Live Fully Die Fully

Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett

(This is Chapter 7 of Roar of the Tigress, Volume II, edited by Rev. Master Daizui MacPhillamy, published in 2005 by Shasta Abbey Press, Mount Shasta, California, and consisting of lectures given by Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett which were inspired by the Shobogenzo of Great Master Dogen. The translations are by Rev. Hubert Norman.)

The literal translation of “zenki” is “the activity of Zen” or “the activity of meditation,” and this chapter refers to That which is “ever functioning, never dormant” within that activity, namely Buddha Nature, True Nature, or what Dogen calls True Self. To thoroughly explore this, says Dogen, is to find the answer to the great problem of how to fully accept our life and our death.

When one thoroughly examines what the Great Way of the Buddhas is, it is liberation from delusion and letting one’s True Self manifest to the full. For some, this liberation from delusion means that life liberates us from life, and death liberates us from death. Therefore, both our getting out of birth-and- death and our entering birth-and-death are the Great Way, when thoroughly explored. Both our laying birth-and-death aside and our going beyond birth-and- death to the Other Shore are the Great Way, when thoroughly explored.

This passage is quite straightforward, but be careful of the phrase “getting out of birth-and-death.” You cannot get out of life and, now that you’re in life, you certainly as heck can’t get out of death! What you can do is find a Third Position where they don’t get in the way of what truly matters and where one can enjoy both, fully. Thus, when I’m alive I’m fully alive, and when I’m dead I’m fully dead. That is to simultaneously “get out of” and “enter,” to “lay aside” and “go beyond” both life and death by living in the non- substantial liberated essence at all times.

Our True Self revealing itself to the full is what life is, and life is our True Self revealing itself. At the time of our True Self revealing itself, there is nothing that we can say is not a full displaying of life, and there is nothing that we can say is not a full displaying of death.

We must be fully alive, in life. And fully dead, in death. Therefore, when we are alive, life is how Buddha Nature manifests Itself, and when we are dead, death is how Buddha Nature manifests Itself. Do not look for something outside of this, for life and death together are how Truth appears in this world.

Buddhist training is not a way to escape life and death. At first that may sound odd, given that the Four Noble Truths speak of finding the way to end suffering through ceasing our craving and attachment. That is perfectly true, but it does not result in an escape from anything; instead, the letting go of craving and attachment permits us to enter both life and death fully. I recall talking with someone at Blackfriars in Oxford, who was afraid of what his family would think if he meditated. He suggested that maybe if he did just a little bit each day, it wouldn’t upset his family too much. I quoted Martin Luther to him, “If you are going to sin, sin vigorously!” (laughter) Really do it: either get on and do Buddhist training or don’t do it at all! Piddling about doesn’t get you anywhere except to keep the “soap opera” side of your life going. True Nature can only reveal Itself in life and death if we are fully present within them, and at the same time free of attachment.

It is the operating of this True Self that causes life to come about and causes death to come about. The very moment when one fully manifests this functioning of one’s True Self, it will not necessarily be something great or necessarily something small, or the whole universe or some limited bit of it, or something drawn out or something short and quick. Our life at this very moment is the True Self in operation, and the operating of our True Self is our life at this very moment.

Life is not something that comes, and life is not something that goes: life is not something that reveals itself, and life is not something that is accomplished. Rather, life is a displaying of one’s Buddha Nature to the full, and death is also a displaying of one’s Buddha Nature to the full. You need to realize that there is life and there is death within the immeasurable thoughts and things within ourselves…

When Dogen speaks of life, he means our full and true life, not the dream world within which we normally live. And when he speaks of death, he means our full and true death. The moment of fully manifesting this for the first time is the moment of realization, the finding of the non-substantial liberated essence. It is in this way that True Self, or Buddha Nature, “causes life and death to come about.” This experience cannot be defined or limited by descriptions such as large or small, slow or quick. If you would fully live and fully die, you have to experience that non-substantial liberated essence for yourself, either during life or at the time of death. And, if you have not had any “rehearsals” beforehand, it is sometimes a little difficult to recognize it at the time of death, because there are a lot of other things going on. This is one reason why one meditates. If you do not realize It then you cannot enjoy dying, fully. Nor can you enjoy living, fully. This is because you will fear the one and long for the other, or vice versa. You can only be totally immersed in both when there is no attachment to either, and this comes about as a result of knowing That which is Real, the non- substantial liberated essence of Buddha Nature. Then, every day is a good day; every moment is a good moment. To get to this state one must live fully and absolutely, without attachment to life or to death.

Life is, for instance, like a time when someone is on board a boat. I’m on this boat, I manipulate the sails, I handle the rudder, I push the punting pole; at the same time the boat is carrying me along, and there is no ‘I’ that is outside this boat. My sailing in a boat is what makes this boat be a boat. You need to do your utmost to explore through your training what is going on at this very moment. At this very moment there is nothing that is not the world of the boat. The sky, the water, the shore—all have become this moment of the boat, which is completely different from occasions not on a boat. Thus, life is what I am making life to be, and I am what life is making me to be…What this metaphor is saying is that life is what ‘I’ is, and ‘I’ is what life is.

The boat here is also a metaphor for the human body. When man and boat, Buddha Nature and body, are in complete harmony, we are living in non-substantial liberated essence. The non-substantial liberated essence and the phenomena function together in this way-never despise the phenomena. All is One and all is different.

The venerable monk Meditation Master Engo Kokugon (C. Yuan-wu K’o-ch’in), once said, “Life is a manifestation of one’s entire being, and death is a manifestation of one’s entire being.” 

We need to thoroughly explore this saying, and clarify what it means. As to what ‘thoroughly exploring this saying’ means, the principle that life is a manifestation of one’s entire being is not concerned with beginnings and endings, for life is the whole of the great earth and the whole of unbounded space; at the same time, not only does this principle not stand against life’s being a manifestation of one’s entire being but it also does not stand against death’s also being a manifestation of one’s entire being. When death is also a manifestation of one’s entire being, it is the whole of the great earth and the whole of unbounded space… Hence life does not get in the way of death, and death does not get in the way of life. Both the whole of the great earth and the whole of unbounded space exist within life and exist within death as well…

Do not think that life and death are opposites, nor that they are limited by our conceptions of time and space. They are your entire being; they are your True Nature manifesting before your very eyes at this moment. The Unborn is. Every sentient being exists within life and death, and it is through life and death that Buddha Nature manifests Itself.

Life and death are universally present within each moment. When I first studied meditation in the East, I was taught that “the incoming breath is life and the outgoing breath is death.” This is a metaphor, and don’t push it too far, but it leads to the recognition that life and death take place in every second and that That which comes in on the in-breath and goes out on the out-breath is the same thing. The Buddha Nature is in both. If one lives with the Buddha Nature, the moment our experience changes from “in” to “out” does not worry us and the moment it changes from “out” to “in” does not worry us. And the moment it changes from life to death does not worry us.

Recognize that It is always there. Do not think that winter flows into spring and spring into summer and summer into autumn. One thing does not “become” another thing. “A stick of firewood, once reduced to ashes, cannot once again revert to being a stick of firewood. Nevertheless, you should not hold on to the opinion that the ashes are the future of that which the stick was the past,” said Dogen in the chapter Genjō Koan. But That which they all possess, the non-substantial liberated essence, is constantly present and constantly renewing Itself. It has nothing to do with phenomena and everything to do with phenomena. Do not despise the phenomena of your life. Recognize the non-substantial liberated essence of Buddha Nature at all times. Recognize It in life; recognize It in death. Welcome It in life; welcome It in death.