The Matter of Life and Death Lies in between Breaths

The Matter of Life and Death

Lies in between Breaths


From ten years of sitting in poise and embracing my nature,

I now have a deep, spacious forest which won’t startle birds.

From a bad storm last night, which hit the pond dotted with pines,

A fish now has a horn, and a crane utters three cries.

– Seon Master Seosan


Even though we may enjoy a healthy life now, the matter of our life and death lies between one breath and the next. When we don’t inhale after an exhalation, or don’t exhale after an inhalation, that is death and the beginning of our afterlife.

Because the matter of life and death depends on each inhalation and exhalation, you should have a thorough understanding that this issue of life and death is not only limited to times when you are sick and cannot eat or talk; it also applies in normal daily life even when you can eat, get dressed and breathe without difficulty. Only when you know this can you call yourself a practitioner who sincerely believes in perfect dharma and who enthusiastically strives in practice.

With certain recognition that life and death lie at the tip of your nose, you should not be complacent even after one breath, and you should never set aside your hwadu (key words of a koan) in your practice. Then you can become a Seon practitioner or a devotee who applies pure, steadfast effort with firm conviction in perfect dharma.

One who is in awe of life, which exists between breaths, won’t mindlessly idle away a minute or even a second. Once you recognize that the matter of life and death lies in between your breaths, you have no time to engage in small talk. Although the summer meditation retreat is now ended (of course there is a retreat for those who want to practice before the winter retreat), you should know that you have an important practice period ahead. You should practice the hwadu, “What is this?” and you should practice it moment by moment, whether you are sitting, standing, walking, eating or getting dressed. You should waste no time and utilize every moment to become a true Seon practitioner and a true believer in dharma.

When you clearly imprint in your heart that life and death dwell between one breath and the next, and not only when you are ill and cannot eat, talk or walk, then you perceive the ruthlessness of life and death. One who has such a clear perception can never idle away their life in meaningless chatter. Today, at the closing of this summer retreat, I give this heartfelt talk to you monks and nuns, and to lay men and women of pure faith, because I am now 90 years old and could die at any moment. Please take my words deep into your heart and persevere in practice with your hwadu at all times, whether you are walking, standing, sitting, lying down, speaking, being silent, moving or being still. In addition, listen to the recorded dharma talks of our Guiding Seon Master with attentive ears whenever you have time. Then you will be able to live eternally even in the cycle of impermanence, and live a life without birth and death, even in the cycle of birth and death.

From grasping a grain of rice in one’s dreams Inexhaustible food on a golden mountain is lost. The impermanence of a passing moment is difficult to fathom. Better look back and examine it fervently. Homage to Amitabha Buddha!


° This article is a condensed transcription of the dharma talk given by Seon Master Songdam at the closing of the three-month summer retreat in 2016.

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