Zen Funerals, Rinzai Style: Reflections on the Rinzai-shu Naito

Zen funeral procession
Zen Funerals, Rinzai Style

Reflections on the Rinzai-shu Naito

Glenn Taylor Webb

(What follows is the beginning of a partial translation of the Rinzai-shu Naito and a commentary on the text. The project is a work in progress, and I will be be publishing the parts as they become available.

Glenn Taylor Webb is one of the few Obaku/Rinzai trained Zen priests living in the United States. He was ordained by Miyauchi Kanko Roshi in 1970. He taught Japanese history and culture at the University of Washington and Pepperdine University. In Washington Dr Webb established the Seattle Zen Center which would eventually evolve into the Great Plum Mountain Temple of Chobozen-ji. He now lives in retirement (or, he tries) with his wife Carol in Palm Desert, California. He blogs as Sugoi Sekai.)

All Buddhist funerals regardless of denomination or country of origin are powered by one thing in common: a belief in reincarnation. That is, the doctrine of rebirth based on cause and effect: what you do in one life affects your life in the next. The idea has its roots in India’s ancient Hindu belief that all existence began when timeless, formless, absolute Perfection, or Brahman, began to fall apart when the sense of self, Atman or ego, somehow was born. A finite number of selves emerged, all of which had some memory of perfection, which (for want of a better word) was Oneness. These selves have been in a cycle of birth and death ever since, according to this faith, for some forty centuries of time.

Each self was subject to death, and to the degree it lived its life with a knowledge of oneness with all beings in perfection, its next life would be “high” but those selves with little or no sense of oneness would be “low.” Thus was born the Indian caste system, by which people in each caste have their own Law or Dharma, with rules that if followed, protect their status so that they progress further up the ladder, one life at a time. Hinduism says Perfection will be reestablished after eons of time, once all sentient beings realize their interconnectedness in Enlightenment.

Just as Judaism has its rebel teacher in Jesus of Nazareth, in the first century of the Christian era, Buddhism has Shakyamuni, a prince of a kingdom in northern India and southern Nepal, who lived some 600 years before the Christian era. Jesus claimed to be the son of God, in the monotheistic Abrahamic religion of Judaism. Shakyamuni claimed that anyone in Brahmanism could reach Enlightenment (Buddhahood) individually, as he had. The followers of these two men have flourished for nearly 3,000 years in the Christian and Buddhist faiths, each of which has many denominations that teach a wide variety of recipes for, respectively, salvation or enlightenment.

In my own life I have experienced both religions first hand. I grew up in a Christian family in Oklahoma, but have spent more than half my 81 years studying and practicing Buddhism. First I should say I don’t consider Buddhism to be a religion in the usual sense. Buddhism is atheistic, unlike Judaism, Christianity and Islam. At the University of Chicago, in the late 1950s, my focus was primarily on the art and religion of East Asia. I did my doctoral fieldwork in 1964-66 at the University of Kyoto in Japan. I’ve been a professor of Asian studies for nearly fifty years, here and in Japan.

I am writing this essay because I want to share something with friends who have asked me many times about my personal experience with Buddhism. Most of them have already read my autobiography, “SUGOIYO – OMG,” where I wrote quite a lot about my experiences in Japan. But I guess I have not shared enough about my Buddhist credentials. I admit they are strange (my credentials, not the friends who are curious about them.) They (the credentials) do not follow the usual pattern for a Western Buddhist. My interests have flitted to and fro all my life.

As for Zen Buddhism, which may be the only form of Buddhism I am completely comfortable with, I sometimes feel uncomfortable as its spokesman. My days as an American Zen priest, giving people their vows and encouraging them to sit longer and harder, are over. To be honest, I cannot say that I believe in any narrative produced by any religion mankind has come up with. I love miracles and mysteries, including those described in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And the Buddhist answer to what happens after we die is absolutely fascinating to me. But my life feels more grounded when I look at those teachings (on reincarnation or the Judgement Day, for example) from afar. That being said, I will now focus in this essay on Buddhism and Buddhist funerals, specifically the funerals conducted in Japan in Zen temples of the Rinzai sect.

