Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


The journal of a Buddhist mortician.
By Shinmon Aoki
Buddhist Education Center, Anaheim, 2002.

This is a charming book, part memoir, part spiritual reflexion, poetic, easy to read and in the end profound. It is one man's meditation on the 'Great Matter of Life and Death' arising out of his everyday contact with the reality of death. It is thus deeply engaged with an ordinary life, illumined by Amida Buddha's infinite Light and Life.

In a matter of fact style, Aoki presents vignettes of his work of cleaning, dressing and 'coffining' the bodies of the dead. He finds this work in the end to be 'not really difficult', in contrast to his difficulties with the families of the dead, colleagues, an uncle who disowns him and a wife who rejects him. The reaction of his wife and uncle in particular, but also the various local customs and superstitions surrounding death that he encounters deepen his reflexions and encourage his spiritual search. His search leads him to the works of Shinran Shonin, in particular Shinran's Kyogyoshinsho and his Wasan. It also leads him to some subtle and beautiful poetry that he quotes at length. Spirituality and poetry are intimately linked, as both engage the emotional intelligence and affect at a level deeper than rational analysis can reach. Even poetry that has no aspiration to be deliberately spiritual, if it is true poetry and not rhyming doggerel, can open our minds to deep levels of feeling and understanding. The Buddhist sutras are full of poetry. The poetry of Shinran's Wasan is at once accessible, yet full of meaning, simple in structure but suitable for a lifetime's contemplation. The subject matter of the poetry introduced by Aoki is mainly, as one would expect from this book, death, but the form and the intimacy of the works allow the reader space to feel and reflect.

In the course of his work with the dead Shinmon becomes more sensitive to life. He encounters dragonflies heavy with eggs, (new life) and wonders at the unbroken continuity of life. The rivers in season teem with salmon; even the maggots infesting a rotting corpse seem to be shining with life. The local environment such as the mountains around his hometown and the local weather inspires him. The sleety weather creates an ambiguous atmosphere which mirrors the state of mind to which Aoki's intimacy with death brings him. The sleet is neither one thing nor the other, neither rain nor snow, but possessing characteristics of both. Aoki comes to consider 'LifeDeath' as a single entity and quotes Rennyo Shonin's 'White Ashes' epistle to show how impermanent and indefinable is any line drawn between life and death. This feeling puts me in mind of 'Tao Wu's Condolence Call' a Zen koan from the Blue Cliff Record collection. Two monks visit a house to make a condolence call. One raps on the coffin and asks the other, 'Alive or dead?' The other replies, 'I won't say alive, and I won't say dead.'

The author's thoughts range widely to consider many aspects of death. He criticizes excessive medical interference with death but the criticism is not intemperate. His thoughts on a 'beautiful death' though, while in a sense following from this criticism, do not resonate deeply with me. More insightful I feel are Aoki's thoughts on the superstitions surrounding death that he encounters in his work. He concludes that these practices fundamentally spring from a belief in a 'substantial human selfhood' and as such are at odds with what the Buddha and Shinran taught. That much is straightforward. The interesting thing is the persistence of such beliefs in ostensibly Shin Buddhist communities.

The heart of this book is the third and final section, 'The Light and Life'. This section is inspired by Aoki's reflexions on Shinran's Tannisho and Kyogyoshinsho, books he was drawn to by his experience both of death and of radiant vibrant life. This chapter draws together the heart of Aoki's spiritual feelings from his experience of life and death and his intimacy with the Pure Land teachings of Shinran Shonin. Aoki is particularly inspired by why it was that Shinran took the Larger Sutra of Infinite Light as Shakyamuni Buddha's ultimate teaching: because Shakyamuni Buddha's face was specially radiant. Ananda observed this and asked the Buddha why. Shakyamuni Buddha praised Ananda's perceptiveness and delivered the heart of the Pure Land teachings. This relates back to the visions of light that Aoki's intense experiences of death and life have given him. The chapter is a meditation on and celebration of Amida Buddha's Light, the light that 'cannot be grasped by the intellect', inspired by Aoki's everyday intimacy with the dead and his reading of Pure Land teachings but also by his sensitivity to poetry and his clearly wide ranging general and scientific reading. His thoughts on the practicality of the practice of the Jodo Shinshu way as taught by Shinran, on the limits of science and on the fact that true religion rids itself of superstition are well expressed and of interest. I found some of his thoughts on science and religion a little contradictory. He asserts the ineffability of Amida's light, yet speculates on the scientific basis of the Light. Even though I practice an art/craft based on a scientific knowledge base (medicine), I am not so sanguine about the scientific project. There are matters clearly beyond the necessary reductionism of scientific enquiry. I would include in this category most of human culture, for example the desire to write, or the love of, music and poetry, religious sensitivity and the wonderful foolishness of human love. Amida's Light is clearly beyond the understanding of the ordinary human intellect.

That said, I recommend this book as intrinsically interesting, thought provoking and a sincere and worthwhile exploration of Jodo Shinshu spirituality.

- Mark Healsmith.

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