The Great Matter

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How awareness of death, and our own mortality, spurs us to greater effort in practice.

AI Summary: 

The talk at the Beginner's Mind Temple centers on awareness of mortality as a catalyst for deepening commitment to spiritual and ethical practice. It draws on various literary and philosophical sources to underscore the transient nature of life and the importance of living with mindfulness and gratitude.

References and notable inclusions:
- Dogen Zenji's teachings on impermanence and the bodhicitta (mind of awakening) from *Gakudo Yojinshu*, emphasizing seeing impermanence as integral to spiritual awakening.
- An anecdote from the *Mahabharata* where a sage reflects on the common denial of one's mortality.
- Quotations on death's ambiguity, including insights from Socrates gathered by Cynthia Kier, highlighting the unknown nature of death and its potential as a blessing rather than merely a harbinger of fear.
- Poetic reflections by Mary Oliver, which explore curiosity about death and the marvels of living.
- Suzuki Roshi's perspective on valuing life’s fleeting nature and embracing the physical and spiritual challenges it presents.
- Utilization of Thich Nhat Hanh's "five remembrances" from Buddhist teachings, which are meant to familiarize oneself with the inevitabilities of aging, illness, and death, thereby fostering a deeper appreciation for life.
- Encouragements from Master Sung San to approach every interaction with generosity and helpfulness, proposing a universal interconnectedness akin to waves in an ocean.

The discourse strongly suggests that embracing the impermanence of life can lead to a more engaged and purposeful existence, urging participants to consider deeply how they wish to utilize their time, energize their practices, and appreciate the interconnectedness of all beings. This theme is encapsulated through the repeated exhortation to live as if "one's head were on fire," a metaphor urging immediate and profound engagement with life’s practices and challenges.

AI Suggested Title: "Living with Impermanence: Awakening through Mortality"


Having it to see and listen to, to remember and accept, I vow to face the truth of the Tathagata's words. Good morning. Welcome everyone to Beginner's Mind Temple. There is a verse that's on the Han, that wooden block that we sound to call us to the Zen-do, that you may have noticed sometime. It's also sometimes chanted just before bedtime in many Zen monasteries. And it goes something like this. It's, great is the matter of birth and death, or actually it starts out, may I respectfully


remind you, great is the matter of birth and death, all is impermanent, quickly passing, be awake each moment, don't waste this life. And there is a normal, you know, the opening of a letter is a salutation. What's the closing, what's the sort of departing phrase called? I can't remember. Anyhow, there is sort of a departing phrase that is very common in Japanese, which is o-dai-ji-ni, which means literally, take care of the great matter. And Dogen Zenji in Gakudo Yojinshu quotes great ancestor Nagarjuna when he says that in this world of birth and death, seeing impermanence is bodhicitta, is the mind of awakening.


And this I think is very true for me. This is what turned me toward practice was, you know, going along one day, my best friend had a really bad headache, went to the doctor the next day, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, went into a coma and died, like that, and I was stunned. So often, you know, we don't think so much about birth and death until someone close to us, particularly a contemporary or even someone younger than us, is suddenly dying, and then we get it that we are also impermanent. In that great Indian classic, the Mahabharata, there is a passage where a great sage is asked, Sir, of all the things you've observed in life, what is the most amazing? And he responds that a man seeing all around him die never thinks that he will die.


And that's certainly the way I was until Pat died, and I was in a really agitated frame of mind, and in all of my agitation and searching around, what I wanted to know was, well, if you know you're going to die, how do you live? This is the important point of knowing that all of us die, and it's not just, oh sure, everybody dies, I'll die someday, it's sort of, we never know, we never know. And so, the important part of that is that it encourages us to really pay attention to how we live, because how we live is the most important thing, and it maybe feels like we've got plenty of time to figure that out later, later, I'll get around to that later, right


now I'm going to do this. But the very encouraging part about noticing that everything changes, and this also changes, in the Gaccha Duryodhinshu, Dogen Zenji says, Ancestor Nagarjuna said, the mind that fully sees into the uncertain world of birth and death is called the thought of enlightenment, Paricitta. Thus, if we maintain this mind, this mind can become the thought of enlightenment. Indeed, when you understand discontinuity, the notion of self does not come into being. Ideas of name and gain do not arise. Fearing the swift passage of the sunlight, practice the way as though saving your head from fire, reflecting on this ephemeral life, make endeavor in the manner of Buddha raising


his foot. So we can take this realization of impermanence, when it comes to us, and turn it into a tremendous support for living the life we want to live, for living as we really want to be, and not putting it off. There's a poem, I've shared it with you before, oh, there's another, there's a quotation from Socrates, I have some nice quotations here that were gathered together by Cynthia Kier for the class that she and John were teaching and invited me to join them. Those of you who are new to Zen Center, one of our long and dear friends has just been


diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and so we're very aware of impermanence right now. And what he very generously did was decide to change his class from a class on Dogon Sanjeev to a class on the Dharma of Death. So he's taking this opportunity in his usual generous way to really have us all pay attention and learn from his impending death some encouragement of how we live our life. And also to take some of the fear out of death, you know, Socrates said, one of his quotes that Cynthia brought is, Socrates said, �To fear death, gentlemen, is nothing other than to think oneself wise when one is not. For it is to think that one knows what one does not know. No person knows whether death may not even turn out to be the greatest of blessings for


a human being, and yet people fear it as if they knew for certain that it is the greatest of evils.� You know, death is the great mystery. We don't know what it is. We don't know what happens. The poet Mary Oliver says, �I want to be full of curiosity. What will it be like, that cottage of darkness?� And I feel the same way too. I hope that when my time comes I can meet it full of curiosity and interest. What is it? You know, there's this, in one of the collections, there's a report of a monk asking a Zen master, �What happens when you die?� And the Zen master says, �I don't know.�


He says, �What do you mean you don't know? Aren't you a Zen master?� �Yeah, but I'm not a dead one.� So, you know, we don't know. Suzuki Roshi said, toward the end of his life, �Things teach best when they're dying.� And I certainly am appreciating it that way with John. I think his teaching is becoming more and more clear and direct, and I think it's really generous of him to actually share with us his experience as it's happening. Suzuki Roshi said, �If when I die, the moment I'm dying, if I suffer, that is all right, you know, that is suffering Buddha, no confusion in it.


Maybe everyone will struggle because of the physical agony or spiritual agony too, but that is all right, that is not a problem. We should be very grateful to have a limited body like mine or like yours. If you had a limitless life, that would be a real problem for you.� So, Mary Oliver says it in a very nice way, she said, �Who made the world? Who made the swan and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper?� This grasshopper I mean, the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down, who


is gazing around her with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I've been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Actually, I like to say, what is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life


that has been given to you? You know, life is a gift. When he was alive, Suzuki Roshi said something like, just to be alive is enough. And I didn't understand that. But then in 1989 I had a heart attack. I'm sorry for you people who've heard this before, but there are a lot of people who haven't, and this is the main thing, this is the main thing I have to teach. So I say it a lot. I left the hospital, not having died, and as I was walking out, I thought, wow, I'm still alive. I could be dead. Wow, the rest of my life is just a gift. And then I thought, my whole life has been a gift. Pity I didn't notice it before. This is the thing I want to teach.


Life is a gift. How will you use it? How will you fully appreciate it? It's not just a gift after you just dodged a bullet, you know. It's a gift from the get-go. So how do you fully appreciate this gift? Sharon, I hope you won't mind me saying something about our conversation the other night. Is that okay? As you can see, Sharon has had a stroke and she's confined to a wheelchair. But she agrees with me. I think my heart attack was one of the greatest things that happened to me because I didn't really appreciate my life until then. And she feels the same way about her stroke. She said, I wouldn't have it not have happened. Even though, I mean, I'm not as impeded as she is by the aftereffects. But also, she found that what she learned about her life has been so important to her


as a result of the stroke that she would not go back and be as she was before. So whatever can help you to truly appreciate the gift of this life and live it with gratitude, gratitude is just a wonderful thing. And it's available to all of us. So what is it you plan to do with this one wild and wonderful life that's been given to you? And how will you keep alive your awareness of the uncertainty of life in a way that doesn't intimidate you, but that keeps encouraging you to practice as if your head were on fire.


To practice because it matters. How you live this life matters. Thich Nhat Hanh is quoting the teachings of the Buddha, the five remembrances. I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.


My actions are the ground on which I stand. Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to comment. The five remembrances help us make friends with our fears of growing old, getting sick, being abandoned and dying. They are also a bell of mindfulness that can help us appreciate deeply the wonders of life that are available here and now. But in the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara teaches that there is no birth and no death. Why would the Buddha tell us that we are of the nature to die if there is no birth and no death? Because in the five remembrances, the Buddha is using the tool of relative truth. He is well aware that in terms of absolute truth, there is no birth and death. When we look at the ocean, we see that each wave has a beginning and an end.


A wave can be compared with other waves and we can call it more or less beautiful, higher or lower, longer lasting or less long lasting. But if we look more deeply, we see that a wave is made of water. It would be sad if the wave did not know that it is water. It would be sad, it would think, someday I will have to die. This period of time is my lifespan and when I arrive at the shore, I will return to non-being. These notions will cause the wave fear and anguish. We have to help it remove the notions of self, person, living being and lifespan. If we want the wave to be free and happy. So this is the Buddha's teaching, to relieve us of the notion of a self, a person, a living being.