By 1968 my time had been divided for five years between academic studies and rigorous training in Rinzai Zen temples. My research took me into over 300 temples in Kyoto, and I was allowed to practice while learning about Buddhism under some of Kyoto’s prominent Zen masters. In 1969, I served as a guide on a pilgrimage to India for my main teacher, the late Miyauchi Kanko Roshi (1893-1980?). He spoke only Japanese, but all of the Buddhist texts he used were in Chinese, which he read in the Japanese manner. I spoke and read Japanese and English (which was helpful in India), and learned to read Chinese like my teacher, in the kambun manner. His Cold Mountain Zen lineage (and mine) derives from the Tang poet-priest Han Shan (J. Kanzan), which took root near Kyoto in Uji, Japan in the 17th century. The Japanese emperor sponsored this new group of Chinese Zen priests to establish a temple there and in Nagasaki. They considered themselves to be followers of Rinzai, but there already was a large Japanese Rinzai priesthood, established 400 years earlier, and they did not accept the newcomers from China. So in Japan the new Rinzai priests were asked to use the name Huangbo (J. Obaku) to distinguish them from the others.

It was in Patna, India that my teacher ordained me as a priest in the Cold Mountain lineage. At the beginning of my studies with him he had given me his own dog-eared copy of a book that he told me to read. He said if I followed everything in it I would be the best Rinszai priest in Japan. He not only ordained me as a priest (osho), or “man of peace” (和尚), but also said he was going to make me his Dharma heir. When I reminded him I was an American with a wife and son, implying that we had no plans to live in Kyoto forever, he simply shrugged and said, “it wouldbe better to live in Japan.”

The book on Rinzai Zen that he gave me was written by the late Ito Kokan Roshi (1890-1972), who named his book Rinzai-shu Naito (臨済宗ないと), which translates as “The Rinzai SectRobe-With-Eyes.” (The last two characters are Chinese characters no longer in use, thus my use of hiragana. But for anyone interested, the first one has the clothing radical #145 alongside the character for “inner” giving the character its “nai” sound; the second character is pronounced “to” and is made up of “person” on the left and “seeing” on the right.) I can’t begin to say how many hours I spent with this book. It soon fell apart and I replaced it with the 1975 version (it’s gone through at least two more editions since then.)

My teacher expected me to almost memorize the Japanese eulogies and chants required for a formal funeral, which comprise the last two-thirds of the book. He of course was thinking I would change my mind about not taking over his temple and would have to know these in order to officiate at a Japanese funeral. Funerals, after all, have been the primary responsibility of Buddhist priests in Japan since the 6th century. The first part of the book gives detailed instructions on everything a priest must do properly, from folding his robes to wringing out a washcloth. The proper way to sit in zazen — arranging one’s legs and hands, and in general adopting a posture that will afford the fastest (if most painful) way of reaching the deepest levels of perception — all of that is spelled out in great detail.

In 1970 I established the Seattle Zen Center at the University of Washington. Of course, each time I was in Japan afterwards I spent time with my teacher. We even met again briefly in India when he was there with a group of Japanese clergy. Unfortunately, sometime around 1980, I heard that he had died, and when I went out to see his wife in Kameoka, the temple was no longer there. The site was being prepared for a new apartment building. I wasn’t able to find anyone who knew where Mrs. Miyauchi was, or even if she was alive.

This has been very hard for me. I feel obliged to carry on his legacy in the Cold Mountain lineage, and to some extent I have been able to do that thanks to some very accomplished students who have received priest-ordination from me. One notable case is Dr. Kurt Spellmeyer, who is head of the writing department at Rutgers and oversees the Cold Mountain Sangha there. One of his students from India, Dr. Kritee Kokan, visited the Cold Mountain Temple in Hangzhou after her ordination and is now leading a Zen group in Colorado. And then, although I can’t claim him in my lineage, there is the Rev. Genjo Marinello of Chobo-ji in Seattle, who started with me in the temple of Tokugan-ji that the late Genki Takabayashi and I established. But Genjo became Genki-sama’s successor.

