Gratitude and Connection in Loss

I don’t usually make this blog about myself. It’s more about ideas, insights, moving forward on an ongoing path of wisdom and compassion. However, sometimes, what’s going on in my own life is key to that sharing – to potentially helping others find further progress and acceptance on their own. Furthermore, it’s healthy for my own processing of the confusion I’m going through.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had very few brushes with physical death (versus the death of an idea, a relationship, a period of time, etc. with which I have much experience). I’ve had pets die and some great grandparents who were not particularly involved in my life regularly. A classmate died in high school. A family friend or two died over the decades. Otherwise, I’ve been more or less spared. However, now, at 35, I’ve experienced significant loss. My dad died a couple days ago.

I’m not sure if I’m in shock or have handled this great life transition with a modest amount of grace. I cried and was upset for the first few hours after having heard but moved on to feeling grateful for having had him as a father and feeling grateful that his suffering was short and that he died, rather than surviving his ordeal as a debilitated shell of himself — I feel that may have been harder for he and my mom to bear than saying goodbye on a high note, albeit sudden and tragic.


Sighs, creaks, heavy heart
Yellow blossoms spring to life
Greetings at the window

The morning after, I saw exactly that – the yellow blossoms of spring that grow alongside the Japanese cherry trees. This was my first time seeing them this year, and I immediately thought of the cycles of life and death, of how everything comes to an end — and how it might be painful, cold, and dark — but in the end, something new comes to be. Everything that we see and experience is in flux. As Dogen, the famous Zen philosopher, described it — it’s all being-time. The ashes of the burnt wood are no longer the wood, but they are the subsequent state of change linked but inherently divided from the past — a paradoxical threshold that shows the process, the lack of inherent essence to things: that point where the wood is not-wood and not-not-wood. In other words As Ovid said in The Metamorphoses (a title that in itself captures the dramatic changes of existence):

Omnia mutantur, nihil interit. (Everything changes, nothing perishes.)

Yellow tree

The same tree in my front yard around this time last year.


I’m extremely lucky to have had my dad as a father. I can’t claim that he was always great, kind, or insightful; we had our difficulties — as do all relationships. That being said, few people have had the quality of excellence that he had. I’m taking this opportunity to take some inspiration from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in evaluating that my dad had a happy life and that he was a man with excellent qualities which are rare to find, an evaluation that can’t really be done until a life is complete.

I’m actually lucky to have both my parents as my parents. They’re equally amazing but in different ways. In an odd way, they’re like yin and yang – my dad had a keen mind which tempered an overwhelming greatness of heart and emotion. My mom has a warm heart that tempers an extremely powerful mind. Through the cocktail of their genetics and growing up with them as my models and teachers, I learned both of their strengths. My dad gave me the emotional warmth and calm that draws many to me, generating feelings of support and understanding, and he also taught me that these depths of feeling are not weaknesses unlike our current understanding of masculinity in American culture. In looking back on my time with him and his life outside of me, I have so much more to learn from him still, whether he is physically here or not. As above, he’s still “here” just as a different aspect of the process, a different being-time.


Our lives are not written. We write them. However, as we write, our story takes shape, and certain words, plot twists, and styles of expression become more and more likely to follow. We create words, a story, a voice in the universe which shines and reverberates forth as an unfolding path of neverending light–ever-changing, dynamic, but with direction. Rather than the gloomy story already decided, the tangled yarn of fate as usually understood, fate is both defined and indefinite, deciding and decided, bound and boundless, free choices made within discreet limits and an open future limited by the karmic consequences of choice. It is the paradox of luminous emptiness and karmic interdependence.

– From a previous post: “Fate???”

The term “karma” is very misunderstood in common parlance. It’s not about “what goes around, comes around” or mystical mojo. It’s a succinct and insightful understanding that our actions, even our thoughts, have effects. The word karma in Sanskrit means “action”. That’s all. However, karmic theory emphasizes that actions bring about associated events. It’s not quite the billiard balls of cause and effect that we modern Westerners might hold onto from the scientific advances from the Enlightenment. Think of it more like planting seeds. Planting a seed doesn’t mean it will grow into anything, but if you plant it, water it, and place it in favorable conditions, that likelihood goes up.

