An excerpt from Moonlight Leaning Against an Old Rail Fence: Approaching the Dharma as Poetry
All of Life is false.
All of Death is false.
Love is true.
Love beautifies life and death.
Our attachment to life is only our resistance
to an imaginary death.
Our attachment to death is only our resistance
to an imaginary life.
Beyond life and death, love is
the lion’s roar
and the silent bud.
There is neither everything nor nothing.
WE are the big bang.
When we are simply awake in the moment, when we allow all things to proclaim themselves as the wondrous expression of their self-nature, beyond the mental categories of being or not-being, then what is life and what is death? Life and death are the marvelous empty dance of vibrant capacity and essential stillness. Life and death play easily and timelessly like river otters in their spiral embrace. The immediacy of being is life and death together, vibrant and empty of self. How do we embrace and celebrate this spiral dance as one?
Thai Buddhist master Achaan Chah says, “When I lift this cup I see it as already broken.” He means he sees its impermanence, its life and its death, its form and its emptiness, as already one with what it is, so what is there to be attached to? Shunryu Suzuki Roshi says, “Life is like getting onto a small boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.” Not only about to. Already always is. Every moment we are sailing. Every moment we are sunk. Isn’t this the very essence of laughter? We might say all laughter, or humor, echoes our innate knowledge of this paradox, whether we are fundamentally comfortable or uncomfortable with it.
But to our egoic minds, that is to say, that awareness that is identified with the paradigm and project of a surviving self, life and death are two shadows projected across our awareness, as the light of their inherent unified nature filters through our mental constructs. Then what I call life is not a direct experience, but a shadow; a presumption followed by a projection of the idea of my identity, life history, expectations, judgments, interpretation of my environment, of others, of materiality, of birth and death. They are complete and compelling reifications. They are assumptions without real reference apart from the mind.
If we consider the proportion of time that we spend actually experiencing life (whatever it is) in this moment as compared to our time spent living within our mental representations of “life,” we will see that these moments are precious few. Radical exceptions. “What this is” is an intimacy and a mystery beyond the reach of conceivability. We are in direct, unconditioned awareness of it all the time, but our experience is instantly “dehydrated” and co-opted by our mental representations and constructs. One zen master says, “People of the world look at these flowers as if they were in a dream.”
If “life” is an idea, a reification, rather than the simple and immediate truth of my experience, then what can we say of death? Is there such a thing? How do I know? Is it some “thing” to be known or experienced or feared? We know death also in our representations and projections. We assume death from the outside. We see change. We see pain. We see physical bodies cease and decay. We feel the loss of something or someone who was here and is now gone. We have a perfectly reasonable case for a mental category called death; but is it an actual experience? Or is it an idea that keeps me from my actual experience? Life and death, as opposing possibilities, are of course the most important constructs for “a surviving self.” However, “surviving self” is already the fundamental distortion in our perception that distorts all other perceptions.
This poem flooded over me as a direct experience some years ago. When the pillars of the constructs of life and death are kicked away, what is there? Well, yes, there may well be laughter. There is also the simple realization of that which is empty but which upholds everything. It is affirmation of being. Its inherent affirmation is the fundamental quality that illumines or informs all that we call life. Its emptiness of being is the fundamental quality that illumines or informs all that we call death. At its root is the joyful union of both, with no separate or separating agenda. It is love. Love is the actual manifestation of presence, empty of everything but of its own nature as love. Love is the capacity to be present as love. That’s it. But our capacity to love is what beautifies our actual experience.
From the egoic standpoint, as discussed in the poem, our attachments to the constructs of our life – as opposed to simple joyous affirmation – are our bulwark against our fear of negation, a “death” that can only exist entirely in our imagination. But life lived not in immediacy, but in our imagination and projections, loses its spontaneous affirmation and can itself be experienced as conflicting, negating, and overwhelming. Then “life” becomes a “death,” and death seems like life, and we can easily escape into what I would call “strategies of death” as a way of escaping the suffering of life. These include strategies of avoidance, withdrawal, or self-repression; fantasies of stillness, peace, transcendence, and enlightenment; or violent or destructive behavior, directed inwardly or outwardly, that seeks to reduce the pain of our life back to the ashes of non-being again. These are the forms our attachment to death may take in the face of feelings we are not prepared to feel, and in resistance to a life that is also constructed in our imagination.
