In a Sad Irish Send-Off, a Buddhist Smile

On this day, seven years ago, my Mother passed away after a relatively short yet noble, fully clear-headed and utterly valiant battle with pancreatic cancer.

The eldest daughter of immigrants from Country Cork, Ireland, a PhD in biochemistry in an age when women in the sciences were exceedingly rare, a devout daughter of the Catholic Church who plunged that demographic and social rarity back into the passionate schooling of other young women at an all-girls Catholic high school, a mother of nine children who all graduated from university, devout daughter of the Catholic Church, she was, in all things and all ways, pure unalloyed naturally self-manifesting otherworldly simplicity, unadorned by the slightest conceivable mark of artifice or fashion, conservative in a way that was principled and intelligent yet unrigid and even also persuadable through sound reason (as long as that reason did not defy flagrantly the tenets of the Faith, which was fair enough), humble to an almost pathic degree, and a true and living saint of balance, impishness, and timeless casual wisdom about whom my boyhood friends would sometimes snicker, “She’s Yoda!”

The day before her funeral, a massive blizzard pummelled the entire Tristate metropolitan area. Despite this, we were able to assemble to her rural church near the NJ/Pennsylvania border a bagpiper from deep in Pennsylvania and family and friends from several states in New England. A crew of Zen monk-brother-gangsters packed a minivan and came down from the Korean temple in Tappan, NY. They were told — as I’d been instructed by the presiding parish priest — that no non-Catholic songs or rituals would be permitted in this consecrated Catholic cemetery (including even the singing of “Danny Boy,” which nearly every Irishman asks for but which my Mother — ever a fierce soldier of the Church! — had anyway pre-emptively asked us please not to request).

Yet several moments after the casket was being lowered into the ground, out of view forever, with the priest and his co-servers still traditionally a-gowned and starting just then to head back to their hard-earned post-ceremony repast in the old stone church, the unmistakeable sound of the wooden temple moktak sounded out across the baleful rows of snow-covered headstones, and the classical Sino-Korean “Heart Sutra” was being offered at her gravesite by my rule-bending monastic brethren. It was the first time in several tense days of family life among grieving siblings that I’d nearly burst out laughing.

Few would understand this natural release but those who have looked deeply inside for long. The eternal truth of the Heart Sutra’s “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form”, as your Mother’s decaying mortal remains your own birthing-sheath are lowered out of sight forever, in a cemetary-sea of melting snow, with a varied group of Western and Eastern humans Christian, Buddhist, and agnostic dispersing into the sunny-chill of a Saturday afternoon turning already toward evening — the truth of that joyous laughter welling up out of the chest felt so incongruous, so flagrantly impolite, yet so incredibly right.

“Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

Film courtesy of by Carl J. Santoro.

How honoured I was to have the monks and nuns of Mu Sang Sah Temple in Korea — including Dae Bong Sunim himself, and Dae Jin (Mu Shim) Sunim — perform her 49-day memorial ceremonies and one-year memorial ceremonies in the Main Buddha Hall of Mu Sang Sah.

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