Alive or Dead: the study of our times

A message from Okumura Roshi

From February 25 to March 16 of this year, I was in Europe. I visited four Zen centers in Italy, Greece, and France. Fortunately, even though the influence of coronavirus was increasing, the practice events at these centers went well. The final place I was to visit was London, but the event had to be cancelled.

On March 16th, I returned to Bloomington, about the time the US government banned entrance to all from Europe except US citizens and permanent residents. After returning to Sanshinji, I have been staying in the temple trying avoid contact with other people except for my family. Because Sanshinji has been closed since the day I returned, it is not difficult to live without coming into contact with people. Fortunately, I have had no health problems. During this quiet time, I am focusing on preparation for future Genzo-e and writing books.

Since April 1, I have been sitting one period of zazen in the morning from Monday to Friday, and I do morning service by myself. In addition to the usual morning service, I chant the Enmeijukku Kannonkyo and dedicate it to the people whose lives were taken, to those who are sick, to the care givers, and to all people, who are all facing this problem together.

For the two-day event in London, I was going to talk about Shobogenzo Shoji (Life-and-death) and Shobogenzo Zenki (Total Function). During this period of the pandemic, Dogen Zenji’s teachings on life-and-death and total function of interdependent origination are very relevant for all of us. I would like to visit London and share the teachings in these fascicles of Shobogenzo when the pandemic is gone.

Uchiyama Roshi once said that, when people in the society do not know what to do because of confusion, the best thing we can offer is sitting immovably, silently, and peacefully with upright posture.

When I sit by myself, I feel a connection with all people.

— • —
Below we are republishing content regarding Shoji, modified from an earlier Dōgen Institute post. Two more extracts from lectures on Shoji and Zenki will follow in subsequent weeks.
— • —

Alive or dead?

Life and death


Dōgen Zenji held the collected Ch’an (Zen) kōans of the Blue Cliff Record in high esteem. Its contents were compiled by Ch’an Master Yuanwu Keqin — Engo in Japanese — who also provided commentary. So it’s no surprise that he might appear in Dōgen Zenji’s own writings.

We find Engo mentioned in Fascicle 42 of Shōbōgenzō titled Zenki. Okumura Roshi translates the title as Total Function.

Engo is also referenced in Fascicle 93, Shōji, or Life and Death.

Okumura Roshi lectured on those two texts in November, 2009 during the five-day Genzo-e Retreat at Sanshinji. In the following audio clip from that gathering, he introduces us to those chapters with a famous kōan from the Blue Cliff Record. It’s Case 55, Alive or Dead. It involves Master Dogo and his student Zengen.

Roshi describes what transpires between master and disciple when they visit a home where there’s been a death. It provokes a burning question for Zengen. Tapping the coffin, he asks his master, “Alive or dead?”

In telling the story, Hojo-san allows us to experience the perspective of both disciple and master. Even more, we can share the insights he brings to these works through his own translation of the texts.

What is alive? What is dead? What is total function?

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.
This is the first of a series of three posts on Zenki and Shoji.
You can find the original version of the content on Shoji here.

— • —

For further study:

    • Life & Death: 9 lectures on Shōbōgenzō Zenki and Shōji — You’ll find the entire digital album here.

> More recordings by Shōhaku Okumura

Copyright 2020 Sanshin Zen Community

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