A few nights ago we participated in a zen Buddhist memorial service for a long time friend. Looking around the zendo I recognized many faces. Some were connected to the zen center, others were there simply to wish a fond fare-forward to our dear friend who had passed from this realm 49 days earlier, and to support his wife.
Today is Good Friday, the day Christendom remembers the death of another, one Jesus of Nazareth. T.S Eliot, writing about this day, the Crucifixion, and our inevitable aging and death, noted:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
That quote comes from the Fourth Section of a long poem, East Coker, a poem which is a section of a yet longer poem, The Four Quartets, which delves deep into the mystery of spirit, death, and transcendence.
I grew up reading T.S. Eliot. Although my family was staunchly Protestant, Eliot’s attention to the dark and human sides of Christianity drew me. I could readily look past his Catholicism and Classicism , and set aside his deep conservatism and rumored connection to Fascism. Today, as an elder, I continue to find Eliot’s poetry profoundly moving. His work moves me, even as his behavior and politics disquieten me. Eliot reminds me that our actions and beliefs are not always congruent with our faith. How human he was, even in his seeming detachment from humanity.
Throughout Eliot’s work one finds bits of text that might have arisen from Buddhist sutra. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the above quote. Although we might prefer to imagine otherwise, our bodies ultimately break down and we die. That is the simple truth, a Noble truth.
But perhaps the story does not end there. Easter is built on a complex web of story from Eurasia. Innana, Demeter, and Istar, all women goddesses, offer us the possibility of rebirth. Tammuz and Adonis are two males who fill a similar role. Jesus’ life and death took place in a cultural epoch heavily influenced by these stories. Certainly the leaders of early Christendom would have been well versed in them.
In Asia and Native America, as in other parts of the world, there are strong and abiding traditions of rebirth. We are taught to care well for the remains of those we hunt, so they may find rebirth and nurture us, and our kind, in the future. In many Native cultures, rebirth is a given and women are routinely visited by the spirits of recently passed family members requesting rebirth through them. Buddhism and Hinduism take rebirth as fact, and much is done to support those beloveds who have recently passed to choose wisely and well their next lives.
This week we have marked the Spring Equinox, and began the celebration of Passover and Easter. Each of these celebrates new life and the promise of rebirth. Yes, our bodies do grow old and die. Yet these traditions, and the traditions of Indigenous people from many cultures, say there is more to our lives than that. There is a promise of rebirth.