So the Cold Mountain lineage of Rinzai/Obaku Zen, is alive in America, but sadly, is no longer alive in Japan. Martin Hughes, one of my Seattle students was able to receive full ordination in the Myoshin-ji Rinzai Zen establishment in Kyoto, and even took on the responsibility of a small temple (and the families associated with it) in Osaka. I know of no other American who learned Japanese and trained hard enough to achieve that. But even that wonderful circumstance came to an end with Martin’s death in a tragic accident in the Philippines shortly after a group of Pepperdine University students and I visited him at his temple in 2000. (I published some of his writings privately in 2015, under the title “Stories from an American Zen Abbot in Japan.”)

But now, let me share some highpoints of the wisdom in the little book I received from my teacher. Funeral Protocol (葬儀法要章) begins on p. 146 and goes to the end of Rinzai-shu Naito. It opens with the priest’s sermon on reincarnation to the friends and relatives of the deceased (whose body would have been prepared and placed in an open casket, often in the same room.) Everyone sits on the floor at long low tables set with trays of food. The meal is a formal, ritualized temple meal, the model for Japan’s classic kaiseki cuisine. After the meal, the priest may offer some old Buddhist statements on the Dharma, found also in wedding instructions to couples getting married, such as, “Do good, not bad,” and “Make swift towards goodness, and keep your heart-mind far from evil.” Then the officiant offers a sermon on reincarnation:

“Pious Ones, the Transcendental Wisdom scriptures teach us that good actions (now) are born from good causes (before), and bad actions (now) are born from bad causes (before); and therefore, we must always turn away from creating bad causes, because they produce bad results in the future. If we plant melon seeds, melons will be produced. And if we plant eggplants, eggplants will be the result. That’s the law of nature. There are no exceptions! People in general, however, do not understand that the same law applies to them. So sadly, our bad actions tend to pile up, producing more and more bad results.”


     “Therefore, [If I say] ‘the law of cause and effect is not harming me now,’ that means I am being careful not to create more bad karma now. There are good and bad causes, and I must create good karma, do things that I know are good. I must understand that I am a prisoner to the law of cause and effect. I must remember that doing good now will certainly produce good in a future life. And by choosing to behave compassionately now, I am creating good karma for a future life, like a gardener planning a garden. I can never say that in my present life I have realized a true Zen life, no matter how hard I have trained. In the words of Shido Munan Zenji (1603-1676), an inn-keeper who began his Zen training very late in life, at age fifty-two:

‘Ordinary people do not know the truth about the law of cause and effect. Only after they reach enlightenment do they know it fully.’ We have to understand that only when we are at one with the heart-mind do we see our natural separation from the law of cause and effect, and do good for absolutely no reason at all. Then we are practicing true Zen.”

夫れ、”因果の道理は歴然として私なし”であるから、どこまでも悪因を造ってはならない。善因をなせば 必ず善果が到来するものと思い、善果を求めての行といえば、それは造作の人、造業底の人であって、未だ禅宗の修行の真実とはいえない。至道無難禅師の法語にも

”凡夫、因果を知らず、悟れば則ち因果を知る。修行して因果を離る” と。


Some version of this sermon about making the best of things in this life is given by Buddhist priests at every funeral anywhere in the world. In Japan I have found that nobody has trouble accepting the basics of Buddhist reincarnation. First, that each of us in our past life committed actions (created bad karma) that will affect the life we find ourselves in now; and second, that we must try not to do stupid or hurtful things to each other in this life because that will make it hard for us in our lives to come. The Japanese seem to have invented the expression, “What goes around comes around.” They listen politely to such sermons as this the way many Christians do to sermons about what we might expect at the pearly gates of heaven. They accept it without much thought.

While the Abrahamic life-after-death system is scarier for being apocalyptic (only one shot at life for each of us, with God as our judge), the Brahmanic way is perhaps more cheerful in that there is at least the possibility of bliss for everyone (either at the end of time by every Hindu, or individually for be-here-now Buddhists.) Still, we will be judged in all cases, either by our own actions, or by God. Morality and mortality go hand in hand, dancing around good and bad behavior. I think Christians and Muslims, whose religions condemn unbelief as the greatest sin of all, the unpardonable sin, will be pleased to hear that non-believers in Buddhism are not punished at all. None of the Buddhist scriptures and none of the six realms of being mention infidels! Not one of the beings in the hideous hell realm is being punished for not believing in reincarnation or other Buddhist teachings.

