As I was driving on Route 21 the other day, I noticed a trailer full of firewood for sale. I was reminded of the winter, many years ago, when I burnt twenty face cords of firewood, most of it maple and beech. I also recalled a statement, famous in Zen circles, by the founder of the Soto school of Zen, Eihei Dogen (1200-1250):
Firewood becomes ashes, it does not become wood again. Don’t think that wood is first, ashes after. Your understanding must penetrate that although firewood is firewood, it has a before and after; that having this before, this after, it is free of these. . . . Life is life, death is death and are each in their own place like winter and spring. Winter does not become spring, spring does not become winter.*
On first reading, this statement defies common sense. “Don’t think that wood is first, ashes after”? Sometimes translated as “firewood does not turn into ashes,” this sentence runs counter to our experience, as does Dogen’s later assertion that “winter does not become spring, spring does not become winter.” Obviously, winter does become spring, if rather late in Western New York.
Dogen’s statement becomes more accessible if we remember that the image of firewood turning into ashes is a creation of the mind. It is a concept, a construction of thought. As such, it may help us to understand firewood—and to prepare for the process of burning, which will include the disposal of ashes. But it is still a concept, and though it may be useful, it can also impede our direct experience of firewood, right here and right now.
Direct experience, unmediated by conceptual thought, is the first concern of the Zen practitioner. In her commentary on Dogen’s statement, Toni Packer addresses this aspect of the practice:
Zen Master Dogen once said, “Firewood does not turn into ashes.” When I heard that the first time, I didn’t know what he was talking about because obviously firewood turns into ashes. I mean, we’ve all experienced it. And the next time we had a campfire, I watched and observed, and the time quality fell away. It was just being there and there was no change from fire to ashes; it was just what was. Fire. And then sometimes it collapses, and there are some sparks, and it seems to turn black. But when you’re really there, timelessly, it is not a process of time that is observed but presence: eternal, everlasting, without time.**
Packer goes on to say that once “you’re just here. . . a response will come out of this intelligent or wise presence. One’s response will be intelligent.”
But doesn’t Dogen also acknowledge that firewood has a “before and after”? Indeed he does, and surely an intelligent response to the burning of firewood must include a recognition of its past and its probable future. A stick of firewood was once a tree, and it will soon be ashes. To ignore—or attempt to ignore—those facts is to misconstrue the aim of Zen practice as merely “being present” or “living in the Now.”
What Dogen and Toni Packer are urging is not simply living in the Now but cultivating a dual, or binocular, vision. Contemplating firewood, we are aware that it exists in time; it is turning into ashes even as we watch. But we are also experiencing what Zen calls its “suchness”: its timeless presence, in all its brilliant vivacity. To see in both of these ways at once, to be present for the changing relative world while also being in touch with the timeless ground of being, is a primary aim of the Zen practitioner. And it is also a primary challenge of the practice.
*Eihei Dogen, “Actualizing the Fundamental Point” (Genjo Koan), tr. by Yasuda Joshu Roshi and Anzan HoshinRoshi, Dogen: Zen Writings on the Practice of Realization, forthcoming. See http://www.wwzc.org/node/279.
**Toni Packer, “Firewood Does Not Turn into Ashes,” Springwater Center Newsletter, Summer, 2003, 1-2.
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