Fall Ango Week 5: Do not suppose that the ash is future and the firewood past

October 25, 2023

flying embers

Dear Practice Period Participants,

In meeting the suffering of self and other, how are we nourished, vitalized and resourced by Buddha, Dharma and Sangha? As we continue to move through Genjo Koan, we acknowledge how some of these points of teaching can feel abstract. If the teachings ever feel like that are distracting us from our pain, we can put them aside until conditions and intimacy allow for receptivity. These weekly emails are offerings in the spirit of caring for the ground of our spiritual life in community with all beings, of how we cultivate liberative responsiveness to the cries of the world.

Coming from last week’s intimate study of “nothing at all has unchanging self,” Dogen is now turning to: “How is the moving of the boat?” Dogen continues to explore the topic of self in terms of connection and continuity, while also opening to the dualities of birth and death, as well as samsara and nirvana. It is a dense, complex, multi-leveled discussion. Here is this week’s passage:

Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is future and the firewood past. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood which fully includes past and future, and is independent of past and future. Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash which fully includes future and past. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death. This being so, it is an established way in buddha-dharma to deny that birth turns into death. Accordingly, birth is understood as no-birth. It is an unshakable teaching in Buddha’s discourse that death does not turn into birth. Accordingly, death is understood as no-death. Birth is an expression complete this moment. Death is an expression complete this moment. They are like winter and spring. You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring.

An ancient teaching affirms that in causal continuity, there is neither absolute identity (an unchanging essence, eternalism) nor absolute difference (no connection from moment to moment, annihilationism). This is one vital sense of “the middle way.”

Another ancient (slightly less ancient) teaching affirms that a single cause does not lead to a single effect. This would be a nonrelational picture of change. Everything is always happening as a web of conditions leading to a web of conditions. Or, all we ever see is many causes leading to many results.

In its time, firewood is all-inclusive. In its time, ash is all-inclusive. Each has its own past and future. Because each has its own past and future, we can’t just say that the firewood becomes ash, or that “the ash is future and the firewood past.” That’s reductive. That’s a very small story of the fullness of what is happening between firewood and ash.

Firewood has its own future. Part of the firewood becomes ash, and it also becomes fire, heat, light, sound, and smoke.  So firewood actualizes myriad things, including ash, fire, heat, etc. Maybe that fire’s heat kept someone warm, so then keeping someone warm is also the future of the firewood. If someone cooked some rice with that heat and ate it, then the nourishment provided by the rice is also the future of the firewood. If someone read a book by the light of the fire, how those words may have stirred that person’s heart is also the future of the fire.

Similarly, ash has its own past. It is actualized by myriad things. It comes from firewood and it also comes from ignition, burning, oxygen. What started the fire that burned the firewood? Was it started intentionally or by accident? Was this someone cooking rice or trying to stay warm? This is also the past of ash.

My life is like this. One way we can engage this is to consider that Dogen may be speaking to the sense that the “me” of today is the “me” of yesterday. This is missing the dynamic relationality of my life. Rather than selves moving through time, Dogen affirms that we are time. We are change and impermanence. We are not things or objects, but radically interactive dynamic fluid processes. This is Genjo Koan as a koan of totally relational being.

Firewood includes past and future because of relationality. The past is gone, and how firewood is independent of the past is where and how we meet loss. The future is not here yet, and how firewood is independent of the future is where and how we meet possibility. This moment will never repeat even in a million years.

Dogen then moves the discussion into birth and death. Often sentient human beings are inclined to make a duality of birth and death, or life and death. This is a reduction of life and a reduction of death. Japanese Zen teacher, and Dharma great grandfather of Suzuki roshi, Nishiari Bokusan (1821–1910) says, “Because of the thought of before and after, we are tossed about by birth and death.” If before and after are opposed, birth and death are opposed. Death becomes something alien to and apart from life that comes from outside and cuts off life. In Dharma practice, we can open to the deep, inseparable intimacy of life and death.  And we can cultivate our understanding that life is made of and always includes death.  The one birthright we all share is death, and that’s what makes us what we are.

Next, Dogen does something kind of complex. He switches from the duality and nonduality of firewood and ash, or birth and death, to the nonduality of birth/ death and no-birth/no-death. “Birth is understood as no-birth” and “death is understood as no-death.” “Birth and death” is a translation of samsara, or cyclic suffering, and no-birth and no-death are then synonyms for nirvana, or liberation. So here Dogen is also teaching the intimate nonduality of samsara and nirvana, suffering and liberation.

“No-birth” is the total relationality of birth. It is no-birth of a separate self. It is studying birth, forgetting birth, and all things coming forth and actualizing birth. Just so with death. It is studying death, forgetting death, and all things coming forth and actualizing death.

No-birth expresses how there is  no birth opposed to death. No-death is no death opposed to birth. The “no” is a way of directly pointing at birth, directly pointing at death. Each is incomparable. Each is an “expression complete this moment.” Each is independent and all-inclusive.  

Suzuki-roshi teaches, “When death is accepted as death through-and-through, it is not death anymore. Because you compare death with life, it is something. But when death is understood, completely, as death, death is not death anymore.”

In his essay on birth and death, Shobogenzo Shōji, Dogen says, “when birth comes, face and actualize birth, and when death comes, face and actualize death.” This is wholehearted engagement with birth, life and death. This is Genjo Koan as a koan of love, a koan of loving our lives fully, a koan of completely manifesting in the fullness and wholeness of what we are.

Very grateful to be turning the Dharma with you,

Charlie and Sarah

Zen Priest, Dharma Teachers



Fall Ango Week 4: Keep Your Eyes Closely on the Boat…

Fall Ango Week 3: When one side is illuminated, the other side is dark…

Fall Ango Week 2: As all things are Buddha-dharma…

Fall Ango Week 1: Practicing with Genjo Koan