Dying last words

Rev. Ryoko Osa

Often in movies, when people are dying, they say to family members, “I love you… Thank you for everything… Please take care of yourselves.” However according to medical professionals, such last words are rare at life’s end.

Typically when death comes, our minds drift between dream and reality. We recall old memories. We loose our sense of time and can’t even tell the time of day. For most patients just before death, a cloudy consciousness renders them unable to speak meaningfully.

You may be lucky enough to give words of appreciation to family and friends before dying, but in reality, it probably won’t happen.

Which is why we should express our appreciation and love in daily life. We should live each day as if, “Today is the last day of my life.”

I’ve seen temple members where I’ve worked in Berkeley, Los Angeles and Hawaii, express appreciation and love to others naturally on an everyday basis. I admire their kind words and smiles, making me want to be like them. They express their love, maybe because of their personalities, or maybe because they understand the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. All of the great world religions teach the importance of love and appreciation.

For me, it’s hard to express such feelings to others, even though my mind understands the importance. I think a big reason is because I grew up in Japan. We tend not to express our emotions, especially feelings of love.

Our life will end someday, but before we die, I think we should tell loved ones: “Thank you for everything … I wish you great happiness.” I think it’s hard especially for people who grew up in Asia. I don’t think it’s particularly good or bad, but rather, it’s just a cultural difference.

Perhaps long ago in Japan, Nembutsu followers expressed their feelings with the words, “Namu Amida Butsu.” They aren’t our words; they are words of the Buddha. An individual’s mind, opinion or emotion is quite small, compared to the greatness of “Namu Amida Butsu,” which encapsulates the whole of human life and history. My life is but a single wave in a vast ocean. With this feeling, I think Nembutsu followers fold into the ocean, becoming One with the Great Life, expressed by the name, “Namu Amida Butsu.”

In trying to express our feelings, it’s human nature to choose words that may be self-serving, vain, or even false. By contrast, “Namu Amida Butsu” is pure and boundless. This is why the wish of generations of Nembutsu followers is to keep alive the words, “Namu Amida Butsu,” rather than their own personal views, teachings or words. This truth is so much greater than our own thoughts and desires.

Rather than think just about transmitting our DNA and bloodline to future generations, or conveying our personal wishes to our children, the greater more meaningful wish is to transmit the Nembutsu teachings to our children and future generations. In this way, our Jodo Shinshu funeral services and memorials are ways to carry on this important teaching.

May our lives transcend our own individual history, and may our minds and feelings fold into the great ocean of Life and Oneness.

Rev. Daiei Kaneko, an important Jodo Shinshu teacher of our denomination (1881-1976) wrote:

Petals may fall, yet the flower remains.

Their form is gone, yet loved ones live on.

Eternity shines light on the future

From the depths of the present.

Eternity’s light comes from beyond life and death,

Constantly shining on us.

When reciting Nembutsu

We feel eternal light shining within.

We may not see the Light. We may not see Eternity—the Big Life. But when the sun rises, light shines everywhere. We feel eternity’s light. Our life is illuminated and we see we’re living the Big Life.


Rev. Osa is minister at Berkeley Higashi Honganji temple, California.



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