Filed in Zen (Chan)

Birth and Death

Eihei Dogen

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Stone Buddha HeadEihei Dogen (1200-1253) left Japan to study in China and then brought Zen Buddhism back to his own country. The seminal philosophical force of Japanese Soto Zen, Dogen Zenji is revered today for the clarity of his insights, for his passion, and for his poetry.

The following fascicle is from The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, Dogen’s most significant work:

“Because a buddha is in birth and death, there is no birth and death.”

It is also said, “Because a buddha is not in birth and death, a buddha is not deluded by birth and death.”

These statements are the essence of the words of the two Zen masters, Jiashan and Dingshan. You should certainly not neglect them, because they are the words of those who attained the way.

Those who want to be free from birth and death should understand the meaning of these words. If you search for a buddha outside birth and death, it will be like trying to go to the southern country of Yue with your spear heading towards the north, or like trying to see the Big Dipper while you are facing south; you will cause yourself to remain all the more in birth and death and lose the way of emancipation.

Just understand that birth-and-death is itself nirvana. There is nothing such as birth and death to be avoided; there is nothing such as nirvana to be sought. Only when you realize this are you free from birth and death.

It is a mistake to suppose that birth turns into death. Birth is a phase that is an entire period of itself, with its own past and future. For this reason, in buddha-dharma birth is understood as no-birth. Death is a phase that is an entire period of itself, with its own past and future. For this reason, death is understood as no-death.

In birth there is nothing but birth and in death there is nothing but death. Accordingly, when birth comes, face and actualize birth, and when death comes, face and actualize death. Do not avoid them or desire them.

This birth and death is the life of buddha. If you try to exclude it you will lose the life of buddha. If you cling to it, trying to remain in it, you will also lose the life of buddha, and what remains will be the mere form of buddha. Only when you don’t dislike birth and death or long for them, do you enter buddha’s mind.

However, do not analyze or speak about it. Just set aside your body and mind, forget about them, and throw them into the house of buddha; then all is done by buddha. When you follow this, you are free from birth and death and become a buddha without effort or calculation. Who then continues to think?

There is a simple way to become a buddha: When you refrain from unwholesome actions, are not attached to birth and death, and are compassionate toward all sentient beings, respectful to seniors and kind to juniors, not excluding or desiring anything, with no designing thoughts or worries, you will be called a buddha. Do not seek anything else.

“Birth and Death” from Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi. Translation copyright 1985 by the San Francisco Zen Center. Reprinted by permission of North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Image: Stone Buddha head, 6th century, Chi Dynasty, Shan Dong Province, China. © John Bigelow Tayor

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rustic's picture

The most important question in this article I think is "Who then continues to think?" Figure this out and you need go no further. Who we are does not think, we just are, It just is. So many words to describe something that has nothing to do with words. There is no seeking only being. But I guess the path has to be traveled in order to reach this point. There are no mistakes, no wrong turns, no way to be or to act.

jackelope65's picture

The more some points are discussed , the more vague the meanings; meditate and live what you find true. At some point end all discussion as it will just be about ego. What have I done?

melcher's picture

Much in this discussion puts in sharp relief the difference between 'wisdom' and 'attitude'. Given the faceless nature of conversation that relies solely on text, the internet encourages us to assume fixed positions from which we attack and defend, by which we define ourselves as individual voices/identities. Thus we become embodiments of 'attitude' and our discussions invariably push us toward increasingly dogmatic positions. This is the norm in most comment sections, rendering the majority less than useless in illuminating wisdom, which is based on flexibility, tolerance and freedom more than attack and defense. Why on earth would we spend time on a Buddhist discussion board for the sole purpose of reinforcing our preconceptions?

Over time we become somewhat familiar with one another by our attitudes. Hopefully, over time, as our attitudes are thrown into relief by their juxtaposition with others, we begin to see them as ephemeral and ultimately unsatisfying. Only then can we begin to transcend attitude and approach wisdom.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Good points. Face-to-face, life-to-life communication, a core component of Buddhist practice, is currently undergoing major adjustment in social media.

James Mullaney's picture

I'm reminded of this Zen adage: Everything is 'The Way.'
Keep that in mind and you can't go wrong.

wendyyee's picture

james mullaney--now am appreciating ur simple reminder. wy

pat.wilcockson's picture

Clearly celticpassage is infact the Dalai Lama enjoying another good day's trolling .

