Walking into the wrong funeral, and crying with the loved ones: A small Zen Meditation

Walking into the wrong funeral, and crying with the loved ones: A small Zen Meditation June 16, 2023

St John comforting the Virgin (Rossetti)




Michael Coren, a writer and late vocation priest in the Anglican Church of Canada whom I quite admire, recently offered an anecdote on social media.

I took a funeral recently where a woman told me at the reception that she was actually at the wrong ceremony. She didn’t know the deceased. I’d seen her crying, however, and gently asked why. ‘I was already here’, she said, ‘so thought I’d just join in.’

It immediately reminded me of an anecdote from the Record of Layman Pang.

Layman Pang and his daughter Lingzhao were selling bamboo baskets. Coming down off a bridge he stumbled and fell. When Lingzhao saw this she ran to her father’s side and threw herself on the ground. ‘What are you doing?’ cried the Layman. ‘I saw Daddy fall down, so I’m helping,’ replied Lingzhao. ‘Luckily no one was looking,’ remarked the Layman.

Some of my dharma relatives use the story of Lingzhao and her father as a koan.

Koan. As in a presentation of the fundamental matter wrapped up with an invitation.

With this I find myself caught up in a moment where the universe presents. The older story might have a dash of history to it is joined up with an event that took place a week or so ago. Dream and reality touching each other, a kiss between intimates.

All of it presentation and invitation.

One of the more popular images of the Buddha shows him sitting crossed legged, with one hand touching the ground. It’s called the Bhumisparsha mudra, the earth touching gesture, calling on the witness of the earth. Which can be taken several ways. Obviously the world is being called upon as witness to the subtle teachings of the Holy One. But, also, as the Zen teacher John Tarrant observes, the touching, or, in the case of Lingshao, “that falling on the ground, while terrible, is also wonderful—the taste of dirt, blood, coffee, oranges, tears, sweat—the taste of life itself.”

In these two anecdotes we’re being invited into something. A kiss. A taste of dirt. Life and death.

And so that woman who wandered into the wrong funeral.

It’s like the set up to a joke. And from one angle, maybe. But there’s so much to this. If we’re willing to give it our attention.

For me the subtle way is never about absenting myself. But rather while being fully aware each moment fades faster than that proverbial morning dew, the moment itself. Well. As Issa famously sang. Even so, even so…

Of necessity we live in rising and falling. But there is also the feeling of it. All of my best analysis is well and good. Might even be helpful now or then. But, when I remember as precious as a analysis and fine words are, there’s something else going on. Always. For me the sequence of mind bubbles returns to that old saw the the Zen teacher Robert Aitken repeated on occasion, “Fine words butter no parsnips.”

We meet the moment. There’s a funeral eulogy. Friends and relatives speak of joy and sorrow. And tears flow. How can we not cry with them?

The tears are witness. The earth witnesses. Life. And with it, death. Box and lid. Mystery dancing with mystery.

Intimate as intimate can be.

And if that were the end of it, it could be sufficient. Empathy is not unique to humans, but it has a lot to do with what gives us our souls.

And, of course, in the older story, in the Zen way of taking it as a koan. Luckily no one was looking.

This is a critical bit. And I hope it isn’t missed in the grand equation. There is our temporality. That moment which passes. Falling to the ground to help dad. Crying among the mourners. There is the great play of causes and conditions which become our lives in all that means. That joy. That sorrow. Striving and losing. Building up and tearing down. You know.



Each instance as fully experienced as it is, with our helping and our hindering, well it is also all of it, each bit, each thing, also: is: totally: empty. Words fall away. Life falls away. Death falls away. Falling away falls away.

Behind, with, and in front, no one is looking. Just as the Heart Sutra tells us. Well, if we’re paying attention.

We join that fact with our full attention to the moment and our liberation is assured. The peace that passes all understanding. Heaven touches the earth.

And. Well.

Walking into the wrong funeral, and crying with the loved ones.


About James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford is an author, Zen teacher, and Unitarian minister. His sixth book the "Intimate Way of Zen: Effort, Surrender, and Awakening on the Spiritual Journey" is due in the spring of next year from Shambhala Publications You can read more about the author here.
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