Getting Back to the Great Matter

Michael McAlister Blog Leave a Comment

Barbara O’Brien offers us an interesting take on how contemporary Buddhism runs the risk of getting watered-down.

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.

Frankly, I couldn’t agree more with the whole “ancillary” argument. If this work isn’t about enlightenment, it’s merely about self-help. Worse yet, deep spiritual work can get sidetracked and go to war with war. Injustice, rather than being seen as a practice opportunity for delivering an “appropriate response”, sourced from an awakened generosity, can get covered by a false cloak of Buddhism thus reestablishing the very boundaries our practice helps us dissolve.

What’s the solution? Redoubling our efforts on awakening in whatever time it is that we have remaining in these bodies of ours. In maintaining a steady practice of stillness, we are afforded opportunities for massive transformation. This transformation allows for us to meet the demands of our contemporary lives with greater depth and, because of this, greater options from which we can choose to respond. Social issues, politics, economics, parenting, relationships all get enhanced as we pay closer and closer attention to the Great Matter. But circumventing this process by, as O’Brien points out, rearranging the furniture only dilutes both mission and purpose of a time-honored and well-tested experiment.

Awaken! Awaken!
Don’t waste this life.

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