Issue 12: Winter


Michael Elsmere Ko Gan Mu Ju

‘Life and all that lives is conceived in the mist and not in the crystal. And who knows but a crystal is mist in decay?
Kahil Gibran ‘The Prophet’

'Birth is an expression complete this moment.'
Eihei Dogen ‘Genjo Koan’

It is a typical winter day here in South Devon. Masses of grey cloud surge in from the Atlantic bringing fierce wind and ocean tasting rain. A close friend is dying and in the midst of my deep sorrow I wander my garden trying to come to terms with this news. I notice the tender yet vivid green of chives in the herb bed thrusting vigorously upward. On the branches of the old ash battered in the gale there are already the black mourning buds proclaiming new life. Vigour held in abeyance. All around me is the consolation of these miracles, signs that in the depths of winter is life and premonitions of life beneath the surface of things. Life that we can easily miss as we stride through our busy lives. It seems to me that life and death are inextricably linked, mixed, messy. As I return down the track to the house soaked through with thoughts and rain I recall Dogen’s quote in his ‘Genjo Koan,’ ‘Birth is an expression complete this moment.’ What does he mean? It seems clear to me right here and now from my observations that ‘in the midst of life we are in death’, nothing is ‘complete,’ its a messy mix, beyond understanding. Perhaps Dogen is forcing the argument, this conceptualisation for doctrinal purposes related to the fiercely differing views on reincarnation and transmigration in 13th century Buddhism? Drinking tea I turn to my new copy of ‘Realizing Genjo Koan,’ by Shohaku Okumura. Almost immediately I find ‘Life is only opposed to death in the world of thought. In reality life and death completely interpenetrate each other, although they never meet in our conceptual experience. Within our thinking minds, life is desirable and death undesirable,’ Pg 94
What then does Dogen mean by ‘Birth is an expression complete this moment.’ Okamura’s comment seems to me a rejection of this.
As part of his comments around this Okamura goes on to discuss the meaning of the Japanese expression ‘shoji,’ that as a verb means ‘to live or to be born,’ the second part meaning ‘to die or to be dead,’ this being translated into English as ‘birth and death’ or ‘life and death.’ Therefore ‘shoji,’ is the process in which we are born, live and die. This may be viewed he writes as the equivalent of the Sanskrit word ‘Jatimarana,’ which again refers both to the process of being born, living and dying, and also to the four kinds of suffering, or duhkha (birth, aging, sickness and death).’ However it seems that the birth life and death of ordinary living beings pulled by karma is specifically termed in Japanese as either ‘bundan shoji,’ ‘separating life and death’ or ‘ichigo shoji’ that is ‘life and death as one period,’’. Yet another term, ‘henyaku shoji,’ ‘transforming life and death,’ is applied to the process that bodhisattvas evolve within. Finally ‘setsuna shoji,’refers to the moment-by-moment process of the body and mind being born and then perishing as postulated within Buddhism. Perhaps it is this constant birthing to which Dogen is referring. But there is nothing straightforward here!
I had hoped to gain some clarification of my thinking in reading ‘Genjo Koan,’ and Okamura. I come to the conclusion or perhaps the misunderstanding that even here in Dogen the great Japanese philosopher, the founder of our lineage, there are still contradictions and the inescapable messiness that seem to be an unavoidable part of this process of attempting an understanding of birth, life and death.
This ‘cloud of unknowing,’ arises again as I watch a programme on the scientific understanding of the birth of the universe and the Big Bang theory. Here there is once more that deep sense of mystery which none of the ‘beautiful,’ equations, the deep searching of space or the mind-boggling experiments carried out in The Large Hadron Collider at CERN can dispel. It is this mysterious messiness that I believe is captured by Gibran’s quote from ‘The Prophet,’ ‘Life and all that lives is conceived in the mist and not in the crystal.’ In conception there always seems to be that mist or a beginning in darkness, there is never the clarity the clear crystal of certainty, logic and knowing. In our ‘all knowing,’ rational age birth, life and death remain the ultimate enigmas beyond intellect and perhaps even beyond our deepest intuitions.

With thanks to:
‘Realizing Genjo Koan,’ by Shohaku Okumura
Wisdom Publications


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