Briefest ruminations on the death of a child

I’m just back from assisting the facilitation of a service at the cremation of a child who lived four hours. I first wrote that last line “of a child who lived only four hours.” But, I realized what I was feeling and wanted to express here is that there was no need for the modifier “only.”

As I mentioned in an earlier posting from when I was gathering materials for possible use at this service, there is that old story collected as a koan in 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 not necessary but interesting to know that Mazu, Great Master Ma, one of the most wonderful of our Zen ancestors in fact died shortly after this encounter. 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 sings “So listen to this fleeting world, a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightening 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 real beyond. And that is the teaching of some spiritual traditions.

But not the ones I follow.

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 are also true, but only in so far as we give them, our lives, 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 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.

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And a Blessed 21st of April to All!
  • fausto

    Our Unitarian forebear John Quincy Adams wrote this, under similar circumstances. I love how it expresses both the poignancy of the moment and the prevailing Unitarian theology of the era:To a Bereaved MotherSure, to the mansions of the blest,When infant innocence ascends,Some angel, brighter than the rest,The spotless spirit’s flight attends.On wings of ecstasy they rise,Beyond where worlds material roll;Till some fair sister of the skiesReceives the unpolluted soul.That inextinguishable beam,With dust united at our birth,Sheds a more dim, discolor’d gleamThe more it lingers upon earth.Closed in this dark abode of clay,The stream of glory faintly burns:—Not unobserved, the lucid rayTo its own native fount returns.But when the Lord of mortal breathDecrees his bounty to resume,And points the silent shaft of deathWhich speeds an infant to the tomb—No passion fierce, nor low desire,Has quenched the radiance of the flame;Back to its God the living fireReverts, unclouded as it came.Fond mourner! be that solace thine!Let hope her healing charm impartAnd soothe, with melodies divine,The anguish of a mother’s heart.O, think! the darlings of thy love,Divested of this earthly clod,Amid unnumber’d saints above,Bask in the bosom of their God.Of their short pilgrimage on earthStill tender images remain:Still, still they bless thee for their birth,Still filial gratitude retain.Each anxious care, each rending sigh,That wrung for them the parent’s breast,Dwells on remembrance in the sky,Amid the raptures of the blest.O’er thee, with looks of love, they bend;For thee the Lord of life implore;And oft, from sainted bliss descend,Thy wounded quiet to restore.Oft, in the stillness of the night,They smooth the pillow of thy bed,Oft, till the morn’s returning light,Still watchful they hover o’er thy head.Hark! in such strains as saints employ,They whisper to thy bosom peace;Calm the perturbed heart to joy,And bid the streaming sorrow cease.Then dry, henceforth, the bitter tear:Their part and thine inverted see:—Thou wert their guardian angel here,They guardian angels now to thee.

  • hafidha sofia

    I think so far this is my favorite post of yours (that I’ve read).

  • Tom Armstrong

    Manual Backtrack: This post has been nominated for three 2008 Blogisattva Awards, Best Post of the Year, Best Buddhist Practice or Dharma Post, and Best Kind and Compassionate Post.