Wednesday, June 02, 2010

My mother and the Buddhist family altar.

Translated from the original Japanese essay in Ken Mogi, "Ikite Shinu Watashi" ("I live, I die") published from Tokuma Shoten, Tokyo, 1998. Translation by the author.

One day, when I was a University student, I was doing small talks over supper with my father and mother. Intricate lines of talks led us to the topic of visiting the family tomb. I declared, when and if I die, there was no need to put my remains in the tomb. When we die, we become nothing, so there was no sense in putting one's remains in the tomb. Japan is a small country, and we are rather scarce on land. To designate a certain amount of land for the purpose of providing tomb spaces, and exclude other more useful purposes, was a nonsensical idea, I said. Just think of it, I went on. If all the dead Japanese people in history were to be buried in tombs, the nation would be overflowed with tomb spaces. Just as it was a nonsense to use a vast extension of land for golfing (which is my own prejudice), it was a nonsense to build and maintain tomb spaces, I said.

All of sudden, my mother started to cry. She cried like I have never seen her crying. She lay beside the hori-kotatsu (covered heater table), and cried without any regard to the onlookers. My father tried to console her, but she would not simply listen. It was as if the nerve for crying was set on fire and nothing could stop it, as is sometimes the case with babies.

My mother then said to me, sobbing.

"You are not going to put my remains in the tomb. You will not pay respect to my tomb, after I die."

The manner in which my mother cried was something quite out of the ordinary. There was no hesitation or restraint. I was deeply disturbed. The fact that my words made mother cry gave me a profound shock. I did not mean to make her cry. I did not expect her to react in such an exaggerated manner. That was my mistake.

I spent the few days after the incident in a very strange and tranquil mood. Ill at ease, and yet somewhat warm. It was as if I uncovered a picture of my mother before she got married. I felt as if I have confirmed that my mother was a human being, in a strange mixture of dissonance and comfort. Needless to say, I have never physically struck my mother. And yet, a regret of having inflicted a "verbal violence" persisted in me. I never expected my words to have such a power to make my mother cry so hard.

Even today, I still think, in my own conventional wisdom, that after death I am reduced to nothing. In the passage of time, when it is for me to die, all the materialistic foundations that sustained me would be lost, and that would be the end of it. I don't believe in the existence of an afterlife. Needless to say, the world views of us humans are always open for revisions. It is quite possible that our understanding of the passage of time, in which the dramas of life and death are played out, would be deepened in the future. It is conceivable that our understanding of life as is expanded in time, in which there is birth, development, and then death, might turn out to be quite shallow, to be superseded by a new world view which is beyond the imagination of the human race today, and it may be one which incorporates the concept of after life.

However, unless a radical rewriting of the human perception of time, life and death takes place, "afterlife" would be conceived as the result of a wishful product of human imagination. I believe the truth of life and death to be more harsh than conventional religions tell us. More harsh, and yet, if you try to understand it, ultimately more rewarding both intellectually and emotionally. Only by coming to terms with such a harsh reality, would we be able to come to full terms with our own mortality. In this respect, how people would treat my remains in the event of my death might concern those who are left behind, but not a business of mine, who wouldn't be there to care about these things anyway. Had I explained these lines of thoughts to my mother, at length and with passion, she might have understood me. She might have taken my opinion at its face value, and might have come to terms with the idea that putting one's remains in a tomb is ultimately meaningless, however alien such a philosophy might be for her.

At any rate, such a reasoning had no significance under the situation in which my mother was crying bitterly in front of me. I did not know what to do, and just stared, unable to find a way to comfort her.

After that emotional breakdown, whenever I visited my parents' house, I made a point of giving senko stick incense to the Buddhist family altar. Since both my parents are still alive today, these ceremonial actions were meant for my deceased grandparents.

