On the morning of Sunday the 11th of September 2016, I was waiting outside the Homewood Friends Meeting house where the Baltimore Dharma Group met for their weekly Zen practice. It was then that I got a call from my mother’s partner, Judy, that Mom had died in the night at the nursing home that she was supposed to be staying at temporarily. At that moment, my world was uprooted.
For me, my mother Tess was a constant. Though she was born on the 11th of June, 1957, as far as my little history was concerned, she hailed from the beginingless begining. It was not until the moment of learning of her death did I understand her as my first refuge.
And then she was gone.
Crying at the steps of the meeting house, I suddenly felt something I had never truly felt before. I felt the utter rawness of true uncertainty. I felt as if I was standing at the gate of something awesome and terrible. It was the gaping maw of impermanence.
It was then that, with sorrow and desperation, the words “Namo Amida Butsu” came pouring out of me. No amount of “coming back to the breath” was going to help. I needed to express my sadness, my fear, and my anger and the nembutsu helped me do that.
And so I grabbed tight to the Buddha’s robes and took refuge.
I had come to the meeting house by bus but decided that I couldn’t bare being around others, so I walked home reciting the nembutsu. As I walked, I noticed another new phenomenon.
I noticed that the nembutsu didn’t necessarily make me feel better but I certainly didn’t feel worse. It was the only thing at that time that was not painful to me. There was an active gentleness to the Buddha’s presence that countered the worst of my grief. The Buddha allowed me to be human and be with my sadness. I was allowed to be bombu, a being of wayward passion.
After I got home, hugged my wife Angie, pet my cats, and called the nursing home, we left to go to see Mom off. At the facility I found her still and blue. It was not my first corpse but it was still surreal, probably more so because, for human reasons, I wanted to believe that she couldn’t die.
After packing her belongings, I asked Angie to wait outside. My mom knew I was a Buddhist and was aware of my nembutsu practice. She would understand that I’d mourn in my own way. Putting my hands together, wrapped with a mala, I said the nembutsu over her body several times. Then, with a bow, I left her to the capable hands of the mortician.
Within months, my cat, Veda, and and my other mom, Judy, died. At the same time of Judy’s death, my good friend, Hoin, of another Zen group I went to, passed as well.
I would still grieve on and off for quite some time, often when I least expected it. Just as pain arises, it ceases. And so it goes with affinities. I lost my interest for Zen as a tradition and turned toward the Pure Land.
In a recent podcast, Dharmavidya talked about how some people, after loss, look to the other world and take relatively little interest in this one. Often the reason they do this is because they wish to reunite with those they love. I find myself among those people. Since mom’s death, I’ve kept my heart in the Pure Land. Though I’ve found this world more precious, beautiful, and important to care for because of it’s fleeting nature, I don’t see it as my home.
Does that make me too other-worldly? Perhaps. However, my faith in Amida, the Dharma, and the Pure Land, has kept me afloat. It helps me meet this world as it is.
Loss is hard for everyone and we all deal with it differently. Fortunately for me, I found the Buddha. May we all find refuge in the darker moments of our lives.
Namo Amida Bu
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