Faith traditions invariably have teaching, based on faith/belief, around what happens when somebody dies. Hopefully such teachings bring comfort to those who are grieving as well as strengthened faith in those approaching death themselves. Buddhism has a number of schools or traditions with similar yet different teachings around what happens. Personally I don’t feel a need to know! However I’m able to offer meaningful thoughts to the grieving which tend to focus on living and the departed persons life.
I was out walking just now pondering on this whole subject. It would seem we (in the West) are held in a dynamic tension between verifiable scientific proof as to what happens and real-time imaging/the visionary (including visionary dreams). My experience around death, which I do not take as fact, tends towards the visionary. This all is coming to mind since there seems to have been a lot of death in the family lately.
Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, my teacher, died eighteen years ago on the 6th November 1996 here at Shasta Abbey. She’d had a really bad cold for three days and finally on the third day around 2.00 in the afternoon her system gave out. On that day and generally around that time a number of us noticed how up-beat we seemed, joyful even. We refer to one who has died such as Rev. Master Jiyu as entering Eternal Meditation and in a certain way we all joined her there. How could there not be collective joy and celebration? Yes, and at the same time there was sadness at the person of our Masters’ leaving us.
Around this time of year there are ceremonies held within our religious order remembering Rev. Master Jiyu and Shasta Abbey was no exception. Invariably memories of that time are very personal as is the case around any death of somebody close, or one of our animal companions too for that matter. These are my memories.
Last Sunday morning a Memorial was held for Rev. Jiyu which included a separate ceremony at the site where she is buried, marked by a majestic white stupa with a smooth paved area surrounds the stupa. Everybody present, lay and monastic, went out in procession to the stupa site and sang scriptures as we walked around (circumambulated) the stupa a number of times in honor of the one interred beneath. As we sang together in the crisp sunny morning air I was taken back to the actual burial ceremony, eighteen years ago.
I was one of the two officiating monks for the burial and chose to wear the black novice monk kesa Rev. Master wore when she was a novice in Japan. It was a huge honour to wear her robe and of course being asked to be one of the celebrants. It was freezing cold, I had a well developed cold as did several other monks. I felt like death! A monk stood close by with extra tissues and cough sweets as we stood on the uneven newly dug earth facing the end of the ceremony hall with Mt. Shasta behind. The ceremony went on for perhaps two hours with scriptures being repeated over and over as everybody, quite a crowd, put a spade full of earth on the coffin. I might have been a bit delirious by the end of it all, possibly during the ceremony as well! Was I seeing things?
Returning now to last Sunday. I was standing in much the same place I’d stood at the burial with the tip of Mt. Shasta white with snow peeking out from behind the meditation hall building with blue sky above. Around me I sensed a crowd gathering among the surrounding trees, larger than the one physically present. In the sky there appeared a lively sense of beings riding on large birds, flying freely and joyfully. I didn’t look up. Didn’t feel the need to. Didn’t concern myself as to whether or not I was seeing things, again.
Yep, there is more to death than dying and I guess we will all know what that is when our time comes. Until then let us fully appreciate the lively sense of being physically alive while going about our day, and when in repose too.
This post is for the brother of one of the monks who is getting closer to death by the day. May he find true peace.
Audio Recording: Rev. Master Koten Prior of Lions Gate Buddhist Priory British Columbia, Canada gave a talk after the ceremonies last Sunday. The title of the talk is: To View The Morning Star. The Reverend speaks about Rev. Master Jiyu; giving teaching about training with a master and about training generally. It lasts just over one hour and rich with Dharma and best listened to while sitting quietly. Not for example when out jogging or driving or while doing the dusting or washing the dishes! Just a thought.