Note: I started writing this post way back in December, but have been mulling over it for quite a while. The fact that I post this on the day before Nirvana Day (the death of the Buddha) is serendipity. 😏
The day of my mother-in-law’s 100th day memorial was a very somber day for us all in Japan. My wife had gone back to Japan shortly after her mother passed away, but the kids and I had not, so this was our first real chance to say goodbye. Per Japanese funerary customs, we dressed in somber blacks and dress suits (first time in many years for me), and we carried her ashes from her home to the nearby Buddhist temple where the memorial occurred.
It was a surreal morning: the weather was sunny and pleasant. Overhead, the sky was blue, and winter birds were singing in the trees, while we were quiet and carrying the ashes of our beloved relative, lost in thought. The contrast between life and death was impossible to ignore.
It made me realize that both life and death are all around us. They exist like two sides of the same coin.
Even in the original series, Star Trek, Mr Spock acknowledges this:
Roger Zelazny in his novella, Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969), also explores the idea that the absolute, most fundamental powers in the Universe are life and death. The usurpers, Anubis (of the House of the Dead) and Osiris (of the House of Life) vie with one another, but also keep the Universe in balance:
Buddhism looks at this truth, and extends it one step further by pointing that life does not end with death, and the two blend together so much, and are so closely tied to one another that there really isn’t “death” as separate from “life”. Just one big fluid mess. Consider this verse from the Heart Sutra:
If we see that life and death are two sides of the same coin, and that one cannot exist without the other, where do we draw the line? That’s the point of this verse, I think. That’s emptiness (shunyatā in Sanskrit) in Buddhism: all things exist in a provisional, contingent way that depends on other things. No separate thing called “life”, nor a separate thing called “death”. It just goes on and on…
In the Analects of Confucius, there is a famous quote that expresses this same sentiment:
In the same way, life and death dance around one another ad nauseum. In the Buddhist viewpoint, people are reborn again and again without end. Not one life or two, but countless, countless lives stretching back to some distant, unknowable eon, just as we are doomed to repeat this dance of birth, struggles of growing up, struggles of old age, illness and death over and over again into the future. A cosmic “rat race” without end.
In the immediate term, it’s a reminder that we cannot avoid death. We cannot live without it either. All existence is marked by death, and all existence must face it sooner or later.
During my mother-in-law’s memorial service, per tradition of the Jodo Shinshu sect, the famous Letter on White Ashes (白骨の章 hakkotsu no shō), composed by Rennyo to a follower, was read aloud:
Thus, only now matters. Enjoy the air you breathe, the life you live (even when work is miserable) and the health you have. Do not squander it.
Namu Amida Butsu