The Oneness of Life and Death

A Review of Shinmon Aoki's Book, "Coffinman"
by Rev. Patti Nakai

When asked to recommend a book for someone just starting to learn about Jodo Shinshu ("Pure-Land True-Essence") Buddhism, I have not been able to come up with many titles besides Taitetsu Unno’s River of Fire, River of Water. Now I am happy to recommend Coffinman by Shinmon Aoki, published in late 2002 by the Buddhist Education Center of the Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim, California. This is a translation of the Japanese best-seller, Nokanfu nikki published in 1993. I believe not only long-time temple members, but also quite a few newcomers and visitors to our temple will find in this book a fascinating journey into how the teachings of Shinran address the issues of death and dying.

The book begins with Aoki starting his new job as a mortician, a career he stumbled into through a want ad which read, "For ceremonies to start a new life: Help wanted." For most of the first half of the book, we are amused and then moved by the anecdotes of his encounters with grieving families and the people involved with preparing corpses for cremation. The stories become very poignant and for them to have their full dramatic effect, I will not reveal any details about them here. (I also suggest you not read the foreword by Taitetsu Unno until you get past page 78.)

Interspersed with the personal experiences are quotes from various Japanese poets and authors, and these bring us into Aoki’s discussion of what it means to face our own death and that of our loved ones. In the second half of the book, he begins talking about Shinran, not as a professional priest or scholar, but as a layperson looking to the Buddhist teachings for answers. In this discussion, he sees that Shinran was able to sharply express what Shakyamuni Buddha taught – that life and death are both embraced and transcended in the Oneness of reality.

Aoki brings up some discoveries and theories from modern scientists that support the idea of the Oneness of life and death. But he laments that in our contemporary world, science – or more specifically, the medical profession - has persuaded us to hang on to life and avoid death by all the technical means possible.

These days we cling to dear life as long as the breath of life remains in us, and make no space for death to enter. Once the Bodhisattva state is beginning to take hold, though, that’s no time for us to be worrying about life support. But "life comes first" is the only thing people recognize, from family and relatives surrounding you who fear death, to the attending medical team sworn by oath to extend life. With everyone cheering life on, there's no time for us to look at death or make peace with ourselves. In almost all cases, the dying person moves on to Buddhahood without finding peace in themselves. But the peaceful faces of the deceased remain as proof of their attainment of Buddhahood.

In the passage above and throughout the book, Aoki sees that all people, no matter how their actions might be judged, die in a state of nirvana, in complete peace. In his work on the bodies of those who just died, he recognizes the expression that everything – all worries, concerns and regrets – have been let go. He quotes poems of people with terminal illnesses and we see their sense of satisfaction expressed as joyful gratitude towards everyone and everything.

Yet what I hear in Aoki’s description of the historical Buddha and in Shinran’s focus on the Larger Sutra of Infinite Life, is that this state of opening up in appreciation to the life around you is very possible for anyone, no matter how far or close death actually is. The Buddhist teachings guide us to become Bodhisattvas, to find the path where our abilities and opportunities take us to the highest fulfillment, which in turn benefits others. This fulfillment could be as a professional or volunteer, as an artist or teacher, as a farmer or factory worker, as someone’s loyal friend or staunch opponent. On such a path, "life support" is no longer a big worry. Food, shelter and clothing, and much lesser concerns such as popularity and wealth, are no longer priorities.

Aoki literally and figuratively sees life and death bathed in the "Inconceivable Light" of Oneness. It may be easy to mistake this "Inconceivable Light" as a mystical power, but for those of us who have been learning from the Larger Sutra of Infinite Life, we have heard from Nobuo Haneda and other teachers (e.g., the essay, "The Face," by Gyoko Saito) that this manifestation of Light is something that can be witnessed in ordinary life. Aoki is right on target to cite Shinran’s emphasis on the ko-gen gi-gi passage ("the face radiant with light"), but he leaves it unclear what Shinran’s personal "encounter with the Light" could have been. Unfortunately, some readers might imagine it was a "five-color cloud" or "burning bush" that Shinran came upon, just as many Buddhists imagine Shakyamuni’s journey to enlightenment was divinely inspired. In the story of the Four Gates, it was the ko-gen gi-gi of the begging monk that Prince Siddhartha saw outside the palace which started him on his spiritual search. Shinran saw the ko-gen gi-gi of his teacher, Honen, and his followers. These examples tell us that this "face radiant with light" which Aoki sees on those just before or after death can also be seen on the ones who found awakening while they were very much alive. If anything, Aoki’s encounters bring home the point that although we may all enjoy nirvana at the moment of our physical death, it would be a shame to wait for that event when we have the wonderful opportunity to seek this state of ko-gen gi-gi in our living years.

Overall, Coffinman is a book that will appeal to a wide range of people, especially those who would not normally read a book on Buddhism. Even for those unfamiliar with Jodo Shinshu and our temple, the book offers provocative glimpses of Japanese literature (from the narcissistic Yukio Mishima to the self-sacrificing poet Kenji Miyazawa) and of traditional customs, some of which are still followed here in the United States for funerals.

The author’s breezy "regular guy" tone easily draws you into his stream of thoughts and feelings. Since I was privy to earlier drafts of the translation by Wayne Yokoyama, I could quibble about some of the changes inserted by the editorial committee at the Orange County Buddhist Church. I found a few places took a jarring departure from Yokoyama’s style, such as when an expression used by today’s teenagers is put into the mouth of the middle-aged Aoki, or when explanatory passages make Aoki sound like a college professor lecturing to his students instead of someone writing in a journal. I was pleased to see that most of the Shinran quotations were kept in Yokoyama’s down-to-earth vocabulary. By avoiding the conventional translation of Buddhist terms, Yokoyama brings out Shinran’s voice as someone conversing with us in his own words, not trying to use scholarly or poetic phrasing.

For all of us, encounters with death and dying will only become more prevalent as we get older. Illnesses and accidents will claim our dear friends. The physical and mental health of our parents, uncles and aunts will become more fragile. The people we associate with being the backbone of our temple will all pass on – we have already lost the earlier ministers and many of the past presidents and volunteer workers. Yet in Buddhism, each death we mourn is a reminder to seek the Bodhisattva path while we have life. In Coffinman, the concrete details of the experiences and poignant feelings of one particular human being serve to encourage us both in our grief and in our seeking.

Ordering info for Coffinman

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