The great matter of life and death

I laugh now thinking about it….. just before my chest pains started that lead to my heat attack I was making notes for a talk on Uncertainty that I had imagined sharing with students in Italy.

Try as we might we cannot control the uncontrollable. We want safety, we want predictability, we want comfort, we want happy endings….but what we are given is uncertainty. It is what makes this life so frightening and exciting .

I’m reminded that at the entrance to most Zen meditation halls there is a han A large solid wooden block that is struck with a mallet to call students to the Zendo, Written across the block in black sumi ink is the teaching:

Be aware of the Great Matter of Birth and Death
Life passes swiftly,
Wake up, Wake up!
Do not waste this life.

Students and teachers pass the block each morning and we are reminded of this fundamental truth. Gradually over the years, the mallet wears a hole where it hits the thick oak block… and what seemed so solid becomes thin, vulnerable.

The words disappear and the block itself becomes the teaching.

It seems this is what comes of being vulnerable. When we relax the clinging to our treasured beliefs and ideas …soften our resistance to the blows of life…stop trying to manage the uncertainty and hold ourselves more lightly…we gradually become a less solid thing.

Less defended, we are more receptive to our deeper nature. It acts on us….it influences us by illuminating the dark places…by shaking loose the calcification that has so hardened in and around our hearts.

As I feel my vulnerability…I am less wedded to being somebody….less occupied with the full time job of self generation… I can allow myself to feel the exhaustion of propping up my personality…how I become breathless from constantly inflating the balloon of my identity. When this is allowed I am free to know myself as something more real.



Frank Ostaseski is the founder of the Metta Institute and cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project and author of The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully.

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Discovering What Death
Can Teach Us About Living Fully

Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight, helping us to discover what matters most.

Life and death are a package deal. They cannot be pulled apart and we cannot truly live unless we are aware of death. The Five Invitations is an exhilarating meditation on the meaning of life and how maintaining an ever-present consciousness of death can bring us closer to our truest selves.


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