Tag Archives: 49 Days

Everything about the 49-day travails of the dead.

And on the 49th Day

Memorial service

Kanji Hitomi

On Saturday, April 22, 2017, I attended the 49 Day memorial service for Kanji Hitomi, a member of a prominent family at the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church. My wife and I held a 49 Day service for her mother last year, but this was the first stand-alone 49 Day service I’ve attended. The attention paid to our deceased relatives, especially parents, is one of features of the Nichiren Shu practice I’ve found very rewarding.

Ven. Kenjo Igarashi offered his explanation the 49 Days after someone dies. The retelling is for those in the audience who are not members, but I always find it interesting.

Here’s my recollection:

After dying the body of the person is kept from moving with 49 nails. Each seven days seven nails are removed and a trial occurs. (I’ll admit to some confusion with being secured by nails and the previous tales of having to climb a mountain on the first seven days and crossing a river on the second, but I’m happy accept both concepts.) On the 35th Day, the deceased meets with Emma-o, the god of the underworld, who has a VCR and tape of every action of the deceased’s lifetime. No detail is left hidden as this karma is detailed.

On the final trial on the 49th Day, the last of the nails are removed. The deceased is in a room with a judge. The room contains six identical doors. One leads to hell. Another to the world of animals. Another goes to the world of asuras where everyone fights all the time. One leads to the world of hungry spirits. One returns to the world of humans. The sixth door leads to a heavenly realm. There is no way to tell which door leads to which realm. The judge silently motions for the deceased to pick a door.

The deceased’s karma determines the choice but the prayers of the living can transfer merit that can improve the lot of the deceased.

All of those attending today’s service were invited to join the family at a local Chinese restaurant where dishes favored by the deceased would be enjoyed by everyone.

Rev. Igarashi gave me a ride to the restaurant and while we were sitting together eating, he mentioned that this luncheon serves a special purpose. The feeling of satisfaction in dining and the camaraderie of the diners is transferred to the deceased.

I’ve considered myself a Buddhist for nearly 30 years, but it is only in the years that I’ve attended the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church and delved into the teachings of Nichiren Shu that I feel genuinely Buddhist.

That’s just me. Your mileage may vary.

Paramita Week

March 26, 2017, service

Today was the Ohigan ceremony at the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church, during which prayers are offered for our ancestors, to transfer our merit to them to ease their burden.

Ven. Kenjo Igarashi’s service reminded us that Ohigan is also the final day of a weeklong focus on living the life of the Six Paramitas.

The Six Paramitas, also known as the Six Perfections, are:

The bottom line of Buddhist practice, Rev. Igarashi explained, “Don’t make bad actions.”

At the last service, Rev. Igarashi explained that the first seven-day trial for the deceased is to climb a treacherous mountain. The heavier your karma, the more difficult the climb.

Today, Rev. Igarashi explained that the second seven-day trial involves crossing a deep river. Those with little or no bad karma can cross on a bridge but those with heavy karma are forced to cross by bobbing to the surface, sinking to the bottom, and bobbing to the service until they reach the other shore.

He also made an effort to explain the third seven day trial but something was lost in translation. The third week apparently involves snakes and cats but how and why were unclear.

The Final Climb

Flowers and the altar on Sunday, March 12, at the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church

Today was the Kaji Kito purification ceremony at the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church and appended to that was the 7-Day Memorial Service for a prominent member of the church. After the service the Ven. Kenjo Igarashi offered a reminder of the purpose of this and the other memorial ceremonies.

In the first seven days after passing, the person must climb a steep hill. The difficulty of the task is compounded by the weight of the person’s bad karma. Someone who did many evil deeds would be burdened by a great weight during the climb. The prayers offered during the service and daily during the initial seven days seek to transfer our merit to the deceased in order to ease the weight of their bad karma.

Following the explanation Rev. Igarashi was quick to point out that the recently deceased church member had “no bad karma” and therefore had an easy climb.

Rev. Igarashi’s most recent newsletter lecture – The Similarities Between Ohigan and Volunteering – seeks to counter the criticism of modern Buddhism that it is too focused on funerals. There is much to agree with in his conclusion:

[D]uring this month of Ohigan, we must get together and recite the sutra and chant the Odaimoku in order to help those spirits that cannot rest in peace or are unable to cultivate their own virtue, and approach this in the same manner that we approach what is considered to be “volunteering.”

