Living or Dead — a talk by Leland Shields (November 12, 2023)

Posted by on Nov 13, 2023 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Living or Dead — a talk by Leland Shields (November 12, 2023)

Case 55: Daowu’s Condolence

Daowu and Jianyuan went to a house to pay condolences.  Yuan tapped on the coffin and asked, “Living or Dead?”

Daowu said, “Living I won’t say.  Dead I won’t say.”

Jianyuan said, “Why won’t you say?

Daowu said, “Won’t say!  Won’t say!”

During their return trip, Jianyuan said, “Heshang, please tell me right away.  If you don’t, I’ll hit you.”

Daowu said, “You may hit me if you like, but I won’t say.  Jianyuan hit him.

Later after Daowu had died, Jianyuan went to Shishuang and told him this story.  Shuang said, “Living I won’t say.  Dead I won’t say.”

Jianyuan asked, “Why won’t you say?”

Shishuang said, “Won’t say!  Won’t say!”  With these words Jianyuan awakened. . .


(Translated by Yamada Kōun, Robert Aitken, and Nelson Foster with revisions and Pinyin transliteration by Michael Kieran. For use within the Diamond Sangha only.)

This koan is one of many that offer compelling circumstances that demand we jump in with both feet into one view or another view. Jianyuan knocks on a coffin at a memorial and asks, “Living or dead?” Knowing he is knocking on a coffin, either he is deeply confused, or his question is about something else.

In the commentary for this case, we find this:

[Jianyuan] hit the coffin and said, “Alive or dead? [Daowu] said, “I won’t say alive and I won’t say dead. If you can immediately enter at these lines, if at these words you immediately know what they come down to, then this is the key to penetrating beyond life and death.”

(Blue Cliff Record, trans. Cleary, p. 319)

Ordinary language is clear; we put the bodies of the deceased in coffins to honor them. To say dead, is to say the body within the casket was alive at some time that is not now. Beyond ordinary language, to say dead denies the vitality of the memorial, and the memories and stories likely to be offered by loved ones in that very room in which Jianyuan asked the question. Yet, to say alive is to deny the physical fact of no pulse, and of the inevitability of decaying flesh.

By not saying, Daowu leaves room for the physicality of the corpse and the tears and laughter that flow from the stories of grieving friends and family at a memorial. There is no declaration of what was, and what is – and there is no boundary to tears, laughter, and the living memory of a dead loved one. Daowu is telling Jianyuan to feel the hardness of the casket on his knuckles, see the flowers next to him, hear the love and loss in the quiet murmurings of mourners. Can you say this is alive or dead?

This is a koan for our time of discord when it is compelling to give a response that fits on a bumper sticker. Racist or antiracist? On the side of climate mitigation or not? Pro-Israel, or pro-Palestinian? There are distinctions which are important, but if the words themselves were definitive there would be uniformity within each group to which one declares allegiance, and no ambiguity about other perspectives or considerations held by the other side.

Yet, just as we can’t deny alive, and can’t deny dead, we also can’t deny the circumstances of climate, race relations, and acts of war.

I began to write about this on October 21, 2023, with the tragedy unfolding in the middle east after Hamas brutally killed Israeli civilians and took others hostage. And after Israel’s response has led to the deaths of Palestinian civilians.

I’m not an expert on the Middle East, nor social action. I’m not an expert on your practice – only you can be the master of your Zazen on and off the cushion. I just want to share a few words today to invite a discussion about practicing Zen in a burning world.

Last month (10/12) Columbia University closed the campus due to conflict between opposing protestors irate about the brutality of Hamas, and those irate about the brutality of Israel. As I wrote this (10/21), the CEO of one of Europe’s biggest tech conferences resigned after Google, Intel, and Meta withdrew from a conference next month. The CEO had criticized Israel’s response.

(While knocking on the table.) Are you in support of Israel or Hamas? Some believe not saying is abdicating responsibility in a time of life and death for many. Is it true – abdicating responsibility?

A few days before Wednesday evening sitting each week, I send a koan or a reading. We then explore together how the words may inform our own practice. The profound suffering after Hamas’s invasion of Israel, and the Israeli response electrified our discussion the Wednesday after the incursions. Hearing comments from others that night and plumbing my own heart, I recalled a story I heard Jack Kornfield tell one time when he was in Seattle. Out of deep respect for the Wednesday participants and the questions that arose, as best I could I paraphrased Kornfield’s story and offered it to the group the next week. The story was this:

When Jack Kornfield was in Southeast Asia studying, he accompanied his Cambodian teacher, Maha Ghosananda to a refugee camp. There were thousands of Cambodians there who fled the starvation, torture, and brutal mass executions of the Khmer Rouge. Everyone there had lost family members and had homes and temples destroyed. Maha Ghosananda announced he would hold a Buddhist ceremony the next day. Because the Khmer Rouge had threatened death for those who practiced Buddhism, and they had fighters hiding in the camp, it wasn’t clear anyone would risk attending the event.

