The bag of skin is impermanent. It’s in a constant state of becoming, a constant state of change. Who you are now and who you were five years ago are not the same—physically, psychologically, spiritually. We’re always changing. Think of yourself at five years of age, at five months of age, at ninety years of age. We don’t look the same, we don’t act the same, we don’t feel the same. We’re constantly changing. So what is the self? What is the person? Who are you? Usually when we’re confronted by the question “Who are you?” we go right to the aggregates—my thoughts, my feelings, my history, my ideas. These are the physical and mental elements Buddhism calls the skandhas: conception, volition, consciousness, material sensation—but is that who we are?
What is the self? What is it that’s born and what is it that dies? Is the thing that’s born and the thing that dies the same or different? Life and death: are they the same or are they different? The question that the eldest woman asks, “The corpse is here, where has the person gone?” is a very profound question. It’s not limited to just living and dying—it’s about the whole universe, past, present, and future.
The three requests of the eldest sister are indeed extraordinary. They go right to the heart of the buddhadharma, right to the heart of this koan. Only someone who has resolved this question of life and death would be able to make such a request, let alone see into it.
Master Dogen said, “The great shravakas do not know the meaning of the Tathagata’s unsurpassed bodhi.” The shravakas are the disciples of the Buddha that focus on personal rather than universal enlightenment, so they’re not bodhisattvas. Only the bodhisattvas, who are not involved in calculations, gain advantage and let go of advantage. Calculations have to do with goals, and when the goals are gone, there may be gain but there’s no awareness of that gain. The gain is just letting go of the goals. So there is no holding on to that gain. There’s no awareness of that gain. There’s no awareness of any kind of advantage or non-advantage. The bodhisattva just responds to circumstances as they arrive.