Monday, March 01, 2004

Celebrating Buddha's Death

I went to Nehan Festival just over a week ago, the Buddhist celebration of the Buddha's death. I feel as though I've been inundated with everyone's preoccupation with Jesus' death ever since, thanks to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ". I am so not interested in seeing that. Shakyamuni Buddha's death was so different from Jesus Christ's. For one thing, he lived to an old age, and so was able to refine and improve his teachings. The Buddha lived by the begging bowl, and accepted whatever gift of food was offered. Some stories say he knew the food he received was tainted, but for the sake of the giver, he accepted it. Certainly he knew he was dying, and because he lived as a wandering monk, when he could walk no more, he and his followers found a grove of trees where he could lie down. When his students gathered around him, expressing doubt that they could carry on without him, the Buddha gave his final teaching. He said to them, "Be a lamp unto yourself." He told them they already had what it takes, and they could be confident they could express the dharma each in their own way.

During the ceremony, it was as though I felt the presence of Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, in her most goddess like aspect. Her name pinged at me in the chants. The sangha dragon-snaked around the hall, and she inhabited each person that caught my eye. She infused us with great wisdom; in her great compassion she gave us all the wisdom of buddhas and indeed I was seeing buddhas. Our ceremonies usually have the same general format: bows, chants (in this case those used in funerals: The Litany of the Great Compassionate One and Adoration of the Buddha’s Relics), circumambulating while chanting the Heart Sutra, all present offering incense as they pass in front of the altar.

I found myself wondering how much of this vibrancy could be attributed to my improved health. I was recently diagnosed with sleep apnea. The cure is simple: I breathe with the help of a machine when I am sleeping. The litany of health problems associated with sleep apnea is astounding, all stemming from two issues. They told me I stopped breathing up to 80 times per hour. My oxygen levels were 80 percent of normal levels. Each time I stopped breathing, I woke up just enough for my throat muscles to tighten and allow air in, but not enough for me to remember, and consequently I didn't get REM sleep. I realized I had been depressed due to my sudden happiness. The world sparkled again. This ceremony was imbued with rediscovered significance. Of course, this recalls another of the Buddha's teachings, the Middle Way: indulge in neither excess nor asceticism, but maintain good health physically and mentally.

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