“One day in the neighborhood of Dogo’s Temple of Chang-chou, death occurred in a certain home and Zen Master Dogo took his disciple Zengen to express their condolences to the family.” During the visit Zengen tapped the coffin and asked, “Is he alive or dead?”
What is Zengen really asking? Obviously he knows that the person in the coffin is dead. So what is his real question? Perhaps it is, What happens after death? or What is death? or What will happen to me after I die? or Is there really death? or If he lies here, dead, what is the Deathless? Perhaps his deep concern—for it is a heartfelt question, as his subsequent actions will prove—grew from, or was intensified by, reciting the Heart Sutra: “None are born or die. Nor are they stained or pure, nor do they wax or wane. There is no withering nor death, nor end of them.” What does that mean, really? We chant those profound words daily, as do Zen practitioners everywhere. Well, what do they mean?