Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Great Matter of Life Until Death

I find myself thinking of my father a lot these days as I experience the various side effects of chemotherapy. In the last few months of his life, my father suffered through a lot of pain and discomfort and I often say it’s the chemicals that killed him in 2010 not the colon cancer. A couple months into his chemotherapy he was falling at home so my brother got him a rolling walker (“rollator” like the one pictured below). I’ve been wondering if I’ll need one soon – my feet are numb and there’s a painful weakness in my legs when I move them. A few too many times at the Eastern Buddhist League conference when I was going up and down the stairs at the Midwest Buddhist Temple I felt myself falling backwards and had to grip the hand rails tightly to pull myself upright (somehow though, I danced through the Bon Odori workshop without keeling over).

Although in my last post it sounds like I was silent at EBL, they actually gave me a forum to speak – I was one of a dozen people in the “TED talks.” There was a strict five-minute limit and it seemed I mumbled a bunch of asides and then my time was up. I remember saying my father felt his knees buckle the first time he saw his father in his coffin – it was my grandfather’s death that led my father to reconnect with Buddhism after being away from it from the time he married my Baptist mother. And I remember saying after my five minutes was called, “The great matter of life and death.”

Connecting the dots, it seems I was trying to say that my father is an example of someone who became serious about the Buddhist path when confronted with the fact of death. In my clumsy way it was my protest against all the talk of marketing and mission statements at EBL, all the business of “attracting new people” with various attention-grabbing gimmicks. If there are people like my father who come to Buddhism with “the great matter of life and death” weighing heavily on their mind, we should offer them something more substantial than icebreaker “eightfold path” games.

I would say all my Higashi teachers said that Rennyo’s phrase “go-sho no ichi-dai-ji” does not mean “the great matter of the after-life” as you find in the Nishi Honganji translations. “Go-sho” means your life from this moment on (the moment that causes and conditions brought you to encounter the Buddha-Dharma) as opposed to “zen-sho” the life you were living rather mindlessly up to now. So one attempt at translating the phrase might be, “the great matter of life until death.”

What my father listened to after he reconnected with Buddhism somehow spoke to that great matter of his own life until death, but I don’t know what specific aspects of the teachings he heard as a new member of the Twin Cities Buddhist Association. In his retirement my father was busy enough with various Japanese American community groups but he heartily volunteered to help the local Buddhist group and then he got active with the Eastern District, becoming the treasurer and was training as a minister assistant. He became a delegate to the national meetings of the Buddhist Churches of America. Despite hearing all the inside dirt on BCA’s politics, wastefulness and costly misjudgments, he dedicated much time and effort to the organization as a worthy vehicle for conveying Jodo Shinshu in the United States.

To me his life until his death was one of giving out of gratitude, doing the things that would benefit many people in significant ways. Even after he was diagnosed with colon cancer and started the debilitating chemotherapy, he did what he could for the Buddhist group and the other community service organizations. For my last post I tagged the keyword “giving up” but that is not how my father felt in his final weeks. He continued up to his last conscious moment to express his concern for others.

In the hours after he lost consciousness there was only the sound of his rough breathing which I’ve told people to me it sounded like the nembutsu as uttered by Shinran in his dying moments. It was not “Oh save me Amida,” but “Even while entangled in my self-benefitting desires, I am settled into the awareness of interconnection with all beings.” When his breathing stopped, I was the one now confronted with the great matter of life until death.

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