The Original Question

· Teachings · ,

by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei

Zhao Zhou’s “Indestructible Nature”
True Dharma Eye, Case 288

Main Case
Zhao Zhou was once asked by a monastic, “Before the world existed, there was already the original nature. When the world is destroyed, true nature is not destroyed. What is this indestructible nature?”

Zhao Zhou said, “Four great elements and five skandhas.”

The monastic said, “They are destroyed. What is this indestructible nature?”

Zhao Zhou said, “Four great elements and five skandhas.”


Beyond being and nonbeing, the root of creation;
outside of space and time, the gate appears.
Knowing the ineffable—blue mountains fill the eyes.
What question could there be?

Before the world existed, after the world was destroyed, before I was born, after I die—is there anything lasting? Is there an “indestructible nature”? What is it to be alive? Our hearts beat, our breath moves in and out, our senses scan and seize upon things and we call “the world.” From this basic functioning of our bodies and our senses, feelings come and thoughts appear: Today is a good day; yesterday was not so good. It can seem like our experience just unfolds, just happens to us. And while taking our experience at face value is one way to go through life, students of the dharma should look into this matter more deeply. What is actually happening? What is this? Here is the realm of all spiritual inquiry.


The Student In This Koan understands that, according to Buddhist teachings, before the world existed, the original nature of all things was already present. After the world is destroyed, this original nature will persist. But what is it that doesn’t have a beginning and an end? The teachings use beautiful words to speak of this original nature: “buddhanature,” “the great radiance,” “the vast luminosity”—but what are all these words pointing to? Is it the soul? Is it eternity? A place like heaven, that we can take comfort in? The fundamental truth we seek is the original nature the Buddha was enlightened to. It was present before you arrived; it will survive your departure. But what is it? Isn’t this the ancient question—perhaps the original question?

Our earliest ancestors looked up at the night sky and saw the infinity of stars, or stood on the edge of the ocean stretching into the horizon—both awed and perhaps frightened by the magnitude. We each know this experience ourselves—the sense that “I see this vastness and feel myself in relationship to it, but what is it? Who am I?” We encounter death and realize we will die too. Who am I beyond what I can see and feel?


Throughout Our Lives, we learn different ways of examining and inquiring into our experience. Depending on our temperament and conditioning, we might be very reasonable or analytical, or we might rely more on our feelings to guide us. For the most part though, whatever our approach, we are relying on the dualistic mind. In order to study the dharma, we have to learn another way. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. All dharmas are dreams, arising from and consisting of the four elements and the five skandhas. How do we study the self?

Samsara is essentially the dream of me, which we all feel is an extremely interesting dream, the best dream of all. Whether we like ourselves or not, whether we’re pleased with our life or not, we are all fundamentally attached to this dream of me. In Master Dogen’s fascicle Within the Dream, Expressing the Dream, Dogen says our original nature is also a dream. It’s a dream of emptiness, a dream of liberation. Non-duality is simply reality—utterly so—and it cannot be grasped. It is our indestructible nature and it’s like a dream. This is what Zhaouzhou was pointing to.

When we realize non-duality as no separation, everything is possible. If nothing is separate from anything else, then when one thing appears, everything is present. When one person is liberated, everyone is liberated. In his commentary on this koan, Daido Roshi says, Don’t you see? When a single flower blooms, the earth arises. A single speck of dust appears, and the universe is born. But, before that speck of dust arises, before the flower opens, what is it then? If everything that I see and everything I experience is my self arising, what exists before that? When the self ceases all its arising, no one is born and no one can know.


We Are At The Threshold Of spring: brightening skies, warming winds, buds ready to burst forth. It’s the birth of a new season, and in just this way, our entire life is a cycle: cycles of breathing, cycles of karmic behavior and mental patterns, cycles of living and dying—moving through generation after generation.

In other religions, everlasting life is the reward for a “good” life. The Buddha couldn’t find any evidence of the heaven that we imagine in our mind. What he did find was that just by virtue of having a physical body, we will experience some subtle level of attachment, an element of suffering. Nirvana means to cease, to extinguish, to break that endless cycle of attachment, to be free from all shadows of bondage. In the Mahayana, cessation is realized as illusion, illusion is realized as non-dual with reality, and reality is thusness.

