When I was a Dharma School teacher in the late 1970s, one Sunday Rev. Gyoko Saito for his talk to the children in service spoke about a very young boy who committed suicide in Japan. It may have been a sensational story in Japan at that time, but I couldn’t relate to it and probably the Dharma School students didn’t understand either why Rev. Saito was so affected by the news. Later that day at the Dharma School teachers meeting, everyone including Rev. Gyomay Kubose criticized Rev. Saito for bringing up such a dark topic for the children’s portion of the service.
Now I’m the one who brought up the subject of death in a Dharma School talk. At last Sunday’s Nirvana Day, I tried to explain to the kids why we “celebrate” the historical Buddha’s death instead of just his birthday and enlightenment day. I said that as much as you like a song or a story, it has to have an ending. But even though a person’s life ends, they leave something behind to continue to teach you, just as the Buddha told his disciples to look to the teachings and not cling to him as a person who must die.
Then I told them that as I was looking for photos for our temple’s Google listing, I found one of them learning taiko, the Japanese drums. I asked them if they remember Linda, the lady who taught them. Then I said Linda’s husband died this past Thursday. It’s very sad (he was only 65 years old) but Linda’s husband as the leader of the taiko group and all his other activities has influenced many, many people, so like the Buddha, he has left teachings behind.
So I’m not sure if the kids could even relate to the loss of someone they knew indirectly, but the adults in the service shared my sorrow and concern for Linda, the widow. Especially because many of us are Baby Boomers, it’s hard to hear about someone dying in their 50s or 60s – unlike the usual announcements at Sunday service of someone in their 80s or 90s passing away after several months of decline.
It seems since my mother’s death in December, I’ve been conducting cremation and memorial services non-stop. I see children of all ages at these services and I wonder how the death affects them. At Saturday’s memorial service for Mr. Y., a little girl went to the podium and announced, “My grandpa was the best grandpa ever!” But what will she remember about her grandfather as she grows into her teens and twenties? I was fortunate as an adult to spend time with all four of my grandparents, but I remember very little of my interaction with them as a child. Yet whether or not we remember or know anything about our grandparents, their lives have affected ours and will continue to influence us.
I had the Dharma School kids say “Namu Amida Butsu” together to remember Linda’s husband as one of the uncountable lives we honor and respect in the nembutsu. “Namu Amida Butsu” reminds us of the truth that all the loved ones and not-so-loved ones who’ve gone before us continue to be a part of us. This truth is what we so often forget as we identify with our current thoughts and retrievable memories. Our hearts and minds are much deeper and vaster than that which we call “my” self.