In Dōgen’s “Genjō-Kōan” fascicle of the Shōbōgenzō, he writes:
When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body-and-mind, you intuit dharmas intimately. Unlike things and their reflections in the mirror, and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark.
I would venture to say that part of the value of Dōgen’s writing, like that of many good poems and prose, is that it is open to multiple readings (though that is, of course, not to say that anything goes—it’s possible to misinterpret his writings). What follows is an attempt to say something about what the above lines might mean.
I believe that one day in the next sixty years I will cease to exist. I will die. I don’t believe I’ve got a soul, immortal or otherwise. Perhaps a soul is possible—though the notion doesn’t make sense to me—but we shouldn’t confuse possibility with probability. My ceasing to exist one day causes me a fair amount of unease. It’s rather untoward of life to do such a thing as cease—human life, anyway—my life and those I love, anyway. But whence this unease? Well, I value my experiences and much else besides. Upon bodily death, those experiences (my consciousness and memories) will cease and I will exit the stage of my relationships.
But what if I am wrong to value my continued consciousness so highly? What if there was some other aspect of me that was more valuable and which might continue on in some fashion upon my bodily death? What more could I be though, besides my conscious body, which will expire? I have long given pride of place to my consciousness when thinking about death. No consciousness = no me = sad/terrified/uneasy me prior to death. But since the death of my former wife, Jennie Wrisley, I have been intensely interested in achieving a better understanding of what it is to be a person, to figure out whether I am contained between my hat and boots—whether any one is (though not between MY hat and boots). My anxiousness about death and my drive to understand personhood is why I am teaching a class called “Death and Awe” this fall. I plan to use it as an opportunity to get clearer on these issues.