Hi all,
Recently there was a sudden death in our family. My wife’s older sister passed away quite suddenly on July 11 in Japan while my wife and daughter were visiting with her other older sister. My daughter is only six years old (she’ll be seven in August) and she was simply told that her aunt had gone to heaven. Julie attended the funeral and I am sure could not help but have observed that the occasion was very tragic. Nevertheless, when she saw her aunt’s picture on the family butsudan she asserted that this was her aunt who lived in heaven now. As for Yumi, she also wanted to be assured that her sister would find a way to heaven and that our Odaimoku and sincere prayers would reach her and help her. I assured her that this would be the case, and even shared Nichiren’s gosho (parts of it anyway by email and over the phone) “Wu-lung and I-lung” which discusses the story of how even a son’s unwilling transcription of the titles of the eight volumes of the Lotus Sutra saved his late father, an enemy of the Lotus Sutra, from hell and enabled him to be reborn in heaven. If such was the case, how much more effective our sincere prayers and recitation of the Odaimoku and the Lotus Sutra for someone who may not have been a believer in the Lotus Sutra but who was not an enemy and had a simple respect for it.
But this is not the point of this blog. The curious thing is that as this tragedy was unfolding I was reading Brian’s Dr. Science blog and having a discussion with him (yet again) about the meaning of rebirth. I found myself of two minds – the mind of a science minded skeptic who readily admits that there seems to be no medium by which to transmit a “rebirth consciousness” (as the sutras assert) from a deceased person to a newly concieved person. On the other hand, there is the side of me that is more willing to give the “universe” (for want of a better term) the benefit of the doubt and to believe that just because we have not found a way to measure or quantify something doesn’t mean that it is not there – in this case a medium for the transmission of karma and even a type of consciousness so that a person’s karma (good and bad) can continue to unfold until the delusion of self is overcome and buddhahood kicks into high gear.
But with the background of this family tragedy the inner debate within myself between the agnostic/skeptic and the traditionalist/believer became more than just an abstract exercise. It became quite a dilemma – what do I honestly tell my grieving wife and in-laws? What do I tell my daughter when she is back from Japan if she should ask more questions about her aunt? What do I tell myself?
In the end, I find that I can be honest and give the universe the benefit of the doubt for the sake of my loved ones and my own peace of mind. I can honestly say, along with Stephen Batchelor for instance, that I don’t know what will happen to us when we die. Someone asked Zen Master Hakuin what happens when we die. “Why are you asking me?” he said. “Because you are a Zen Master.” said the inquirer. Hakuin replied, “Yes, but not a dead one.” I think that is the honest approach. But alongside that is the hopeful approach. This approach is that traditionally the Buddha asserted that there were other worlds, heavens, hells, and many things in between, and that our karma will unfold, and that while the future bearers of the karma we generate in this life are not identical to ourselves, neither are they totally different. There is not a fixed, unchanging identity, but there is a continuing stream of unfolding activity according to the Buddha. He furthermore claimed to have known this directly for himself and not as a result of “hammering it out” by speculation. That may or may not be the case, but I am willing to give this traditional teaching the benefit of the doubt until it can clearly be proven otherwise while admitting that I don’t know the truth of this for myself yet. In this way I preserve my intellectual integrity but also a heart that hopes that even for the individual there may be more mercy and meaning in this universe than our finite minds are able to conceive of.
I say this because I can not know, but I do hope that for my sister-in-law, and for all those who have passed on and for all those who will, that there is indeed some greater reality which the symbol of heaven, or in the Lotus Sutra the Pure Land of Tranquil Light, points to beyond mere words of conciliation. I hope that there is a shining jewel of limitless light and life which can bring about the healing and even joy that many of us seem to miss here. For those of us who are spiritually mature enough to be able to awaken to it here and now, I also hope that even after death such will continue to unfold without end.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,