Birth & Death, and the Suffering in Between

I've got some critters inside the wall of the bedroom. They're scratching or gnawing away at whatever critters scratch or gnaw on. I'm hoping that they haven't developed a taste for electrical wiring, because that generally doesn't work out well for them, the dwelling, or the human occupants thereof. We live out in the woods, and it amazes me that a critter, here on the cusp of summer, would think being inside my wall is preferable to the great outdoors, where food sources would offer at least more variety than the rough side of Sheetrock or the aforementioned electrical wiring. But apparently one has. A month or so ago, we had an invasion of carpenter ants. A wood-frame house would no doubt be a banquet for them in most cases, at least at certain times of year. However, we live out in the woods, so again, one would think they'd be able to find a more appetizing menu mere feet away from the house. For the ants, our landlord called a pest control service, and I was relieved when he said that what he sprays isn't toxic to animals or humans, and it only repels the ants. That may not be the case when it comes to critters.

One time, the famous monk Xuanjue visited the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng. After entering the great hall, he circled the Patriarch three times, hit the floor with his staff, and just stood there without bowing. The Patriarch admonished him for violating the rules of etiquette and asked him why he was so arrogant. Xuanjue replied, “The great question of life and death is a momentous one. Death may come at any moment, I have no time to waste on ceremony.”
The Patriarch said, “When don’t you attain the substance of ‘no birth’, then the problem of death and its coming will not concern you anymore.”
Xuanjue replied, “Since substance has no birth, the basic problem of death and when it comes is solved.”

The Cambridge Zen Center's pet cat, Katzie died after a long illness and was given a traditional Buddhist burial, but a little girl named Gita remained troubled by his death. One day after practice, she came to the great Zen teacher for an explanation. He relays the exchange in “Dropping Ashes on the Buddha:”

“What happened to Katzie? Where did he go?”
Soen-sa said, “Where do you come from?”
“From my mother’s belly.”
“Where does your mother come from?” Gita was silent.
Soen-sa said, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing. It is like in a cookie factory. Many different kinds of cookies are made — lions, tigers, elephants, houses, people. They all have different shapes and different names, but they are all made from the same dough and they all taste the same. So all the different things that you see — a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor — all these things are really the same.”
“What are they?”
“People give them many different names. But in themselves, they have no names. When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes. But when you are not thinking, all things are the same. There are no words for them. People make the words. A cat doesn’t say, ‘I am a cat.’ People say, ‘This is a cat.’ The sun doesn’t say, ‘My name is sun.’ People say, ‘This is the sun.’
So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’, how should you answer?”
“I shouldn’t use words.”
Soen-sa said, “Very good! You shouldn’t use words. So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’, what would be a good answer?”
Gita was silent.
Soen-sa said, “Now you ask me.”
“What is Buddha?”
Soen-sa hit the floor.
Gita laughed.
Soen-sa said, “Now I ask you: What is Buddha?”
Gita hit the floor.
“What is God?”
Gita hit the floor.
“What is your mother?”
Gita hit the floor.
“What are you?”
Gita hit the floor.
“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of. You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”
Gita smiled.
Soen-sa said, “Do you have any more questions?”
“You still haven’t told me where Katz went.”
Soen-sa leaned over, looked into her eyes, and said, “You already understand.”
Gita said, “Oh!” and hit the floor very hard. Then she laughed.
As she was opening the door, she turned to Soen-sa and said, “But I’m not going to answer that way when I’m in school. I’m going to give regular answers!” Soen-sa laughed.

So here is this present moment, right here&now. Are you alive? Are you between birth and death? Don't expect to be anywhere else. Don't expect NOT to be in the world of the dissatisfied, the satisfied, the struggling, the content, the happy, the sad, the relaxed, the tense, the celebrating, and the mourning. This is the stuff of life—that period between when our physical body breathes its first and its last. The “no-birth/no-death” we chant is Truth, but to live only there is only half-correct. There's the other “Truth,” where we don't waste our time in between birth and death. Huangbo says, “Throughout this life, you can never be certain of living long enough to take another breath.”

Right now, maybe the critters are performing critter function. Tomorrow when the pest-control service comes, maybe they'll perform pest-control function. Maybe that will involve killing the critters, maybe not. If it does, there's a pretty good chance that I'll be sad on some level, bec ause that's how I react to that sort of thing. That's OK, it shows I'm alive, experiencing human life. The Buddhist ideal of “Peaceful, calm, equanimity” doesn't mean to be without emotions, it doesn't mean to be cold and aloof. Not picking and choosing doesn't mean there's no difference between happy & sad, it means that when they come, we experience them as they are. They aren't opposites, we just experience them. Denying them isn't The Great Way, that's just denial. Not abiding in the world of “should” is The Great Way. “Should” is just guesswork. It's telling a critter how to be a critter. Critters don't need to be told how to be critters, they're just critters. They're very good at being critters. They're probably not so good at being anything other than critters.

When we hold something up in front of a mirror, does the mirror decide, “I'm going to reflect that, but not that other thing, I don't like that so much. I'll just reflect what I like.” When we see something, when we're actually just seeing something, can we decide what we're actually looking at? When we smell something, can we actually pick and choose what we smell? “Ah, cooking garlic, I like cooking garlic. Sweaty Tae Kwon Do studio, no, I don't like that, I'm not going to smell that.” When you taste something that's too salty, can you not taste the salt, just because you don't want to? When the cars come by, can my ears somehow not hear them because I don't want to? If I stick my hand over that candle, can I decide that it won't burn me, and when it burns me, that it's not going to hurt?

The only time we pick and choose, out of the six senses, is when we're thinking. “Oh, I don't want to think about that, so I'm not going to.” I'll think “should,” I'll think, “I wish,” I'll deny what's going on, I'll lust for what isn't going on, just because I like it better. That's not a critter being a critter. That's not you being you.

The Bodhisattva lives in the Immeasurables—Loving-kindness, active good will towards all, even the people we don't like; We have Compassion, and that results from lovingkindness. It is the identification of the suffering of “others” as the suffering of “me.” When they suffer, I suffer. On the other hand, we also have sympathetic joy, when just because someone else is happy, we're happy for them, whether we had anything to do with it or not, whether there's any ego-gratification in it or not, whether they even know that we're happy for them or not. They're happy, we're happy. Equanimity is even-mindedness and serenity, but it's not being cold and aloof. It means that when “happy” comes, “happy” is there. When “sadness” comes, “sadness” is there. Our “even-mindedness” doesn't mean that we don't have emotions, our “even-mindedness” means that we don't swat away the emotions, just because we don't want to feel that particular emotion.

This happiness, sadness, celebration, mourning, that is the matter of Birth & Death; “birth” and “death” are just names. The suffering in between—is where we live.

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