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Death will come to each of us some day. We can die having fought hard for our beliefs and convictions, or we can die having failed to do so. Since the reality of death is the same in either case, isn't it far better that we set out on our journey toward the next existence in high spirits with a bright smile on our faces, knowing that everything we did, we did the very best we could, thrilling with the sense 'That was truly an interesting life'?"
Daisaku Ikeda (The Buddha in Your Mirror, p. 202)

mkwart's picture

Is it the flag or the wind moving--no, mind is moving.

junechun's picture

Nothing, whatever really exists, it's just ongoing transformation. Is it called "emptiness"?

celticpassage's picture

Lots of things really exist, such as you and the computer you typed your question on.

robmounsey's picture

You're right, they do. Except that you're mistaken, and they don't.

aldrisang's picture

Trying to put it into words is difficult, isn't it? It's transformation without any thing which transforms; essenceless essence. Emptiness is itself empty (of self), there is nothing whatsoever to grasp. There is only birth and death, and as the article clarifies "in birth there is nothing but birth and in death there is nothing but death".

celticpassage's picture

'Discussing' articles by just stringing together words/concepts and their negation isn't saying anything and such utterances have no meaning or instructive value

aldrisang's picture

I'm sorry that you don't understand, though some will find familiarity with such terms and it may be helpful to them. Even reading the words of the Buddha and those who followed may not lead to any understanding on this subject, though one consume an entire library of teachings. They speak of something we have not yet experienced, and do so mostly through metaphors, which we will not understand until we see for ourselves.

What is helpful is meditation, which one must do for themselves. Also helpful are teachers that ascertain our obstructions, and guide us around them. Unfortunately many of us don't have access to a teacher, nor do we want to meditate! And yet we still want enlightenment. This is a recipe for frustration. Meditation is the most important component for lay practitioners, once the basics are understood of how to proceed.

celticpassage's picture

Thanks for your sympathy.

The only trouble is that it's impossible to tell the difference between total nonsense and supposed 'deep wisdom' with the mere juxtaposition of terms and their negation.

It's a very familiar claim made by all sorts of people that they have some special wisdom and that if somoene else claims that certain statements are meaningless then that person obviously doesn't understand and that they aren't sufficiently 'enlightened'.

Unfortunately, I think Buddhism in particular is subject to this kind of thing more than other religions.

Perhaps what Paul the Apostle said may be useful, which was something along the lines of: 'I would rather speak 5 intelligible words, than 10,000 words in an (unintelligible) tongue.'

rgneuman1's picture

The Buddha said something very similar in The Dhammapada: "Better than a thousand useless words is one word that brings us peace."

I hope you find your word.

aldrisang's picture

To say that emptiness is empty means that emptiness can not be viewed as a static 'thing' or unchanging self... it represents 'nature'. Each moment in its totality is something different from the prior moment, hence not a 'self'. We can understand the nature of this Dharma (Reality) as Emptiness (transitory and selfless) and experienced as suffering by deluded mind.

So our nature too is emptiness, which we call our Buddha-Nature, the full realization of which is Nirvana... trees and grasshoppers do not inherently know their nature, nor do we! But we have the greatest ability with which to investigate and see.

'Selfless Nature' is a good expression. A buddha is selfless and so beyond being 'a buddha', there is only this nature functioning in accord with itself. Buddhas do not separate themselves from those who are suffering, but work toward the cessation of suffering to the best of their capabilities. If liberation is fully unbound, without desire and clinging, then this functioning must be in accord with the natural functioning of the Dharma, else buddhas would not bother to help us toward this same realization.

That's not five words, but is it more plain?

celticpassage's picture

Firstly, it wasn’t for my edification that I made the comment about nonsensical statements (you’re not now explaining something to me that I don’t already know at least as much as you do), but I made the comments for the purpose of general accountability.

Secondly, yes, the explanation is better than it was before, since it doesn't include essenceless essence and other such statements.

aldrisang's picture

Wisdom leads to internal peace and speech/action based on loving-kindness and clarity of things just as they are (to bring about peace where suffering is experienced). The mind sees and the heart opens. What type of knowing do you speak of here, when you say that you know? Right here is where a teacher would challenge you for your benefit, but I am not a teacher and so I still challenge you for your benefit.

As did wtompepper, I would suggest that on a Buddhist forum/board (among which are DhammaWheel, DharmaWheel and NewBuddhist), people are constantly challenged. Either they continue to fight because they cling to views, or they break through and realize how far worldly knowledge is from the liberating wisdom spoken of by the Buddha. There are those who debate, and then there are those who are beyond debating and are truly trying to help others 'see the light', so to speak. They are wonderful environments for the most part and are much more of a challenge to one's ego than comments sections such as this (not to put Tricycle down at all).

celticpassage's picture

"Wisdom leads to internal peace and speech/action based on loving-kindness and clarity of things just as they are (to bring about peace where suffering is experienced). The mind sees and the heart opens."
...that sounds like an ideal...nothing wrong with ideals...unless you really believe them.
What type of knowing do you speak of here, when you say that you know?
...there is only one kind of knowing, and perhaps a real 'teacher' instead of challenging me would simply laugh with me.
Thank you. I will check out those other sites as well.

fishman.ellen's picture

@celticpassage The only trouble is that it's impossible to tell the difference between total nonsense and supposed 'deep wisdom' with the mere juxtaposition of terms and their negation.

