The first writing of Dogen that most of us are likely to come across is the Genjokoan chapter of the Shobogenzo.
I came across it over 30 years ago. I found it very rich, evocative and poetic.
There’s a reason for that. Dogen wrote it for a lay follower, so it’s different in style from his other writings, where his monks were his audience.
In the chapter, there’s a particular passage which has always affected me very much. It goes as follows: (this is the Tanahashi translation)
“Firewood becomes ash, and does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is after and the firewood before. Understand that firewood abides in its condition as firewood, which fully includes before and after, while it is independent of before and after. Ash abides in its condition as ash, which fully includes before and after. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death”
The Nishijima translation is fairly similar:
”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. 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 has a future. The firewood, after becoming ash does not again become firewood. Similarly,human beings after death do not live again”
In trying to understand this passage, which I don’t think I have been very successful in doing, what seems most problematic is the third sentence.
The first sentence and the second sentence seem to be reasonably comprehensible. Dogen appears to be saying that although, in our karmic consciousness, firewood becomes ash, that’s not actually true, because there’s no underlying essence. At one point in time there is firewood and then at another point in time there is ash.
So those first two sentences, I think, are understandable.
The third sentence is harder. In the Tanahashi translation, that sentence reads;
“Understand that firewood abides in its condition as firewood, which fully includes before and after”.
That word ‘abides’ also occurs in the Nishijima translation.
For an English speaker, I think that that word ‘abides’ is unfortunate because, for me at least, it seems to suggest ‘endurance, continuity over time.
Somehow the firewood has become ash. Yet in some mystical sense it still exists; it’s still abiding somewhere. One of the reasons why we can make this (poetic yet false) interpretation, apart from the preceding sentences, is that it’s implicit in the word ‘abides’.
In some other transitions the same word is rendered as ‘remains’ which has an even stronger assumption of continuity.
The word in Japanese which is being translated as ‘abides’ means something like ‘dwell’ or ‘lives within’.
We can see how the translators produce the English word ‘abide’. But a better translation might be to talk about the ‘true home’. The ‘true home’ of firewood—what firewood actually is, is the expression of firewood.
The true essence of ash is the expression of ash. There’s not an underlying something which just happens to have a whole lot of qualities on top of it which change over time, so at one point it’s firewood, and later on it’s ash, yet the ‘something’ endures.
The manifestation, the expression of firewood, is firewood: there’s no continuity.
The reason why there’s not is because this miracle of creation is not in the form that we imagine it to be. In other words, it’s not a vast assembly of discrete yet related objects which arise, persist, change and disappear through time. Rather, it’s the total dynamic functioning and expression of this unseeable unsayable oneness from moment to moment. It’s like a body, not a warehouse.
In that sense it doesn’t make sense to talk about past and future because talking about past and future assumes an underlying continuity which in reality isn’t actually there, and a separation which isn’t there either.
But it’s very deeply ingrained in us, and necessary for us to function in society. I say “60 years ago I was a small child. In 10 years time I’ll be an old person”. Our language enables us to think that there’s an underlying Essence, even though there isn’t.
If we make that analysis, the other part of the sentence starts to make sense.
What about (in Tanahashi’s version) “firewood.. fully includes before and after; while it is independent of before and after”?
What I take from that is that from the perspective of the self there is a ‘me’; there is an ongoing me that is continuing and changing through time in a world of things which likewise are enduring and changing and perishing through time.
But if we don’t take the universe from this perspective of the Self, we can see that at every point the firewood, as it is, the ash as it is, is connected to everything. When the firewood is firewood, it is in a whole, alive, relational world. In a sense, each thing is the whole world.
We can see the world as uncountable beings, or as uncountable moments. If beings, it is as if we are seeing a billion threads, running parallel to each other. Where is the connection? In Uji, Dogen said Being is Time. And so, you can see yourself as this being, or as this moment. If this moment, then there is nowhere and no being which is not included in this moment. The countless moments and the countless beings are, as it were, threads running at right angles to each other. The loom of full dynamic functioning creates this miraculous fabric.
If that’s too obscure, consider your own life. After all Dogen isn’t really talking about firewood. He’s talking about you.
The carbon dioxide which left my lungs a moment ago hasn’t disappeared. It’s just disappeared from my perspective. The fleeting glance I gave someone, which I can’t remember, set off a ripple in that person, became part of that person’s changing dynamic expression, which also ripples out to others. Everything is like this. It is this miraculous fabric, infinitely dimensioned, shaken from all directions. Each moment of our life has an expression and significance which is invisible to us. And all these moments of our life are, as it were, having their own life, their own story, within the greater reality of all beings.