When a person dies, many people don’t know what to do, having before never thought about it. In this regard, I’d like to clarify our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist traditions.
If a person is terminally ill or otherwise at the end of life, families typically contact their temple’s minister about the person’s condition. If possible, the minister will make a visit, but there is no “last rites” ritual.
Once a person passes away however, the minister performs a simple bedside service called “makurakyo.” Oftentimes, it’s impractical or impossible immediately to do a makurakyo, especially if the person is in a hospital, the hour is late and no family members are present. If so, a short service may take place the first opportunity family members meet.
The family then plans a funeral with the minister’s guidance. Depending on timing, the funeral may be followed by a seven day service. Nowadays, funerals often take place past the seven day period so it may be combined with the funeral.
Afterwards, there is a 49 day service, along with other services held on certain memorial date anniversaries, such as the first year, third year, seventh year, 13th, 17th, 25th, and 33rd year. Of course, it’s entirely up to the family how strictly they want to follow or ignore these traditions.
Instead of a service, I’ve seen instances where families held a “Celebration of Life” banquet in honor of the deceased, including pictures, toasts, and remembrances. I’ve also known cases where nothing was done at the deceased’s last request, leaving family and friends feeling a lack of closure.
Toasting to a recently deceased friend at a dinner is nice but from a Buddhist perspective, our worldview stays the same. We’ll go back to our daily lives without any deeper understanding of life and death. It’s a lost opportunity. Confronting a loved one’s death is perhaps the most painful experience we face. It’s a time when important questions slap us in the face, and it’s a time when answers lay within reach.
To clarify, memorial services aren’t conducted for the deceased’s benefit, to somehow send a person to the Pure Land. Rather, it’s a time to remember and honor a person, and also a way to express our appreciation. But there’s a bigger reason.
In Buddhism, any service is an opportunity to hear the Buddha dharma, or Buddhist teachings. We are asked to self reflect and deepen our understanding of life, encouraged by rituals and chanting, and by the dharma talks. Our everyday thinking is challenged. By shifting our perspective, we hope to gain a new way of seeing the world.
These services also help people feel a sense of connection with a person, help them deal with feelings of loss and loneliness, and help them find a sense of peace.
Many people hold funerals, 49 day services, and even one year services but the number of people holding a memorial afterwards drops drastically. Perhaps they’re busy, they forget or don’t think it’s important, which is unfortunate because I think memorials provide families with a strong spiritual foundation. Often, it’s the only time when family members come to the temple, and done over time, they at least periodically have a chance to listen to the dharma. In this way, they’re encouraged to reflect on their karmic connection to one another and feel a sense of appreciation for their lives.
Done over decades, it’s also a way for children and grandchildren to feel a sense of connection with their parents, grandparents, great grandparents and with the Buddhist teachings.
Many people, especially parents thinking about their children, wonder how they can cultivate a more spiritual life. Our memorial service tradition was handed down to us through countless generations for just that reason. It’s a path open to all, that is, if you choose to follow it.
In our world today, people are suffering from war, terrorism, intolerance, hunger, sickness and oppression. Many of them are fleeing their homes and countries. Likewise, even in our own cities, people face great hardships.
The Buddha once said, “See yourself in others.” As we tell kids in dharma school, “we all are links in the golden chain of life.” We are interconnected and ultimately One. But the Buddha also pointed out it’s hard to see beyond our selfish desires and self-centeredness, blocking our connection to each other.
Guess where I saw this Buddhist teaching nicely explained? In the Christian bible! It’s in the story of the “The Good Samaritan.”
To summarize, a lawyer asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life. Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded by telling this parable: A man walking down from Jerusalem to Jericho was attacked by robbers, who took his possessions and clothes, beat him and left him to die.
A priest came by, saw the injured man, and continued walking. Another man did the same. A Samaritan, from a race hated by the Jews, saw the hurt man, poured oil and wine on his wounds, bandaged him, and took him by donkey to an inn. He gave the innkeeper money to care for the hurt man and said he would return to pay for any additional expenses.
Jesus asked who had been a neighbor. The lawyer answered the man who showed mercy. Jesus told him, “You go and do likewise.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader, commented on the story and tried to think of reasons why the first two men didn’t stop to help. Perhaps they were in a hurry, or restricted from helping because of some religious law, he said.
Dr. King had driven down that same road and saw it was steep and treacherous. During the days of Jesus, it was known as “Bloody Pass.” Perhaps the men were afraid that robbers were still there, or that maybe the man was faking and was himself a robber. He imagined those two men asking themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
Dr. King said the Samaritan came by and reversed the question, “If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
Flipping one’s perspective is a classic Buddhist technique that can teach us much about ourselves. For example, instead of looking outwardly to satisfy our desires, we are encouraged to look inwards at ourselves. Instead of directing our anger outwardly at other people, we are encouraged to see anger’s source within ourselves.
Many people, communities and even nations are confronting the same challenges posed by this parable. At the international level, countries are wondering if they should welcome refugees. Many of them wonder that if they did, “What will happen to us?” They fear terrorism, crime, overcrowding, and job loss. Consequently some of them shut their borders.
