Vol. XUX, No.6
You have stolen the end of my life,
My passing, my funeral finished
The joy afterwards, Namoamidabutsu
Death has not yet come...
No wonder –
It has already passed;
The end of life is over,
- Asahara, Saichi
The Buddha Shakyamuni is said to have considered questions of the afterlife, reincarnation, and the like as questions leading nowhere and refused to comment upon such questions. He considererd the universal human desire for immorality a product of the ego more than anything else. The issue of death however remains, and the Buddhist view of it differs considerably from western religions and from Hinduism as well.
In my 35 years here at Senshin Temple, I have been privileged to witness the passing of nearly all of the Issel generation. I say privileged because I feel lucky to have been able to talk, work, observe, and learn from a remarkable group of people who were born and raised into their youth in a society profoundly influenced by Buddhism in Japan. The most remarkable part to me has been the general Issei view of death and dying.
When the Issei were the active core of this temple, the most important observances were those associated with death; funerals, private family memorial services called Hoji, Eitaikyo, Hoonko, Kangi-e Obon, the Fujinkal memorial service, etc. Of secondary importance were birthday observances, weddings, etc. When you asked an Issei why this emphasis on death, the most often would answer, "What other real problem is there after birth?" Thus the Nisei and Sansei grew up observing and celebrating death days, while also emphasizing, Hanamatsuri, Gotanye, and. other celebrations of birth and life rather than death. From a very young age, Buddhist are exposed to death - from private memorial services, attending funerals, and representing temple organizations at funerals. Funerals arrangements, the socializing that takes place immediately after the funeral, the gathering for otoki after funerals, etc. bring us to the fact of death in various atmospheres of sadness, loss, warm memories, and even joyfulness. The net result of this is that Buddhists, from a very young age, are in the unconcealed presence of death and unconsciously nurture the attitude that however sorrowful death of a loved one can be, it is never unacceptable. This holds us in good stead as we look at and contemplate our own death.
In visiting many Issei on their deathbed in hospitals or at home, there has been a remarkable calmness and acceptance of their own death, having normal conversations on everyday affairs with me even as they are dying. It is hard to describe, but such conversations are interspersed with statements or attitudes like the ones so clearly and profoundly expressed in the two poems by Asahara, Saichi above. It is fascinating to me that while God-centered religions are so clear about the afterlife, talk of dying and going there are filled with anxiety and generally avoided. Birth in the Pure Land on the other hand is so vague and unclear, and yet we exhibit great interest in trying to understand what that means, what we go through when someone near to us dies, and almost constant talk of funerals, preparing for death, the skin of mortician makeup, where to go to eat after a funeral or Hoji, etc, etc.
In other words, in encountering change, the death of one thing and the birth of another, including the "great change men call death" we encounter true life. The fear and anxieties about my funeral being finished, there is only the joy of life, says Saichi. Obon is called Kangi-e in Jodoshinshu - the Gathering of Joy. In remembering the dead we hope to savor (hear) the fact that the "the end of life is over - Namoamidabutsu". Hoi, Hoi!! r
Gassho, Rev. Mas