A thousand years ago, a kind of Buddhist last rites in Japan became popular—family members gathered around a dying person, together chanting “Namu Amida Butsu.” These deathbed rituals helped send the person to the Pure Land, they thought.
Maybe it’s time to bring back these rituals.
I’m joking, but calmly contemplating the Pure Land isn’t such a bad idea considering the more common end-of-life scenario—over-reliance on medical technology.
A medical doctor, Atul Gawande, wrote eloquently on the subject in a story “Letting go: What should medicine do when it can’t save your life,” (New Yorker magazine, Aug. 2, 2011): “Spending one’s final days in an intensive care unit because of terminal illness is for most people a kind of failure. You lie on a ventilator, your every organ shutting down, your mind teetering on delirium… The end comes with no chance for you to have said goodbye or “It’s okay” or “I’m sorry” or “I love you.”
Don’t get me wrong: today’s medicine treats what was once incurable, heals many illnesses, re-sets broken bones and offers relief from pain. There is definitely a time and a place for medical treatment and doing all you can to overcome illness. What modern medicine cannot do is provide a cure for death. Understanding that difference is crucial.
Gawande cites a study, which showed that “terminally ill cancer patients who were put on a mechanical ventilator, given electrical defibrillation or chest compressions, or admitted, near death, to intensive care had a substantially worse quality of life in their last week than those who received no such interventions. And, six months after their death, their caregivers were three times as likely to suffer major depression.”
Such findings highlight the problems created by modern medicine, which brings to mind the adage “the cure is sometimes worse than the disease.” In my position as a minister, I regularly make hospital visits, sometimes at this final stage, and have witnessed such suffering, to which there are no easy answers.
Naturally, the end-of-life patient and their families often search desperately for new drugs, treatments and procedures, which according to Gawande, essentially all end in failure. Patients often don’t accept the fact they are dying, which they feel is tantamount to “giving up,” or else, family members insist on radical treatments that inflict even more pain, hoping for a miracle recovery or at least a longer life span down the road.
Almost counter-intuitively, hospice care—forgoing treatment of a disease in favor of just treating immediate symptoms to ensure the best quality of life now—had some surprising results. Hospice care workers also address the topic of death with patients and families, discussing their needs, desires and priorities.
Research found no difference in survival times between hospice and non-hospice patience with certain cancers. In fact, some hospice patients lived longer, anywhere from a few weeks to a few months longer. Gawande wrote, “The lesson seems almost Zen: you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer.”
According to the study, these hospice patients “suffered less, were physically more capable, and were better able, for a longer period, to interact with others. Moreover, six months after the patients died their family members were much less likely to experience major depression. In other words, people who had substantive discussions with their doctor about their end-of-life preferences were far more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation and to spare their family anguish.”
However, even this last peaceful scenario is not guaranteed. The Buddha explained that life flows out of innumerable interdependent causes and conditions beyond our control. Impermanence too is a universal truth, felt most strongly when facing the great change we call “death.”
I think beyond our physical worries lies a greater and more deeply imbedded anxiety. It is a fear we need to confront most, but which we work hardest to avoid. It is the fear of death.
Our Pure Land Buddhist tradition tells the story of a Chinese Buddhist monk T’an-luan, who fell ill and suddenly became afraid of dying. He hurried off to study the secrets of eternal life and longevity with a famous Taoist master. When returning with some scrolls on a path to his village, he encountered the Indian monk Bodhiruci. He asked the teacher about Buddhist practices for eternal life.
Bodhirucci spat, “You fool! If you live 10,000 years, you will die. If you live 1,000 years, you will die. If you live, 100 years, you will die.” The real problem you face is how to live right now, he told the monk. T’an-luan burned the Taoist scrolls.
T’an-luan learned the true meaning of “eternal life.” In understanding this life and the connection to all things and all lives, past and future, he realized that the infinite lies in this moment, for this moment contains the eternity of time. Appreciating your life now is most precious.
Each person’s life is unique, each of our circumstances, karma, is different. There is no one right course to follow. However, if our desires and actions are driven by fear and anxiety, then we assuredly will suffer.
