… People often say, “That is unforgivable between friends,” or “That is incompatible with our friendship.” But such words are not spoken by real friends. Real friends who share the same trust in the Infinite Power Beyond the Self would never have inconsistent feelings about forgiveness. … They would never say a friend’s action is unforgivable or incompatible with their friendship. They fully understand that friends must act in different ways according to their own unique personalities and situations.
--- Manshi Kiyozawa, “The Real Friend” (from December Fan translated by Nobuo Haneda. Second edition, Los Angeles: Shinshu Center of America, 2014)
Especially when there’s a death, you hear about some messy family situations. Recently I reported to the temple’s board that I would be conducting a memorial service against the wishes of the deceased’s wife and children.
Some time ago I heard that the family of the deceased “Mr. X” found out he had fathered a child with a woman he worked with. Besides the feeling of betrayal that the wife felt, the kids were shocked to find there was less money for their college education because their father was supporting the other woman and her child. For all outward appearances the family was hanging together even after Mr. X became disabled and required constant care at home in between hospital and nursing home stays.
I visited Mr. X at the nursing home a couple times and intended to see him again, but then his sister who often attends our Sunday services told me he had passed away. She told me his family was having his remains cremated and sending the urn to our temple to be held in our nokotsudo (ashes-storing room). A week or so later, Mr. X’s daughter brought over the urn and showed me the e-mail she sent out to her friends and associates. It said there would be no memorial service but people were welcome to visit our temple and pay their respects where the urn was being stored.
The sister decided to go ahead and plan for a public memorial service. I was her willing accomplice because Mr. X had helped me in the past and I thought about my own situation where my brother is my only family member left. Mr. X’s sister had lost her parents and all her siblings several years ago, so this one brother was important to her and she wanted to give him a funeral even if his family refused to do so.
There was a fairly decent turnout for the service – mostly friends of the sister and people who knew Mr. X during his student days. The “other woman” and her son came but the legal wife and children did not make an appearance. Not only were they not seen, but also not heard – no mention of them in the reading of Mr. X’s history or eulogy. When I was reading the customary “Letter on the White Ashes” (Hakkotsu no ofumi) by Rennyo Shonin, I almost wanted to say, “Hey, Rennyo’s birth mother was not his father’s wife, but he turned out okay.”
In Jodo Shinshu marriage is accepted as “ordinary” for both the ordained and lay people (unlike some stricter forms of Buddhism which even ask lay people to become celibate once they receive the precepts). So the incidence of extramarital affairs is brought up from time to time. In a pamphlet from the Southern Alberta temple I received at the recent world convention in Calgary, among the “frequently asked questions” about incense, beads etc. is a question about Jodo Shinshu’s stance on extramarital affairs. Rev. Yasuo Izumi points out one should be mindful of how our actions may hurt others’ feelings, but also cautions us against passing judgment on other people since we will never understand the whole complex situation.
In my own lineage, I know our temple wouldn’t exist without the scandal exposing Haya Akegarasu’s infidelity which led him to delve seriously into the Larger Sutra and finally understand why his teacher, Manshi Kiyozawa, broke away from the Buddhism of feudal-age Japan. Then Akegarasu’s disciple Shuichi Maida found himself in an extramarital relationship that tested his commitment to the Buddhist teachings. Those of us in Chicago who studied under my teacher saw the development and fallout of his dalliance with one of our fellow-students. So Mr. X has a lot of company in the “straying husbands” club.
For my Dharma talk at Mr. X’s memorial, I spoke about the third and final gate of the Three-Vow Transition (Sangan tennyu) that Shinran wrote about. Even though it’s hard for us to get out of our judgmental stances, the innermost aspiration of the unbounded Light/Life (Amida) is to take in all and abandon none. It is the wide-vow gate, gugan-mon, the gate that is so wide that it’s no longer a gate that lets some in and keeps some out. Despite the unforgiven state of Mr. X in relation to his legal family, in Namu Amida Butsu, we recognize that ultimately we are all forgiven and accepted into spiritual liberation despite our egregious misbehavior. It is our life itself, not the weighing of our good and bad deeds, that is embraced in the One Infinite Life.