The Great Matter

James Shaheen

We hear everywhere nowadays that Buddhist practice offers a whole host of benefits: inner peace, happiness, better relationships, better health, relief from physical pain, greater productivity at work—the list goes on. Although many advocates associate these benefits with a secular and scientific understanding of Buddhist practice, the basic approach is entirely in line with how Buddhism has always functioned as a religion. In a 2006 Tricycle interview, Princeton professor Jacqueline Stone, a scholar of Japanese religions, pointed out that the dharma has always been thought to bring practitioners an array of socially desirable results, from health to prosperity to enlightenment. “Praying for worldly benefits—healing, prosperity, the protection of the country—has been common throughout the Buddhist tradition, and it has a strong basis in Buddhist scripture,” she said. “Historically, most Buddhists have simply regarded worldly benefits as existing on a continuum with spiritual benefits, including the ultimate benefit of Buddhahood.” 

So while we think we’re doing something new and different and nonreligious in practicing for worldly as well as spiritual gains, that is exactly how Buddhism has always operated. The obvious difference is that now many consider the mechanism for this to be grounded in science (however preliminary the studies) rather than in traditional cosmology. 

But there is also what in Zen is called the Great Matter of birth and death. Encountering it, coming to terms with it, resolving it—this has always been at the heart of Buddhist practice, whether we are talking about understanding it, going beyond it, getting beneath it, or just living with it. As much as Buddhists differ in how they approach the Great Matter, it remains core to our thinking and practice. If we can say that Buddhism is about any one thing, we can say it is about the intractable reality of death in life. The evening chant at the end of the last sitting in a Zen temple makes this abundantly clear: 

Let me respectfully remind you, 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. 

Two articles in this issue go right to the heart of living and dying, and each writer navigates these stormy seas with wisdom and, perhaps more impressively, with their humanity intact. Katy Butler battles medicine’s obsession with sidestepping death in “A Life Too Long”; Shozan Jack Haubner ("Consider the Seed") reflects on the challenge of the continuous change that defines life. Yet “the Great Matter” in no way diminishes the import of the nuts and bolts of our daily needs and wishes; rather, it contains them—in fact, is made of them. As both Butler and Haubner express so clearly, it is in our day-to-day struggles that the greater issues emerge and are seen. To ignore one or the other is to miss the point.



We are pleased and honored to have received the 2013 Utne Media Award for Best Body/Spirit Coverage. Recognizing Tricycle for its role as “a beacon for Western Buddhists, attracting a variety of other spiritual seekers along the way,” the editors at Utne Reader cited our willingness to “surprise, even challenge, readers.”

The direction of our coverage has never been decided by just a handful of people in closed-door editorial meetings. It involves the contributions of many writers and the interest and input of thousands of readers. In that sense the Utne award is a recognition of all of us, and for that, our editorial team thanks you. Perhaps more than anything else, this award is a widespread acknowledgment in the Buddhist community that challenging our ideas and assumptions responsibly is not a threat but a benefit to us all.

—James Shaheen, Editor and Publisher

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