May 2016: Birth

Birth and Death are great matters.

So reads the first line of the Evening Gatha, written on the wooden han we strike every time we meet to practice. The striking of the han is a call to remember what’s most important in life.

As well as being great matters to ponder, birth and death also form the fundamental rhythm of our Zen practice.

When we sit still we give up our everyday lives for a little while. Our everyday self dies for a bit. We go back to our “original face before we were born” as the masters say. When we step off the cushion and back into the stream of life, we are then reborn, having reconnected to our original quiet nature.

Growing up in North Carolina I was drawn to the physical drama of full immersion baptism – we Presbyterians only got a sprinkling of water during baptism. I still love the physicality of it, and the symbolism. It’s as if the celebrant goes all the way down to a watery grave, and is resurrected – fresh, new, and purified.

When I started studying with Sasaki Roshi at Mount Baldy in my twenties, I was into getting totally quiet, totally dying. Roshi then gave me the koan: “Jesus Christ died. Three days later he resurrected. How do you resurrect?”

Our Zen practice leads us down to death and back to life. This death and rebirth happens during and after every sitting to one degree or another, but it’s after a retreat that I feel it the most. After those long sittings the world is fresh and I have a new appreciation for it. Colors pop, food tastes better, and I have a love for details I normally miss in my life.

I’m born new not only to the physical world, but also to the world of work, of family. I find I have renewed gratitude for the loved ones in my life, and a wider view toward my problems. Entrenched notions loosen up. Battle lines soften. I can approach difficult situations fresher.

We just finished a retreat this past Sunday. Day by day its strong effects wear off as I get back into my routine. But subtle effects linger, among them a strengthened belief that this kind of death and rebirth practice is a help to my life. Another thing that lasts is the memory of the way I relate to the world when I’m new. That memory reminds me that I, and the situations in my life, are not as fixed and rigid as I often believe.

In Zen practice, resurrection isn’t a one-time occurrence. It’s a continual process of living, dying, and living again in each moment.