The temple has experienced a spate of dying in the past couple of weeks. The Hayes Valley Farm trees, along with a rather high number of parents, siblings, children and friends of our residents have passed away. We seem to be doing a memorial service almost every evening.
Daowu and his student were making a condolence call. The student rapped on the coffin and asked, “Alive or dead?” Daowu responded, “Won’t say.”
Alive or dead? The epitome of dualistic thinking. If those are the only two options available to us, then by that logic not only will we be dead in 100 years, but 100 years ago we were also dead. Yet according to both Buddhism and quantum physics, nothing is ever created or destroyed, there is only energy endlessly changing. The Abhidharma goes so far as to postulate that our thinking creates matter (form):
Matter cannot exist without a karmic consciousness desiring life in a material world … It’s the energy, not the things, that create continuity.
So instead of the all-or-nothing of alive or dead – a stance unsupported both spiritually and scientifically -- Buddhism invites us to explore the waves of energy than we reify to “I.” The ocean wave arises, crests, breaks, and subsides. We would think it silly to mourn its passing. The Buddha said, “Rivers give up their former names and identities when they reach the great ocean.” We would think it silly to say that the river dies at the ocean.
Why wouldn’t Daowu answer his student’s question?
(Hint: The wave and the river are not a metaphor.)