Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Singing to the Skies: Imagery of the Afterlife

At this year’s Eastern Buddhist League conference hosted by the Seabrook Buddhist Temple (in Bridgeton, New Jersey), one of the most enjoyable workshops I’ve ever attended was the gatha singing presentation. Music professor Kimie Carrie Tanaka was fantastic in teaching us the songs, able to explain the melody lines even to those who don’t read music or who haven’t heard the songs before. Her husband, Buddhism researcher Rev. Kenneth Tanaka, commented on the lyrics. Of the five songs we covered, two were established gathas (“hymns” we sing at Sunday services), two were gathas by the late Linda Castro and one song was a surprise to me. It was “Yuyake Koyake” (“sunset skies”) which we usually consider a Japanese children’s song, but Ken’s description of the lyrics as imagery of “going to the Pure Land” gave the song a poignancy for me.

[Kenneth Tanaka lecturing at 2016 EBL conference]
Now I hear the song as helping us accept the death of loved ones. Currently I’m reading Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of The Eternal Return and it’s making me see our Buddhist memorial rituals as expressing the transcendence of historical time (the fact of each life’s finite existence) by connecting to a sacred sense of time (eternity in the now).

The first verse describes seeing our loved one in the process of dying. Realizing their death is near, we see them first as a blazing sunset (yuyake), then an afterglow (koyake). The sound of the temple bell is the calling to leave the finite life and so the children in the song “take each other by the hand and go home.” It reminds me that in the case of my mother-in-law, my husband said in the hospital the moment before she died, she looked up as if there was someone coming for her. It was like someone in her past, such as her dearest sister, was coming to take her hand and lead her “home.” The last line of the verse says “Let’s go home together with the crows” – so to the sound of nature’s cries and the sight of wings in the sky, our loved one leaves their worldly life to return to the origin of all life.

The second verse is how we see our loved one after they have “returned home” (as I said in an earlier post, how we see them is their “afterlife.”) There is a great round moon glowing in the night sky – we see the brilliance of their whole life. Then as we go back to our ordinary lives carrying out the whims of our deluded ego-selves (“when the little birds are dreaming”), we are reminded of the continual inspiration of our loved ones, seeing the stars twinkling in the sky.

Now I’m thinking it’s a song we can sing at memorial services. Here’s the whole song in Japanese:

Yuyake koyake de, hi ga kurete / Yama no o-tera no kane ga naru
Otete tsunaide, mina kaero / Karasu to issho ni kaerimasho

Kodomo ga kaetta, ato kara wa / Marui ookina o-tsuki sama

Kotori ga yume o miru koro wa / Sora ni wa kira-kira kin no hoshi

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