One of the core tenets of Buddhism that temple sermons have focused on recently is impermanence. The messages have felt particularly timely — change, loss and death have often seemed like the only constants during the unprecedented challenges the world has been facing for the last few years.
I learned that my grandfather had passed away on the last day before winter break. Granddaddy was my rock, a steady comforting presence who would always greet me with a big hug and a bigger grin. He always seemed to be hiding a smile, waiting to let the world in on his latest joke or a humorous new saying from one of his golf buddies. Even now, writing about him in the past tense feels wrong, like any second I’ll hear the phone ring and be greeted by his customary, “Hello, is this Miss America speaking?” on the other end.
While my grandfather’s health had been declining for a while and his passing wasn’t COVID-19-related, it still came as a shock to me. I had been so sure that I would get one more visit, that I would see him in person in just a couple of days.
Jodo Shinshu Buddhism holds that all events are interconnected — that there is a direct, if not always apparent, cause and effect to every action. Amida Buddha’s compassion is extended toward all of us: in our times of joy, in our times of sadness and all of the times in between. The primary lesson I have learned from my time attending services at the local Berkeley Buddhist Temple is that we are never alone.
There is a chain of compassion linking all of us together, whether we realize it or not, with links built from the care we receive from family, friends, our communities or simply from strangers who have us in their thoughts. When we are happy, others are happy. When we are sad, others are sad. We have all caused problems for others before, just as others have caused problems for us, and we have all helped others before, just as others have helped us.
It is easy to feel lost and adrift during these difficult times. The world is changing rapidly, and personal sources of stability that many of us depend on have taken hits. My faith helped ground me when my grandfather’s death caused me to fall apart; listening to and reading the teachings of Jodo Shinshu ministers has helped remind me to focus on the now, cherish the loved ones I still have and value the love and lessons I have received from those who are no longer with us.
Impermanence is a fact of life, but Sakyamuni Buddha teaches us that it is one of the main sources of suffering in our worldly existence. Learning to live with impermanence and live through loss are two of the most important but difficult lessons any of us can ever learn. For me, knowing I am not alone has been a comfort.
I have struggled to relearn how to healthily process my emotions — between depression and years of pretending everything was OK, I forgot what it was like to not try to be perfectly in control all the time. It’s not a personal failing to feel shattered and not know how to put yourself back together after a loss or a major change.
Granddaddy was a devout Christian. Some of my earliest memories are attending Christ United Methodist Church on Sundays with him and my grandmother, marveling at the stained glass windows and doodling on the notepad he always had in his pocket when I started to get fidgety. In all the time I knew him, Granddaddy was steadfast in his faith. Before I was born, he had a heart attack that stopped his heart for minutes. After he was revived in a near-miraculous medical intervention, he said he had seen heaven.
Religion was a great comfort to my grandfather toward the end of his life. Even without the assurance his “second birthday” experience brought him, the promise of an afterlife is a good one. Just as his faith eased his passing, my faith has helped my healing from his loss.
I have found a new appreciation that the core tenet of Jodo Shinshu is that Amida Buddha loves all beings and embraces all of us with infinite compassion. While Amida Buddha gave us his vow that all beings will reach his Pure Land after death, he reminds us as well that we are never alone in our suffering during our lives. With how rapidly changes have occurred over the last few years, we all need to remember to give ourselves some grace to recover.
My religious faith has helped me keep my faith in myself, in humanity and in our shared future during the pandemic and all of the challenges it has brought with it. Keeping faith during troubled times can be difficult. I was lucky to stumble into a religion that complements my values and brings out my faith at a time that I needed it. Cultivating faith, be it in religion, humanity or something else entirely, can sustain us at our lowest and help support us when we need it most.
With the new year comes hopes of last year’s troubles fading. But too often, one year slips into the next seamlessly, appearing to be just more of the same, and optimism gives way to fatigue. Even in the darkest of times, though, faith can be a reminder that we are not alone; that even at our lowest we can still extend compassion to others; and that we are loved.