Pilgrimages to sacred Buddhist sites led by experienced Dharma teachers. Includes daily teachings and group meditation sessions. A local English–speaking guide accompanies and assists.
Can a lie be right speech?
The call came from Enloe Hospital at 3:30 on a fall afternoon. A Japanese Buddhist woman, Chinatsu, was dying. I would find her, I was told, in Room 302 of Enloe’s oncology ward. Her family had gathered and had asked for me to come. I had been the hospital’s designated Buddhist spiritual caregiver for several years but had never before been told to hurry if I wanted to see the patient alive.
At the hospital, I took the elevator to the third floor, only to discover that Chinatsu had died a few moments earlier. A ward nurse informed me that the family was waiting for me. Down the hall, I found 20 or more family members and friends packed into a small waiting area. A young man in a suit and tie greeted me with a bow and held open the door to a room where another dozen or so family members were gathered. When everyone from the waiting area had squeezed in behind me, there were close to 40 of us pressed tightly around the dead woman’s bed.
The young man serving as my guide whispered to me that most of those present were Shin Buddhists. I took it that he was suggesting how I should proceed, but I’m a Zen Buddhist and have only slight familiarity with Pure Land practices. My first instance of wrong speech that afternoon, I suppose, was a lie of omission: I didn’t admit to my shortcomings but instead tried to figure out what was best to do under the circumstances. When it comes to lying I’m not at all sure that I know when it’s best to lie, or even whether or not it’s ever best to lie. Nonetheless, I put on my rakusu (the traditional bib-like garment that represents a Zen monk’s robes), clasped the palms of my hands together, and set out to make the best I could of what little I knew of Shin Buddhist ceremonies.
Seeing this, everyone grew still, and an air of expectancy settled over the room. Less than an arm’s length from me lay Chinatsu. Although her body had been ravaged by the cancer that had killed her, I could see that she was still a beautiful woman in her late forties or early fifties. In my years as the senior Buddhist chaplain at High Desert State Prison in California, where most of my students were Shin Buddhists, I had learned a few Shin practices. And so I prayed that Amida Butsu—Amida Buddha, ruler of the Western Paradise of Ultimate Bliss—would take Chinatsu into his care so that she might reside in the Pure Land, the cherished destination of all devout Shin Buddhists.
Understand, I don’t have any belief in a Pure Land. In truth, I have no belief (or for that matter, disbelief) in an afterlife of any sort. Zen is not a repository of belief, either positive or negative, relying instead on the circumstances of the moment to dictate what needs to be done without imposing any preconceived intent on the situation at hand. The only pure land I know of is the dirt under my feet. So my prayer for Chinatsu’s deliverance was, I suppose, a great falsehood, although my intention in offering it was not false. Or was it? Was I simply trying to save face and not appear unqualified? If so, then my patched-together prayer was a falsehood of the most self-serving sort. But if I was saying this prayer because 30 or 40 grieving family and friends were depending on me to perform an essential cultural ritual— and because, like it or not, I was the only spiritual caregiver the hospital had to offer at the time—then I’m not certain what sort of falsehood I was engaged in. I said some other prayers more or less of my own invention, and everyone seemed satisfied.
Japanese Shin Buddhism teaches that deliverance to the Pure Land is a grace bestowed on anyone who sincerely chants Amida Butsu’s name. At the prison, I had run into considerable resistance among the Shin Buddhists when I tried to teach them meditation, which they thought useless, because for them salvific power lies solely in the recitation of “Namo Amida Butsu,” Amida’s vow. Since Chinatsu could no longer chant on her own behalf, I thought maybe we would all feel better if we chanted for her, to help her on her way to the Pure Land. And so I began chanting “Namo Amida Butsu.” My guide seemed especially pleased with this, and he took over leading the chant as the whole room joined in. I chanted along with them until, as if by a signal, they all stopped at once. In the absence of sharing any belief in what we were chanting, I voiced a genuine wish that their hopes for Chinatsu’s deliverance to the Pure Land would be realized.
Afterward, I asked if anyone wanted to say something to Chinatsu. A few did, speaking in Japanese and sometimes, as a courtesy to me, in English as well. Then a woman wearing a soft blue cap worked her way toward me from the rear of the group until she stood opposite me on the other side of the bed. “I think Chinatsu would like you to say something about God,” she said firmly. A few others murmured assent. It was only then that I saw, partly hidden in the folds of Chinatsu’s gown, a tiny cross strung around her neck. The woman lying dead before me was not a Pure Land Buddhist but a Christian! It was an absurd moment. I could only surmise that the Shin Buddhist practitioners in the room had let me carry on because they preferred that Chinatsu be sent to the Pure Land rather than to a Christian heaven. I might just as well have conducted a Zen ceremony, I thought. Still, if they wanted me to say something about God, that I could manage: fourteen years of childhood attendance at Trinity Episcopal Church in Orange, California, had given me enough Christian liturgy to get by.
And so I began with a few prayers of the sort Reverend Hailwood might have offered in the Trinity sanctuary all those years ago. I recited the Lord’s Prayer, the Twenty-third Psalm, and the Apostle’s Creed, which affirms God as the maker of heaven and earth, the virgin birth of His son, and the resurrection of the body and life everlasting—not a word of which I still subscribed to. This was the last and, perhaps, most blatant lie of that afternoon in Room 302. But despite my disbelief, the familiar words rolled out of me, over Chinatsu, and gathered around us like a rising mist from ancient seas of past beliefs. I couldn’t keep my eyes dry.