But that is life and its struggle. We seek deep wisdom in intellectual terms because .... In that struggle is other struggles in which each individual carves their own path. While carving this path a question that comes to mind is, how do meet those struggles? Sometimes with resistance , sometimes with anger, sometimes with aversion and sometimes dumping my struggle onto to the shoulders of others. I find that challenging the statements of others is fruitful when I am at my strongest not when I am sticky with pain.

celticpassage's picture

I disagree. That is not life and its struggle.

Apparent contradictions which are resolved by a greater unity is one thing, but nonsensical statements are another.
It is a dangerous thing to accept nonsense and absurd 'explanations' which, in order to grasp their meaning, means you must suspend your common sense. No Zen master would require this, only those who think they are.

Abandoning common sense in favor of nonsense and the ensuing slide toward a vacuum in understanding is what happened to people like those in Aum Shinrikyo (Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway), or those in the Order of the Solar Temple (many committed suicide or were murdered, including children), or Heaven's Gate (voluntary suicide), to mention a few. Although these examples are extreme, it shows a possible result of the abandonment of common sense and rationality in favor of absurdity.

Again, Zen nor any Zen master would not require you to do this.

fishman.ellen's picture

As you mention the examples were extreme, yet I do bow to the wisdom that says one should question what others say and instead look at what they do. I meant that life is learning how to sit with direct experience and its apparent contradictions to what "we" want to have happen. Challenging what makes us struggle is the basis of practice, we do so that we may work toward knowing or clarity and then in clear mind help others by setting up the conditions that are favorable for them to develop such clarity. Consistently challenging others' beliefs speaks of aversion to me, aversion on the part of the challenger because they are unable to meet their own pain. The intention might be wrapped around the heartfelt sense of I am helping, but personally I am in sync with the Buddha here when he says,“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” Challenging oneself is the greatest gift you can give others, challenging with compassion is a part of that gift.

celticpassage's picture

"Consistently challenging others' beliefs speaks of aversion to me, aversion on the part of the challenger because they are unable to meet their own pain"
Alas, more psychobabble.

What does your comment have to do with the article?

If you are not commenting on the article, then what is your comment intended to do?

If you think your comments are dispensing some kind of wisdom to me, don't bother; they don't.

wtompepper's picture


I would suggest that NOT challenging others' beliefs speaks of aversion, because it suggests indifference to their continuing in delusion.

However, on most of these boards, the "postmodern" idea that every opinion is equally valid and true, even contradictory ones, seems to reign supreme; the only way someone can be "wrong" is to suggest that something they say is really correct or true.

I'm just curious: why do you persist? I did the same thing on the Tricycle boards for a while, looking for someone who was interested in truth, not empty platitudes. After a while, I was just testing to see how people would respond to truth. Eventually, I gave up and went elsewhere. There are Buddhist discussion boards where the kinds of challenges you make would be gladly engaged.

celticpassage's picture

"I would suggest that NOT challenging others' beliefs…"
I agree. I think in some ways it's easier not to respond.
"…'postmodern' idea that every opinion is equally valid and true…"
Laughs. Yes. I always found that hilarious along with libertarians acceptance of everything except that which is contrary to their views.
"There are Buddhist discussion boards where the kinds of challenges you make would be gladly engaged."
Sounds like I should check them out, thank you.
Why do I persist?
I suppose I was surprised at what seems like a syrup and pablum view of Buddhism that is expressed in response to articles here as well as the simplistic, formulaic application of the 8 guidelines. Instead of the Thai woman's leaving her daughter giving us pause and bringing about some deeper thought about the 8 guidelines, her behavior is just glossed over. They are guidelines instead of laws for a reason.
It seems that people tend to beautify Buddha and ignore the Zen masters that called their students names, berated them, punched them and hit them, and played tricks on them. I can just hear the rounds of condemnation on this board and the ensuing analysis of what kinds of issues said master is unaware of; or its wholesale excusing due to 'historical and cultural' liberties that were allowed in the past; while at the same time ignoring the pile of garbage that is assumed to be the Buddha.
But the short answer is, to bring a counterpoint so that together, as adults (and not children), we might avoid fantasy and engage what is.