The equality of all people, as taught in the U.S. Constitution, seems not to be a feature of these or any religions in history. Spiritual equality seems stronger in Buddhism than in the other faiths, at least at first glance. The Christian view does flirt with equality, at least in Protestant circles that reject the Catholic doctrine of original sin. But other Protestant doctrines do the opposite with their notion of predestination (God having “called” some Christians over others.)

Hindus are taught to consider some people (the “twice-born”) to be spiritually above others by birth. But even they can slip back into a lower caste in the next life. Buddhists are expected to accept things as they are, good or bad, while theoretically interconnected. They do point to the possibility, however, of some few souls being able to slip out into a truly interconnected state of selflessness and full awareness, i.e., Buddhahood.

After opening with the reincarnation sermon, which is the spiritual heart of this section of his book, written to help Rinzai priests address their audiences at a funeral, Kokan Roshi turns his attention to priests themselves, getting down to business on more practical matters. (His priest-name, Kokan, appropriately means “Old Mirror.} He begins with how a priest should prepare for a funeral once he is told a member of his congregation (danka) has died. In Japan the priest’s responsibility is one his father and his father’s father may have had, going back many generations. All neighborhoods in Japan have Buddhist temples, surrounded by families whose members have supported them for generations. In the old days their children attended temple schools, and their dead were cremated there. Today everything is more high-tech, but priests are busy above all with funerals, plus all the memorials that must be conducted almost every day of every year. People are given posthumous names when they die, a name that will identify them symbolically as an enlightened being and not subject to reincarnation. That’s where Kokan Roshi begins his instructions on funeral preparations. First he covers those the priest does privately:

“The first thing a priest in charge must do is confer on the dead person a posthumous Buddha name (kaimyo or homyo) — sometimes called a Dharma name in English. Unless the dead was an ordained priest (who already has such a name), he will need to have one of his own. These are the names the dead will be remembered by forever. When creating that name you should take into consideration the person’s personality and profession. You further must examine their ancestry, paying attention to the bloodlines involved, as shown in the family registry. In this way you can see the dharma names of all the dead’s relatives in the family right up to the present day. Before settling on the new name, you should consult the list of approved names in a Sanskrit-Chinese Buddhist dictionary. This is a very important part of making the path towards Buddhahood for this person free of obstructions. You will also be expected to have the proper robes and utensils available and be familiar with their proscribed use. You must set the days for the preparation of the body, the formal meal, and the cremation that follows. The name you choose for the deceased must be written on the small wooden altar tablets (ihai) as well as on all the ceremonial equipment (containers, banners, etc.) required for the funeral. All of this must be done with care.”


死んだ人に戒脈 のない場合は、その死者に血脈を授ける必要がある。則ち仏法の生命ともいうべき仏戒を滴滴相承して、今日に至った系図書きを授け、仏法信者の信証に相当するものである。次に葬儀に臨む法衣、法具を整え、その当日になって、お位牌に法名を書き、七本塔婆、大幡、小幡、天蓋、その他の書きものを心得ておかねばならない。

Of course there are many scriptures that Buddhist priests must learn specifically for funerals. Most of them are included in the Rinzai-shu Naito, but I will mention only a selection of them here with my English translation alongside our author’s explanations. It may be helpful to remind ourselves that a death in Buddhist Japan involves travel that karmic entities undertake going from death to another life on the wheel of rebirths. Westerners might think of them as souls, but that that would be incorrect, in that Buddhism has no souls that leave the body for a one-way trip to judgement. Relatives and friends say goodbye, knowing that the specific being they knew in life was dead, but that the deeds he or she carried were travelling on past death to another infant life. it is for that reason that posthumous names are given. The old name dies, but the memory of the dead person has a Buddha name that in theory might shine a light on the long road to enlightenment. Reciting Buddhist scriptures (sutras) also help in that regard.