O-Kay Pure Land

Pooh Blustery Day My son celebrated his 25th birthday earlier this month. They’re born and then they’re gone. Left behind are little ghosts, such as the toddler who loved Disney’s animated Winnie the Pooh stories. When he grew older, the Pooh stories were his retreat when anxiety struck.

“I need a Pooh movie,” he would say, and we would gather around the VHS player and watch together.

Last night, after watching the final U.S. Presidential Debate and the CNN commentary – you really can’t polish this turd – I needed a Pooh movie.

Having no personal equivalent of A.A. Milne’s classic tales, I chose instead to listen to an hour-long, four-part lecture about “The Pure Land in Nichiren Shu Buddhism.”

Seriously, this was a perfect Pooh movie.

Link to Youtube playlist
Link to YouTube playlist

The lecture is given by Rev. Kanto Tsukamoto at the Nichiren Shu Buddhist Temple in Dagenham, a suburb of London. (The first of the videos says the lecture was given in 2014 but it was only uploaded on YouTube between Oct. 15 and Oct. 18, 2016.) The videos are the creation of Choeizan Enkyoji, the Seattle Nichiren Buddhist Temple. (YouTube, Temple Website)

The first part of the movie offered a clear explanation of the fundamentals of Nichiren Shu doctrine, along with a very compelling explanation of why we practice both for personal merit and for the merit of others.

Of course, the bulk of the video covers the difference between the Pure Land of Amitābha Buddha and the Pure Land of Sakyamuni as taught by Nichiren Shonin.

The title of this post comes from the explanation of how one gets to the Pure Land after death. Followers of Amitābha Buddha believe one is reborn in a Pure Land far away in the West. This is called O-Jo.

The Lotus Sutra, in particular the 16th Chapter, teaches that there is no Pure Land separate from this Saha World.

The [perverted] people think:
“This world is in a great fire.
The end of the kalpa [of destruction] is coming.”
In reality this world of mine is peaceful.

For Nichiren followers, there is no difference between the pure land of Mount Sacred Eagle, where Sakyamuni preaches the Lotus Sutra, the spiritual land of Mount Sacred Eagle.

Although I always live here
With the perverted people
I disappear from their eyes
By my supernatural powers.

When they see me seemingly pass away,
And make offerings to my sariras,
And adore me, admire me,
And become devout, upright and gentle,
And wish to see me
With all their hearts
At the cost of their lives,
I reappear on Mt. Sacred Eagle
With my Samgha,
And say to them:
‘I always live here.
I shall never be extinct.
I show my extinction to you expediently
Although I never pass away.

Upon death, one is not “reborn” in a distant land. Instead, one passes through to the pure land of Mount Sacred Eagle. This is O-Kay.

The Gohonzon is the link between the real Mount Sacred Eagle and the spiritual Mount Sacred Eagle. It is our anchor. With our practice and study for ourselves and others we build a real pure land in this world.

If you are feeling anxious about things, this is a wonderful video to watch. We Bodhisattvas are stronger together.

The Northeast Gate to Enlightenment

Flowers on the altar July 3, 2016
Flowers on the altar July 3, 2016

Attended the service at the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church. It was a generic Sunday Service, as compared to, say, the Obon service coming up July 24 or the monthly Kaji Kito purification service, which will be July 31 this month. This is the service most like the daily service Nichiren Shu followers perform at home.

Each opportunity I have to attend services I am thankful that I pushed through my own insecurities and made the necessary efforts to start my Nichiren Shu practice. I hope some day to convince more people to experience this joy. There is more to this practice than funerals, although I must admit the topic comes up a lot.

During Ven. Kenjo Igarashi’s Gosho he discussed a local funeral he participated in earlier in the week. After the service he gave me a copy of his prepared remarks from that service because, as he explained, he knew I was interested in the topic of the 49 Day Journey after death.

