A few days ago, I participated in a funeral service for a young man who had killed himself. It was a beautiful service. It was held outside in a wonderful backyard with family and friends all standing close together, touching each other, in sadness and reverence and contemplation. Because of that closeness and silence, it was easy to feel that we were all one being, breathing in and out. My job simply was to say a few words of introduction, then let people speak. The final voices were his sister, his mother and finally his father. The father, a friend and neighbor, then read several prayers from the Episcopal and Eastern Orthodox prayer books. Then mother, father and sister—on their hands and knees—emptied his ashes into a small round hole dug in the very spot where he died. They replaced the dirt and smoothed out the little grave of ashes. The father has vowed to care and make beautiful and sacred this place where his son died. And he had invited us all, with our presence there, to help in making the ground sacred.
Like so many others, I was deeply touched. As I told my friend, I cannot imagine the pain and sorrow he has gone through. Especially because it was he who found his son, lying there in the garden. We all get lost in our daily lives and we don’t remember the miracle of our lives, to be here on this earth in the midst of sorrow and beauty, breathing in and out. I don’t want to say much here about suicide, especially this young man’s death. I don’t think he committed a sin, especially the way that word is commonly used. Depression can feel like a very dark room with no way out. The doors and windows are locked. We have all been there one time or another. Some for longer than others, and some, like this young man, felt he was locked in for good.
This morning I remembered and re-read Brad Warner’s chapter “Suicide at a Zen Monastery” in his book, There is No God and He is Always with You. The chapter is very wise. Brad remembers that when the Buddha was asked questions about life and death, he responded, “The question does not fit the case.” The better question to ask, Brad says, is “What is this life I am living right now?” This is why we practice, to learn to ask the question, "What is this?"
During the service, I was once again reminded of the Evening Gatha we chant at the end of our sangha’s services and especially that core statement, “Life and death are of supreme importance.” Several weeks ago, instead of giving a dharma talk at Sunday services, I recited several texts, beginning with the Evening Gatha. I am pasting these below. Together, and separately, they all remind us to awaken to our precious and very brief lives. These texts point to ways we can ask that question, “What is this life I am living right now?”
From time to time, I hear sangha members catch their breath when reciting the Evening Gatha. For some it’s the first time they’ve heard it; for others, it’s like they have finally truly heard it. It strikes a deep chord in their hearts. I should know. It’s happened to me. More than once. The chanting during the service and especially the zazen opens us up so that we can hear. Also, I have been reading Pat Enkyo O’Hara’s new book, Most Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges. Her chapter on “Death and Dying” deeply touched me. Two of the texts below are from that chapter: first, her short poem that opens the chapter, and second, “The Meditation on Death” which is in the Practice section that concludes the chapter. The final text is a Zen prayer or gatha that can be read at a memorial service. I found this in a 2010 Village Zendo email. Someone had asked the VZ sangha for some text for a memorial service, and Robert Chodo Campbell, who is now co-director of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, responded with this beautiful piece. It’s something he uses, he said, when he’s asked to speak at a funeral service.
By the way, Enkyo O’Hara gave the following instructions for using her “Meditation on Death”: “There are many ways you can use this meditation. You can read it to another person, record it and listen, or simply read it sentence by sentence. If, during this meditation, you should feel uncomfortable, take a moment to observe that, and simply open your eyes, take a breath, look around, and feel your hands and feet.”
I suggest you read the texts aloud, even if you are alone. When I recited these to the sangha, I rang the small bell between each. You might try that too. And finally, I suggest you adapt the Evening Gatha as part of your daily practice, saying it aloud before going off to bed.
By Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara
Oh, time to go, so soon?
I knew the time would come, but now?
I thought there’d be more time.
Oh what needs to be done?
What have I left behind?
Will I be safe? Will I be happy?
Will I be?
A Meditation on Death
By Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara
Close your eyes and let your body relax.
Let the body soften, let the breath come by itself.
Nothing to change, nothing to control, just breathing.
Soften the body, moment to moment, allow it to be loose, as if floating.
Allow the edges of your body to soften, to melt.
Allow your whole body, arms and legs and hands, to melt, to be at ease,
To enter that space in your heart, in your breath, that is melting, like an ice cube in water, flowing back into the fluidity of space and light.
Letting go of sensation, of the sense of the body, we float free of its constraints,
Melting, softening, ice to water, dissolving into the flow of light and space,
Becoming quieter, more at ease.
As each holding arises, we let it melt, we let our name and reputation melt, our family melt, our form melt, our holding melt into our heart and breath.
Letting go allows us to melt, to float free, to dissolve into light, into space.
Letting go of the body, releasing the body, floating freely in the light.
Safely, each thought, each emotion, each perception safely floats away, and there is space flowing into space, light into light.
No boundaries, even the breath now, slowly falling away, melting into space.
Now, floating freely as water in water, light in light, space in space,
There is no inside, no outside,
Free, completely, and utterly free, free, space, endless space,
Slowly now observe the breath,
As you realize, although many people are dying now, are letting go, you are staying, it is not yet your time.
This is realization in vast, wondrous space.
Breathe slowly, feeling freshness, peace, and come back.
My best to you all.
Bobby Kankin Byrd