Ash Wednesday: A Small Zen Meditation

Ash Wednesday: A Small Zen Meditation February 22, 2023

“Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.”

Ash Wednesday: A Small Zen Meditation

James Ishmael Ford

You should realize that although firewood is at a dharma-stage of firewood,  and that this is possessed of before and after, the firewood is at the same time independent, completely cut off from before, completely cut off from after. Ashes are the dharma-stage of ashes, which also has a before and after. Just as firewood does not revert to wood once it has turned to ash, human beings do not return to life after they have died. Buddhists do not speak of life becoming death. They speak of being unborn. Since it is a confirmed Buddhist teaching that death does not become life, Buddhists speak of being undying. Life is a stage of time, and death is a stage of time. It is like winter and spring. Buddhists do not suppose that winter passes into spring or speak of spring passing into summer.

“The Heart of Dogen’s Shobogenzo”
Norman Waddell and Masao Abe, translators

Today is Ash Wednesday.

In the Western Christian tradition it is the launch of the great Lent, a forty day period of reflection. It carries with it purification and preparation, awaiting the major holy day of normative Christianity, Easter.

It involves a ritual of either sprinkling ashes over the head, or more commonly in English speaking countries of marking the forehead with a cross of ash. A phrase adapted from Genesis 3:19 is repeated by the officiant as the ashes are applied, “”Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.” Literally, “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return,” but more commonly rendered today as “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Those of us formed within the ragged remnants of Christendom who walk the Zen way have little argument with the reminder of coming from ash and returning to ash. And most of us also recall the great thirteenth century master Eihei Dogen‘s comment about ashes.

Mysterious reality. Ashes. No doubt. Formed from the dirt of the world. No doubt. Alive. Here. Wonder upon wonder. And. In time, in good or not so good time, ashes. A present with a before and an after.

And. Each thing forever. Or, more correctly, perhaps. Everything a mystery. There are boundaries, no doubt. You are you. I am me. The chair and the street and the ten thousand things. This and this, and this. From one side.

From another, the mystery. Dogen calls us to the unborn. Dogen calls us to the undying.

Thanks to Social media, I’ve come to have a share of friends who I’ve never met in the flesh. One of whom is a Lutheran minister who is more than a little familiar with Zen. The Reverend Fritz Wendt once mentioned his experience guiding clinical pastoral education, training chaplains, and dealing with a student still caught up within the rigidities of doctrine. Doctrines have a place, no doubt. Like most things with boundaries. Lines have a place. Ashes. Not ashes. Ashes.

But, there is a point where they don’t.

As Fritz put it. “It is my experience that real life begins when we are running out of maps, scripts, doctrines, rules, guidelines, dummy books and old wives’ tales. Real life begins when we have to start from scratch, completely present, completely aware, completely vulnerable.” You want to know what you learn when confronting the great questions of life and death? You want to understand this moment between ashes? This moment when ashes are sprinkled or applied, and the words, those interesting words are said.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

A Lutheran minister tells you. The whole deal.

We’re spending more time up in Tujunga, where my mother in law lives. She’s ninety-five, and we’re working on the ways to keep her life independent. (As we engage this I recall Mohandas Gandhi’s quip that it costs his friends a fortune to keep him in poverty.)

Most mornings Jan & I take walks in the neighborhood. A favorite thing about this is the riot of birds. Crows, favorites of ours. Peacocks, such wonderful things. Beautiful, but with the most awful cry. Parrots. Doves. Humming birds. Those little brown birds flitting. As we walked along I knew there are all those terrible, terrible things going on in the world. And I recalled how the world calls to use my hands. My hands. The hands held together in prayer. The hands that apply those ashes. Hands that take on the work. All of the work. The hands that are at this moment placed above the keyboard of my computer.

Lots of before. A ton of after. Each distinct in itself.

And ashes.

And burning through everything like a great fire, a mystery. Unborn. Undying.


This moment. Just in this moment. I feel joy and sadness woven fine.

We’re dying. You. Me. The world is dying. Just this.

And there is so much love. Hands reaching out. Just this.

All of it. All of it. Just this.

And taking it all together, I’m just feeling waves of gratitude…

"When you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to ..."

A World Teacher Dies
"Prof. Webb was a good friend, a fellow dharma teacher. He introduced me to H.H. ..."

Remembering Zen Priest and Scholar Dr ..."
"James, this essay was very helpful. I have been thinking through some of these very ..."

Ritual and Liturgy in Zen
"James, this method reminds me of early stages of absorbtion or jhana. Don't the scriptures ..."

On Breathing and Zen Practice

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!