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Barbara O'Brien

The Great Matter of Birth and Death

By November 17, 2012

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In Zen monasteries, a flat board is hung near the meditation hall, next to a mallet. This is the "han."  Striking the han with the mallet calls everyone to meditation. Traditionally, these words are inscribed on the han:

Great is the matter of birth and death,
All is impermanent, quickly passing.
Awaken! Awaken!
Don't waste this life.

Zen teachers often speak of enlightenment as resolving "the great matter." Masters of the Zen tradition, from Bodhidharma to the present day, have taught that resolving the great matter of birth and death is the heart of practice. All the rest is ancillary.

Of course, in Zen history, there have been times when institutions became complacent about the great matter. Then great teachers like Hakuin come along and reignite the fire, so to speak. In my personal experience here in the West, all of my teachers have been very clear that practice is about resolving the great matter.

However, at Wild Fox Zen, Dosho Port writes that as Soto Zen takes institutional shape in the West it is losing this focus.

"In my view, practice-enlightenment of the Great Matter of birth and death is the "why?" and is what we in Zen have to offer those interested in such a thing. That the heart of the matter would be relegated to the periphery of priest training after only 50 years in the West is of great concern."

As I've said, in my own Zen matriculation I haven't seen awakening relegated to anywhere except, well, everywhere. But over the past 20 or so years I have noticed something of a cultural shift in books, journals, and online discussions about Buddhism.

For example, last March Vishvapani Blomfield wrote at The Guardian website:

"Many who found Buddhism in the 60s saw nirvana as the ultimate peak experience. A decade later these recovering hippies were painfully finding out that Buddhism is more concerned with reshaping character and behaviour than big, mystical experiences. Younger Buddhists are often more fired by social action than mysticism."

Sadly, I think he is right. But this is just going from one mistake to another one. Enlightenment, the teachers say, is not an "ultimate peak experience."  More than 40 years ago, when the flower children of the counterculture floated into the San Francisco Zen Center hoping to trip out on satori, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi talked them down by saying enlightenment is nothing special.

This was a Zen teacher explaining that enlightenment is not some glorious sparkly thing out there somewhere. Remember, "ordinary mind is the Tao." Yet this "ordinary," this nothing special, is rarely encountered. We sleepwalk through our lives and don't see it.

In a Patheos post I've mentioned recently, Justin Whitaker writes,

"For Buddhism, at least according to Batchelor, Peacock (and myself to some degree), getting back to the 'fundamentals' means getting to a sort of pragmatic psychology which is meant to address universal human ethical concerns."

Oh, please, no. That's not ordinary mind; that's discriminating bullshit mind. Sorry, but that's what it is. It's certainly not resolving the great matter of life and death. It's just a re-arrangement of the same old furniture.

I'm not saying there's necessarily anything wrong with pragmatic psychology and addressing universal human ethical concerns, but limiting Buddhism to that is a bit like buying a top-of-the-line concert grant piano and using it to display your seashell collection. It's like traveling to Paris and spending all your time in your hotel room watching travelogues of Paris. It's like receiving a giftboxed diamond ring and tossing out the ring so you can do something with the box.

Awaken! Awaken! Don't just re-arrange the furniture.

November 18, 2012 at 10:36 am
(1) Lee says:

for those who want a philosophy, psychology or something to believe in that will help them in their daily lives some Zen might be helpful and may encourage a few to delve into ‘real’ training. There seems to be some type of thread through these posts that ‘we need more members’ … i don’t think real training is for the masses. It’s why people come and leave … there is no magic .. only hard work ..(looking at self) And for those who are confronted with the stark reality of death; of the continual transforming of reality and of the great matter; impermanence is manifest everywhere … and we all waste to much time! Fundamentalism to me is ‘soon I will die. May I manifest love compassion and wisdom in my actions today … may I truly bow today?’ training allowes one to come closer to the target of continually manifesting love, compassion and wisdom in actions … No scripture, text or belief system is necessary!

November 21, 2012 at 2:20 pm
(2) Michael McAlister says:

Well said.
Paying attention to the Great Matter allows for everything else to spring spontaneously from its realization. Getting distracted by everything else prior to our attention to the Great Matter limits our potential gifts.

November 23, 2012 at 7:37 am
(3) Jacquelinelion says:

Dear Barbara
I followed your links to Akusala and now I’m a bit confused.

Good and Evil in Buddhism
Bhikkhu P.A. Payutto
writes :
“Examples of akusala conditions are: sexual desire; ”
I imagine common sense is required here on one level of course but how can one make love without desire? Or maybe how can one make love without attachment to desire?

I would be very happy to have your opinion please, or anyone else’s for that matter.

November 23, 2012 at 11:25 am
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

Jacquelinelion — The enjoyment of lovemaking is not a problem. It’s the craving for sensual gratification that’s a problem. Big emphasis on the word “craving.” One can learn to enjoy sensations when they happen without attaching to them. See also “The Hindrance of Desire.”

November 29, 2012 at 10:11 am
(5) Karunasiddhi says:

The Buddha taught that Enlightenment depends on clearly comprehending reality just as it is.
When such a state is attained, all fears, including the fear of death vanishes.
Because of this, it can be said that Enlightenment itself is the solution to the “Great Matter” at the heart of Zen.

October 5, 2013 at 8:42 pm
(6) @guyatree says:

“This was a Zen teacher explaining that enlightenment is not some glorious sparkly thing out there somewhere.”

Not just so.

This core Zen teaching, NOTHING SPECIAL, so often exampled by Suzuki Roshi, illustrates that enlightenment and everything else, certainly *is* gloriously sparkly — even as it (and everything else) certainly is as plain as the nose of that person’s face whom you love.

Thus, half I heard.


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