Good news, bad news and more wise words on mortality
COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
I concluded last week’s column with the old Stoney Nakoda proverb: Nîbi ne dohâ ptenâ wanch, “Life is very short.” The recent tragic events in Japan, coupled with the death in Calgary of a beloved Buddhist priest and scholar friend, have moved me to revisit the topic of life and death.
But first some very good news about an event I’ve been doing a count-down to for the past many weeks:
Only four to go! Yes, four! Only four days to go from the date of this column till the start of spring at least, according to my calendar!
On that score, I just spoke with my column’s official spring lookout, Mitzi Watts, of Ghost Lake Village west of Cochrane. Every year since I began writing this column, she has given me welcome news reports about the arrival of spring based on kitchen-window observations from her lakefront home, and this year is no exception.
“I saw four geese on the lake over the weekend,” she said excitedly, adding, “I saw a bald eagle, too.”
Yes, it’s been an unrelenting winter, but hope is in the air. My countdown will reach zero this Sunday at 5:21 p.m. Mountain Daylight Savings Time, the official moment of the vernal equinox. Thanks, Mitzi, for your words of encouragement.
Now back to thoughts on our mortality.
On Monday I attended the funeral of Leslie Kawamura, Professor of Eastern Religions at the University of Calgary. He was 75. Although I never took any courses from him myself, I had many inspiring coffee chats with him while I was doing graduate studies in Western wisdom traditions. His happiness was infectious, and he walked the talk.
As a minister within the Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land School) Buddhist tradition, he was especially knowledgeable in matters of human mortality.
Jodo Shinshu is one of the major forms of Buddhism practiced in Japan. Although increasingly secular in outlook, most Japanese embrace the respectful funeral practices and comforting words that have come down to them over the centuries through this form of Buddhism.
One essay in particular is often used at their funerals, including Leslie’s. “On the White Ashes” was written by the eminent 15th century monk Rennyo Shonin. The essay is as follows (using the English translation of Taitetsu Unno):
The concluding words of this stirring reflection refer to the grace of the Absolute Other Power and are a reminder of life’s highest values of purity, truth, goodness, beauty, wisdom and peace.
As Rennyo Shonin says, by understanding the meaning of death in terms of the metaphor of ashes, “we shall come to fully appreciate the meaning of this life.” With that in mind, I share these words not only in tribute to my friend Leslie, but as a token of respect for the thousands of victims of Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami.
The wise across all traditions have long looked to the seasons for wisdom and comfort in times like these: Winter yields to spring.
© 2011 Warren Harbeck