I don't know exactly why I am doing this. I do not have a solid religious belief of any kind. Part of me is enjoying the protocol, without any corresponding belief systems. What is certain is that I am doing it not only for commemorating my grandfather and grandmother, but also in consideration of the possibility that my mother and father might appreciate my action, especially my mother. In my heart, I still carry the burden of having made my mother cry bitterly on that evening. The image of my mother bending her body like a red boiled shrimp is still alive. I dedicate my senko stick incense to that image.

Some people say that deeds must be matched with thinking. If you don't believe in a particular system or religious belief, then it is not a good idea to perform the ceremonials, they claim. On the other hand, dedicating senko stick incense and visiting the Buddhist cemetery might be considered as something that belong to social customs, and can be performed within the secular context, with admittedly a certain level of religious connotations. The religious sayings of a Buddhist priest might be treated as a music to the ears, functioning quite respectively without its religious content or intent. Conceding to my mother this way can be regarded as a betrayal of my own world view, or as just following a convention which one can pursue with a clear conscience.

How to mourn for the deceased is both a matter of convention as well as a system of actions tightly coupled with the philosophy of life and death. In recent years, new ways of "disposing" of one's remains have emerged. For example, one may wish to have one's ashes taken into the space, propelled by a rocket. In co-existence with such trends of the new era, traditions continue to take strong holds, reflecting the momentum of history.

It is not just my mother. There are people who become quite serious concerning their own tombs. Things related to one's own death seem to occupy a special place in life. Human beings take special interests in one's way to look at life and death. I myself am naturally concerned with my own life and death. The thing is that it does not show as a concern about how I am to be buried.

We are all mortal. When faced with death, we all weep with the body bent like a red boiled shrimp, cry aloud, or get captured in a rage which one cannot really control.

The time may come when I weep without regard to the onlookers concerning my own death. On that poignant evening many years ago, such a moment visited my mother. My time might come any moment. We all die. Nobody is indifferent to the questions of life and death.

The cover of "Ikite Shinu Watashi"


renpoo said...

And then, how do you think about life and death "RIGHT NOW", Dr. Mogi?

You may have interests on this series of Zen books.

For me, I want to return my body to the Earth immediately. "Every third thought shall be my grave", that's all.

Wendy said...

Thank you for translating this into English so more people can read your words. I really enjoy your writing and insights.

Petrusa de Koker said...

From your essay I get the impression that your mother has very high emotional intelligence. Please to let her know that when she passes away and (if I am still alive) I get to know of this, I shall put a flower in a vase to commemorate her life and the miracle of how she grew up in a city that was protected by clouds from a nuclear bomb.
I agree with you in that I don’t want to have a particular grave/tomb for myself either – I am not concerned with what happens to my physical remains (hopefully all organs can be used for transplants and there will be very little left to discard).
However, I do not think that when one dies, that is just the end of it and there is just nothing after that. I have to let you know that you will live on for quite some time after you died. You will be alive in the respectful memories of colleagues who regard you highly and in the fond and loving memories of family and friends who will miss you dearly.
On the other hand, our concepts of time, birth, life, death and numerous other things, are indeed very much limited to our human experiences within the physical world that we see/hear/touch (and can measure) around us. At some point we may just discover that we know very little. …or that we have known all along, but we regarded our knowledge as worthless and did not give it any thought.
Your essay actually made me think a lot more stuff than these scribbles above. Sadly I have to go now and cannot ponder this some more right now. Somehow I am starting to wonder whether I should not rather ponder this some more instead of going to this meeting where we shall discuss the reconciliation of our customer’s accounts, worth millions and billions of meaningless Dollars/Pounds/Euros.

Atsushi Kaneko said...

Hi Mogi san,

I enjoyed your journal, and imagined that your mother might be afraid of not being loved by you, after her passing.

Then, I remembered that MY mother have been saying she dislike being buried, but her ashes want to be let in the sea instead.
I realized that my mother also could be afraid of not being remembered (loved) by me.

So, in the near future, I want to say to her that I will make her tomb near the sea and visit the place after she died.

Mogi san, if I have a chance, wanna talk about it. take care!