Many people in our world today are in need—the homeless, the poor, the sick, the elderly and all those less fortunate than us. We must ask ourselves, “If I don’t help, what will happen to them.”
Please try to think about and help others, not only during the holidays, but always. Namu Amida Butsu.
People these days say they like Buddhism because they think it’s more “lifestyle” or “philosophy,” than “religion.” After all, Buddhism offers insights that are logical, uses psychology and grounded in universal truths.
However Buddhism is a religion like other world religions in a way that may surprise you—it acknowledges a higher power greater than ourselves.
There’s a big distinction: this power is not personified as a god standing in judgment of mankind. It’s a power pervading the universe and part of you and me.
This power is what I believe elevates Buddhist teachings from concepts to dynamic spirituality. In Jodo Shinshu, it’s called “other power,” as opposed to our own “self-power.” Shinran Shonin wrote extensively about self-power and other power. Shinshu teacher Manshi Kiyozawa later called it “power beyond self.”
Self-power refers to our own efforts to live and control life. Most of the time, our lives are based on self-power. We believe our intelligence, how hard we work, the things we do, determine our success, failures and happiness. We build our lives on self-power. Thus we become obsessed with good schools, jobs, wealth, possessions, status and recognition.
Especially in America, we are a nation of achievers, stress hard work and believe in controlling life’s destiny. To the victor go the spoils. Why not? Certainly from this standpoint, life’s winners are the rich and privileged, who feel they deserve to be tops. In this equation, success equals happiness.
However, a closer look reveals major flaws—money doesn’t guarantee happiness, wealth doesn’t protect us from sickness, old age and death, many fail in pursuit of worldly success, inequality prevails and our desires seem endless. By contrast, some people possessing very little seem happiest.
Yet, we expend much of our lives chasing this elusive dream. Shinran called this conundrum living a life of self-power. For him, the fundamental problem is our belief in self-power.
This point I think confuses people because we are taught to believe in ourselves, to work hard and achieve success. Of course making a living requires tremendous effort and we must work at it. But we fret and worry constantly, trying to take control of life, facing setbacks and difficulties, struggling to arrive at a place that always seems beyond reach. According to Shinran, this situation is life’s great predicament.
Our belief in this sense of “self” is so hardened, it’s virtually impossible to break. This path we tread seems the best and only way until the point where it stops. That end-of-road place is a teetering spiritual cliff from where we might fall.
People stand at the cliff’s edge when facing a crisis—job loss, relationship breakup, sickness, a loved one’s death, aging, losing one’s physical abilities or confronting one’s mortality. This is a place where self-power no longer applies. The world where people thought they lived, where nice cars, money, status, and big houses mattered, suddenly shatters and disappears, a great shock causing confusion, paralysis, sadness and depression.
Jodo Shinshu teaches the problem’s root is our erroneous view of life, which is based on this sense of “self” as central and all-important. Consequently we wrongly judge our happiness based on how it affects this “self,” always taking a “selfish” view of life. Buddhism calls this view “ignorance.”
The true nature of life is a universe interconnected through innumerable causes, conditions and effects that ultimately represent great Oneness. It’s a universe in which we see our connection to trees, plants, animals, birds, rivers, forests, oceans, wind, rain, earth, sun, moon and stars. It’s a bond tying us together transcending time and space so we are never alone. Understanding this truth Buddhism calls “wisdom.”
Often we can’t truly see this great universe until our sense of self-power is broken by life’s travails. That’s why I think many people only after wrestling with sickness, after the devastating loss of a loved one, after growing old and frail, become more “religious.” With the Buddha’s guidance, their loss of control over life forces them to see just how the universe works.
Our lives ultimately are not the result of our own efforts. Life comes from a power, greater than ourselves. The Pure Land sutras call this power “Tathagatha,” described as “wondrous,” “mysterious” and “inconceivable.” With this understanding comes a great spiritual awakening in which people deeply appreciate the life they have been given. A great burdened lifts from their shoulders and they no longer struggle. Some describe this feeling as “letting go.”
Fear and worry dissipate. People feel grateful for their lives, whatever their circumstances, and they can live fully. Their joy is not based on material wealth, but arises from inner peace and a deep understanding of life.
After the deaths of his wife and son, suffering from illness himself, Rev. Kiyozawa described his awakening: “The power of Tathagata is limitless. The power of Tathagatha is unsurpassed…. It pervades everything and works freely, without hindrance. By committing myself to the wondrous power of Tathagatha, I have great peace and comfort… I have no fear.”
I once saw an elderly temple member walking slowly through the garden. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I asked how he was doing. “Can’t complain,” he said, then he joked, “I guess the man upstairs is looking out for me.”
I don’t know about “the man upstairs,” but some people like to think that somebody, such as a deity or divine being is watching over them. In Asian cultures, people think ancestors and recently departed loved ones can help the living, especially if they pay proper respects to them.
