Dogen and Poetry. Firewood and Ash

Eihei Dogen Zenji’s writing is dense, deep, and sometimes perplexing. Because it’s so lush, so challenging, and often so difficult to grasp logically, I think it’s valuable to read and enjoy Dogen as poetry. Poetry by its nature involves a kind of freedom. Poets use language more freely than prose writers of any stripe – philosphers, essayists, even novelists. You could even say that’s what a poet is supposed to do, that it’s the poet’s job.

In our Western tradition, Homer wrote about the wine-dark sea. “Oinops pontos.” This is a beautiful image, full of mystery and feeling – a wine-dark sea is intoxicating – even though there’s no actual wine in the sea. We know that, but we also know it’s poetry so it’s okay. We give the poet and the language permission to function outside our usual frame of reference and meaning. Likewise, it’s illuminating to read Dogen with this kind of spacious permission and to hear his language in a realm beyond its everyday function. In other words, to just hear it much in the way we hear poetry, without it having to make linear, rational sense.

In Genjokoan, Dogen writes:

Firewood becomes ash; it can never go back to being firewood. Still, we shouldn’t imagine ash is its future and firewood is its past. We should recognize that firewood takes its place in the Universe as firewood, and has its past moment and its future moment.

And though we can say firewood has both past and future, the past moment and the future moment are cut off. Likewise, ash takes its place in the Universe as ash, and has its past moment and its future moment.

And just as firewood can never again be firewood after becoming ash, human beings cannot live again after their death. So it’s our way in Buddhism not to say life turns into death. This is why we speak of “no appearance.” And in the same vein, Gautama Buddha taught that death does not turn into life. This is why we speak of “no disappearance.”

Life is an instantaneous matter, and death is also an instantaneous matter. It is like winter and spring. We do not imagine that winter becomes spring, and we do not say that spring becomes summer.

This passage is famous in Zen circles, especially the first part about firewood and ash. It’s beautiful as poetry. It’s also provocative and penetrating as teaching about the nature of self and identity cast in the context of time – present, past, and future. The passage challenges more conventional ways of relating to the nature of all the “things” – the identities – in our lives. If firewood has its own “prior” and its own “subsequent” but is “cut off” from its own prior and subsequent, then when does firewood become “firewood” per se? And when does firewood stop being firewood? We know firewood when we see it. We also understand everything is in a state of flux all the time. Atoms are flying around. This flying flux invisible to our human eyes. But we know it to be so. So how do we make sense of what Dogen says about firewood – past, present, and future?

Take a kotsu (Zen teaching stick) made from a piece of oak firewood that was in my woodpile. Prior to being firewood it was…what? Part of an oak tree. But the oak tree fell or was cut down and bucked up with a saw. When it was bucked up into rounds, on the ground, could we say it was firewood? Maybe so. Maybe not. Unlikely we’d call it a kotsu. What do you think?

At some point, someone said, “Let’s split up that downed oak for firewood.” And it was split with an axe and stacked in our woodpile. Firewood? Let’s stick with firewood and death as representing “thingness” – both what we think of as physical thingness but also states and events (like life and death, per Dogen) that have a thingy quality, or at least that we talk about like they’re things.

We use handles – words like “firewood” and “death” – to perform important functions in our cognitive economies, to serve as devices of generalization, to help us communicate, to make our world navigable. It feels reasonable and natural to choose or imagine a moment when firewood stops being a chunk of a downed oak tree and takes its place in the universe as firewood. Most likely, it would be after the trunk’s been cut into rounds and the axe has split off a piece of a round sized to fit the wood stove and ready to be tossed into the wheelbarrow and hauled to the woodpile by the garage. We could say, “It’s firewood now.” That makes sense. Calling it firewood’s useful. But if I already have it in mind that I’m going to shape a piece of firewood into this kotsu – this piece of firewood – what is it then? Hmmm.

In zazen, we sit silent and still and watch what arises in awareness, how it feels, what we think, and observe everything that arises as it abides and departs. When we first sit down, this way of relating to what occurs – there’s the me, the watching, and the stuff that arises – feels like an accurate description of what’s happening. Self and other. Me and the world, bridged by awareness, by consciousness.

But our sitting includes a kind of implicit questioning, a wondering “what is this?” about what is arising. And in the concentrated stillness and in the light of this wondering, sometimes these identity boundaries fall away. Self observing other ceases to capture what’s happening. A bird is chirping. CHIRP! CHIRP! Normally, I’d say, “I hear the sound of the bird,” but now it feels closer to the truth of the actual experience to say “I am the sound of the bird.” When the usual boundaries of self/other drop away, the sense of time – of past, present and future – also drops away, and the sound of the bird is utterly vivid. CHIRP! CHIRP! This is what Dogen’s referring to when he says

We should recognize that firewood takes its place in the Universe as firewood, and has its past moment and its future moment. And though we can say firewood has both past and future, the past moment and the future moment are cut off.

CHIRP! CHIRP! is all there is. In Dogen’s terms, CHIRP! CHIRP! abides in its own state as CHIRP! CHIRP! Completely. Past and future cut off. No bird, no branch, no me, no zazen. This is both Dogen’s poetry and our own vivid experience.

(Notes from a talk at Zen Center of Fresno on 3/16/13)