The Great Matter of Life and Death



Life is like getting onto a small boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.”  -Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

This past week I attended two funerals, one for an an uncle, one for a cousin.

This coming week I’ll be attending a birthday party for one of my grandchildren.

My family shrinks as elders depart, grows as children enter the world.

This week was also the autumnal equinox: the end of summer, the beginning of autumn.

The world ceaselessly instructs us in impermanence.  Nothing remains the same because there is no ”thing.” Every ”thing” is always a process in transition to becoming some ”thing” else.

When I was young, my extended family seemed to be a stable, unchanging entity.  It was filled with uncles, aunts, and cousins. Two decades went by with only minimal change.  It felt like I could count on it forever.

Now all the uncles are gone.  Every one.

Now all the aunts are gone except for one.  She is ninety-four and suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease.

And now two of my own generation, my cohort of cousins, are gone too.

But those cousins have had children, and their children have had children.  One branch withers, another blossoms.

My body also gives me daily lessons in impermanence.  It reminds me of it when I take my insulin for my diabetes.  It reminds me of it when I visit my oncologist for my six-month check-up.  It reminds me of it when I wake in the middle of the night to pay obeisance to the prostate gods.   Ceaseless change.

Four years ago my first wife, the mother of my children, passed away after enduring the ravages of cancer.  Two months before she died, our son’s wife gave birth to twins.  One warm, bright April morning my wife and I took a cab from the emergency room at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center where we had spent another traumatic night to go to the neonatal ICU at Beth Israel Hospital for a first look at our beautiful new grandchildren.  Was there ever a day more filled with intense, contradictory emotions?

Now I’m remarried, and my new wife brings me the joys of her children and their wives and children.  My family contracts and expands.

This is what I want you to know.  We had no beginning.  We are part of a ceaseless chain of events that began, this time around, with the Big Bang.  We came from our parents’ DNA, and they from their parents’ DNA. The effects of our actions reverberate throughout time and ripple throughout history.  We are part of the vast tapestry of being.  In the absolute view of things, we have no end.

Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness there is no…. decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping…   (The Heart Sutra)

But from the relative point of view we have an end. The fact of our impermanence, of death-in-life, can sharpen our awareness of the limited time we have available to make use of our precious human lives.

Cambridge Insight Meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg tells the story of meeting Tara Tulku Rinpoche who repeatedly fingered the beads of his mala while reciting a mysterious mantra.  When Larry asked the meaning of the mantra, the lama replied ”I’m going to die. I’m going to die.”  We all need reminders to focus on using our life wisely. When we realize our time is limited we can ask ourselves how we really want to spend it.  What’s really important?  We want our loved ones to know how much we care about them.  We want to improve things around us.  We want to leave something of value to those who come next.

As Dogen Zenji reminds us:








Life and death are of supreme importance.  Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.  Each of us should strive to awaken.  Awaken!  Take Heed! Do not squander your life!

15 Replies to “The Great Matter of Life and Death”

  1. Another version of Dogen:

    Great is the matter of life and death.
    Life slips quickly by.
    Time waits for no one.
    Wake up! Wake up!
    Don’t waste a moment.

    A Roshi or Sensei leading sesshin in some traditions typically recites this at the end of the last sitting every night, in a tone of great urgency. Roshi or Sensei introduces the recitation by hitting the floor three times with a ceremonial staff.

    From dust to dust is an excellent metaphor, but I think more in terms of atoms and particles to atoms and particles.

  2. Beautiful post, Seth. It’s funny, I was going to post something similar to this yesterday or today, only it was mostly a quote. I still might. Must be something about autumn that makes folks feel a little melancholy . . .

    Also, thanks for the review. I am touched by your words.

    By the way, I first saw Metropolis sometime in the 70’s. Liked it. Saw it again a couple of years ago and liked it even more. By this second viewing, I had developed an appreciation for silent films which really enhanced my viewing experience.

  3. Impermanence! Everything is changing and impermanent. What a bummer! 🙂 It is our desire to keep things static that causes so much of our suffering. To get attached to that which we like, and reject that which we don’t like.
    The leaves are falling from the trees again reminding us that life is moving by. “Slip sliding away”, sings Simon. Old age brings with it a kind of depression, feeling our bodies disintegrating daily. Some days are better than others, but the inevitable lies ahead.
    I try to practice the middle way. Somewhere between the reality of living and dying, of loving and hating, of happy and sad. Those polarities never last for long, and we can not make them objects to attain. Like a tightrope walker….grab your pole and begin the walk across the bottomless pit, keeping ones attention on the fact that at any moment it all can be over. Stop now and again to breathe and look about at the mysterious wonders that life is.
    Wonderful post, thank you……

        1. Because I’m not basing my Buddhism on the authority of texts, teachers, or traditions (although it is informed by all these things), but on my own lived experience. Is there such a thing as Enlightenment or rebirth? I don’t know. It’s not part of my lived experience. Is there such a thing as mindfulness, equamity, or compassion? Now we’re talking! I liked the diagram you have on your website of Buddhist tenets marked with cross outs, question marks and exclamation points. My own Buddhist map would look a lot like yours. Only I am more content to be skeptical or agnostic about a lot of things rather than being certain they don’t exist. I know enough about myself to know I am not “sensitive” to a lot of things that other people do experience. I see from your bio, for example, that you have experienced things that others might label paranormal; I have not. Science currently cannot fit these kinds of experiences into its rational framework… so I suspect there is still more to the universe than I have experienced or science knows about. Stay tuned.

  4. Oh dear this is the best post I read today and it’s broaden my outlook a bit more towards life and death and many things in between.
    I wish to translate this post in Hindi for my blog. Kindly allow, please.

  5. A wonderful post. I have experienced the deaths of young and old in hospice. Then I go to the beach, and experience the vibrant life of the young and old playing in the waves. Its one way I know to keep balance, appreciate life, and prevent burnout. Love your blog.

  6. Very poignant and timely Dharma as I am saying goodbye to my mother right now. She is in her final hours in this part of her journey. The article was very encouraging. Thank you,

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