In the Mahayana, cessation is realized as illusion, illusion is realized as non-dual with reality, and reality is thusness. 

Our desire for pleasure is strong, but our desire to live is even stronger, the strongest desire of all, in fact. Buddhism teaches that our desire to live gets stronger in the very moments of dying. And it’s in those moments, which are some of the most important moments of our life, that our clinging becomes strongest, too. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the bardo is described as a place that is between life and death, where we must face a great unknown. The possibility for release is most direct here, but if we are not prepared for this liminal realm of not-knowing, we will likely be frightened, and so revert to our habitual, grasping mind. We will rush toward what’s familiar, seeking something to grab on to: another physical form. And according to these teachings, that becomes our next life.


The Zen School Doesn’t actually talk a lot about rebirth, although it is a basic teaching of Buddhism, spoken of directly by the Buddha himself. It’s not that Zen refutes rebirth, but it doesn’t take it up the way other schools do. I’ve always wondered about that. So I sent a query to some of the Buddhist scholars who have been friends of the Monastery for many years and asked them why there was so little mention of rebirth within Zen. They each wrote back and offered their various perspectives.

From their responses, I gathered that part of the issue is actually our Western scholarship. There may well be material on rebirth within Zen, but it hasn’t yet been translated. Another point that was made is that rebirth was taken seriously at both the popular and the elite level of Chinese Buddhism, but it was also in competition with indigenous Chinese notions of the afterlife. Perhaps the Ch’an masters were appealing to the Chinese literati that took rebirth with a grain of salt, and so it was de-emphasized within their teachings. Another scholar offered that maybe we’re looking in the wrong places—he said that if we looked to priestly literature about death ceremonies and rituals we would likely find teachings on rebirth there.

Photo by Daniel Novak

Photo by Daniel Novak

One person reminded me of the story of Maezumi Roshi having lunch with Steven Rockefeller, who was writing a book about religious thought. When Rockefeller said, “Don’t you think that given our scientific understanding of things, we shouldn’t take what the Buddha said about rebirth literally, but understand it as mythology?” Maezumi Roshi pounded his fist on the table and said, “Rebirth is a fact!” He hit the table so hard, the dishes jumped—and that was the end of the conversation.

But then this scholar added that there were many times when students would ask Maezumi Roshi that very same question, and he would say, “Don’t worry about it. Just pay attention to what’s right in front of you.”

So how should we understand this? Is the Buddhist notion of rebirth just mythology? Or is it a religious, spiritual, or natural fact? Or should we just attend to the here and now and forget about it?


Here In The West, We are apt to approach spiritual traditions with a consumer attitude, picking and choosing according to what we find palatable: “I like this. I don’t really care for that.” There is a real danger in this because Buddhism is not a series of discrete beliefs: the principal teachings make up a whole, integrated body of wisdom in which each particular aspect is inter- connected. Certainly from the Buddhist perspective, rebirth is central to the under- standing of samsara and liberation, as well as to causation, aspiration, motivation and the Bodhisattva vow. The concept of rebirth is so fundamental that it permeates the entire tradition. And yet, there are teachers who say it’s not necessary to believe in rebirth. You can practice, be sincere, realize yourself and liberate yourself and others without it. As a Buddhist practitioner, where do you find yourself in this?

Personally, I take this up as an open inquiry to study and reflect upon. I see no need to disregard rebirth simply because I may not fully understand it or haven’t experienced its truth. At the same time, I don’t think it’s necessary that we try to make ourselves believe in something that we don’t yet understand. In a sense, this is not so different from how we approach all of practice: we don’t yet know for ourselves if what the dharma teaches is true. We enter into it as an open inquiry, to discover, to find out. In other words, we have deep faith in this dharma and, through dedicated practice, verify the teachings for ourselves.

There have been many moments in my own practice over the years when I have been unable to explain things I’ve experienced within myself and my practice, and which the notion of rebirth would explain quite well. Does that mean that I believe in it? I just take it all in. We don’t need to turn anything into a fixed thing, but we don’t need to disregard it either. When we can practice this way, everything is possible. Nothing is excluded. Nothing is fixed.


