When my wife and I bought our house almost fifteen years ago, there was a giant maple tree standing in our front yard. It towered over our small home, and even though the dappled green sunlight that shone through our morning bedroom window was beautiful to open our eyes to, I was always afraid it would topple over while we slept and crush us to death.
It was an old tree, and starting to fail. Its dead leaves filled our gutters with organic debris that I could never fully clean out. The bark was black in places and some of the top branches never bloomed in spring. Years went by. We couldn’t afford to cut it down, so we just hoped every morning that it would stay vertical for one more day. And night.
A few years ago, the city did some sewer line work on our street and dug up a large chunk of the pavement. After they repaired the lines, filled in the huge hole, and repaved the street, we noticed that our tree was dying at an even faster rate. We called the city, and after doing some surveying, they determined (thankfully) that the tree was on city property and that the sewer work had killed off some of the major roots, thereby hastening the old maple’s demise. Acting quickly, they brought in some arborists to take down the tree.
One day, I went to work in the morning with the tree there. When I came home it was gone. The only traces were some piles of sawdust and a large hole in the ground. The tree was almost one hundred years old, yet in a single afternoon it disappeared.
I think about that tree sometimes, and wonder where it is, its branches and leaves and bark and seeds, ground up and scattered to the wind, or recycled for garden mulch or paper pulp. On one level, the tree is gone. But on a molecular level, the tree still exists, even in its current fragmented form.
It exists, just in different spaces. Part of it might be underground, digesting in an earthworm’s belly. Part might be in parts of a new maple tree, or a rose bush, or some horses’ hay a mile or a thousand miles away. Parts of that tree are in the clouds, the same way we are breathing the same air Buddha breathed three thousand years ago.
I took a walk at lunchtime a few weeks ago and saw a dead squirrel in the road. As I approached, only his immobility told me he was dead. No blood or oozing guts to be seen. His (or her?) eyes were open. Did that squirrel have a soul, I wondered? Is his soul playing in heaven now, with all the other squirrel-souls that have been squashed throughout the ages? If the squirrel doesn’t have a soul, but we do, what is the determining factor in soul-ness? Reason? Language? A deeper level of consciousness?
I’m writing this weeks later, so by now the carcass has been tossed in a landfill by animal control or pecked away at by crows. But does the squirrel still exist, yet in another form, like my tree? What of a cat, or a dog, or a cow? If cows could curl up at our feet on our beds at night, would we still want to eat them? Is the soul of a dog more worthy than the soul of a cow?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I had spaghetti and meatballs for dinner last night. I’m no expert. I’m just asking because sometimes the question alone, or sitting with the question without an answer, keeps your mind exactly in the place it needs to be to fully receive the universe. A place before thinking, before distinctions, before good or bad.
Joshu famously answered “Mu!” when asked by a novice monk if a dog had Buddha-nature. Mu roughly translates to “no” or “no-thing.” Yet the Buddha said all sentient beings had Buddha-nature. Who is right? Who is wrong? Joshu and Buddha can’t both be right. This koan is the gate of Zen.
So. Where is the Buddha-nature of your dog? Of that dead squirrel I found in the road? Of my lost tree, scattered in the compost pile?
Is there something pure and clear that exists beyond life and death? If so, how will you find it?