And to see that there is no separate substantial thing that we can point to and say, this is me. It is simply the ongoing arising and passing away, moment after moment, of forms, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness. But there is nothing else beside that we can say, this is me, some separate substantial thing. This body, this life, this wave, gives us an opportunity to experience life fully. But just as the wave returns to the ocean, we will return to something, but we don't know why. But if we think the end of this life is the end of life,


the end of this body is the end of life, we simply don't know. Life will continue. When this body is no longer continuing, life will still continue. And our actions, the effects of our actions, is what is connected with this body that will continue. Actions have consequences, actions have results. Actions of body, speech and mind. And so, you know, there are various teachings in Buddhism about actions. Dogen Zenji writes about the four methods of guidance of a bodhisattva. The first is giving.


The second is kind speech. The third is beneficial action. And the fourth is identity action, or cooperation. So this giving, this generosity, comes up in a lot of these kinds of lists that are sort of reminders of how we live our life if we are awake. You know, in the six practices of a bodhisattva, the first one again is generosity or giving. Part of the teaching is that this giving, a monk doesn't give material things because a monk is a mendicant. A monk gives the dharma and a monk gives fearlessness. And when I first read that, I thought,


I'm a monk, I don't know anything about fearlessness. Oh! So I've been studying, I read that about twenty years ago, I've been studying, what is fearlessness? It doesn't seem to be never experiencing fear. I don't think that's what it is. It's somehow not being overwhelmed by fear. Being able to be with fear and see it arise and subside. I think again that John is being a monk. He is showing us how not to be overwhelmed by fear of dying. By being with us, among us, not going off somewhere to hide out, but being right here with us teaching and eating and playing and loving and hugging and whatever. Being John. We had a little ceremony here yesterday morning


to give him a new okesa that we had sewn for him and Ren over here took some wonderful photographs which are on the web. Maybe you could, if you're interested, you can ask her how to look them up. There's some great photographs. So just being here and living his life and sharing it with us and continuing to, I mean, so he was over here yesterday, we had this ceremony and then he came over and he was doshi for evening service and then he went over to the jail to do something over there and then he went to a meeting about a project called Coming Home. Where's John? The Buddhist Peace Fellowship is trying to develop some way of helping people when they get out of prison


to find a way to re-enter life in society and I think the project is called Coming Home. So we went to a meeting about that. So we can see John is still living his life in the middle of his dying and we can learn from that that we can do the same. Actually, that's what we're all doing, you know? We've all got a terminal diagnosis, right? The minute we're born. But what we do between the time we're born and the time we leave, that's the important thing. So that's what I would like to leave you with, is take care of your actions and recognize that when the wave subsides, it's still the ocean.


Talking about how to live, Dogen Zenji says, There is a simple way to become a Buddha. When you refrain from unwholesome actions, are not attached to birth and death, and are compassionate toward all sentient beings, respectful to seniors and kind to juniors, not excluding or desiring anything, with no designing thoughts or worries, you will be called a Buddha. Do not seek for anything else. So what is this practice as though your head were on fire? Well, that's what we think we're doing here. But you know what? Sometimes it feels to me like people have forgotten their head's on fire.


And sometimes people seem to have forgotten that birth and death is the great matter. That what we do each moment makes a difference. So it really concerns me that when I see people follow the schedule here, because they have to. I like to think that people come here because they want to follow a schedule and really practice Zazen every day and study and learn how to live their life so that they can make the most out of this life. So that they can actually give all they have to give while they're here. You know, Master Sung San said, Forget about Zen mind.


You don't know anything about Zen mind. Just meet each person with the thought, How can I help you? Everyone you meet, just meet them. How can I help you? Knowing that you are connected to everyone. Knowing that you are all water, just different waves in the same ocean. Meet each person with an open heart and with generosity. This is how we can make a difference in our world. The world we live in is not made up of actions that other people do.


As much as the world we live in is primarily the result of our attitudes and our actions. And when we live a life of kindness, when we live a life of compassion, when we live a life of generosity, we get to live that life. What could be better? It doesn't depend on what other people say or do. It depends on what we say and do. It's wonderful when people meet us and want to live that life together with us in that way. But whatever someone else does does not impede us in the four methods of guidance of generosity, kind speech, beneficial action and cooperation.


These are guidances for our life that don't depend on other people. They depend on us. So when you truly realize this life is precious, and I don't know how long it will last, you know, as Covincino said, when you realize how rare and precious your life is and how it's completely your responsibility how you live it, how you manifest it, that's such a big responsibility that naturally such a person sits down for a while. It's not an intended action, it's a natural action. So that's what arsazan is, is sitting down for a while and coming to rest here in this body and mind


and generating the heart of generosity, kind speech, beneficial action and identity action. Sitting down and observing what comes up in my mind that hinders me from living the way I want to live. Can I return to my intention again and again and again? Our actions are what are important. Our actions of body, speech and mind are really our only possessions, Thich Nhat Hanh says. So allow your awareness


of impermanence to be the mind of awakening, to be an encouragement to wake up to things as it is. And find out how you want to live this life. Someone once asked Suzuki Roshi, Roshi, what's the most important thing? And he said, to find out what's the most important thing. So how will you find out what's the most important thing for you? I urge you


to not forget gratitude, to really appreciate this life that you have and to use it well.