Minister’s Message, May 2011

The Healing Process

By Rinban Don Castro

As I scan the newspaper this morning (April 18), I find no references to the Japan earthquake and tsunami that happened a little over a month ago. There is only one, associated news item about Tokyo Electric Power’s long-term plan to stabilize the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant. I wonder about the lives and spiritual health of all those people whose graphic and moving photos we saw in the first days and weeks after the disaster. How are they putting their lives back together?

Traditionally in Jodo Shinshu, the mourning period and process takes 49 days, seven weeks, during which time a memorial service is held each week for those seven weeks. In this country, we tend to dispense with most of the seven day memorial services and just emphasize the first and last observance. At the 49th day memorial, I emphasize the importance of reengaging with the world around us. I think this is especially important for those who have been primary caretakers for a loved one. It is too easy to become self-absorbed in our separation, loss and loneliness.

My wife, who is a hospital chaplain, conducts grief counseling groups through a local hospital and just completed a seven week course of sessions. Isn’t it remarkable to have an identical period of time for healing in separation-and-loss counseling as we have traditionally done in our Buddhist tradition of memorial services? In the group counseling sessions, however, people who have lost a loved one are generally asked to wait to start the counseling process for at least a couple of months. It is felt that our emotions are too raw before this waiting period and there is often too much crying for a group session.

As I think about both these healing processes of memorial services and counseling, I can see where they would both be effective. The memorial services reinforce family bonds and support; we need family first and foremost. Often, however, I believe we don’t discuss our deeper feelings. As a minister conducting the memorial service, I feel like it is my role to speak on behalf of the deceased, to put things in Buddhist perspective and to encourage the family to live their lives as a tribute to, and as an expression of gratitude for the deceased. In a counseling setting, we meet people who may be experiencing exactly what we are in a setting where we are guided and encouraged to open up and share our common human experience. I believe this sharing and support contributes greatly to our healing. Years ago, a family who lost their only child told me their greatest comfort came from joining a grief support group composed of other parents who had also lost their only child.

As a Buddhist, though, I feel my religion gives me a perspective that, I hope, will enable me to treasure life (my own included) and to fully engage in life even in the face of separation and the loss of a loved one. As Buddhists, we don’t have to deal with the questions, “Why did God let this happen to me? Was it a test? Was it a punishment?” Years ago, someone asked me, “Why did my father have to suffer so much at the end of his life?” I replied that, although it might seem like a cold answer at first, the reason for suffering is that the causes and conditions for the suffering are there. To eliminate the suffering, we need to eliminate the causes and conditions for it. No divine intervention is necessary and actually the idea of an all powerful and just (yet supposedly compassionate) God really raises a lot of theological problems. Buddhists don’t expect life to be fair or necessarily pleasurable. However, we do find joy and peace of mind beyond our selfish ego interests in the boundless wisdom and compassion we call Amida Buddha.

Through our memorial services, we are put in touch with the working of Amida Buddha in our relationship with our loved one who passed away. At first, our grief may be too much and we may not be able to even hear the call of Amida but, over time, healing takes place as our heart opens up. I heard a grief counselor say the first year is the most difficult because we have to endure each holiday, birthday and anniversary reminded of our loss. This is why the first year memorial service is also very important. Through these memorial services we reaffirm our spiritual identity.

Since the 1970’s, the custom of holding memorial services has dropped precipitously. In 1975, we conducted 240 memorial services. Last year we conducted 40. I wonder what people do. I conduct memorial services for my father every year even though he wasn’t Buddhist. If I compare holding memorial services to our national holiday (holy day) of Memorial Day held this month, I imagine someone saying, “I don’t think we need to observe Memorial Day anymore. I think we’ve had enough.” People would dismiss this person as totally insensitive. They would say, “Of course we have to have Memorial Day. It reaffirms who we are, where we came from and where we are going! We have to express our gratitude to the past and our commitment not to waste their efforts but to build on what they gave us.

This sense of indebtedness pervades Japanese culture and I am sure will be the inspiration and motivation for the Japanese nation to both remember, honor and rebuild as they have done after too many other national tragedies. This is what I see in the photos of tsunami survivors standing in gassho in front of the foundation of their house that was washed away. With no caption to the photo, I don’t know what family members they may have lost. I place that photo in front of our naijin (shrine) before each of the 7 day memorial services that we at Seattle Betsuin have been holding each Friday for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami. Life goes on, and by the time this article appears in our newsletter, we will have completed the course of seven weeks of memorial services. I hope it has been a healing journey for all of us who have participated and rung the Bonsho bell after the service each Friday.