Grief with blinders
There is a well-known Buddhist story about a young woman, Kisa Gotami, who lost her only child to death. Beside herself with grief, clutching the child's body, Kisa went to her neighbors requesting medicine to cure the boy. Observing that the child was dead, her neighbors thought she had lost her mind. One neighbor took pity on her, however, and suggested she go to see the Buddha.
Kisa went and begged the Buddha to cure her son. He promised to help her if she would bring him a handful of mustard seeds, with one condition: These seeds had to be obtained from a household that had never known death.
Kisa rushed to her village to search for the mustard seeds. Everyone was willing to give her what she asked, but, no matter at what door she knocked, it was always the same story: Each house had experienced the death of someone, family or friend. There was, Kisa learned, no house into which death had not entered.
Exhausted, she sat down and, as night fell, watched the lights in all the houses being lit and then extinguished. She understood that such was the fate of all beings: The flame of life flickers briefly and then goes out. She realized that her own grief had been selfish because she was oblivious of the grief of others. Death falls upon all, irrespective of age, virtue, wisdom or innocence. This was the "cure" that the Buddha effected for Kisa, the realization that nothing is permanent and that to believe otherwise is the source of all sufferings and delusions.
Unfortunately, when we experience loss, it is easy to believe that no one else has ever suffered so much. We need others' help, but our loved ones often feel helpless and confused by the intensity of our grief. In the isolation of her suffering, Kisa was unreachable to her neighbors, and they did not know how to help her. Yet it was only through their benevolent help and the Buddha's compassionate wisdom that she was able to experience for herself the commonality of death and the impermanence of all things. With the aid of others, Kisa was freed from her isolation and enabled to see her own suffering in true perspective. Her response was to gratefully take refuge in the Buddha and his teaching (dharma).
In the Jodo Shinshu -- True Pure Land -- tradition of Buddhism also known as Shin Buddhism, liberation depends upon seeing ourselves as we truly are, beings of foolish passion, selfishness and delusion who, like Kisa, are oblivious of the sufferings of others. As such, we are quite unable to liberate ourselves since our attempts to do so are, without exception, calculating and self-serving. In Shin Buddhism we take refuge and entrust ourselves to the Buddha of Immeasurable Light, Wisdom and Compassion (Amida Buddha), who vowed to liberate all foolish beings. Through this entrusting, Amida Buddha's light enables us to gradually awaken to our self-centered nature, to realize the infinite interconnectedness of all things, to engage the world around us with growing understanding, tenderness and kindness, and to respond to the whole of life with deep gratitude. Namu Amida Butsu.
Richard Tennes is a Shin Buddhist and a member of the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin, 1727 Pali Highway, which will host a public dialogue on "Dealing with Grief and Dying" at 7 p.m. Wednesday.