Q: The other day I went back home for the Bon festival of the dead and visited the family grave. As I did so, I wondered what point there is in visiting graves. Please tell me what Master Shinran taught about the meaning of visiting graves.
A: The doubt you express is valuable, rising I think from a sincere desire to know true Buddhism. As you are aware, there is a widespread belief that during the midsummer Bon holiday the souls of the dead return to their graves, and so people should visit the graves of their relatives to honor them at this time. Master Shinran and Master Rennyo shattered this common folk belief by declaring that such a thing as souls returning to their graves is completely impossible. Those who are saved by Amida are born in the Pure Land when they die and become engaged in great activity, so naturally they are not under any gravestone. Those who are not saved must suffer for ages in the afterlife, so they, too, are completely incapable of returning to their graves. In either case, Buddhism teaches clearly that just because it is Bon, gathering at their graves is not something that is possible for the souls of the dead. On his deathbed, Master Shinran said this: At the end of this life, I shall return to the Pure Land of Amida. He often said this as well: After I die, throw my body into the Kamo River and feed it to the fishes. ----Notes Rectifying Heresy He did not make an issue of graves and funerals. For those saved by Amida now, in this life, graves and ashes are not an issue. True Buddhism completely denies the common folk belief that the souls of the dead return to their graves. The dead do not by any means gather at their graves just because it is Bon. Such a thing could never happen. Then are graveside visits meaningless? No, for by a change in attitude they can provide a precious opportunity to be guided toward Amida’s salvation. Every year, numerous traffic fatalities occur. When figures in the thousands are announced, we do not feel the slightest surprise. Behind the figures are people plunged into the depth of misery: parents mourning a beloved child, children mourning parents, husbands and wives mourning the loss of a spouse. Most drivers who in the space of a moment run over and kill someone also ruin their own lives. Nevertheless, we stare vacantly at the figures, showing not a shred of humanity, our minds completely numb to the specter of death.
Without a sense of life’s fragility, an ardent determination to hear Buddhism will never arise. Morning to night, we are kept so busy attending to our many desires that we have all too little time to look down at our feet. Yet the busier life becomes, the greater the need for reflection. In lectures and comic monologues, no one likes to hear the speaker jabber on without pause. Unless there are pauses at appropriate intervals, talk becomes superficial. In India-ink paintings, blank space plays a great role in lending vitality to a composition. The spirit of the tea ceremony contained in the term wakei seijaku (harmony and reverence, purity and tranquility) is expressed through the distance maintained between the host and guests. In crowded, rush-hour streets, a second’s failure to maintain the proper distance can lead to a bloodbath. The busier we are, the more we need time to sever our ties with all things worldly and take a calm, reflective look at ourselves. Beyond any doubt, kneeling quietly at a grave once a year provides a welcome chance to reassess one’s life. Inevitably, the thought comes: “I, too, must die.” This encounter with the crucial question of what happens after death is bound to fill one with solemnity. Visiting graves can become a form of superstitious ancestor worship, but if you place your palms quietly together at the graveside and contemplate your own mortality, coming face to face with the question of what will happen to you after death, the experience will be valuable.
(Petals of Shinran, Wisteria volume chapter 10)