Though I was living in Los Angeles when the Hsi Lai Temple opened in 1988, I hadn’t had an opportunity to visit there until this past weekend. I happened to be in the LA area for my aunt’s funeral and on Facebook I heard about the service for Aaron Lee at Hsi Lai.
The service was held at the Memorial Pagoda, a building out of sight for tourists since it is behind the majestic Main Hall. Inside the pagoda there is a round room with seating for about 100 people (during the service the doors were kept open for the seated and standing overflow crowd). At the start of the service, a nun who looked and sounded like a teenager, explained the program. Each person was handed a pamphlet with the chanting in Chinese characters and romanized pronunciation (they used the Wade-Giles spelling, so this post uses nien-fo rather than the Pinyin spelling nianfo). The nun asked us all to chant with the handful of monks and nuns leading the service. She said the chanting was for Aaron to hear, “and he is more familiar with your voices than ours.” I was prepared to fold my legs under me to sit seiza on the cushioned row-bench but she asked us all to stand.
[behind the Main Hall, no photos were allowed at the Memorial Pagoda]
The crowd which consisted overwhelmingly of Chinese Americans of Aaron’s age (late 20s to early 30s) seemed to have no trouble following the shifting melodies and pronunciation of the chants. During the Heart Sutra, I fell into chanting in Japanese since it was easier than reading the romanized syllables for the Chinese. Then during the chanting of Namo Omito Fo (which the pamphlet said to do a hundred times), the nuns distributed cut flower blooms and directed us to go row by row to offer up the flowers to a tray on the altar.
During this chanting, I let my tears flow with the tears of those around me. The calling of the name of Namo Amita(-abha/ayus) Buddha was the music of mourning, seemingly endless but not feeling tiredly repetitious. I started out singing loudly but then had to do it sporadically as I felt weak and light-headed from the hecticness of the weekend and anemia (side effect from chemotherapy). It took bouts of concentration to keep myself from losing consciousness.
When the nuns and monks saw the lines for the flower offering coming to an end, they switched to the shorter “Omito fo” and a swifter melody. The chanting was brought to a close, then the service continued with the Dharma talk (the young priest gave one of those “I didn’t know the guy, but here’s what you better know about Buddhism” sermons), some moving personal tributes and a slide show. Although reference was made to Aaron’s “be the refuge” essay, it would’ve been nice in that setting if someone could have riffed on that.
It is difficult for me to even think of being a refuge for anyone or anything at this time. For me to follow Aaron’s example of helping and encouraging others, I’ll need quite a few more hyakumanben (100 x 10,000) of nien-fo (remembrance of what awakening is). Yet if I contemplate the “ultimate refuge” that Shinran sings about in his verses (Jodo Wasan), I see Aaron Lee has been a part of that refuge, or rather, he has become that refuge. As I keep pointing out – the working of Namu Amida Butsu comes to us in very concrete ways, not as giant magic fingers from the sky. Aaron Lee - in his life activities and his words – is the manifestation of Amita(-ayus/-abha) for me and hundreds of others, showing us the path of ego-transcendence.
The young nun at Hsi Lai told us to chant so Aaron would hear our voices, but in the hundred-fold repetitions of nien-fo it was Aaron calling to us by the names of our true selves.