, wheels are in danger of falling off, steam or oil starts leaking from the engine. You find you have to take frequent breaks to let the engine cool down, or worse have to frequently check-in at a garage for emergency repairs. You start to wonder how much longer the car can be kept going. Where was it you were going anyway, and why was it you wanted to go there in the first place?  What happens when the car packs up completely?

Every new pain, physical stiffness or discomfort these days, starts me thinking 'Is this the beginning of something serious, leading eventually to my body conking out?, If it conks out now, then my Self goes too, with all my numerous loves and desires following.'  I'm extremely fond of my Self, and more attached to it than I perhaps wish to acknowledge. I've invested quite a lot in it, all that experience and accumulated history has to amount to something.  I understand, on an intellectual level, the Buddhist view that the permanency of the Self is untrue, in the light of prattitya samutpada it logically cannot be anything else. Yet even to gently consider this I find quite disconcerting. The death my Self, even more than the loss of my body, still seems like having my most favorite plaything forceably snatched from my hands. The Self can seem beyond question, and a real thing.  Life is a playground in which The Self plays hide and seek.  We hide away from the impermanence of ourselves, hoping not to discover it too soon, whilst we seek out every opportunity to distract ourselves with some transient pleasure and self-gratification. We learn this deceit as a child; when young children cover their eyes they believe that because they can no longer see the world, then the world cannot see them. There is, however, something valueable in this childish way of seeing the world, A child's sense of Self is fresher, stil maleable and open to change, so much so that they can play with it appearing and disappearing in a moment, without it causing too much consternation. If anything it conjures a heightened sense of surprise and delight with every peek-a-boo. The pleasure is found in the Self existing, then not existing, a moment of presence, then a moment of absence- I am, now I am not.- You are, and now you are not.  It is this type of playing with our existential sense of Self that we rapidly loose. The more time and energy in we invest in developing the Self, the more we have to lose if it were to disappear.  

Our paragraph from the Genjo Koan then goes on to state something that asks us to look again at that relationship between our Self and our experience, to perhaps see it in an entirely different and radical manner.

“At the same time, it is an established custom in the Buddha-Dharma
not to say that life turns into death.
This is why we speak of no appearance.

And it is the Buddha's preaching established in the turning of the Dharma-wheel that death does not turn into life.
This is why we speak of no disappearence.2

When you read this were you confused, doubting, dubious, or perhaps slightly alarmed at the loss of certainty?  Some of it is familiar, because to say that life doesn't turn into death and death doesn't turn into life is just another way of saying,

“Firewood becomes ash, it can never go back to being firewood.

but this time he is also saying that there is, as a consequence, no being, no us, we can speak of as 'appearing' or 'disappearing.' All personality, character, with a distinct face and sense of individual identity, seems to be being discounted on the basis of what the Buddha taught. So what then is this 'established custom' that the Buddha's preaching is said to have begun?  It comes down once again to prattitya samutpada the conditioned arising of reality, things, people,and oneself. The Buddha also encouraged his disciples not to invest too heavily in the temporary cravings of ones Self. The Self was not to be seen as an eternal commodity, it was an evasion, one that disguised the impermanency of human circumstances. We are not born with a Self, it is produced by our mind and  senses and we cloak our human life within it.  In this sense The Self, has no more substance and meaning than an elaborate fancy dress costume we wear once for a party. It has no permanency within life, let alone before life, or beyond life in death. Though it undoubtable has a cognitive life, it doesn't appear or disappear in quite the same way that we talk about consciousness or the body.  It is niether fire nor wood, but an idea about fire and wood. there is no solid thing to 'appear' or disappear.'

