21 December 2007

Buddhist universalism as seen in the faces of the dead

Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician

Shinmon Aoki
Buddhist Education Center, 2004

"If we never shift our perspective from the standpoint of life, no matter how much we want to think on death, it will only be an extension of our thinking on life." (p. 63)

This book came highly recommended by one of my best friends, a Jodo Shinshu priest currently living in Iceland. This book has some really profound moments, examining death and life ("LifeDeath") in light of the teachings of Shinran and of Jodo Shinshu (Shin) Buddhism. What kept it from being a five-star book was that much of the book (specifically the first section and the latter half of the final section) was too disjointed and culturally-specific for my taste.

The moments of clarity, when they come, though, are quite insightful and inspiring. Author Aoki worked as a coffinman (a corpse washer or mortician, apparently a job held in low esteem by the Japanese) for many years, and his practical experience with death and the dead have informed his understanding of Buddhism in general, and Shin Buddhism in particular. In the second section, "What Dying Means," he explores the universalism of Shin Buddhism in practical terms. It is not some theological or Buddhological argument that has swayed Aoki to accept Shin's "gospel" of universal enlightenment; rather, it is his everyday experience of seeing radiant peace on the faces of the dead.

"During their lives I don't know what right or wrong they might have done, but it seems to have no bearing on them now. It doesn't matter whether their beliefs were thick or thin, whether they belonged to this denomination or that ,whether they were interested in religion or not. Nothing they have done goes to making the dead wear such gentle faces." (p. 60)

He further explores this insight:

"I would contend that it is more accurate to say there's no good person or evil person among those who die...Many [Shin commentaries] say the good person relies on self-power in an effort to achieve birth in the Pure Land, while the evil person does not operate in that way. Various explanations are brought forth, but the peaceful composure of the faces of the dead are completely oblivious to these weary arguments." (p.61)

For Aoki, Shinran, like the Buddha, approached the topics of enlightenment and "LifeDeath" from a practical, rather than a speculative, perspective. Shinran's evaluation of the Larger Sutra of Infinite Life (the foundational text of Shin Buddhism), as the core scripture of the Buddhadharma, came not from its intellectual or theological content, but from the fact that in the text, attention is drawn to Shakyamuni Buddha's radiant visage. For Shinran, as for Coffinman Aoki, this radiance calls to mind the radiant peace on the face of the dead, and is thus the only real support that the Shin Buddhist gospel of universal salvation and enlightenment in the Pure Land requires.

(This review was originally written on September 18, 2006.)

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