If we can gain a spiritually deep sense of peace, then whatever happens in life we may calmly accept. The Buddha taught that each of us has the potential to gain this peace by awakening to the true meaning of our life. This potential exists as long as we are alive. Consequently, each breath is important, each moment is important. We can fully live this life no matter how long or how short. This is the meaning behind the words: realizing our birth in the Pure Land.
Perhaps you’ve heard of a new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” by Amy Chua, who argues that a Chinese-style of pushing children to excel in school and other activities is best, even at the expense of play dates, sleepovers and sports. Her book caused a firestorm of criticism and debate.
After one of her daughters came in second in a math competition, Chua forced her to do countless math problems nightly until she came out on top. Chua constantly prodded and pushed her children to excel in school and music. She threatened to burn all of a daughter’s stuffed animals unless she played a musical piece perfectly. As a result, the girls won musical competitions and got straight A’s in school.
As you can imagine, many people denounced Chua’s methods, saying for example that they will result in unhappy children who may have skills, but won’t have a true love for what they are doing, nor will they have initiative or creativity of their own. This debate parallels as similar one in Buddhism and which I think holds an important lesson for us.
New York Times columnist David Brooks made an interesting argument in a January 18th piece. He wrote critically that actually, Chua is protecting her children “from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.”
“Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group—these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring or a class at Yale.”
Brooks goes on to say: “Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together. This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences.”
I think there is an underlying equation in these opposing arguments which goes like this: “Superior skills result in a good job, high salary and success in life” versus “A well-rounded person will have a well-rounded, fulfilling life.” To me, these two kinds of reasoning mirror an ages-old debate in Buddhism.
Many people think spiritual enlightenment is the result of leading a monk-like life, filled with rigorous practices such as meditation, severe fasting, scholastic study, denial of earthly comforts and extreme self-control of mind and body. As the thinking goes, practices that foster self-discipline by pushing oneself to human limits will result in a breakthrough of understanding. Only through such practices will a person overcome one’s passions and emotions to achieve true enlightenment.
Shinran Shonin made the exact opposite argument, saying the true Buddhist path does not lie in self-discipline and self-denial, but rather in just living everyday life. As if to underscore the point in Shinran’s master text, Kyogyoshinsho, the chapter titled “Gyo,” normally interpreted as “spiritual practice,” was translated into English as “true living,” by the great scholar D.T. Suzuki.
In other words, we don’t need to climb a mountain to meditate or live as an ascetic in the forest. The point is not to develop these skills or self-disciplines. The point is to understand who we are and what this life is all about. Only then, can we live true, fulfilling and joyous lives. And the best place to come to this understanding is right here, right now, in the midst of our very own lives.
When we are forced by everyday life to relate to the people around us at home, at school, at work and at play, we are forced to confront conflicts with others and within ourselves. We are forced to question our thinking, values and priorities. We are forced to consider the results of our actions. We are forced to confront the challenges of life, disappointment, hardship and frustration. We are forced to confront broken relationships and the death of loved ones. In short, we forced to confront impermanence.
Within the swirl of life’s uncertainties, we naturally question our understanding of who we are and what this life is all about. Guided by the words of the Buddha and Shinran Shonin, our awareness can grow deeper and fuller. This process of self-discovery is the great source of life’s joy, not the pursuit of wealth, status and worldly possessions.
Of course as Ms. Chua points out, it is important to study hard, develop skills, get jobs and earn money, all of which are necessary to live. But those pursuits do not result in true and lasting happiness and should not be ends unto themselves. True joy results from living life fully with a deep sense of understanding and inter-connectedness to everyone and everything around us.
In our society, it’s important to get a return on investment, to make every dollar count, to get something for your money. That’s how we’re taught to think and that’s the capitalist way.
This makes sense and we’d have a tough time if we thought otherwise. But this attitude tends to seep into other aspects of life, giving us a feeling that we are wasting time or expending too much energy on something that doesn’t much affect me or is unnecessary to my personal happiness.
We lose patience with people, sever relationships, abandon responsibilities, and retreat into thoughts of self-righteousness; all for what we believe are good reasons.