The Self is useful here, because it demonstrates how our conceptions of reality are incomplete. It is not just the Self that is impermanent but everything that is conditioned. The Self only one easily recognisable example, underneath it is something even more fundamental to understanding The True Nature of Reality. What Dogen's purpose is in  talking of  'no appearance' and 'no disappearence' is to expand it beyond our purely self-referential point of view?  The next line of the paragraph help clarify his meaning, and the direction he is heading towards,

“Life is an instantaneous situation, and death is also an instantaneous situation”2

What experience is, according to this, is a series of moments, of 'instantaneous situations' which we describe as lifelike, to be followed by further moments and 'instantaneous situations' which we would describe as deathlike. Each momentary instant has its own conditioning characteristics that have led to it's emergence into experience, when as Dogen put it 'the time has come' for it to be there. Dogen has a very distinct view on the relationship of 'time' to 'being', He considered that 'the emergence of the time,' and 'the emergence of the being' were not to be be seen as seperate elements occuring in the present moment. There wasn't 'a particular time' into which 'a particular human being' then appeared or disappeared.  He saw 'time' and 'being'  united in the present moment as 'a time being', being becomes indivisible from time. When the space and conditions  for a particular being and consciousness to occur, in that moment 'the time has come'  We might believe a human life has a Self and possesses continuity ,Dogen says it is really a  whole series of conditioned indivisible events whose' time has come.' What life  has is  continuity but as part of an ever changing eternal flow of events.  Each present moment is a unique blend emerging out of an ocean of ever changing conditions. These elementary components only change in the way they configure and influence each other, nothing at this absolute 'atomic' level at least appears or dissapears -  everything always is – irrespective of the flux.  This is why the firewood and the ash, can each have seperate pasts and futures as described earlier, and yet still remain connected.

If we return to our ocean of consciousness, then the ocean contains not just consciousness but everything, every atom and scintilla of what constitutes reality. We might even deduce that reality is synonymous with consciousness, that this is what Buddha nature is What we experience as life is just the rising up of particular constellations of elements in a conditioned event. What we call death is the perceived passing away of these unique conjunctions. We posses a Self that is always looking for some sort of continuity, because of this we don't see what is really happening - the rising up in the present moment of these constellations of elements in a conditioned event, continually, one after the other.  In this fundamental sense nothing to appears or disappears, no life, no death, no after-life - the True Nature of Reality consists of this constant flow of impermanent conditioned events. Before birth are specific constellations of conditioned elements, life is a specific constellation of elements, as is death, and what follows on after death is just another constellation of conditioning elements. By personifying and taking individual possession of these events, we distort our perception of what is happening. Dogen concludes the paragraph with a perhaps more easily understood metaphor,

“It is the same, for example, with winter and spring.
We do not think that winter becomes spring,
and we do not say that spring becomes summer.”2

Well, we do say this, but we don't mean it literally. No matter how close we look there is no  established point, or defining watershed, where winter becomes spring.  What is taking place is this ever changing constellation of conditioning events, what we call winter gradually is transformed over a period of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, until we recognise what we call the first signs of spring. The seasons are always in this continual, ever changing cycle of evolution. Though the seasons, like us, have recognisable characteristics they are never the same, they are different every time they come round. One years winter,spring,autumn and winter is very different from the previous years, in terms of their severity or length. The conditions for weather change constantly. We may talk of them as arriving by specific dates or at equinoxes or solstices, but weather rarely, if ever, conforms to these arbitrary boundaries. What we call life and death significant points but are essentially without boundaries too. You could look at the phenomena of global warming as simply demonstrating how individual human behaviour and industry affects the seasons, affects the weather, affects the sea level, affects everything. The solution for this is to change our awareness, our behaviour, and thus the health and condition of the Earth. The weather, the seasons and our consciousness, all arise out of a vast interdependent flux. Dogen knew this nearly eight hundred years ago.

Here is the paragraph from the Genjo Koan in its entirity,

“Firewood becomes ash, it can never go back to being firewood.
Nevertheless, we should not take the view
that ash is its future and firewood its past.

Remember, firewood abides in the place of firewood in the Dharma.
It has a past and it has a future.
Although it has a past and a future, the past and the future are cut off.
Ash exists in the place of ash in the Dharma.
It has a past and it has a future.