The Buddha Has No Fixed form. This means there is no dogma, no rigid understanding of the Buddha or the Buddha-view. Buddhist teachings are not ambiguous, but they’re not dogmatic either. In other words, the dharma is not presented as truths to believe. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that everything is relative or that there is no truth. Not-knowing is not uncertainty, con- fusion or ambivalence. Our practice is simply one great, spacious inquiry made with our feet on the ground and our eyes open to what’s before us.

Daido Roshi speaks of this: Beyond being and non-being is the root of creation. Outside of space and time the gate appears. This spacious inquiry is allowing us to experience life directly, beyond being and non-being. We use the four great elements of earth, air, fire, and water and the five skandhas to go beyond these elements and skandhas. Here and now, in this very moment, the skandhas and elements are empty of form and are nameless. Neither the elements nor the skandhas abide in time and space, even as we sit here in time and space. Nothing is continuous. One moment is all of eternity without beginning or end, and yet, moment after moment, we’re here, on our cushion, breathing our breath. We experience a sense of continuity, of unfolding causation, of how what we practice today affects tomorrow. The seeds I planted yesterday are sown today.


One Of The Most Compelling arguments for rebirth I have encountered was from an old master who said that every moment was a totality, encompassing heaven and earth, spanning all of time. The moment doesn’t arrive with a beginning. It doesn’t depart with an end. Every moment is all-inclusive, and this is so moment after moment. In each moment: birth and death. We might ask, if we are living in the midst of rebirth every moment, why do we doubt that it’s possible from one life to another?

We might ask, if we are living in the midst of rebirth every moment, why do we doubt that it’s possible from one life to another? 

Even though we can speak about rebirth in this way and perhaps understand it to some degree, we can’t actually experience it through words. We have to move closer. In his teachings, Dogen says that realization is birth and birth is realization. At the time of realization there’s nothing but birth totally actualized. At the moment of death there is nothing but death, totally actualized. This is true whether we directly experience it or not. Every school of Buddhism under- stands this. Birth and death do not oppose each other. Birth right now is totally birth. Death doesn’t take life away. We may be running from death in our mind, in the same way that we may experience a sense of separation or alienation from our lives, but we can’t actually run from death or be separate from our lives. And yet it’s the power of that sense of separation, of alienation and disconnection, which turns the wheel of samsara. This is the power that leads nations to war—essentially the same impulse that had us fighting with sticks on the playground.


Thus The Buddha Realized all of life and spiritual practice comes back to that essential question of how we understand who we are. As Daido Roshi asks, “Where do you find yourself?” From within our frame of reference, we can justify the most wanton behavior. But through all the conflict and struggle, we are always an undivided self, with a luminous indestructible nature, housed in five skandhas, moving through four elements—we are perfect, and complete, not opposed, not in conflict. We are not too much and not too little. When we turn towards this aspect of reality, something happens. Even if it’s still mostly an idea and our behavior hasn’t changed, the way we experience things begins to soften. That’s because the sense of the absoluteness and solidity of the way we have been experiencing things is loosening a little bit; the sense of distance and separation is not as great. These shifts may be imperceptible to us in the beginning, but over time they begin to reshape our very lives.

Photo by Michael Supinski

Photo by Michael Supinski


Daido Roshi’s Commentary Says, When a single flower blooms, the earth arises. When a speck of dust appears, the universe is born. This can be a description of the appearance of suffering. It can also just be a declaration of the exquisite, intricate nature of things— the way life occurs and unfolds in all its breathtaking beauty.

Please examine this deeply, and then examine it a bit more. Who lives? Who dies? The greatest force in human experience is desire, and our desire for life can lead us to cling to life no matter what. Or we can nurture the desire to be free of that very clinging.

Beyond being and non-being, the root of creation;
Outside of space and time, the gate appears.
Knowing the ineffable— blue mountains fill the eyes.
What question could there be?

Let your sincere inquiry bring you to this vast gate, beyond all being, non-being and knowing. Here, the blue mountains fill the eyes. What question could there be? This is the endless spring.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei is the Head of the Mountains and Rivers Order and the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and Zen Center of New York City: Fire Lotus Temple.

The True Dharma Eye is a modern English translation of Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koan Shobogenzo, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and John Daido Loori Roshi, with Daido Loori’s commentary, capping verse and footnotes.

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