The Buddha realized this way of thinking is at its root, self-centered. The world is judged by how it affects me, how it benefits or hurts me. It is a view that is one-sided; it refuses to see value and connection to the world around. This narrow view, which the Buddha called “ignorance,” ultimately causes suffering.
This ignorant view is unable to see how this life is created by innumerable causes and conditions, which flow together beyond any power of my own. “I” live because I was somehow born on this earth, which was created through infinite karmic conditions, fed and nurtured by a world filled by life created by a power beyond my own.
To feel a sense of this truth, try a simple mental exercise which I heard about based on Naikan mental health therapy, which sprung from Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (more information at www.todoinstitute.org). From your birth to age five, think of all the people who helped you live during that time. For starters, there are doctors, nurses, diaper washers, baby food makers, diary farmers, clothing makers, nannies, babysitters, toy makers and teachers. Of course, parents, and probably most importantly, your mother, who changed your diaper an estimated 3,500 to 5,000 times!
We have been receiving all along. All of these causes, conditions and karmic connections have given us life, yet it’s so easy to get lost in the belief that what “I” think is the most important. Great spiritual awakening lies in flipping our perception from this self-centered view, to the view that encompasses all of life as One.
In catching even a glimpse of this truth, our thinking begins to change, our perception starts to turn, and rather than ask, “What’s in it for me,” we start to wonder, “What can I do to help this world? What can I do in appreciation of all the people and things in this world that have given me life?”
At this point, I believe that we truly begin to practice “dana” (pronounced “Donna,” like the girl’s name), the act of charity and giving. We stop asking, “What will I get for my money and efforts?” or “What’s in it for me?” Rather, in our small way, we humbly try to express our appreciation and gratitude through our words, actions and offerings, for the great compassion that has filled our lives all along, This I believe is the meaning of “dana,” the bodhisattva practice of giving.
A friend once complained her teacher was incompetent. The teacher “doesn’t know what he’s talking about and doesn’t make sense,” she said. Consequently, students met after class to discuss the lesson and work out problems.
Actually, the teacher appeared to me quite effective, forcing students to figure things out for themselves. They seemed to be truly learning.
A “bad” teacher can be a “good” teacher in this way. After all, the ultimate goal is the student’s learning, not the teacher’s teaching. In other words, the teaching doesn’t exist for its own sake, rather it exists to help students learn. Buddhism, or the Buddha dharma, is the same way.
Someone once asked me, “If Buddhism is real, where are all the Buddhas? Where can I meet one?” This person missed the point. The goal is not finding a Buddha or a “supreme being” out there somewhere. The goal is awakening to the wonder of our own life here and now—in a sense, to become a Buddha ourselves.
There’s a Zen Buddhist saying: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him!” Don’t be distracted by searching for something outside ourselves. The key to understanding lies within.
To clarify, the teacher/student relationship is an ancient Buddhist tradition. The three treasures give us the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The Dharma is the “teachings” and the Sangha is our “community.” The “teacher” is the historic Buddha, called Shakyamuni or Gautama, who lived in India 2,500 years ago. His words and life serve as the origin of the Buddhist religion. All Buddhists traditionally consider the Buddha as their teacher.
However, the Buddha was a man who came to understand deep, universal truths about life. He taught these truths in order to help people overcome their suffering. “Rely on the Dharma, not on the people who expound it,” he once said. That’s why we don’t “worship” the Buddha or think of him as a being with supernatural powers who will solve our problems.
So then the question remains: How do we come to understand?
Come to the temple and hear Dharma talks, chant and sing gathas. Check out books on Buddhism from our lending library. Listen to guest speakers and attend lectures. Sermons, rituals, and practices help point you towards the Buddha Dharma, but ultimately they’ll fall short of solving your problems. These words and rituals may seem like a “bad” teacher who doesn’t make sense. You may scratch your head and say, “I don’t get it.”
The teacher is only a stick poking us in the back, prodding us forward. We alone must walk the path towards understanding. That means struggling with our problems and suffering, and living our own lives. In confronting life’s challenges and hardships, with the Buddha dharma as our guide, true understanding emerges.
In this way, any experience we have and any person we meet, may become our teacher.
