I have heard a Zen anecdote……..
A very wealthy Mandarin in the city of Suzhou was throwing a grand banquet for his patriarch father to celebrate his 91st birthday. As a way to flaunt his wealth as well as to show his filial duty to his patriarch father, all the scions of the society, rich and powerful landlords and important Imperial officials were invited to the feast.
The Mandarin also invited a Zen monk, a famous calligrapher and who was very much revered for his Buddhist teachings in the city, to give
blessings to his father and to the continued well being, happiness and wealth for his family.
At the banquet the Mandarin requested the esteemed Monk to pen a calligraphy of prosperity, longevity and happiness to commemorate this great and auspicious occasion.
With the scroll of rich red vermillion rice paper laid out on the beautifully crafted antique rose wood table, the Monk rose to the occasion, his countenance now serene, tranquil and with a single-minded focus to the task on hand. The whole banquet hall suddenly fell into pin-dropped silence and everyone waited expectantly for the delivery of his great masterpiece as most of them would be the first time witness to the works of this legendary calligrapher.
With elan and flourish the Monk rolled up his right golden saffron sleeve to his elbow, dipped the thick paint brush onto a jade inkpot filled with black scented ink and with elaborate penmanship of a single, bold and powerful stroke the calligraphy came up thus:
“Grandfather, Father, Son Dies”
As the Mandarin looked on aghast, the Monk ordered a serf to hold up the scroll, turn and pan it slowly round to the audience. The audience of the whole banquet hall grasped in horror. How could a reverend Monk do such an incongruous and demeaning act to the gracious host on such a happy and joyful occasion as the celebration of the great patriarch birthday?
This was insulting and might bring calamity and misfortune to the family for the whole year round.
However, the Mandarin being a well learned and wise man realized the palpable tension and the volatile atmosphere might turn unpleasant if he reprimanded the Monk. The Mandarin would lose face and appear as uncouth in front of all the societies honored guests and his subjects.
He smiled and politely requested the Monk to interpret his calligraphy.
The Monk said, ”For us to enjoy peace, harmony and happiness the events of birth and death in a family should happen according to nature’s sequence order of natural death. This way the older generation would not moan over the death of a younger generation. Would it not be bliss then?”
The audience broke into a thunderous applause.
I have on a number of occasions attended funeral wakes where grieving parents sent off their sons or daughters who died suddenly in car accidents, of ill health and freak accidents or simply been caught in the wrong time and wrong place.
Their initial reaction when faced with the sudden departure of their loved ones is one of shock and disbelief, yesterday the son was alive and well and today he laid stiff in a casket coffin laced with lavender and white lilies. Lying serenely in the tight confines of the wooden elongated octagonal box with a rectangle glass opening, his cadaverous face still smiled impishly, the eyes closed in a perpetual state of eternal rest and the body covered in soft white satin. Kith and kin, relatives and friends from near and far came to say their last goodbye and tears flowed in their eyes as well as in their hearts. Such heart wrenching scenes will leave one numbed and one would realize that a life can be as fragile as a gossamer’s thread, suddenly broken and never to be joined again.
The grieving parties will not have the space and time to grieve during the wake as they have to attend the rituals of the religious ceremony of sending off the dead. When the funeral wake is over, when their friends go home, when all one carried back from the funeral home is the photograph frame (and a few days later the urn containing 6 or more pound of ashes, if the deceased is cremated) and when one is at home then the full import of the loss suddenly dawns on them. It is really painful when one has the luxury of time to grieve.
At first it is self-denial, refusing to accept the situation that the loved one has left us. Then one will take numerous guilt trips, blaming oneself for the sudden death, imagining and creating a number of ‘ifs’ situation where the deceased would not be in such a place when he met his death and the whole nightmare will not happen. After a long while, time still heals but it will never be the same again. Most parents never recover from the death of their children.
My cousin passed away a couple of years ago when he was 49. His mother, my father’s sister, was 87 then. At that time she was still sane. At the funeral wake she refused to acknowledge the death of her beloved son. She sat outside with friends and talked normally but refused to go inside to view the coffin. Her mind actually has snapped and she was in a state of denial. It was so pitifully to see an old lady in such great pain. One year later she died of grief.
My parents also have sent off my eldest brother in China and a sister too, but they were infants then and the wounds healed faster.
So in my daily prayers, I pray that my parents do not outlive me and I do not outlive my children.