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Monthly Dharma Thoughts

The Confessions of the Coffinman


Aoki Shinmon
Author of Nōkanfu nikki / ‘Coffinman’

What Shinran Shōnin means to me :
As seen through the movie Okuribito / ‘Departures’


When the movie Okuribito / ‘Departures’ came out, it received numerous film awards in Japan and then went on to win an Academy award in America. Along with the praise the movie won, it brought up the question of why my name did not appear among the credits as the original author of the work. This question of credits was put to me even by those who had read my book, Nōkanfu nikki / ‘Coffinman’. On occasion I would be asked why my name was not listed and I recall brushing the question aside after mumbling something incoherent as an answer.


So what it comes down to is this: The movie Okuribito / ‘Departures’ is similar to my book but not quite the same; that is, its story is similar to my story, but it does not direct the audience to the same point I want to make in my book. It is not as if what I really want to say has been blatantly crossed out and replaced with something entirely different. What has happened here, rather, is somewhat more subtle, that is, it has been replaced by something similar but not quite the same.


While pointing out the dissatisfaction that people today have with the existing funeral practices as conducted by religious sects, the movie drapes its storyline around the theme of just how healing the period of grief can be when we have to depart from loved ones. In other words, it was a film production that focused on modern society and tapped into the rich vein of European humanism that runs throughout modern life. When people lose sight of religion, they turn to the healing forces of humanism. Movies like Okuribito / ‘Departures’ and songs such as ‘A Thousand Winds’ thus fit perfectly with the psychological profile of modern people today.


To my mind it was important to draw the line somewhere, even if it meant abandoning my claim to authorship. The reason is, it was the light of the teaching of Shinran Shōnin that led me to write Nōkanfu nikki / ‘Coffinman’. It just did not sit well with me that the movie should divest itself entirely of the theme of religion.


In Toyama prefecture where I live, more than 80% of the funerals are conducted in the Jōdo Shinshū style. At the wake and so on, the stirring passage on ‘The White Ashes’ from The Letters of Rennyo Shōnin is often read. In it we come across the key word, ‘the One Great Matter of our Life Hereafter’.


‘The One Great Matter of our Life Hereafter’ is explained in another part of The Letters of Rennyo Shōnin, where Rennyo Shōnin writes, ‘A scholar may well have mastered every Buddhist doctrine there is, but if he has yet to resolve the One Great Matter of our Life Hereafter, he knows nothing of religion. On the other hand, we have women and men here who are completely illiterate, yet who have come to terms with the One Great Matter of our Life Hereafter; these people I call those who are truly wise’.


Contemporary writers and thinkers take the stance that life is all and that there is nothing after you die. As a result, when they are approaching the end and are staring death in the face, they are at a loss as to what to do. Whenever I see this happen, I am reminded of the words of Rennyo Shōnin. People today are largely inclined to embrace the ‘this life now’ position as if this life now is the only thing that matters; they do not take into consideration the Life Hereafter as the One Great Matter with which we must come to terms in order to truly live.


The first time that this message of the Life Hereafter as the One Great Matter became real for me was when I stood among the dead while engaged in my professional role as coffinman. As I gazed at their faces I noticed that they each wore a lovely expression of peaceful serenity. It was then that I realised that this was the message of the Life Hereafter as the One Great Matter that the dead wished to impart to the living.


It was through the teachings of Shinran Shōnin that I realised that this face of peaceful serenity was the act of kindness that the Tathāgata Nyorai turns over to us out of loving compassion.


This message reached me at a time when my life had bottomed out and I was lost in despair. Guided by this light I was able to find a way to live in a peaceful awareness of what life now held for me. If I had not encountered Shinran Shōnin, my life would have been overwhelmed by darkness and despair. Thus, there is for me no better friend and teacher than Shinran Shōnin.


The act of kindness shown us by the Nyorai out of loving compassion for all is such that
It is impossible for us to return the favour though we strive to the utmost of our being.
The act of kindness shown me by Shinran Shōnin is such that
It is impossible for me to return the favour though I grind my bones to dust trying.


*Source: Originally published in Hongwanji Shinpō, 1 August 2009, p. 1. We wish to thank the Hongwanji Shinpō and the author Aoki Shinmon for permission to reprint the essay here in English translation; portions adapted. For an English translation of the author’s book, see Coffinman: The journal of a Buddhist mortician, Anaheim, CA: Buddhist Education Center, 2002. For an English translation of The Letters of Rennyo, see the volume of that title in the Shin Buddhism Translation Series. Copyright Aoki Shinmon 2009.