Good news, bad news and more wise words on mortality

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 16, 2011


“By so understanding the meaning of death, we shall come to fully appreciate the meaning of this life . . . .” – Rennyo Shonin, 15th century Buddhist monk]

I concluded last week’s column with the old Stoney Nakoda proverb: Nîbi ne dohâ ptenâ wanch, “Life is very short.” The recent tragic events in Japan, coupled with the death in Calgary of a beloved Buddhist priest and scholar friend, have moved me to revisit the topic of life and death.

But first some very good news about an event I’ve been doing a count-down to for the past many weeks:

Only four to go! Yes, four! Only four days to go from the date of this column till the start of spring – at least, according to my calendar!

On that score, I just spoke with my column’s official spring lookout, Mitzi Watts, of Ghost Lake Village west of Cochrane. Every year since I began writing this column, she has given me welcome news reports about the arrival of spring based on kitchen-window observations from her lakefront home, and this year is no exception.

“I saw four geese on the lake over the weekend,” she said excitedly, adding, “I saw a bald eagle, too.”

Yes, it’s been an unrelenting winter, but hope is in the air. My countdown will reach zero this Sunday at 5:21 p.m. Mountain Daylight Savings Time, the official moment of the vernal equinox. Thanks, Mitzi, for your words of encouragement.

Now back to thoughts on our mortality.

On Monday I attended the funeral of Leslie Kawamura, Professor of Eastern Religions at the University of Calgary. He was 75. Although I never took any courses from him myself, I had many inspiring coffee chats with him while I was doing graduate studies in Western wisdom traditions. His happiness was infectious, and he walked the talk.

As a minister within the Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land School) Buddhist tradition, he was especially knowledgeable in matters of human mortality.

Jodo Shinshu is one of the major forms of Buddhism practiced in Japan. Although increasingly secular in outlook, most Japanese embrace the respectful funeral practices and comforting words that have come down to them over the centuries through this form of Buddhism.

One essay in particular is often used at their funerals, including Leslie’s. “On the White Ashes” was written by the eminent 15th century monk Rennyo Shonin. The essay is as follows (using the English translation of Taitetsu Unno):

“In silently contemplating the transient nature of human existence, nothing is more fragile and fleeting in this world than the like of man. Thus, we have not heard of human life lasting for ten thousand years. Life swiftly passes, and who among men can maintain his form for even a hundred years? Whether I go before others, or others go before me; whether it be today, or whether it be tomorrow; who is to know? Those who leave before us are as countless and as fragile as the drops of dew. Though in the morning, we may have radiant health, in the evening we may be white ashes.

“When the winds of impermanence blow, our eyes are closed forever; and when the last breath leaves us, our face loses its color. Though loved ones gather and lament, everything is of no avail. The body is then sent into an open field and vanishes from this world with the smoke of cremation, leaving only the white ashes. There is nothing more real than this truth of life.

“The fragile nature of human existence underlies both the young and the old, and therefore, we must – one and all – turn to the Teaching of the Buddha and awaken to the ultimate source of life. By so understanding the meaning of death, we shall come to fully appreciate the meaning of this life which is unrepeatable and thus to be treasured above all else. By virtue of True Compassion, let us realize the unexcelled value of our human existence; and let us live with the Nembutsu, Namu Amida Butsu, in our hearts.”

The concluding words of this stirring reflection refer to the grace of the Absolute Other Power and are a reminder of life’s highest values of purity, truth, goodness, beauty, wisdom and peace.

As Rennyo Shonin says, by understanding the meaning of death in terms of the metaphor of ashes, “we shall come to fully appreciate the meaning of this life.” With that in mind, I share these words not only in tribute to my friend Leslie, but as a token of respect for the thousands of victims of Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami.

The wise across all traditions have long looked to the seasons for wisdom and comfort in times like these: Winter yields to spring.

© 2011 Warren Harbeck

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