I can hear you crying, “Get to the point, good sir!” Well, my point is: I don’t believe in anything like a soul. The entire universe is a constant flux. All composite things are impermanent. I think that the concept of a soul is an attempt to make us feel better about our egos no longer existing. In a sense, it’s a natural reaction to facing death with self-consciousness. Yet, my dad will live on forever. How so? His actions, his karma, will resonate through the universe in countless, myriad ways both subtle and immense. This will happen through the people he influenced and the people they will subsequently influence, through the choices he made, and through anything else he shared in his time here — both “good” or “bad”.  This applies to all of us, we are all resonating instantiations of being-time, not objects, things, or souls, as much as a human becoming — an unfolding event of a human life that is intertwined with the entire history of the cosmos.


Raucous ribbits ring
Croaking Casanovas’ cries
Dark hides spring’s embrace

When I was running last night, inspired by memories of my dad to go running — an interest we shared, I ran through a sea of frogs’ voices, almost as loud as the similarly raunchy goings-on of a college house-party. It was thrilling to hear them crying out so loudly, so lustfully displaying nature’s vibrance — not even bothered by my feet clonking nearby.

These natural signs of change are quite meaningful to me in understanding the changes of life that are brought about by my dad’s death because nature was certainly his greatest passion. I can imagine him being just as awed as I was by the crazy cacophony of croaks that we lacked the wetlands and temperatures to hear in my home region. If he were a disembodied spirit, trying to console me (because he certainly wouldn’t want me to be sad or miserable), he would point to moments like the frogs to show me the wonder of the universe that is all around me, that change is an ongoing thing that brings both joy and sadness — it’s merely our interpretations of them that bring those feelings, not the cycles themselves.

Whatever he is now, whether merely an echo reverberating throughout the universe’s unfolding wonder or in some sort of afterlife I have yet to know, I’m grateful that this excellent person was so directly connected with my life and that he imparted his own kindness, heart, and wonder to me. I still have much to learn from my memories of him.


May anyone who has lost a close family member find their own peace and wisdom in these words, insufficient and cerebral though they may be.

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Rebirth

From dead earth
Life springs anew
Green stalks grow
Bright flowers bloom

Nature’s cycles
Birth, growth, death
Unfolding
In every breath

Before & after
We conceptualize
But Now is
Presence of our lives

Be with this
Each moment – rebirth
This emptiness –
Celestial mirth…

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May this inspire you to presence in the rebirth of every moment. May spring’s blooms help with this inspiration.

Gassho!

Visit to the Tsubaki Grand Shrine

Recently, I went to the Tsubaki Grand Shrine–the 1st Shinto shrine built in North America (although moved from its original location in California to the current one in Washington State). It’s only about an hour drive from my place, surprisingly enough.

It’s located in some serene woods northeast of Everett, WA. It sits nestled amidst trees, alongside a soothing river. I can think of no better location for a religious shrine of a tradition that praises nature in all of her rhythms, cycles, blessings, changes, and unfoldings.

There were many altars, laced with traditions and rituals, speaking to the genuine Japanese heritage of this shrine–not some second-rate American attempt. For instance, there was a column with the animals of the Chinese zodiac carved around it, chasing each other endlessly through the ongoing years of the calendar.

Chinese Zodiac Column - Tsubaki Shrine

There was also a basin with long-handled wooden ladles for cleansing one’s hands and face before entering the nearby door to the shrine proper. The basin lay below an awning, keeping the water from being fouled by falling leaves, and a wise, kindly dragon stood above and behind it, his stony visage protecting from spiritual impurities.

