MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

The Matter of Life and Death

with 3 comments

When you have attained your self-nature, you can free yourself from life-and-death. How will you free yourself from life-and-death when the light of your eyes is falling to the ground?


When we start to work and reflect on koans, certain koans stand out and resonate with us more than the others. One such koan for me is this koan from the Gateless Gate, which partly reads, “How will you free yourself from life-and-death when the light of your eyes is falling to the ground?”

At first glance, some of you may wonder why such a koan which deals with death is something that is close to my heart.

As some of you know, the Dalai Lama meditates 5 hours every day. And one of the things he meditates on is death. A journalist once asked him why he meditates on such a morbid subject matter. The Dalai Lama replied, “So that I can be prepared when it comes.”

How I wish I was like the Dalai Lama, who was so proactive about something which most of us wouldn’t even like to think about.

In my case, it was not a deliberate decision. I was forced to confront this reality somewhat early in my life.

Shortly after I was married 18 years ago, I was misdiagnosed. The doctor I consulted with gave me 36 medicines to deal with a heart attack that I supposedly had! I was hospitalized for 3-4 months, and nearly lost my life. I came to the hospital walking. But I was discharged from the hospital on a stretcher.

Later on, when I consulted with another doctor, I found out I never had a heart attack! But the damage has been done. My immune system collapsed and never recovered. My asthma, which I had as a child, came back with a vengeance. So much so that I couldn’t go out of the house anymore, because even a small amount of dust or smoke could trigger a bad asthma attack, which could send me to the hospital. 18 years of chronic asthma plus other medical conditions, like diabetes and hypertension, has definitely weakened and debilitated me.

You might say that for the past 18 years I’ve been on self quarantine.

Dogen Zenji spoke about genjokoans. Genjokoans are koans that arise from the personal circumstances of one’s personal life. My chronic illness has become my personal genjokoan. And it has forced me to confront suffering and death. In other words, the reality of my mortality and the impermanence of life, which is something that is at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. But, in my case, it was brought home with such force and clarity.

“How will I free myself from life-and-death when the light of my eyes is falling to the ground?”

A few months ago, I had a bad asthma attack. As I was confined to my bed, a koan from Case 43 of the Blue Cliff Record, entitled “Tozan’s ‘Hot and Cold’,” came to my mind. For me, the koan deals with the inevitable suffering and pain that we are all subject to.

Commenting on this koan, I was struck when Yamada Koun Roshi wrote, “It is in the very midst of suffering that we are liberated from suffering.”

In connection with this, let me share an experience I had when I was hospitalized last year:

When I was rushed to the emergency room, one of the things that the doctor requested was for me to have my x-ray taken. Since I was too weak to walk, I was wheeled in my wheelchair by a medical attendant to the x-ray room.

I had to wait for my turn while sitting in my wheelchair in the common reception area for patients who will have their x-ray or ultrasound taken. With nothing to do, I began to look at the faces of the roomful of patients in the reception area.

All of a sudden there was no separation between I and them. Their fears were my fears. Their anxieties were my anxieties. Their pain was my pain. I was them, and they were I.

I realized that it is only when we are one with our suffering, that we find freedom from suffering. And when we are one with our suffering, we learn to be one with the suffering of others.

To paraphrase Yamada Koun Roshi, “If you haven’t wept with those who suffer, there is no enlightenment.”

With the raging pandemic all around us, sometimes I feel frustrated that there is little that I can do about it. I have to remind myself that by sitting in meditation for those who are affected by the coronavirus and for the safety and protection of family, friends and neighbors I am affecting the world. Because we are one, or to borrow the words of Philip Kapleau Roshi, “The world is one interdependent Whole and each separate one of us is that Whole.”


Written by MattAndJojang

November 6, 2020 at 9:23 am

3 Responses

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  1. First, it’s so nice to find a posting from you — my best to you and Jojang! After reading of your experience in the waiting room, I found myself thinking about Henri Nouwen: particularly his book, The Wounded Healer. If you don’t know it, I suspect you would find it congenial. You can find a selection of quotations from his work here.


    November 6, 2020 at 9:46 am

  2. Hi, Linda,

    It’s also good to hear from you. I love Henri Nouwen! Here’s one of my favorite Henri Nouwen quotes:

    No one escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.

    I’ve read this quote many times. But still it never fails to inspire me each time I read it.

    I hope you’re fine and doing well during this time of pandemic. Keep safe. Stay healthy. God bless you, Linda!


    November 6, 2020 at 10:27 am

  3. It is so inspiring to read this… so beautifully written,indeed! Thank you for sharing


    November 6, 2020 at 2:38 pm

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