The firewood, after becoming ash, does not again become firewood.
Similarly, human beings, after death, do not live again.

At the same time, it is an established custom in the Buddha-Dharma
not to say that life turns into death.
This is why we speak of no appearance.

And it is the Buddha's preaching established in the turning of the Dharma-wheel that death does not turn into life.
This is why we speak of no disappearence.

Life is an instantaneous situation, and death is also an instantaneous situation.

It is the same, for example, with winter and spring.
We do not think that winter becomes spring,
and we do not say that spring becomes summer.”2

So having reached the end of the paragraph, which has taken us deep into the human predicament. Yet after all this lengthy exposition where does it leave us?  What, for want of a better phrase, would 'being in the present moment' really mean were we to put it into practice? How could that help us lead our lives better, or approach death in a calmer and less unsettled frame of mind?
Whilst we still possess the bright fire of life, anything beyond it appears shrouded by an impenetrable shadow.  Our fire, once extinguished, will be absorbed into that darkness. For all the care taken by Dogen not to mislead us about what occurs after life, we do misunderstand.  No one comes back to tell us what its like.  Resurrection, reincarnation, re-birth or the many counter assertions, are just that, assertions, which may or may not be true. No matter how strongly logical, rational or spiritual the endorsement, they cannot be proved incontravertible, and more importantly we shouldn't try.  Though death is worthy of note, and hardly insignificant, it should not, as Montaigne said, be made into life's true objective. Being less preoccupied with our demise might be a good start, if we are to live our lives more instantaneously. Dogen's teachings here, and in other discourses, points repeatedly to the vitality that arises from the present instant. We have to grasp with greater intimacy what constitutes true presence, for this seems to be a defining factor of Buddha Nature.  This instance of life is a precious one, the conditions for the arising of this brief moment will not be here for ever.  

What can mitigate and rob life of true presence, is the degree to which we are distracted from it. What seems mainly to divert our attention is our speculations about the future, our fighting with it for certainty and predictability. So much mental pain and anguish arises out of our desire to control what will happen now, or in the future. Our preoccupation with when and how we might die, emerges so strongly because it is out of our control.  We can eat all the right foods, do the right amount of exercise, live a less stressful lifestyle and still die too young. Death, you could say, is the greatest distraction from living in this present instance. Paradoxically and tragically, when someone receives a terminal diagnosis, only then is there certainty. Such a person seems to instinctively know then what is most important, abandons anything superfluous, and embraces what is left of their life with all the vigour they can muster.  This is inspiring to see, because it shows us how to really live. It also reveals how utterly complacent our lives can become, through all our well meaning attempts to control and preserve our life, we paradoxically kill it.  If only we could be like that without the terminal imperative.


1)   Taken from – The Greater Discourse to Malunkyaputta from The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha.
      Translated by  Bhikkhu Nanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi  Published by Wisdom Publications 1996     
2)  Taken from  - Chapter 3 -The Genjo Koan, in Master Dogen's Shobogenzo – Book One
     Translated by Gudo Nishijima & Chodo Cross. Published by Windbell 1994.
3)  Taken from - Here, Now, Always by Edwin Brock.Published by New Directions 1977
4)   Taken from – Five Ways to kill a man by Edwin Brock Published by Enitharmon Press 1990
5)   Taken from Shobogenzo Zuimonki Chapter 8
6)   Taken from – The Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment by Dogen  with a commentary by Uchiyama Roshi,  
      Published by  Weatherhill 1983.
7)   Taken from – Flowers Fall – a commentary on the Genjo Koan  by Hakuun Yasutani     
       Published by Shambhala 1996.

8)    Taken from – Letters from a stoic – by Seneca  Published by Penguin Classics 1969.
9)   Taken from – The Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving from The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha
      Translated by  Bhikkhu Nanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi Published by Wisdom Publications 1996


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