From the reality of love, which is our genuine capacity to engage from a place of presence, “life and death” is never a problem, but an opportunity. Pleasure and pain are moments of experience. We may engage action or we may engage stillness; we may even be drawn into progressive realms of experience that are beyond the so-called material realm. But now this is a spontaneous encounter of love and intimacy; not a resistance or a denial.
An enigmatic story is told of a zen master and three disciples walking along a lonely road. As dark falls they come upon an abandoned hut and decide to take shelter there for the night. Settling themselves inside the hut, the master strikes a light and then almost immediately blows it out. “Speak!” he demands of his disciples. The first one says, “The jewel-ornamented phoenix floats in the red glow of the evening sky.” The second says, “The rust-colored snake slips across the dusty road.” The third one says, “Watch your step.” The zen master turns to his third disciple and says, “You have destroyed our sect.”
Clear as mud, n’est-ce pas? I don’t know what it means either, but here’s my take. You know, when you blow out a light in a dark space, you see an after-image, sometimes a bright play of color, green or blue or yellow, backlit with red. It is like the jewel-ornamented phoenix floating in the red glow of the sky. It is the play of phenomena – the contrast of bright imagery against the seeming darkness of non-being. The image is insubstantial, yet it has relative existence, like the dream world in which we live our life. Eventually that after-image begins to fade, and the darkness and the stillness begin to dominate our experience. Now there is no contrast. It is absence of phenomena. It is black on black or brown on brown, like the rust-colored snake sidling along the dirt road.
The master and his disciples, alone in that empty house, have just gone through the drama of light and dark, of being and nothingness, of life and death. And that is where we seem to find ourselves. Are we to sit here then, creating images of light and dark, debating
endless philosophies and strategies of life and death? “Watch your step,” says the third. Simple and practical advice for one alone in a dark house. Be present, pay attention, act caringly; put one foot in front of the other. Embody what it is you are, without attending to ideas and images of life and death; without attaching to images of self and other. Be that manifestation of empty cognizance that penetrates everywhere, but is no one, and has nowhere to penetrate; that extends compassion as a function of its nature. That is not life or death; that is love. “Well,” says the master. “If we just do as you say it puts our whole zen enterprise – and the whole cult of this world – out of business!” There is simply awareness and love.
The story-making activities of the human mind have endlessly created images and mythologies of life and death. Our projections have painted us into a corner where we play out our strategies of survival or avoidance. One moment we are clinging to the projected image of survival in order to avoid annihilation and the fear of losing what we want. The next moment we are clinging to some strategy of annihilation or disappearance in order to avoid having more of what we don’t want or think we can’t handle. This whole situation of life and death – and all of the imagery associated with it – is false. It has no fundamental truth. It is actually this projection that takes our awareness out of the fundamental truth of who and what we already are.
There is not a who and not a what (or only a vibrancy of “who” and “what”) other than that love which, being nothing, is able to embrace it all. It is this love which is the underlying truth of the seeming worlds of life and death, and whose beauty or substance they reveal. Turned from love, the projections of life and death are an empty shell of suffering and contradiction. Suffused with love, they are its beautiful expression.
Locked into the realm of the mind, and the way it organizes perceptions, this may seem like abstract spiritual philosophy. The mind can only see it that way. But the conscious being we are has the capacity to release its identity with the structures of mind, by which the whole material universe is constructed, and allow the universe to blossom anew in each moment as the expression of our love. This is the secret of our actual existence and our actual power. Love sounds its barbaric yawp over the rooftops of our conditioning. It also folds itself along the fiber of the world, silently entering into every xylem and phloem, to blossom as the present moment. When we drop our fascination with the mental structures of life and death, of past and future, then we are simply awakening the present moment with our tender gaze. We are bringing it to life. We are the creator God, discovering herself, in love, by giving life to all things. This is the moment of creation. We are the Big Bang.