“Pillow Scriptures” (Makura-kyo – 枕経) – These are read just after the body is placed in the coffin (the pillow refers to the pillow placed under the dead person’s head.) The practice is said to derive from an Indian source. In Japan, traditionally, pillow scriptures are chanted (all night long in the old days) by an attendant priest, a tradition that may have started back in the early 1600s when the government decreed that Christianity could no longer be practiced. A dead body was inspected by government officials to see if the corpse was carrying a cross, and also if the funeral service was properly Buddhist. A full recital of Pillow Scriptures would include the Kannon-gyo (観音経) and the Daihi-ju (大悲呪), as well as the Bodhisattva Vows (願以此功徳).

The first of these scriptures is actually the 25th chapter in the so-called “Lotus Sutra” (Saddharmapundarika-sutra.) It is a hymn offered by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni in praise of the Bodhisattva of Mercy, whose Sanskrit name is Avalokiteshvara (C. Guanyin, J. Kannon.) This famous Bodhisattva’s name literally means “One Who Sees the Cries and Sounds of Suffering.” His mercy (or hers, since in China he is popularly regarded as a she) is the model for the compassion that Buddhists may seek and even aspire to develop in themselves.

In Mahayana Buddhism (which includes Zen), we not only hear of the Buddhahood of Shakyamuni, but of other Buddhas, as well. We also learn of an “active” enlightenment achieved by disciples like Avalokiteshvara (who often are described as historical beings) and seem to put the bliss of Buddhahood on hold, as it were, in order to help others achieve enlightenment. The full text of the Kannon-gyo in English is readily available (my favorite is by Leon Hurvitz), but in general it describes, in the Buddha’s own words, how deep meditation is done. He shows how the merciful Bodhisattva’s meditation is not so much inward as outward, in full awareness of the interconnectedness of all being. The Buddha recommends developing that awareness, keeping the Bodhisattva of Mercy always in mind.

The Daihi-ju, the second scripture mentioned as part of the Pillow Scriptures, is a mantra, or dharani, that calls on the names of Buddhism’s long line of teachers, starting with Shakyamuni Buddha, to thank them and ask for help in developing in themselves the same loving kindness. The meaning of daihi (大悲) is great suffering and sorrow, the emotion that often inspires a heart of compassion. In general, a dharani might be called a magical spell, expressing feelings beyond words. But in this case we basically have a prayer of thanksgiving, in both its long and short version.

Finally, by reciting the Bodhisattva Vows, the officiating priest is making the vows himself:   to realize the truth of things as they are, explain how the Buddha’s teachings are related to that truth, never grow tired of teaching them for as long as he lives, and to sacrifice his life to protect those who listen. 真理を悟らせことなく教えを説き、生命を投げ出して正しい教えを守ろう。

Tsuya (通夜) – Funeral Mass (lit., Night Journey).

Scriptures related to the conferring of ordination and posthumous names are the next ones that are offered on behalf of the dead person. Here the priest addresses the dead person directly. But efore continuing further with the scriptures themselves, it probably is necessary to take this space to make some general characterizations of the ancient Indian view of reality upon which much of the comments in the scriptures are based. Our existence as human beings is seen as divided between incompleteness (mayoi no sekai 迷いの世界 in Japanese) and completeness (satori no sekai 悟りの世界.)        Incompleteness includes three levels of understanding, the first being the level of desire (欲) in which we exist, along with the other beings on the Six Paths (六道), and the other two levels, of Form (色) and No Form (無色) – with “form” written with the Chinese character for “color”. Let’s look at our incompleteness first.

We are in the level of desire (欲). But we are far from alone. There are other creatures in that level. in fact, there are six levels, Six Paths (六道) in that level, including ours, the human level (call it level 1). Then in level 2 there are animals, and in (3) humans in hell, (4) hungry human ghosts, (5) demi-gods or ashuras, and (6) devas or gods. Surprisingly (or not), all beings in the Desire Level, are driven by sex and food. This includes the gods! (But they feel very little compassion for others, so we should not aspire to be born in their level.)

Here is what we have been told: Form is exquisite. It is filled with excellence. It has Four Heavens and Seventeen Compartments. But desire is unknown there, as of course it is from No Form, which is beyond form, unaware of form, and unimaginable, completely beyond thought. Some scholars have suggested this is the metaphor for Light and Dark. Bottom line? Neither of them qualifies as enlightenment.