Here’s the pertinent part:

In these difficult times, families usually also wonder where the deceased go after their passing. Every religious tradition has their beliefs and own understandings of what happens. As many of you know, in Buddhism we believe that the deceased goes on a 49-day journey after their death, where they will reflect on their lifetime of memories. They will be reminded of the most joyous moments of their life, as well as some of the difficult times as well. Nichiren Shonin knew of the hardships that one might face throughout this journey, as explained in a letter to one of his followers:

“I, Nichiren, am the world’s utmost devotee of the Lotus Sutra. If you pass away after me, remember that there are many trials that you must undergo (throughout your 49-day journey). Pass each trial by declaring in front of the judge that you are the follower of Nichiren, the world’s utmost devotee of the Lotus Sutra. When you must cross the fast ripples of the deep river, the Lotus Sutra will become your boat. When you must climb the treacherous mountains, it will become your vehicle. And when you must travel along a dark road, it will become that glimmer of light in the darkness. I, Nichiren, will promise to wait for you at the entrance to the Northeast gate to Enlightenment, so that you do not lose your way.”

I’ve created a “49 Days” tag so that it will be easier to gather these pieces together at some time in the future.

An arrangement of  white flowers in front of the church to the right of the altar.
An arrangement of white flowers in front of the church to the right of the altar.

Memorial Day Weekend

The white memorial ribbon written by Ven. Kenjo Igarashi for Mary (Michiko Wada) Buchin, my wife's mother, for her 49 Day Ceremony.
The white memorial ribbon written by Ven. Kenjo Igarashi for Mary (Michiko Wada) Buchin, my wife’s mother, for her 49 Day Ceremony.

Memorial tablet honoring my parents.
Memorial tablet honoring my parents.
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.

For more about the 49 Day trials see God in Heaven and Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day

Mother's Day, May 8, 2016
Mother’s Day, May 8, 2016

On April 15, 2016, at 6:10am Eastern time, my wife’s mother died. She had been in hospice care at home for several weeks. The end was not unexpected, but as happens it was still a surprise. This is the first death of a close relative since I became a Nichiren Shu Buddhist.

One of the important aspects of Buddhism and especially Nichiren’s teachings is the practice one does for others, especially parents.

When my wife’s mother died I had been reading Kaimoku-sho. In it Nichiren writes:

Filial devotion preached in Confucianism is limited to this life. Confucian sages and wise men exist in name only because they do not help parents in their future lives. Non-Buddhist religions in India know of the past as well as the future, but they do not know how to help parents. Only Buddhism is worthy of being the way of sages and wise men, as it helps parents in future lives.

Back in March, I wrote about Ven. Kenjo Igarashi’s discussion of death and the 49-day ceremony for the dead. Recently I asked him if he could put this teaching in writing so that I could better explain it to my wife. In response, he used the 49-day journey as the topic for his May sermon included in the church’s Nichiren News newsletter.

The Significance of the 49-Day Journey After Death
Last November marked the 40-year anniversary since I first became an overseas minister. Since then, I have spent these past several months reflecting on my various experiences throughout my journey as a Buddhist priest in the United States. It led me to realize that while I have much more that I wish to tell to you about Buddhism, there are also many concepts that need further explanation. One example that comes to mind is the importance of the 49th day memorial service for the deceased, which is specific to Buddhist traditions. Its significance is often times downplayed or even forgotten, when compared to the notion of holding funeral services. I wish to elaborate on this topic by briefly taking you through the 49-day journey of the deceased.

When an individual passes away, it is said that 49 nails are hammered into their body and soul, restraining both the physical body and soul from moving. Every seven days, starting from the day of the individual’s passing, until the 49th day, we hold memorial services for the individual. Seven nails will be removed every seventh day, until all 49 of these nails are removed, to ultimately free the deceased’s soul. On the 49th day, there will be a trial or hearing held in front of the so-called ”judge”, who will be standing in front of six gates, bearing no signs. However, we all know that each of these gates leads the individual to six possible realms of existence. These include hell, those of hungry spirits, animals, ashura, humans, or the heavenly beings. Everyone wants to either return as a human being, or enter the realm of heavenly beings. This judge in front of the six gates, will not guide this individual to the proper gate, but only instruct them to choose one. The individual will choose the gate based on what they may think is only instinct, yet this decision will also be guided by the actions that the individual took during their time on this earth.

While it may seem as if we take little part in the deceased individual’s 49-day journey, this is not the case. One way we can assist them, is by chanting ”Namu myo ho renge kyo”, which as you know, is the name of the Buddha nature that we all possess. We chant this odaimoku throughout the 49 days to call upon the deceased individual’s Buddha nature. If you recall, the Buddha nature can be imagined as the inside of a seed, while the outer shell represents bad karma resulting primarily from previous actions. Whenever we chant the odaimoku, the Buddha nature slowly grows. While this is a slow process, the more we chant, the more the Buddha nature shows, until it finally appears by sprouting through the outer shell. If the Buddha nature does not appear at the end of the 49 days, the individual will not be able to reach Enlightenment.

