Birth, Death and Intimate Self Knowledge

Birth, Death and Intimate Self Knowledge November 6, 2017








At the end of the day in most Zen practice centers, a student rises from zazen, goes to the han (wooden sounding board pictured above, given to the Nebraska Zen Center in 1977 by Harada Roshi), and before a series of roll downs, recites this verse (or some other version):

I beg to urge you everyone,
Life and death is the great matter.
All things pass quickly away.
Awaken, awaken, take heed.
Make use of this precious life.

The great matter of life and death is a focus for our Zen work. This goes against the cultural current of denial of death where we put it in a box in the ground asap.

Further, in our koan Zen way, resolving the great matter of life and death is not a matter of belief in rebirth or a benevolent deity that will take us to a better place. Instead, what we’re invited to believe and then verify for ourselves, is that through intimate self knowledge, the issues of death and what happens after death can be resolved.

In this post and my next post (probably later in the week), I’ll be poking around in this issue of birth and death, first with some details about this verse, “The Evening Message,” and the next post about “Dōushuài’s Three Barriers.” I spoke about both of these this past Sunday at the Nebraska Zen Center – Click here for the audio recording.

One inspiration for addressing this issue now is a recent study about life after clinical death. Here’s a summary from the Independent:

“Death just became even more scary: scientists say people are aware they’re dead because their consciousness continues to work after the body has stopped showing signs of life. That means that, theoretically, someone may even hear their own death being announced by medics. The claim was made by Dr Sam Parnia, director of critical care and resuscitation research at NYU Langone School of Medicine in New York City.” Click here for full article.

Yes, scary! You might hear your time of death – or the sound of the zipper on the body bagged being zipped up. Ready for that? If you answer this question, “no,” that’s good – there’s still time to practice. If “yes,” I’d say “Yeah, right, you better get serious and cut the b.s.”

So, for starters, let’s take a look at the above verse in some detail. The first line, “I beg to urge you everyone,” conveys the spirit of the sinographs but not the letter. “Spoken to the great assembly,” is a more literal, although, a less poetic rendering.

The next line, “Life and death is the great matter” is spot on. Simple and direct. “Life” (生, Japanese “dō” as in Dōshō) could also be translated “birth,” suggesting the continuum of birth- death (死). In English, it’s also customary to add an “and” – birth and death – which makes it seem like it’s two things. The sinographs 生死 are just birth death or perhaps as a compound birthdeath. So the second line could be said like this: “The great matter is birthdeath.”

The third line, “All things pass quickly away,” again, is a nice poetic expression in the spirit of the line which, is more simple and direct: “Impermanence is swift.”

There are a few points to be made about fourth line, “Awaken, awaken, take heed.”  First, there are a couple sinographs that are seldom translated, 各宜, which I’d say like this: “fitting for everyone.”

Second, the two “awakens” have different sinographs with slightly different meanings.  The sense with the first, 醒, is waking up or sobering up from intoxication so “sober up” would be closer. Then, 覚, the second “awaken” has the nuance of awakening from a dream, so “awaken” works fine. Thirdly, the sinograph translated as “take heed” (or “careful”) is actually part of the fifth line so we will leave that for now. So the fourth line could be said like this: “It is fitting for everyone to sober up! Wake up!”

And, finally, the fifth line, “Make use of this precious life,” or the more common “Do not squander your life.” Although I like the positive focus of “Make use of this precious life,” the sinographs are making a negative statement and don’t say “precious” or “life” or “make use” either, so this line is the most interpretive line in this translation of the verse.

The more common, “Do not squander your life,” seems a bit shaming, as in, “Hey, dumb shit, damn, you sure are making a sense of your life.” And that doesn’t seem to be the spirit.

A bare-bones rendering would be more like “Careful! Do not let pass by.”

“Let what pass by?” you might ask. Good question. As is often the case, the subject is suggested but not stated. The line seems to be addressing this opportunity for practice, so “Careful! Do not let [this opportunity] pass by.”

Pulling it all together:

Spoken to the great assembly:
The great matter is birthdeath.
Impermanence is swift!
It is fitting for everyone to sober up! Wake up!
Careful! Do not let [this opportunity] pass by.


IMG_1047Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Osho. Dōshō also teaches with the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, an internet-based Zen community. Dōshō received dharma transmission from Dainin Katagiri Roshi and inka shomei from James Myoun Ford Roshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. He is the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

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