I’ve always been confused by the following quote by Dogen via Shunryu Suzuki:
“Dogen Zenji says that charcoal does not become ashes; ashes has its own past and future and fire…red, hot charcoal has its own past and future; charcoal and red hot fire is quite different existence. Ashes is ashes and it is independent existence. Because it is a flashing into the vast phenomenal world. And even though we say, charcoal is black, that is also a flashing into vast phenomenal world. So charcoal is independent and red hot charcoal is also independent. Ashes is independent; firewood is also independent. Everything is independent of each other. So where there is black charcoal there is no red hot charcoal.”
This has never made sense to me, because in order for ashes to become ashes, they have to have been something else before that became the ashes. They aren’t just a thing that stands alone, independently of everything that led up to them. This has always struck me as being a strangely transcendent analysis of existence and change. But I realized that the error of my understanding this was that I was trying to understand it as an explanation of the temporal flow of experience – this is how things change and become other things. But that is the wrong way to approach and understand it, in fact, it is impossible to understand what Dogen is trying to say if you approach it that way.
Two things helped me to crack this puzzle. First, I had to remind myself of Dogen’s emphasis on simply sitting zazen and being in the present, nowhere else, that this is both the road to enlightenment and enlightenment itself, and that it can’t be realized any other way (i.e. any way that would involve an understanding with projections in the past or future). But the thing that really helped me break through was Bergson’s approach to the concept of “nothing.”
For Bergson, “nothing” is an illusion. It is possible to imagine nothing, because we have the conscious ability to reflect on absences.
“Now the unreality [nothing] which is here in question is purely relative to the direction in which our attention is engaged, for we are immersed in realities and cannot pass out of them; only, if the present reality is not the one we are seeking, we speak of the absence of this sought-for reality wherever we find the presence of another.”
So while there is a fluid change happening (Bergson again - “Of becoming we perceive only states, of duration only instants”), we don’t have any kind of outside access to perceive its fluidity. We only have the present, the instances of experience that are real and truly present to us as immediate sensory input. So we can admit that there is some sort of validity to the idea of “nothing” because it is something we can think, it is a product of the function of our consciousness. But it is not something that actually exists independently of our minds. It is just a useful tool that is necessary to navigate a world perceived through our consciousness, but if we want to try to experience the world as it unfolds independently of our selves and minds, we have to recognize the illusion of “nothing.” “The conception of a void arises here when consciousness, lagging behind itself, remains attached to the recollection of an old state when another state is already present.”
So in the case of Dogen, it is true that we normally perceive charcoal as “turning into” ashes. And it is very useful generally to think of it that way, if we just want to have a practical relation to charcoal, knowing that it turns into ashes after it burns out is very practical and useful. But this kind of logic can become a big problem if we apply to everything and think of it as principle of truth. Dogen takes this understanding of change to a much further degree when talking about the nature of our existence and its change.
“It is a mistake to think that birth turns into death. Birth is a phase that is an entire period of itself, with its own past and future. For this reason, in Buddha-darma birth is understood as no-birth. Death is a phase that is an entire period of itself, with its own past and future. For this reason, death is understood as no-death.
In birth there is nothing but birth and in death there is nothing but death. Accordingly, when birth comes, face and actualize birth, and when death comes, face and actualize death. Do not avoid or desire them.”
When we look at change and experience in terms of birth and death, we have the potential to run into a lot of problems. Because if we think of them as having a fluidity that stretches out into eternity that is attached to our self, then along comes the idea of an afterlife, a spirit. Our spirit is born into our body, we die, then it goes on and lives forever. This fluid understanding of change legitimizes the primacy of the self in understanding our life and its function. But, through meditation, and situating both our consciousness and its object of attention in the present, we can no longer conceive of ourselves as something that is fluid, only as something that orients itself and adjusts constantly to a changing environment, following its own nature, which is changing. Because when consciousness and its object are both situated in the present, there is breakdown of the barrier – the objects of consciousness and consciousness itself become a single block of objects interacting without the primacy of any one part. There is still a consciousness, but not a static self.
In this passage, Bergson lays out an experiment to test his theory of “nothing” which is remarkably similar to the kind of meditation that Dogen propounds:
“To represent ‘Nothing,’ we must either imagine it or conceive it. Let us examine what this image or this idea may be. First, the image.
I am going to close my eyes, stop my ears, extinguish one by one the sensations that come to me from the outer world. Now it is done; all my perceptions vanish, the material universe sinks into silence and night. I subsist, however, and cannot help myself subsisting. I am still there, with the organic sensations which come to me from the surface and from the interior of my body, with the recollections which my past perceptions have left behind them – nay, with the impression, most positive and full, of the void I have just made about me. How can I suppress all this? How eliminate myself? I can even, it may be, blot out and forget my recollections up to my immediate past; but at least I keep the consciousness of my present reduced to its extremest poverty, that is to say, of the actual state of my body [italics here are my own]. I will try, however, to do away even with this consciousness itself. I will reduce more and more the sensations my body sends in to me: now they are almost gone; now they are gone, they have disappeared in the night where all things else have died away. But no! At the very instant that my consciousness is extinguished, another consciousness lights up – or rather, it was already alight: it had arisen the instant before, in order to witness the extinction of the first; for the first could disappear only for another and in the presence of another. I see myself annihilated only if I have already resuscitated myself by an act which is positive, however involuntary and unconscious.”
Even in the starkest moment there is still something there – the present, the bare present, and it can be perceived through meditative practice. This kind of situating in the present breaks down the illusion of nothing, and exposes Bergson’s élan vital, Dogen’s Buddha-nature. Just charcoal, just ashes, just our consciousness in the present, not as a fluid and everlasting self, but as an existing object subject to natural laws.