Email is an impersonal way to find out a dear friend has passed, but sometimes there’s no better way to break bad news. In my Zen school, we chant Kwan Seum Bosal–the name of the bodhisatta of compassion–when someone is in need and Ji Jang Bosal–the name of the “Earth Treasure” bodhisattva–when someone dies. Right now, the names of Kwan Seum Bosal and Ji Jang Bosal are echoing around the globe as members of my Zen school learn via email that one of our own–a long-time and dear Zen-friend–has passed, leaving a bereaved wife and many devastated friends.
In the immediate aftermath of shocking news, you have no words to express (much less explain) what has happened: all you have is a sad, stunned feeling, like a punch to the chest. The beauty of chanting, I’ve found, is that you don’t have to say anything. Once you take up your moktok–the hollow wooden instrument used to keep time during chanting–and open your mouth, the familiar melody takes over, like an oft-repeated prayer that prays itself. When Zen Master Seung Sahn died several years ago, Zen practitioners around the world chanted “Ji Jang Bosal” in his memory; when MBTA operator Terrese Edmonds died last spring, folks at the Cambridge Zen Center, having read the news in the paper, intoned the same chant. It doesn’t matter how near or far death strikes; when you receive word of bereavement, either your own or that of another, there’s only one proper response: Ji Jang Bosal.
Years ago when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, we’d come together every evening to chant Kwan Seum Bosal for those in need or Ji Jang Bosal for those who’d died: as a community, we carried one another’s heartaches. Every time I go to the Cambridge Zen Center to practice, I look at the names written on cards on the altar: one card listing those who are struggling, and one card listing those who have died. It’s a reminder that we’re all in this together: at any moment, any one of us will find ourselves suffering or bereaved, and at any moment, any one of us might die. We chant to give one another solace in times when words can’t express our sympathies, and we chant to remind ourselves that none of us is immune from suffering and death.
When I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, residents would sometimes use the main meditation room for solo practice during the day, when others were at work or in their rooms. Sitting meditation nicely lends itself to solitary practice, but the sound of chanting seeps through walls and windows. Whenever I’d come home to the Zen Center during the day and would hear the sound of one of my house-mates chanting, I’d pause to listen: Kwan Seum Bosal means someone needs help, and Ji Jang Bosal means someone is grieving. In that brief moment of listening, I’d silently chant along with my unseen house-mate, not knowing the precise story behind her or his intention. From day to day, the names and faces we chant for may change, but the chant itself–and the emotion behind it–stays the same.
I was living at the Zen Center when both of my grandmothers died, and I was living at the Zen Center when my father was diagnosed with (and successfully fought) cancer. In all three cases, chanting by myself and with others brought me great emotional solace: it was something I could do, I found, even when my heart was broken, the fluid ribbon of a familiar melody carrying me even when my voice trembled with sobs. In the aftermath of tonight’s email, I have no words, but I have a clear intention: Ji Jang Bosal Ji Jang Bosal for the one we have lost, and Kwan Seum Bosal Kwan Seum Bosal for those of us left behind.