When a body is too old or sick, it dies. The remains are burned, or placed in the ground ... the life of that body is over. The mental realm held within its skull is, quite likely, stone-cold-dead and gone too.
Philosophers and theologians have debated whether some consciousness survives, some soul or spirit, but truly we cannot know. Nobody has ever returned to tell the tale (at least, not in any way that can be scientifically confirmed). Anyway, it's not immediately important: Whether there is life-after-death
, whether there is nothing
... whatever will happen will happen (or not). Thus our Zen Practice instructs us to ignore the question, to live and breathe now, leaving such things to take care of themselves.
Best to simply be and live, here and now.
But our Buddhist Teachings also offer this little nugget: The whole question of 'life-after-death' is nonsense. It is nonsense because, in an absolute sense, we never die. We never die because, quite obviously, we were never born.
How is that?
Imagine a single leaf, but one of countless leaves springing from a tree of vast age and size. That little leaf will live for but a season, soon to fall and decay, though the tree goes on and on. When its time has come, that leaf will wither. It is finished.
But, simultaneously, in our Buddhist perspective, that lonely leaf is not merely a separate thing (it is, of course, a separate thing ... just not that alone). Nor is that small leaf but a part
of the tree, though that too. Instead ...
It is just that great tree in a localized expression, at a certain place and time. Not symbolically or figuratively, but actually: It is the tree in an absolute sense, and the tree is all it holds. And to the extent that the tree was, is
and will be
... the leaf was, is
and will be
too ... being precisely that tree which encompasses all its leaves. Thus, as the leaf was, is
and will be
... so a leaf is never born, never dies. (Is not each cell of your body, each of the trillions and trillions of cells, both a "cell" and merely "you"? For "you" are nothing but them -- without them, "you" are not. Thus, while cells may come and go, they do not -- so long as you do not
What is more, as the leaf is but the tree, and as every other leaf that ever was, is or will be
, anyplace in space and time, is but the tree too ... our leaf is all those other leaves, and they are it, as much as our leaf is itself. (Something like: B is A, and C is A, so B is C ... meaning not just that "B equals C", but that "B is C" in the most intimate sense
All human creatures should perceive the "self" as being as much our universe as the single leaf is its mother tree ... as the single leaf --is--
the mother tree by being an expression thereof. (How can this be seen? It is the mind which does the seeing. It is much like viewing a wall made of piled bricks: If the mind sees a wall, there is a wall; If the mind sees but stacked bricks, there are but bricks. The wall is not seen. If the mind sees a wall and bricks, both are at once).
Of course, there is so much we do not understand about the tree, our universe ... What is its true source? To where do its branches stretch? Is there purpose and direction in its growth? Does it grow by wild chance or a gardener's hand? Has it always existed, complete unto itself? Is it part of some larger whole?
We do not know.
But, whatever its source or spread, that tree did bring us forth, gave us birth and growth. It has gotten us this far, allowing our bittersweet lives on this little world. Thus, we should trust it to do as it will (it will anyway) ... that universal tree which we are.
Leaves come and go, Only the tree remains ...
For all that grows there, Only the tree.
'no birth no death' by Nonin Chowaney Roshi, Nebraska Zen Center
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