In a coincidence of American holidays and Nichiren Shu Buddhist ceremonies, on this Memorial Day weekend my wife and I honored her deceased mother in a 49-Day Ceremony following the church’s annual Eitaikyo service, which honors the deceased who are registered on the church’s perpetual memorial list. This year I had both of my parents and Mary’s mother added to that list. And in a final bit of memorial duty, the priest performed an eye-opening ceremony for a memorial tablet created for my home altar.
As one might expect with memorials upon memorials, the priest’s Gosho lesson following the services discussed the concept of heaven and hell. He explained that Nichiren taught that heaven and hell are within us. To explain this idea, he told a story:
Not everyone goes through the 49-day trials after death. Some, such as Nichiren, are rewarded immediately for their good causes and some who have not done anything good in their lives are punished immediately.
A woman destined for a heaven asked for an opportunity to see hell. Bodhisattvas took her there. She was surprised to see a large table filled with all sorts of food. The food smelled delicious.
At each chair around the table was a spoon with a handle more than a meter in length.
Soon the residents of this hell entered the room and seated themselves around the food. Each picked up a spoon and began attempting to serve themselves. They could only pick up the spoons at the end, which meant there was no way to get the food into their mouths. They scooped up food in vain attempts to eat but eventually left the table hungry.
The woman told the bodhisattvas that she was ready to go to heaven. Once there she was very surprised to find exactly the same food and the same overly long spoons. The residents of this heaven soon filed in and seated themselves around the table. They picked up the spoons and scooped up a portion of food. Each person then fed the person closest to the end of the spoon. One of the heavenly residents offered a spoon of food to the woman. Everyone ate heartily and enjoyed their meal.
I can imagine any number of morals to this story. The merit of serving others first – the embodiment of the bodhisattva practice – is a recurring theme in Ven. Kenjo Igarashi’s Gosho lessons.
Recently, I came across another version of the “49th Day Memorial” service explanation. This was written by Rev. Igarashi when he was bishop of the Nichiren Order of North America and published in the June 1, 2004, “Nichiren Shu News”:
When a loved one passes away the family and friends sink into deep sadness. The forty-nine day period after the death is viewed as a time when the deceased may sink into a limbo, and have to endure barriers caused by past karma.
Initially, in this intermediate state (a place between the mortal and immortal realm) one will face the trials of scaling a rugged cliff (first 7 days). Next comes the river with three currents–slow, medium, and fast movements. A good karma merits a slow current while the worst merits a crossing through strong rapids (second 7 days).
And these trials will continue throughout the third, fourth, fifth, sixth set of 7 days. On the seventh 7-day period, or 49-days, King Yama, Lord of the Dead, finally allows the deceased to receive directions towards a human-like realm.
Thus the surviving ones should not sink into deep sadness but instead pray for the deceased conducting eko, merit transference, so that it bestows the compassion of Sakyamuni Buddha and the loved one will be able to make it through the 49-days.