My wife Devon and I are expecting our first baby in November. When I touch her belly I can sometimes feel the kicks and flutters. Someone’s in there!
A Dharma friend, someone I lived with at Tassajara for several years, recently took his own life in San Francisco. I’ve been in various conversations where people remember his humor, his intelligence, his pain. The unbelievably hilarious things he sometimes did or said.
I’m trying today to wrap my mind, my heart, around the enormity of our human situation, around the reality of our births and our deaths, and it’s too much for me, of course. I don’t understand.
When Devon and I are walking in the evenings—this has happened now at least two or three times—and she hears a loud noise, maybe a car engine revving, she flinches and turns towards me so that her belly is in between the two of us. My wife is a tough woman. I don’t ever remember her flinching at sounds. But now she does, without thinking. It’s automatic, like reaching back for a pillow in the night, the natural movement of our bodies and minds to protect each other from harm.
I’ve recently been reading Shohaku Okumura’s Realizing Genjokoan. I bought it when it came out last year, but it’s been buried in my to-read stack until a few weeks ago. In the book, Okumura Roshi clarifies some different usages of the word shoji (生死), birth and death. Bundan-shoji, apparently, “separating life and death,” refers to the birth-and-death of beings in the six realms, to the endless round of transmigration. Henyaku-shoji, “transforming life and death” refers to the bodhisattva’s path, to those who continue to be born and die in order to save beings.
Then there is ichigo-shoji, “life and death as one period,” which refers to the length of time between a birth and a death—to our lifespan as we usually understand it. That’s opposed to setsuna-shoji, “moment by moment life and death,” which points to the perishing and arising of our bodies and minds every moment, over and over.
This morning I’m feeling the way that all of us are in setsuna-shoji, out-of-control skandhas disappearing and appearing again—what a shock—moment after moment. And I feel too the way ichigo-shoji is real, the way a human life is one thing with a beginning at birth the way we normally think of it and at ending at death the way we normally think of it. Someone really will be born this fall if everything goes the way I pray it does; someone really did die at City Center last week. There’s that Allen Ginsberg line, from “Howl”–“the total animal soup of time.” That’s exactly where we find ourselves, it seems, and where our vow and our aspiration and our longing and our pain come from. That’s all we’ve got.
I work in hospice, which means I think about birth-and-death a lot. Day before yesterday riding my bike to work I just kept repeating to myself, “I’m alive.” The wind on my face, my legs pushing into the pedals. I’m alive. When I hear my name, I turn my head. It really, really is more than I can understand.