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On the death of a child

Buddhist wisdom honors a brief life.
By James Ishmael Ford
Winter 2007 11.1.07

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This past week I facilitated a service at the cremation of a child who lived four hours. I first wrote “of a child who lived only four hours.” But I realized that what I was feeling and wanted to express is that there was no need for the modifier “only.”

The parents both identify as Buddhist so I found myself gathering materials out of the Zen tradition. And I came upon this story collected as a koan in the old Chinese anthology the Blue Cliff Record. “Great Master Ma was unwell. The temple’s superintendent visited and inquired after the venerable’s health. Ma replied ‘Sun-face-Buddha. Moon-face-Buddha.’”

That’s the whole case. It is helpful to know that in Buddhist legend a sun-face-Buddha lives for a great length of time—I’ve read eighteen hundred years; I’ve heard ten thousand. The point is simple enough: a life of wisdom of great length. A moon-face-Buddha lives for a single day and a single night. It is interesting to know that Mazu, Great Master Ma, one of the most wonderful of our Zen ancestors in fact died shortly after this encounter with the superintendent. He lived long, for a human, and it was a Buddha’s life.

As is four hours.

One old teacher of Zen said if you cut a golden staff near the foot, it is gold. If you cut that staff in the middle, it is gold. If you cut it at the end, it is gold.

But often our experience seems a little different.

The Diamond Sutra gatha, another important text in the Zen tradition, sings, “So listen to this fleeting world, a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.”

Some can hear this and think it is telling us the world is maya, illusion, and infer we need to abandon it in favor of the real beyond. And that is the teaching of some spiritual traditions.

But not the ones that inform my life. Not Buddhism, not Unitarian Universalism.

Rather, our lives are fleeting, a star to be glimpsed between passing clouds, a bubble dancing on a rushing river, a flash of lightning, a flickering lamp.

The phantom, the dream—our lives—are also true, but only in so far as we give them a substance they do not possess, an identity separate from all that is.

What they are, what our lives are, yours and mine, are immediate exact expressions of the great empty, of the place without name. And in that, all are joined, all are one. And whether we live a hundred years, or four hours, that immediate expression of truth as one life, remains truth.

So terrible, so sad, so beautiful.

Adapted from an August 30, 2007, post at the author's blog Monkey Mind.

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