The Avatamsaka (“Flower Adornment”) sutra tells the story of Sudhana, a young man who embarks on a journey seeking spiritual enlightenment. In his travels, he meets various people, each one different. For instance, he meets a hermit living in the forest, a king, a beautiful woman, a child, a sailor, a sage and a doctor. Sudhana learns an important lesson from each one.
The sutra says, “Just as all beings appear in the deep and vast ocean in which countless gems are hidden, all kinds of images appear in the pure body of the Buddha. They are the deep sea of causes and conditions in which the gems of virtue are stored.”
On our temple’s altar stands, not the historic teacher Shakyamuni Buddha, rather a statue of Amida Buddha, with wooden rays behind it, symbolizing infinite wisdom and compassion shining throughout the universe.
We can learn about life from our parents, family members, our children and friends. We can learn about ourselves from people we don’t know or don’t like. We can discover meaning in life from loved ones who are no longer with us.
Where are the Buddhas? They are everywhere.
Looking out my back window at a barren tree, I see hanging a solitary ripe persimmon—a sign of coming winter, cold winds and dark skies.
Another year passed, a new one begins. What have I accomplished, what lies ahead, where am I going? Thoughts swirl in my head.
Time is puzzling, passing so quickly, yet sometimes standing still. I see proof in the mirror each day, feel it in my bones and in the changing seasons. Sometimes I want to seize it, keep it still, to hold a fleeting joy, or the opposite, hope that it flies away quickly, taking with it, sadness and pain.
People usually believe time follows a straight line, with birth at one end and death at the other. Everything in-between is called life, “my life,” and within it lies good times and bad times. So much time spent seeking happiness, wealth, love and pleasure, but somehow come frustration, anger, hardship, illness and death. This world the Buddha called samsara.
A greater, more profound truth lies beyond the world of samsara. The Buddha described this truth in relation to time: Time has no beginning or end. It is infinite and boundless. All is connected, never divided, always One. Thus in Buddhism, time is symbolized, not by a line, but by a circle, without ends, always connected.
Nagarjuna (circa 150-250 C.E.), one of the seven masters of Pure Land Buddhism, likened this truth to fire and wood. Fire burns with wood. Fire cannot burn by itself. Wood contains fire. Fire cannot be separate from wood, and wood cannot be separate from fire.
Nagarjuna then spoke about time: “The Buddha said a limit to the past cannot be seen. This world is without bounds, indeed, there is no beginning and no ending. How could there be a middle portion of that which has no “before” and “after”? It follows that “past” and “future” do not exist.”
This truth seems to explain the persimmon. I wonder, “When was it born?” Before it ripened, it was a blossom on a branch, before that, a sprout, and before that, a seed of a tree. And before that, it was another tree. It will fall or be picked, nourish someone or decompose and nourish the earth. At what point was it “born” and when does it “die.” The answer really is unclear.
The Buddha also observed that all is impermanent, constantly changing, and that nothing stays the same, much like the persimmon on the branch. Of course the seasons change, we grow old and our loved ones pass away. We can’t stop time. This is the truth of impermanence. This thought seems so sad and filled with loneliness.
However, the Buddha also observed the wholeness of life, the interconnectedness of all things, about Oneness, and about the folly of dividing up the world by our misperceptions and ignorance. We do not exist alone in this life, suddenly being “born” and suddenly “dying.” Of course, our loved ones, our family and friends, and we ourselves, change with time, grow old, and pass away. We are impermanent.
We also are One and interconnected with each other, like fire and wood. The past is contained within our lives at this very moment. The future is contained within our lives at this very moment. If we look beyond the physical, beyond the impermanent, beyond the world of samsara, we understand the greater truth about life and death. There is no “past,” there is no “future,” there is no “birth” and there is no “death,” and consequently, no conflict between life and death.
This moment contains all of our loved ones, including those people who have passed away, and those people and children of the future. Being interconnected, they are part of our life in this present moment. This is how our limited “life” lives within the Great Life.
This is Oneness, this is the meaning of “now.” This is the meaning of “eternity.” This is the meaning of sukhavati, the Pure Land, the eternal land of peace and bliss. This is the meaning of Namu Amida Butsu.