I went camping recently and had some excellent meditation sitting in front of my fire at the camp site. This was not shikantaza – just sitting meditation – but a more introspective contemplation of Dogen’s simile of wood and ash. For those of you who don’t know it, Dogen said this in his Genjokoan:
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 is its past. We should recognize that firewood occupies its place in the Universe as firewood, and it has its past moment and its future moment. And although we can say that it has its past and its future, the past moment and the future moment are cut off. Ash exists in its place in the Universe as ash, and it has its past moment and its future moment.
Just as firewood can never again be firewood after becoming ash, human beings cannot live again after their death. So it is a rule in Buddhism not to say that life turns into death. This is why we speak of “no appearance.” And it is Buddhist teaching as established in the preaching of Gautama Buddha that death does not turn into life. This is why we speak of “no disappearance.” Life is an instantaneous situation, and death is also an instantaneous situation.
So I sat watching firewood turn into ash contemplating this statement. What is he trying to say here? In his book “Don’t be a Jerk” Brad Warner uses this quote to state that Dogen did not teach rebirth. But isn’t ash the future of firewood? I mean I was sitting there watching it happen. Is Dogen really suggesting a type of “momentism” where each moment is completely cut off from those that preceded it and those that follow it? I do think that Dogen showing his disapproval of a doctrine of rebirth here; but I think that more importantly he is giving a very practical and pragmatic example of Dependent Origination as well as Not-Self.
He does not say that firewood does not become ash; indeed he say just the opposite; and yet he says that ash is not the future state of firewood nor firewood the past state of ash. Why? Because left to itself firewood will never become ash. Dependent Origination – or Dependent Co-Arising – states, “If this arises, that occurs. If this does not arise, that does not occur.” It is only with the arising of fire that firewood becomes ash; and fire itself arises from other causes – match, lighter, heat, etc. So we can never say that ash is the future of firewood because without fire it is not.
I think however, that this simile is more important as an example of anatta, or not-self. The only way that ash could be the future and firewood the past – even with the addition of fire – is if there were some constant kernel of Self that experienced both the past as firewood and the future as ash.
Remember that anatta does not refer to humans alone but to all things (even though we like to think it’s talking about us). Also notice that this does not say that each of these states do not exist, nor that they are not connected to each other. He says “Firewood becomes ash”; therefore both firewood and ash must exist as distinct entities but they are also connected to each other in time and space.
He goes on to extend the simile to us. Dogen say that we, “are not to say that life turns into death”; and it is also true that, “death does not turn into life”. While in our Order we take the pragmatic approach and say that we cannot know what happens after death, we definitely observe the seeming change of life into death. Brad’s use of this quote to say that Dogen did not teach rebirth appeals to we modern sophisticates; yet how are we supposed to deal with life not turning into death when we see it every day? Only through the teaching of anatta.
Like firewood and ash I exist as a living being now and I am connected to the existence that will occur in the future as a dead being; but the living I does not turn into the dead I, because I will have changed between life and death – even between the intake of my last breath and it expulsion. Anatta says that there is not a core unchanging Self that remains throughout our existence; therefore there is no past and no future that we can experience.
There is not some kind of mystical claptrap. It is a simple statement of how things are – or at least how they seem to be to our human perceptions. Perhaps there actually is a core self – what William James called the Pure Ego – but we cannot perceive it. Like the Dalai Lama has said, if science ever proves the existence of an unchanging “pure ego” then we will have to revise our teaching on anatta; but for now it appears to align with observations.
If we accept this interpretation then Brad’s use of this quote to argue against rebirth is off as well, since all that it is actually saying is that the I who exists as a dead being is not the same as the I who might exist in the future as a living being. There is no past and no future that we can experience; not because the past and future are separate, disconnected moments but because we will change between the moment of the past and the moment of the future. Truly this present moment is the only thing that exists for us because it is the only place and time that we exist as we are in this present moment. There’s no need to get mystical about it; it’s very simple.
Since we are continually changing it is a slightly different Self who experiences past, present and future; and this is the true joy of anatta. We define the present by our experience of it; and that present is unique and unrepeatable. When we’re part of special event we’ll often say or hear, “this moment will never come again, enjoy it while it’s here”; but that’s true of every single moment of our existence.
The great Greek philosopher Heraclitus – who by the way lived at the same time as the Buddha – said, “You cannot step twice into the same stream.” Don’t curse the rain or the snow or the heat but experience them because they will never be here again. This doesn’t mean a passive acceptance, by the way. If the snow might cause you frostbite then get out of it and warm up; but realize that it is unique. The same is true of emotions. If a moment comes that cries out for tears then let them flow; they are neither good nor bad but only an expression of your response to the moment. So how do we know when we’re expressing the appropriate emotion for the moment and not responding reactively from our habituated life? Ah, that’s why we practice zazen.