I won’t die. I won’t go anywhere. I’ll always be here. But don’t ask me any questions. I won’t answer.
– The Death Poem of Ikkyu
I’ve been keeping up the memorials this week, lighting incense and saying chants, which are like prayers. You might wonder why. At the bottom of things, “why” is the only question we ever ask.
Some people are drawn to the spirituality of things, the sentiment, but are not so comfortable with the ceremony, which they don’t understand. I tell people that no one understands ceremony. Not understanding is the ultimate understanding.
Although we might be averse to religious things, to what we see as pomp and posturing and mumbo jumbo, we use ceremony all day long in our everyday activities to keep things sane. We get out of bed in the morning, we eat our breakfast, we brush our teeth, we put one shoe on and then the other. These things are ceremony? You might scoff. But consider how the orderly sequencing of activities dignifies and sustains our lives, keeping us healthy and whole.
And so in our tradition we have ceremony to enliven and activate our intentions. When we remember, we don’t just remember with a thought, that triggers another thought, and another, and back into the shadowy depths of inexpressible despair, we remember with an action. Stepping forward. Lighting incense. Reciting chants and names. The place where we take action – right here – is the place that real transformation occurs. The magic is right in front of us, not in our imaginations.
So I counsel you, if you have someone to remember, if you have grief to bear, express it in ceremony. Mark your calendar and do it – light incense or a candle, say a verse or prayer – without ever knowing why. It is the least that you can do, and it is the very most.
Several years ago, my mother died on April 13.
A year after her death, I showed up one Saturday around April 13 at my Zen Center. A fellow priest came up to me without prompting and said, “Would you like to do a memorial service for your mom?”
I was surprised that he remembered the date. “How did you know?” I responded.
He said, “I’ve been doing services for her all along.”
This is how doing the least thing becomes doing the most. Isn’t it amazing?
We just keep going.
All this week, and on the first Sunday of every month to come, I’ll be memorializing lost children and unborn babies in services in my garden. To include the name of a child, just leave a comment. All names and sentiments will be recited. Children from any faith tradition are lovingly included. And I thank you.