Jack Kornfield described walking with Maha Ghosananda to the place it was to be held. There were thousands there – looking it up I found one account estimating 20,000 refugees came to participate.

Maha Ghosananda walked through the refugees and up on the dais as Jack wondered what he could possibly say. Maha Ghosananda sat down, put his palms together and began to chant:

Hatred never ceases by hatred
But by love alone is healed.
This is an ancient and eternal law.

The sound of chanting rose as all joined in, weeping.

I was moved when first hearing this story and it still encourages me to find my action in response that isn’t raising the torch of one side or another. It calls me to seek my response that isn’t burning down anything with my own contempt, and to find my expression that includes the complexity and humanity of all involved.

Particularly when suffering is excruciating, our passions for action arise – this is the response of a compassionate heart. It is also a koan – respond how?

In the English version of Maha Ghosananda’s chant, there was a word translated as “love.” I recognize that for the Cambodian culture and language, the word may carry a different connotation, but the meaning I take from “love” in the middle line of the chant is the experience of openness to all, leaving nothing out. With a quiet mind I can listen when my impulse is to disagree. With a quiet mind, I can recognize the humanity of those who I don’t understand and whose actions I may deplore.

The chant in the camp of Cambodian refugees is for me a reminder of how practice can bring us to an open-hearted place from which to start. This place to start is fertile, denying nothing visible, and clear that all is not visible. To meet a clenched fist of hate with an open hand is truly valuable when the expression of understanding of one side evokes the anger of those on the other side, and no response evokes anger from both sides.

To be open requires a relaxation of concepts of self; relaxation of the notion of your side and my side; relaxation of Cambodian’ and ‘Khmer Rouge. Once I’ve fully embraced the innumerable and intense thoughts and feelings, now what is my response? Zen does not dictate what comes next – that’s up to me and you. Zen does guide us in quieting our overlaying concepts and our underlying assumptions, so we recognize the response in accord. The tide always responds in accord while accounting for the pull of both sun and moon. Grass responds in accord with rain, sun, wind, and passing animals. You and I respond in accord when open to all, nothing left out.

An excerpt of the Coincidence of Opposites goes like this:

Exalted and lowly is just a matter of words.

In the very midst of light, there is darkness;

don’t meet another in darkness.

In the very midst of darkness, there is light;

don’t observe another in the light.

Light and darkness complement each other

like stepping forward and stepping back.

Each of the myriad things has its particular virtue

inevitably expressed in its use and station.

Phenomena accord with the fundamental as a lid fits its box;

the fundamental meets phenomena like arrows in mid-air.

Hearing these words, understand the fundamental;

don’t cook up principles from your own ideas.

If you overlook the Way right before your eyes,

how will you know the path beneath your feet?


Shítóu Xīqiān, trans. Wade Giles, “Coincidence of Opposites.”

The author Shítóu lived during a time of great unrest; the An-Lushan Rebellion destroyed the prosperity of the Tang empire. The rebellion led to famine, destruction of infrastructure, poverty, large-scale displacements, and deaths in combat depleting the population.

This is the context for Shítóu writing these words. Looking again at a couple lines:

If you overlook the Way right before your eyes,

how will you know the path beneath your feet?

Shítóu wrote from a world of discord, pain, and physical insecurity, and still points to the Way right before our eyes now – without waiting for clarity or security.

We’ve all heard the satirical old folk story of someone stopping and asking a local for directions and being told, “You can’t get there from here.” We might get such an answer if what the local means is that it will take too long, the route is horrible, or it’s just not worth going. Or we might hear that answer because we asked for directions to the moon, and we can’t get there in a car. Similarly, if I’m saying to myself that I can’t get there from here, whether because I don’t like the route or my destination is unrealistic, then I haven’t found my place to start.

Right here, breathe, sink in, sink down, take it all in, here. Let the impulse of “too hard” and impulse to “reach for fantasy” rest. Here I may find the subtle and persistent drive to do what is hard, whether successful or not . . . Here I may find the subtle acceptance of that which I cannot change. This is a place to start, to find my response, your response that’s in accord.

All of what I’ve said so far addresses our individual ways toward recognizing all of what is here, truly recognizing it for what we know and what we don’t, what we believe and what we see, the ways we hope and ways we despair. This is a fertile place. To be able to be open in this moment also takes recognition of both sorrow and joy. I’ll end with a poem by Jack Gilbert that expresses the need for the latter in the call to risk delight.

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Jack Gilbert, from Refusing Heaven (2005)