I came to the practice of Zen at the height of the AIDS epidemic, overwhelmed by the stress of people close to me falling ill, and without much sympathy from Christian churches. These days I have a mature meditation practice and a supportive Episcopal Church and neighborhood parish to help me through tough times, as have arrived since the death of my husband Hal in March. People have remarked how well I seem to be doing.
The truth is, life has not been so smooth in private. Meditation has been difficult. My mind wanders and frets. Praying with words brings some comfort, but I’ve always felt God already knows anything we might say, that prayer out loud is mainly for ourselves, to clarify our own intentions and to show support for one another. My grief feels far beyond language. My main intention right now is: “HELLLLP!”
In timely fashion I happened upon an article in the Buddhist journal Tricycle on Shin Buddhism, the major branch of the faith in Japan, in which chanting and not meditation is the main practice. Chanting my way through this loss seemed as bizarre an idea as breathing my way through the AIDS crisis once did. But I tried it, and the repetitive calling on Amida Buddha, somewhat of an eastern equivalent to the Risen Christ, has helped short-circuit the loop of shock and sadness in my head, reminding me to trust forces beyond my small self in coming to terms with what has happened and charting a new course in Hal’s spirit.
Shin Buddhism has been likened to Christianity in its language of grace and salvation and divine power, though some Shin practitioners don’t like the comparison, not wanting to be associated with some Christians who believe in a exclusionary and punitive God separate from our own being. Reading up on Shin Buddhism I stumbled on a coincidence involving Hal.
Last June, needing to deliver a sold painting and wanting to catch a Cubs game, Hal and I arrived several days early to the Old Town Art Fair, a prestigious show held in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. In our search for a safe place to put our van, the Old Town folks suggested we contact the Midwest Buddhist Temple nearby, which provides parking and support to artists during each year’s fair. The temple members were happy to accommodate us, and we traded a few details about my Zen practice and their faith.
Hal was intrigued to hear about Shin Buddhism’s church-like Sunday services without long periods of meditation. He was never interested in silent sitting and contemplation, Zen-style, saying he got that in the garden and the art studio. “But I’d come with you to services here,” he said. We talked about arriving in Chicago early again and checking out the temple the Sunday before the following year’s fair.
Having cancelled this summer’s shows after Hal’s passing, our plans at Old Town had faded in my memory, until I ran across the Tricycle article and realized the Midwest Buddhist Temple houses a Shin congregation. Not only that, it turns out their service this Sunday – the very service Hal and I had talked about attending – is a memorial for those in the congregation who have recently lost loved ones.
I contacted the temple to reintroduce myself and ask about this Sunday’s service. They are glad for me to join them and honor Hal among their own. “Please plan on staying for some conversation so you can tell us more about Hal,” read the gracious reply.
Thus will my beloved garden meditator receive his Buddhist tribute. The temple is quick to point out, though, that the service is for the benefit of those left behind. Our loved ones are safe ahead of us in the pure land of immeasurable light and life.