At Zen retreats with my teacher, Maurine Stuart Roshi, every evening at the end of our meditation, a student would loudly strike the Han, a thick piece of wood hanging by a rope. Hit with a wooden mallet, the Han makes a sharp, piercing sound, accompanied by a reminder:
Great is the matter of birth and death,
Quickly passing, gone, gone
Awake, each one, awake
Don’t waste this life!
This verse is the screensaver on my computer, a photo I took of a calligraphy painted on the beautiful rakusu (garment received when taking Zen precepts) that InsightLA teacher Ava Stanton carefully sewed, stitch by stitch, and wore during her lay teacher entrustment ceremony. It reminds us that along with the spacious timelessness of meditation, there’s an urgency, an immediacy to being present.
During one of our InsightLA Mindfulness and Being with Death and Dying retreats recently, the professional caregivers who work at the bedside of critically ill and dying people divided into threes to talk about their work. A group of nurses said, “We discovered that what is most important in healing is nothing that we say or do, but the quality of our presence.”
We can get so caught in a striving mindfulness practice that we forget what’s most important: to be able open our hearts, to be present with life as it’s appearing and disappearing, blossoming and wilting, moment by moment. We forget that our practice is not just to help us solve our problems, but to enter deeply into the ineffable mystery of life and death.
Our practice is not to clear up the mystery. It is to make the mystery clear. Robert Aitken Roshi, 1917-2010