TravellerThruKalpas's picture

I met a Zen practitioner many years ago who told me that, as I was just starting to explore Buddhism and its varied traditions and teachings, that I should expect to encounter many things which might confuse or would seem contradictory, or that would appear to signal sense as well as nonsense. He advised me that one of the primary things I would do well to remember always is that, especially in Buddhism, "context is everything." Context will usually provide necessary understanding through the relative view, and diminish untold possibilities for dogma… His words have proven useful to me time and again...

aldrisang's picture

Zen especially is hard to understand because of the traditional metaphors it employs. Even Dogen's Shobogenzo, where he goes into painstaking detail explaining what Buddhas and Ancestors of the Zen lineage have been saying, is difficult to understand!

TravellerThruKalpas's picture

It doesn't matter how difficult it seems... even when you go very deeply into things, there will always be context. What else will assist? You will not be finished with it until you achieve the state of non-dual awareness, prior to which your entirely karmic perceptions will be limited by context of some kind, which is key to showing you where you are... Of course, teachers are there to provide access to such context which may otherwise not available through the student's own endeavors. But the deeper you go, the more complex, the more subtle the levels of duality...

Dominic Gomez's picture

Ongoing transformation is the natural state of things, e.g. water changing from liquid to gas then back again, night to day to night, the 4 seasons, etc.
Emptiness is the fact that, taken in isolation, no thing has any intrinsic value. But viewed in context with everything around it, all things have meaning and value. An example would be oil. By itself it is just black is empty, without meaning. But when refined and developed and placed in the context of human activity, that black ooze is no longer empty. You can drive around town because of it.

celticpassage's picture

"Emptiness is the fact that..." what you said about emptiness isn't a fact, it's your interpretation

Dominic Gomez's picture

"you said about emptiness isn't a fact, it's your interpretation" As you are free to interpret, Celticpassage.

celticpassage's picture

Yes, of course everyone is free to interpret.
But you said the content of your statements about emptiness was a fact.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Emptiness is a fact. Take your car. Without you in it, it just sits there empty. But with you driving around in it, it has value, meaning. It is no longer empty.

celticpassage's picture

Actually I know what Buddhists refer to as 'emptiness' is 'real'.
But your statements such as:
"Emptiness is the fact that, taken in isolation, no thing has any intrinsic value. But viewed in context with everything around it, all things have meaning and value."
Now, what you’re saying may sound nice, and ‘Gaia like’ and maybe sociologists and the socially minded would like to think so, but these characterizations of communal worth have nothing whatsoever to do with what Buddhists refer to as 'emptiness'.
Perhaps many people would even agree with statements like this as being true, but they do not characterize Buddhist ‘emptiness’

"Emptiness is a fact. Take your car. Without you in it, it just sits there empty. But with you driving around in it, it has value, meaning. It is no longer empty."
This is just confused.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"confused" Again, as you are free to believe, Celticpassage. Buddhism is common sense.

celticpassage's picture

Again, you either miss the point or avoid it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

As you are free to opine, Celticpassage. As a Buddhist I respect your Buddha nature.

safwan's picture

There are some similarities in what Dogen presents here about life and death and Nichiren's view:

"Regarding life and death with abhorrence and trying to separate oneself from them is delusion.
To clearly perceive life and death as the essence of eternal life is realization, or total enightenment.
Now Nichiren and his disciples who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo
awaken to the ebb and flow of birth and death as the innate workings of life that is eternal"

However, there is a slight difference in regard to the view about desires. Attachment to desires is regarded as a cause for sufferings, but human desires themselves are celebrated in Nichiren Buddhism as enlightenment:
"Be resolved to summon forth the great power of faith, and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with the prayer that your faith will be steadfast and correct at the moment of death.
Never seek any other way to inherit the ultimate Law of life and death, and manifest it in your life.
Only then will you realize that earthly desires are enlightenment,
and that the sufferings of birth and death are nirvana".

aldrisang's picture

Now this is a jewel.

rockinghorsedesign's picture

Aldrisang, there are five words in your sentence. I am just learning. It helps me to just refrain from labeling phenomena.To simply notice and accept my "beingness" without grasping. Meditate to receive the teaching and guidance that I need in this moment.

aldrisang's picture

When the mind is receptive to the conditions of the moment just as they are, it can further penetrate into the nature of those conditions and become unbound (this could happen due to any number of conditions, as famously the sound of a bird led one to awakening). If you are speaking of the meditative mind being established no matter what you are doing, then you are truly practicing in earnest! Most people think meditation is only when you sit.

rockinghorsedesign's picture

Aldrisang, thank you for your encouragement.