While death signifies the end of an individual’s time in this world, it does not mark the ultimate endpoint of their spirit. Please remember that your Buddhist practice can serve an important purpose in providing happiness for not only yourself, but also others, including the deceased.

God in Heaven

Ven. Kenjo Igarashi serves members of the Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church, but also Nichiren Shu practitioners in Chicago and elsewhere. As he was mentioning last week, he performs a lot of funerals. At last week’s service, he offered an outline of the reason behind the Japanese traditional 49 day ceremony for the dead. It went something like this:

When a person dies the “spirit” is nailed to this world with seven nails. Every 7 days, a trial is held before a judge/prosecutor, with a different deity in charge at each hearing. Different things in the dead person’s life are considered in each hearing. The “spirit” is not allowed to present a defense. Instead, prayers of family members serve to mitigate any bad things or enhance any good things. After each hearing a nail is removed.

On the 49th day hearing, the last nail is removed and the deity in charge points to six unmarked doors. The doors are gateways to the six lower realms — hell, hungry spirits, animals, angry spirits, humans and heaven. The “spirit,” now free, must choose which door to exit. The prayers of family members help make the best choice.

In my brief exposure to Nichiren Shu, I’ve discovered quite a spectrum. For example, I find Rev. McCormick, with his rigorous academic approach, at one extreme end of the spectrum in regard to deities and their role in Buddhism and Rev. Igarashi at the other extreme. (I suspect Rev. Igarashi’s 500 days of esoteric ascetic practice has that effect.)

When I read the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren’s writings, I feel deities ought to be a real aspect of Buddhism. But how? Our modern world makes it hard to “believe” in deities. Personally, I enjoy what I term my “What if…” openness that accepts infinite possibilities with a bemused smile.

I have to give you an example. This is from Nichiren’s Rationale For Remonstration With Hachiman (Writings of Nichiren Shonin, Doctrine 1) :

The Sutra of Transmission of the Buddhist Teaching, fascicle 1, speaks of the previous life of Venerable Kasyapa:

Once upon a time there lived a Brahman named Nyagrodha in the Kingdom of Magadha. Because of the great merit of his good acts for a long time in a previous life. . . , he was immensely rich and piled up vast wealth in this life. . . , which was worth a thousand times more than that of the king of Magadha. (…) Although he was very wealthy, he was childless, so the Brahman said to himself, “My days are numbered, but I have nobody to inherit my treasures filled in the warehouse. I wish to have a child.” Thus the Brahman prayed to the forest god in the neighborhood for good luck of having a child. Having prayed for years without any luck, he became furious and said to the forest god: “I have prayed to you for the last several years to no avail. I am going to pray to you from the bottom of my heart for seven more days. If it does not do any good, I am going to burn down your shrine.” Hearing this, the forest god in agony relayed his problem to the Four Heavenly Kings, who in turn reported the matter to Indra.

Indra looked around all over the world, but could not find anyone worthy of being Nyagrodha’s child, so he went to the King of the Brahma Heaven for help. With his divine eye, the King of the Brahma Heaven then closely observed the whole world, finding a heavenly being in the Brahma Heaven who was about to die. The King told him that if he was to be reborn in the human world, he should be born as a child of Nyagrodha Brahman in Jambudvipa. The dying being answered that he did not want to be reborn in a family of a Brahman because Brahman dharma includes many evil and false views. The King of the Brahma Heaven told him again: “Nyagrodha Brahman is a powerful man of virtue that there is no one in the world worthy to be born as his child. If you are reborn to his family, I will protect you lest you should fall into “evil view.” Thereupon the heavenly being in the Brahma Heaven answered, “I will respectfully follow your words.”

The King of the Brahma Heaven then reported the turn of events to Indra, who in turn informed the forest god. Elated by the good news, the forest god called upon the Brahman at home saying, “You should no longer have a grudge against me. Your wish will be fulfilled in seven days.” As expected, the wife of the Brahman became pregnant in seven days and gave birth to a baby boy ten months later. (…) This is Venerable Kasyapa today.

This is just a fun story by modern perspectives. But “What if…” and you smile and consider how rich is the universe of 3,000 realms at this moment.