In our Buddhist tradition, Shinran Shonin warned people against relying on spirits, the supernatural or believing that one’s actions can determine good luck and fortune. Instead he encouraged people to understand the dharma, or great truth as taught by the Buddha. By looking inwardly at ourselves, we can truly understand the mysterious power of Life.
Although we like to think we are independent, can take care of ourselves and are responsible for our own successes and failures, actually we are quite dependent on others. There are many people in life who help us, such as doctors, teachers, spouses, friends and family. For the sake of argument, I’d like to focus on parents or that person who takes care of us when we are born.
Think of it, a parent feeds us, gives us shelter, clothes, love, affection and tries to keep us safe and healthy. As babies we are totally dependent on that person and we don’t even know it. The lives of parent and child are inextricably linked, a primordial bond that exists from the beginning of time. That mother’s parent did the same for her, and as her mother did and so forth, going back countless generations.
A loving mother wants her child to be healthy, safe and happy. Even as the child grows up and becomes “independent,” mother’s wish remains unchanged. She continues to wish the best for her child. If a child is troubled, in need of help, or is suffering, it is hard for a parent to leave this world in peace.
The “wish” that we live full lives comes not only from our parents, but our grandparents, great grandparents and all the others who came before us. That wish has been handed down since the beginning of time. When we deeply reflect on the nature of life, we can feel that wish living inside of us. It’s a gift given to us mysteriously unbounded by time or place.
Yet in our day-to-day lives, we may feel alone in our struggle to survive against the world. That’s because we think we are “independent,” that life is only about myself and no one else. This blindness to the truth the Buddha called “ignorance.”
We may look outside of ourselves for affirmation that our lives are worth living. That’s why it’s tempting to reach out to gods or spirits for help. But if we look inward, we discover an encouragement and strength in the form of a wish that has already been given to us.
When Shinran Shonin was nearing the end of his life at age 90, his disciples despaired over his impending passing. Shinran encouraged them to look beyond the temporary and transient, to see that their lives were already tied together as One.
“Though my life is at its end, to be born in the Land of Eternal Peace,
I shall return to this world, again and again,
Just as the waves of Wakanoura Bay return to the beach.
When you are alone and reciting Nembutsu, know there are two,
When there are two, know there are three,
That the other is Shinran.
Namu Amida Butsu”
On February 15, 2015 we observe our annual “Eitaikyo” (perpetural) memorial service in memory of all loved ones who have passed away. As Shinran reminds us, they are still very much a part of our lives. Let us honor and appreciate them with this special service. Please join us.
Late one night, a man walked along a mountain path when he slipped, tumbling down the side. Frantically reaching out, he suddenly grabbed hold of a tree branch, his legs dangling in the air. So dark was the night he couldn’t see anything around him.
“If I let go of this branch, I will fall into a deep ravine and die,” he thought to himself. He held on for dear life. As time passed, his arms ached and grew tired. Slowly, his grip began to weaken. “I will surely die,” he thought.
Just as he began to lose his grip, the morning sun suddenly peeked over the horizon, shining its light on the man. Looking down below, he saw the ground was a mere six inches beneath his feet. He let go and found himself safely standing.
This parable tells us how suffering, worry, fear and anxiety are often caused by ignorance and attachment to our beliefs. Not seeing clearly leads us astray. We may feel certain and confident in our view of the world, which makes it hard to let go. Sometimes, only when forced will we let go.
I had a cat once that taught me such a lesson. A bump appeared on her back so off to the veterinarian we went. It was a tumor. I hid medicine in kitty treats and food. She grew thin and ate little. I served her favorite foods; tuna, dry food, canned food, pieces of meat. All the little dishes around her water bowl looked like a fancy Japanese kaiseki meal. She refused to eat.
She looked dehydrated. Holding her, I used a toy squirt gun to shoot water in her mouth. She absolutely hated it and pulled away. I suddenly realized her body was shutting down, that she was dying, that there was nothing I could do. It was nature’s way of transition. I had no choice but to let go. A short time later, she died.
A month later, I found myself at my brother’s bedside. He was dying of cancer. He had grown thin and ate little. I encouraged him to eat, a few pieces of meat, fruit, even just jello. I read aloud the hospital’s daily menu, noting his favorites, hoping it would appeal to him. He refused to eat. I insisted, “At least a little juice!”
Then I remembered my cat. I let go. A short time later, he passed away.
We all face challenges in life when we face the challenge of letting go: for instance in relationships, jobs, health, aging and death.
The Buddha constantly reminded people that we live in a world of impermanence, that our lives are interdependent with many things, that we can’t control the universe; rather our lives are the result of the universe’s power. Yet we seek permanence and hold onto beliefs in our power and views. Until we let go.
Shinran Shonin once asked his disciples: “Does dawn break, then the sun appears? Or does the sun appear, then dawn breaks?” He explained it’s important to know the sun appears first.
The sun represents the light of wisdom; darkness represents ignorance, he said. Wisdom’s light begins shining in understanding, dispelling the darkness of ignorance.
Letting go is not a bad thing. When we do, we find ourselves standing on solid ground. Anxieties fade, a quiet calm returns. Life still is both happy and sad. That we know makes us human.