When we look back at the shore from our boat, we mistakenly feel as if the shore were moving. But when we look at our boat with care, we find that it is our boat that is actually moving. Similarly, when we see all things with the deluded idea that our body and mind are separate from each other, we mistakenly think innate mind and nature are eternal. But when we realize that our body and mind are inseparable, we see clearly that all things are not substantial.
Firewood, when burned, becomes ash; the ash never again reverts to being firewood. Still, we should not regard firewood as a before, and ash as an after. We must realize that firewood is in the position of firewood with or without before and after. Ash is in the position of ash with or without before and after.
We can no more come back to life after our death than firewood can become firewood again after having become ash. In Buddhism, therefore, it is said that life never becomes death; life is beyond the conception of life. It says that death does not become life; death is beyond that of death. Life and death are both only one stage of time, just like winter and spring.
Likewise, we must not think that winter becomes spring, or say that spring becomes summer.
Maneesha, Dogen is basically concerned about the idea of reincarnation. Christianity does not accept it, Mohammedanism does not accept it, nor does Judaism accept it; it is only accepted by the religions that have been born in India. They may differ on every aspect of life, but on one point they are absolutely in agreement. And it is not an agreement of one day – for thousands of years they have agreed on the idea of reincarnation.
In Christianity or Mohammedanism or Judaism your life span is very short, just between the cradle and the grave – maybe seventy years or eighty years. With death you are finished. But in the Eastern experience, with death you only change your form. You are not finished, you continue. Your continuity is eternal. You will take many forms…many experiences, many ways of being.
This whole universe is conceived of in the East as a teaching period. The trees are learning to be trees, the birds are learning to be birds. This whole universe is exactly a great university, an opportunity to learn one form and also to learn that behind the form is hidden your formless being.
Thousands of times you have lived in different forms, experiencing different ways. Certainly to be a tree is a totally different experience than to be a bird or to be a lion. But the essential life is one. Out of this experience of essential life, the theory of reincarnation arose. And if you go deeper into your interiority…you can move so deeply that you will start touching not only your birth, your nine months in the womb, but also the death of the previous form.
It is a tremendous experience to know that you have been here before, because that gives another dimension to your consciousness; if you have been here in the past, you will be here in the future. The past and future both are in balance – the present moment is just the balancing moment. And if you can dig deep into the present moment, you can experience not only your past lives; there is a possibility – if your effort is really total – that you may start having glimpses of your future possibilities.
Gautam Buddha is reported to have said that we never begin our journey – it is eternal. You cannot reach to the point, exploring within yourself, where you started the journey. That bus stop you cannot find. You have always been moving, traveling. So the beginning cannot be found, it is not there. But the end can be found.