At the Zen Center this morning, we eulogized and reminisced about the late John Daido Loori and his impact on our practice. While we are sad to seem him leave this world, in Zen we practice acceptance of death. The coin called "Life" has two sides - birth and death. By implication then, birth, not life, is the opposite of death, and this cycle of birth-and-death (samsara) makes up what we know as "Life." Since everything (and everybody) is ultimately impermanent, if we weren't willing to eventually die, we could not have been born into this life.
Zen Master Dogen pointed out that, just like food and clothing, we are all born with a certain allotment of life and that there is no point worrying about when that allotment runs out as there's nothing we can do to change it. In Shobogenzo Zuimonki (Book 2, Chapter 6), Dogen says "We have the fortune given to us by Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha); we also have the food and clothing offered by the deities. Moreover, we have the natural share of life we were allotted when we were born. Without chasing after it or worrying over it, we are sure to receive as much as we need."
Even old Epictetus (AD 55–AD 135) knew there was no point in running around worrying about material things. Since we are all endowed with the spark of Zeus, we already possess that which is most important and that which can never be taken away.
Dogen would have agreed, although what Epictetus called "the spark of Zeus" was referred to by Dogen as our buddha-nature. "In this world, inherently each person receives a certain amount of food and clothing as a gift. It does not come by being sought after nor does it stop coming by not seeking after it. Just leave it to fate and do not worry about it" (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 1, Chapter 16). He encouraged his followers to not cling to the body, that old vessel of clay containing a quart of blood, and to not run around seeking after material things. They should not even store for the future that which they had received. He reminded them that the Buddha said not to keep anything except robes and a bowl, and to give away any extra food they had received through begging to hungry living beings.
During his lifetime, Dogen was told, "You don’t understand this age and do not reflect upon our capability. Our nature is inferior and this is the degenerate age. If we practice in such a way, it will become a cause of backsliding from the Way. We should seek the support of some patron, take care of our body by living in a quiet place without worrying about food or clothing, and practice the Buddha Way peacefully. This is not greed for property or belongings. We should practice only after having provided for our temporal means of livelihood."
Dogen replied that those who truly study the Way have never practiced in that manner. "Even if we might die of cold or starvation," he said, "we should follow the Buddha’s teaching if only for one day or one hour. In thousands of lives, how many times are we born and how many times do we die? This cycle of lives is samsara, caused only by blind clinging to worldly affairs. To die of starvation following the Buddha’s teachings for this one life brings about eternal peace and joy (nirvana). Moreover, I have never so much as read of a single buddha or patriarch dying of starvation or cold. If you refrain from arousing bodhi-mind in this life, excusing yourself on the grounds that this is the degenerate age, in what life will it be possible to attain the Way?"
"Moreover," he continued, "the Buddha offered twenty years of his life to us living in this degenerate age. Consequently, the offerings and support by human and heavenly beings to the monasteries in this world have not ceased. Though the Tathagata had mighty powers and virtues and was able to use them at will, he spent a summer practice period eating wheat used for horse fodder. How can his disciples today help but look up to this example?"