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Memorial Service Talk

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 12/02/2002
Location: Mar de Jade
In Topics: Death and Dying

There was to be a service for a young girl who had recently committed suicide. In getting ready, it turned out that 2 friends of the do-an & the father of another person had also committed suicide in recent years. The service was for all of them.

This talk is available in Spanish translation. See: Plática acerca del Servicio de Conmemoración

Well, you see more names on the altar. Tonight we will have another memorial service. When I was young in the Zen Center we would always talk about how in Japan memorial services were so central to the practice. We would speak about this with great scorn, “Oh, the Japanese have lost their way, they only do memorial services, they don’t do real practice.” So we felt very superior to the poor Japanese who were saddled with all these memorial services all the time for their parishioners.

But we were young. As one gets older, more and more of one’s friends join the great majority of those who have ceased to live in this world, and all of a sudden, memorial services do not seem so irrelevant. You realize that’s it’s actually a very deep practice to have a form, a way of remembering those people who have passed on. Human beings have always marvelled at the mystery of death. Also, because people have such close ties to one another, they need to keep people who have died always in their lives. When you have a way of doing that, it makes it more vivid for you – the presence of those who have passed away — and you really feel that in the memorial service you make contact with them again in some very real way. In a way, those who have died have not actually died. The contact with them remains. People who have been important in our lives always remain important in our lives. And in some way that we could never explain, our relationship to these people continues even long after they have passed away. In our understanding of the mind, of life, we see that there is really no such fixed difference between life and death.

My own mother died a long time ago. And I’ll never forget when she was sick and she knew she was dying, although she could never say such a thing or admit it, somehow she knew. I remember once she said to me, “What do the Buddhists say about where a person goes after they die?” And I said to her, “Well, the person that you really are doesn’t die.” I remember we were having bagels in a Jewish deli while we were having this conversation. When I told her that she seemed very bewildered by it,and she immediately changed the subject and began talking about something else.

So now I feel differently about memorial services than I did many years ago. Now I know that the memorial service comes directly from our zazen practice, and it really is not different from our zazen practice. I may, in the near future, end up also doing memorial services all the time, nothing but memorial services. Maybe I’ll just do them privately in my own home all day long just to remember so many people in my life that I miss.

The older one gets, the more this becomes the case. I have a friend who is one hundred and one years old. Most of the people she has known in her life are already dead. So we are lucky to be alive and we need to remember those who have passed on.

So I asked the people who suggested these names for the altar if they would tell us a little about the people. They wrote down a little bit and I’ll read for you… so that we can all know who we’re chanting memorial service for. But there’s one thing about all these people whose names are on the altar that is the same for all of them. And that is that they all committed suicide. There’s always something particularly powerful and disturbing in the death of a person who has taken his or her own life.

As many of you know, the first of the ten grave precepts is not to kill. This extends to our own life, we should not kill our own life. This means that we have to give ourselves respect. So if someone comes to talk to me and says that they think of committing suicide, I always say, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it! You should preserve your life.” Sometimes people have a great deal of suffering, but there’s always a way to work with suffering and to find some relief. So I always plead with the person not to do this. But when someone does commit suicide, we don’t think that they broke a precept and we don’t blame them. When someone dies, we honor their life, including the end. We honor their suicide, and we don’t think that it’s a failure. We don’t think there’s some mistake.

You know, it’s impossible to understand another person’s mind. It’s impossible to understand another person’s heart. Sometimes there can be suffering that is inexpressibly terrible. . Sometimes the compulsion to take your own life can be stronger than your will. We just don’t know. And it’s wrong if we think we can know someone else’s actions and blame them or blame ourselves for something that has happened. So at the end of a life we always celebrate that life and we celebrate its perfection as it was. And even though, because we love the person, we may wish that it was different, we accept the way it is and we recognize that we don’t understand what this life needed. Perhaps it was just as it needed to be.

Actually, just before I came here to Mexico in our extended Buddhist community in the San Francisco area, someone also committed suicide. This was someone who had practiced Buddhism for many years, and she suffered from severe depression. She was very politically active and the world’s problems affected her very deeply. I think her friends felt that when she committed suicide it was because she was very despairing over the present state of the world.

This may be common, maybe many people feel this when they commit suicide. Someone could say, “Well, they were suffering from depression and they just thought of the world’s problems because of their own suffering. They projected their own suffering onto the world.” But it could also be the opposite – that their concern for the world’s suffering was so strong that it was unbearable. And it might even be that someone who only has their own inner conflicts and difficulties and doesn’t think about the world has actually taken the world’s grief into themselves as their own life, as their own problem. So it could be that any time there is this kind of tragic death that it has this dimension… as if the world’s suffering coalesces in this one life, and that the person who commits suicide is so sensitive to the world’s suffering that they can’t bear it.

This is one thing that I admire greatly about the Christian religion. Because it shows in the person of Jesus someone who absorbs all the world’s suffering and dies on behalf of the world’s suffering. So this is another way we can also understand and appreciate someone’s death when they have committed suicide. But still, when someone is alive, always we say, “Please, don’t do this! Please, don’t do this!” And we should help them to find a way to cope with their suffering.

(Norman reads the statements about each of the four people)

It’s very hard to think of this and to digest such sadness, but soon we’ll chant the service and hopefully the sutra will contain our feeling and we can offer our practice, not only our memorial service, but all of our practice this week for the benefit of these people.

Suzuki-roshi says,

I went to Yosemite National Park, and I saw some huge waterfalls. The highest one there is 1,340 feet high, and from it the water comes down like a curtain thrown from the top of the mountain. It does not seem to come down swiftly, as you might expect; it seems to come down very slowly because of the distance. And the water does not come down as one stream, but is separated into many tiny streams. From a distance it looks like a curtain. And I thought it must be a very difficult experience for each drop of water to come down from the top of such a high mountain. It takes time, you know, a long time, for the water finally to reach the bottom of the waterfall. And it seems to me that our human life may be like this. We have many difficult experiences in our life. But at the same time, I thought, the water was not originally separated, but was one whole river. Only when it is separated does it have some difficulty in falling. It is as if the water does not have any feeling when it is one whole river. Only when separated into many drops can it begin to have or to express some feeling…

Before we were born we had no feeling; we were one with the universe. … After we are separated by birth from this oneness, as the water falling from the waterfall is separated by the wind and rocks, then we have feeling. You have difficulty because you have feeling. … When you do not realize that you are one with the river, or one with the universe, you have fear. Whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water. Our life and death are the same thing. When we realize this fact we have no fear of death anymore, and we have no actual difficulty in our life.

When the water returns to its original oneness with the river, it no longer has any individual feeling to it; it resumes its own nature, and finds composure. How very glad the water must be to come back to the original river! If this is so, what feeling will we have when we die? … We will have composure then, perfect composure.

This talk transcribed by Rick Spencer

® 2003, Norman Fischer