Living Dharma E-mail: Buddhism and Death
There is a girl whom I am acquainted with and I recently read in the paper that both her parents passed away. She is Buddhist and I was wondering what her religion does to "say goodbye" to the deceased. If you could answer my question I would really appreciate it.
thank you very much - Louise
At Shinshu Buddhist funerals, a letter entitled "White Ashes," is usually read by the presiding minister. This famous letter was written by Rennyo Shonin (famous 15th century Japanese priest). It basically reminds us of the truth of impermanence, which is the one truth that the Buddha himself awakened to 2500 years ago. "White Ashes" refers to the fact that, though we may be in fine health today, and may even be wealthy and without complaints, sooner or later we too will be "white ashes" (i.e., deceased). Every living thing eventually must perish.
Though this truth sounds harsh and depressing, the Buddha taught us that only when we accept impermanence and not fight it, can we then discover the true beauty and wonderful gift that life provides.
Thus, at Buddhist funerals, we are encouraged to be grateful for the time, however brief, that we were able to spend with the deceased. The truth of impermanence also reminds us not only that we should live our own lives to the fullest, but because we all share the same fate, that we should have compassion for each other.
Thanks for a thoughtful question!
From: "jack haugen"
I am a new student to Buddhism ( I just began studying and trying to keep the precepts, although I do not have a Sangha) and something happened yesterday which caused me great distress. Perhaps you may be able to offer some insight. Yesterday, my father and I were doing yard work on rental property we own. As the house has been abandoned for a while, the yard has become quite a mess. As we were cleaning away excess brush, we came upon a field-mice nest. It is something I had never seen before, that nest. In it were six young mice. I would not have hurt them, but my father picked an old log and killed these mice.I did not even try to talk him out of it, and I really feel awful. Before, that wouldn't have phased me, but since learning about Buddhism and realizing its Truth, I have been sick at heart. I have felt like a murderer these past two days. Are there certain good deeds I could perform to offset the bad kharma I have accumulated? Please forgive me for taking your time.
Thank you for your message. I am happy that you have begun your study of Buddhism and are doing the best you can to maintain the precepts. It is extremely important that we try to share our understanding of life, of the interconnectedness of humankind to nature, at every opportunity and try to the best of our abilities to stop unnecessary killings like that that you had to experience.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: "A human being is an animal, a part of nature. But we single ourselves out from the rest of nature. We classify other animals and living beings as nature, acting as if we ourselves are not part of it. Then we pose the question, 'How should we deal with nature?' We should deal with nature the way we should deal with ourselves! We should not harm ourselves; we should not harm nature. Harming nature is harming ourselves, and vice versa. If we knew how to deal with our self and with our fellow human beings, we would know how to deal with nature. Human beings [and nature] are inseparable. Therefore, by not caring properly for any one of these, we harm them all."
This is the lifestyle we are encouraged to maintain. However, the Buddha also realized that if the above is true, then we cannot sustain our lives without taking life. Granted, he may have realized the difference between killing a human being, or even the innocent 6 mice in your experience, to eating a stick of celery, but, ultimately, that we cannot help but kill. Therefore, the precept that we should refrain from killing is an encouragement to try to the best of our abilities to refrain from killing. When we are unable to do so, we are not the subject of punishment for bad karma, only the subject of pity or compassion for unawakened ways of living.
In our particular tradition, there is an epidsode where our teacher asks a student if he would obey his every command. The student replies affirmatively. The teacher then asks, if I were to tell you to go and kill a thousand men, would you obey? The student replies, with deepest respect, I would have to disobey because I am incapable of killing even one person. The teacher says, know that it is not because you are morally good that you cannot kill. It is only that karmic conditions do not incite you to kill. When those karmic conditions change, know that we are capable of any act." The message here is that we should not put ourselves on the top of the ethical ladder and look down upon those who commit evil. The killing of the six young mice is an act of cruelty and it would have been good if that act could have been prevented. But, the so-called bad karma accumulated may be no different than that which comes from unknowingly stepping on six ants during a stroll in the yard. In the former, there is the awareness of the so-called crime, in the latter, no awareness. But from a standpoint of truth, which regards all living things on the same plane and equal in value, the acts are identical.
There is nothing we can do to undo our acts. What has happened has happened. The important aspect of the teaching of karma is that learning (growth) take place. So, in your case, you have already offset the so-called bad karma by realizing your role of inaction in the incident. It is good that you accept blame for what happened, that you feel sadness and remorse. Guilt, though, is not healthy. The next time such an experience presents itself, you will be better prepared to save those lives. The Buddha would be happy.
Know that cruelty in the world exists, and take the responsibility to steer the world in our small, limited way towards creating a better world for the lives we share this universe with both now and in the future.
Rev. Nori Ito
From: "jack haugen"
Dear Rev. Nori Ito,
Thank you for the detailed message. It has taught me greatly. I am honored to have been taught by you, and am in your debt.
From: "Bryan Lowe"
I find your "sect" of buddhism very interesting and your site very well done. I am a little troubled by something though... as I continue my search through Buddhism: I understand impermanence... I understand death... I understand you do not think of reincarnation..I don’t understand how the short span of life than seems so liberating. My wife may have cancer... we find out in a few days... and my 9 year old son has had 13 operations and faces an unclear future. If he were to die young... how would I find comfort in the dharma of the shin faith? What would I tell my 6 year old daughter? Life is suffering and impermanence?
This is a genuine question from one who found much to admire in my readings on your site.
Ed. NoteHere is a similar question:
From: "C. Bonham"
Dear Honorable Sir:
Today I shall attend my neighbor’s funeral. As the holder of another belief, what familiar words of comfort could I offer her husband?
Thank you for visiting our web site. I think that it is very easy to understand the teaching of impermanence, but it is so difficult to truly accept the sufferings of birth, aging, illnesses and death as a part of life.
Rennyo Shonin, who was the 8th Abbot of our sect, once said in a letter, "Recently, people have been dying in great numbers, reportedly from an epidemic. It is not that they die primarily because of the epidemic. It is because of determinate karma that has been settled from the first moment of our birth. We should not be so deeply surprised by this. And yet when people die at this time, everyone thinks it strange. It is really quite reasonable."
No one knows when we are going to get sick or die, whether it will be today or tomorrow. We should always be prepared for the changes of the next moment. Sometimes I ask myself questions like, "Can I accept my death at any time? Am I able to live with many kinds of difficulties? Can I really accept my life as it is?"
The Buddha Dharma teaches us to accept our world as it is and to live as we are. We have to change our view to reflect the Buddha Dharma by gaining insight into our lives. Then we can find peace of mind. I think that knowing the truth and accepting the truth is the only real comfort for us.
We don’t know what will happen in the next moment. So every moment is important for us. The Buddha Dharma teaches us that each and every breath is a precious moment. And each breath in the past and future is different and unique. So even though we have difficulties in our lives, each moment is important because only the person who is experiencing that moment can also experience and taste his or her own life. No one can exchange their own life with another’s. The only thing we can do is to try to live fully and to make our own life spiritually satisfying.
Rev. Ken Kawawata
The Living Dharma Website
West Covina Buddhist Temple
Subject: Re: question
From: "Bryan Lowe"
I very much appreciate the effort taken in your note. I will print it out and read it again tonight. So far I would say the second sentence sums it up for me pretty well. It is a powerful concept that is very difficult to truly apply. Thank you again. As I said before I enjoyed and learned from your website. Thank you.