ACT! Dasui’s Kalpa Fire

A Dharma talk by Enkyo Roshi given given November 9, 2002

Ryokan wrote:
What is it to live?
Well, for a while, let me just keep on living,
As I have done so far.
Let me laugh when I’m inclined to;
Let me shed tears when I am sad!
Indeed, I am neither for the world nor against it.

What about you right now? Are you for this world or against it? How do you sit in the midst of the world situation? Consider Bishop Desmond Tutu’s notable remark that if you do or say nothing, you are just as responsible as the perpetrators.

Let’s ask ourselves, with Ryokan, "What is it to live?" I ask myself: at this time in the world, what are my responsibilities? There is much suffering in the world, and, indirectly, I benefit from the suffering—just by being a person who lives in New York City and benefits from the work of people all over the world, people who are suffering and being exploited. I benefit just by being a part of this system that is, again, threatening brutality, war, and violence.

This can be a conundrum: how do we practice oneness, in which there is no good or evil, no killing and no killed? And how do we practice our livesin the reality where there is killing, stealing, and deluding? The question is: where do we sit in terms ofour responsibility to the world? And how do we reconcile Ryokan’s peaceful vision—"I’m neither for the world nor against it"—with the realities that we see in front of us?

More difficult are the realities we don’t see in front of us. If any one of us saw someone stepping out into the street and into the path of an oncoming car—we’d grab and pull that person back. But we can’t grab an Iraqi; we can’t grab someone in Malaysia, who’s nine years old and working 18 hours a day in a factory. We can’t look into the eyes of a Palestinian teenager. Somehow, we don’t think we have a way to make a difference in the world. It becomes too easy to disengage, to detach.

In Zenki, Dogen says: "Freedom means that, in birth, you are freed from birth; in death, you are freed from death. Thus, there is detachment from birth and death and penetrating birth and death. Such is the complete practice of the way."

Detachment and penetration. How can we hold both of these realities? How do we reconcile Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, the poverty at the other end of the number 6 train, and AIDS, everywhere, with that great oneness that we seek to practice?

It can be very confusing for dharma students. Many koans in our tradition are about dharma students who are lost in oneness—lost in that great, beautiful samadhi. That kind of white space, where there’s nothing—where there’s no suffering, no one. And there is another group of koans about students who are caught up in their ideas about the dharma. You might say that the latter are very political in a way, stuck in conceptualizing and attaching to ideas.

The Jewel Mirror of Awareness says that the dharma of thusness is like filling a silver bowl with snow. When you first look at a silver bowl filled with snow, it all looks the same. The silver reflects the white, glistening snow at that edge of snow and silver. Where is that edge when you first look at it? But then, on closer inspection, you say: "Oh, they’re not the same." The snow and the silver may look the same, but they are, in fact, different.

And that is the case here. The other night, when we were doing a mondo, there was a lot of anxiety voiced about how it is that we can act at all if we are immersed in oneness where right and wrong, good and bad, don’t exist. And yet when we look carefully, there is snow and there is a silver bowl. There is our interdependence and there is our individuality.

What the Jewel Mirror says about missing the living, breathing, merging of sameness and difference is: "If you miss it, you fall into retrospective hesitation. Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a mass of fire." Here the Jewel describes two ways we lose our ability to act with compassion.

If you miss it … if you miss the liveliness of it—of your life, your responsibility, and your interdependence—you fall into passivity. "Turning away" (ignoring the wisdom of oneness and getting carried away with your subjective view) and "touching" (getting lost in the samadhi of oneness) are both wrong—"for it is like a mass of fire." It burns everything. Nothing is left.

There’s a koan that talks about the great conflagration of the world: "Dasui’s Great Aeonic Fire." A monk asked Dasui: "When the great fire at the end of the aeon rages through, and the whole universe is destroyed, is thisdestroyed or not?" Dasui said: "Destroyed." The monk asked: "Then it goes along with that?" And Dasui said: "It goes along with that."

Later, a monk asked Lon-chi the same question: "When the great fire at the end of the aeon rages through, and the whole universe is destroyed, is this destroyed or not?" Lon-chi said: "Not destroyed." The monk asked: "Well, why is it not destroyed?" Lon-chi said: "Because it’s the same as the universe."

Consider where this question comes from. It reminds me of a recent ad in The New York Times.In the center was a map of the Indian Point nuclear power plant, with concentric circles drawn around it, to show the amount of damage, from the center outward, which would occur if the plant blew up. Westchester, of course, was in the primary ring, and New York City was in the secondary ring. As I looked at it, I noticed my first reaction, "Whew, well, we’re secondary." As if somehow we are not connected to the rest of this bioregion, to this world. Is this destroyed or not?

Is this destroyed or not? Is there some way anything—even buddhanature, even myself as a reflection of buddhanature—can be spared? "Destroyed"—total, complete. Nothing to hang onto. That’s it. The monk cannot just hear that, so he asks: "Then it goes along with that?" He’s asking, "Is there a loophole?" And Dasui says: "It goes along with that."

"This" and "that"—are they one or two? Nothing is separated from the universe. Then, to complicate things further, another monk goes to Lon-chi and asks the same question: "When the great fire at the end of the aeon rages through, and the whole universe is destroyed, is this destroyed or not?" Now, this question isn’t the original question. This monk is already fueled with the previous question. It’s a double barrier here; a separation upon a separation.

And Lon-chi does not answer the way Dasui did. He says: "Not destroyed." What does he mean, "Not destroyed"? Lon-chi says: "Because it’s the same as the universe." From the view of oneness, there is no "destroyed." And that would be intellectually intriguing if it weren’t for the fact that so many of us suffer so deeply because of this. We misconstrue the teachings. We forget that we’re living human beings, who must act. Even if we don’t act, we act. We breathe. What we do and don’t do affects others. Consider the mass of fire that broke out inBali, a mass of fire at the World Trade Center, at Hiroshima, at Auschwitz. What would you have done in 1939? In 1945? In 1968? Today?

A few days ago, four young men set out on an adventure in a dinghy, onto the Long Island Sound, headed for a nearby island. The boat took on water; they called 911 and were cut off after 12 seconds. The call was ignored; the boys drowned in the freezing waters.

A mother of one of the boys, a Buddhist practitioner, said she did not want to "add to the winds of hate circulating in the world" by hating the police, and the 911 supervisor. Instead, she sits with her pure grief. This is action. This is penetration. This is detachment.

How do we, with Dogen, simultaneously penetrate and detach from birth and death, from our action and being? Taking a breath, open your heart/mind to the world around you. Inform yourself. Listen and observe. Talk, write a letter, sign a petition, send money, gather with others, walk and bear witness. Act … just act. Don’t ask: "Will this go along with it or not?" Don’t make it something in your head. This is your practice. This is your life. Doing this, you’re able to say, with Ryokan, "I’m neither for the world nor against it," because you’re in the world. Ryokan played with little children. He cared for his garden. And he was able to cry, and to laugh, and to act. And that’s why we practice—to live our life with awareness and compassion.

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