The level of Completeness (Satori) is in a class by itself. That is in a place all its own, because it contains damn near everything and requires completeness for entry. The closest we humans can get to entering enlightenment is … being human. Loving kindness seems to be the key. But let’s listen to the scriptures:

Moja Jukai Ganmon (亡者授戒願文) – Request for Ordination of the Dead.

“Zen Buddhism is the karmic result of the Buddha’s teachings, the life-blood of truth in India, China and Japan. I beg you to recognize in your heart the wisdom of countless Buddhist saints, joining them in receiving priest vows yourself. (For a male): Preserve the strength of your good karma now by planting deep roots in goodness. (For a female): Embrace the virtue of your womanhood and build now the foundation for attaining Buddhahood.”


Moja Jukai Ho (亡者授戒法) – Laws of Ordination for the Dead

The priest says: “As you leave your place in the Three Worlds (三界) and Six Paths (六道) in the Incomplete Universe (J. sekai 世界), I ask you to seek the Complete Universe (J. satori 悟り), with the help of the Bodhisattva Jizo (地蔵菩薩) [who vowed to help travelers from here to there in times when the truth cannot be heard.]

“Revere now, if you please, the training hall that produced the purity of mind in all Bodhisattvas, and receive ordination into that realm. Today the physical is no more. Now as you leave your present body and go towards a Buddha body, make it your duty to prayerfully take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, or more literally [in Sanskrit sharana, and in Japanese and Chinese南無帰依 …] reconcile yourself with the Three Reconciliations by reciting the Three Reconciliations Scripture 三帰依文, which is also recited at any priest ordination ceremony. Pay heed to the goodness of your ordination, for it brings you into the goodness of the Dharma, and puts you in charge of all beings, forever. Here are the words:

“I prayerfully reconcile with Shakyamuni Buddha, his teachings, and his disciples. Likewise with his singular enlightenment, the Dharma’s unparalleled perfection, and the noble peace of its teachers. I seek the full perception and compassion (S. visaya and artha) found in the Buddha, the Dharma, and its teachers. And likewise the full understanding and compassion of all Buddhas (S. tathagata, J. nyorai). The Buddha is my teacher in all lifetimes. May nothing ever become a hindrance to this path.”



[Note: the Rinzai-shu Noto is written in Japanese, mostly in the classical manner, which young Japanese today cannot readily decipher. For them it’s like comparing contemporary English with the language of Shakespeare or even Latin. The first paragraph above is an example of that form of Japanese. The second paragraph above is an example of “pure” Chinese, the form that most of the scriptures in Japanese priest manuals retain, using the original Chinese order of characters. But priests in Japan chant those scriptures in the pseudo-Chinese style, called on-yomi, which is based on an approximation of a southern Chinese pronunciation that Chinese priests used in the 6th century. Japanese Zen priests learn these scriptures by memory, without very much attention to what they mean. Western students of Japanese Zen priests have followed suit.]

Finally, there is the negative side of ordination after death, the “thou shalt not” section of posthumous ordination law that every dead person is under (the same law that priests are supposed to be under in life.) Certainly in our world the law makes sense. Presumably, on the way to Buddhahood, it is possible to go through many different lives, including human life. So in that sense these commandments must be necessary.

“There are ten commandments regarding things that your ordination forbids, as you leave this physical body and move towards a Buddha body. First, it is forbidden to take the life of another being. Second, it is forbidden to steal another’s property. Third, it is forbidden to engage in sexual promiscuity. Fourth, it is forbidden to speak falsely, to lie. Fifth, becoming drunk with liquor is forbidden. Sixth, engaging in criminal activity of any kind is forbidden. Seventh, you are not ever to engage in self-praise. Eighth, being selfish and covetous is forbidden. Ninth, spreading harmful gossip and rumors is forbidden. Tenth, you are not to slander the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Priesthood.” [During WWII, unfortunately, Japanese school-children were taught that the tenth commandment also applied to the three treasures of the government, namely, the Shinto mirror, sword, and sacred necklace bead.]


Moja Jukai Eko (亡者授戒回向) – Mass for Ordination of the Dead










Kichu Hoyo (忌中法要) – Days of Mourning




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