A few steps away, a thick rope hung from another awning, attached to a large bell. This implement for announcing oneself at the temple entrance was above another basin–this one empty of water, but the open space was meant to collect offerings from visitors.

Tsubaki Shrine entrance

I’m standing at the entrance in the background, and the washbasin is in the foreground to the right. The description of the shop that follows is hidden behind the washbasin area.

To the right, a window displayed many small amulets and talismans that visitors can purchase for blessings in the year ahead.

My companion and I asked questions about the amulets, and the middle-aged, Japanese woman called out to her “sensei” to help us. She disappeared behind a partition and was soon replaced by a white-haired, Western man in his later 50s who answered our questions with gusto and greeted us to the shrine. He even let us inside to use the restroom despite the entrance having been cordoned off for the day already.

He pointed out a “portable shrine”–a large, golden relic atop wooden struts with colorful supports holding the shrine in place–and explained there are festivals which will require this. One is in Bellevue in September. We immediately agreed to go.

Here it is as well as the shrine’s reverend. This was found on the Northwest Public Radio’s site: nwpr.org.

After this, we walked outside and looked at the other altars for blessings and contemplation below the main shrine. There was a small enclosure, overgrown with moss and populated by some kami. Nearby, there was a board to hang small plaques with wishes for the kami to read and bless.

Guardians

Here are the guardians sitting atop a boulder in that small enclosure.

Further down the past was a large stone orb on a pedestal with instructions for a prayer that should be said three times while rubbing the orb. It is supposed to bring overall well-being to one’s life and relationships. This pedestal overlooked the peaceful course of the river below, which we walked down to and admired after each struggling to pronounce the Japanese prayer (written out for us poor gaijin in Romaji, so it was possible to phonetically sound out) three times. 🙂

Good Luck Prayer

Here I am saying the prayer and rubbing the orb.

Near the pedestal, there was a simple post with the wish that peace prevail on Earth written on it in numerous languages…

May Peace Prevail

The peaceful post with the river in the distance…

Finally, at the end of the path below the main shrine was a small shrine adorned with statues of mystical, white, Japanese foxes–those magical creatures of Japanese lore. This shrine had several of the iconic Japanese arches before it–in red and gold.

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Just beyond the arches, before ending at the fox shrine, there was a large stone in the shape of what looked like the yin from a yin-yang symbol. A plaque explained its meaning as well as the tripartite Shinto symbol made of three of these swirling icons. The plaque said that Shinto beliefs hold that the entire universe down to the structure of subatomic particles is composed of spirals. Thus, the spiral is a symbol for revering the myriad and mysterious unfoldings of nature. I was awestruck by this simple yet profound praise of Nature in a quaint forest glade. Here was a simple pointer to the wonder of All rather than “my” mastery of it.

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“I am sure everyone who visits the shrine is struck by the mysterious and undeniable beauty and the peaceful atmosphere that surrounds it. These are things I still notice everyday when I arrive. I find the earlier mornings at the shrine to be a true treasure because these are the times I can feel the world awakening around me. I love walking down the main path, listening to the birds and the river while seeing the morning sunlight shining through the trees. I can’t help but feel connected at these moments.

I’ve noticed while helping to maintain the shrine grounds it can often feel like you’re fighting an unwinnable battle against the forces of nature. You can pick up hundreds of leaves but more are constantly falling onto the ground, areas that have been cleared of weeds all of a sudden have weeds again a week later, and areas that have been raked soon need raking again. However it has dawned on me that maintaining the shrine grounds is not a struggle with nature but is instead an important part of the natural order of the shrine. Leaves fall and I pick them up; it’s part of the cycle. In a way it’s a balancing act between nature’s chaos and the human need for order. By clearing the shrine grounds, you get to be a part of the process.” — Teddy Rodriguez, a volunteer who helped maintain the shrine for some months–taken from the Shrine’s newsletter

May this adventure inspire you to see your engagement and interaction with nature. May it help you see your place within it, not different, not separate–but a piece of the whole; spirals all the way down.

Gassho!