Originally an email I wrote in November 2004, this is a wonderful true story. It’s hard to read, emotionally - but has the most amazing ending imaginable.
Reading it has changed lives - forever.
I don’t think I ever shared with anyone else the many thoughts I have had about where Jessie has gone after committing suicide.
Has she entered yet another round of suffering, yet another round of ignorance, into birth, life and death, strapped to the wheel of re-birth, in the way Buddha described?
Or, did her intuitive understanding of, and embrace of, Pure Land Buddhism after my brother Johnny died seal her for her next birth in Amida’s Pure Land as a Buddha at last?
Of course, as I said, I passionately HOPED so - and yet could not be at all sure because I couldn’t see the teaching of Shin Buddhism take root deeply within her.
And so I lived with that uncertainty in the midst of all my other grief and sorrow. The best I could do was take comfort in Shinran’s teachings, particularly this bit in the document called The Tannisho:
The Primal Vow was established out of deep compassion for us who cannot become freed from the bondage of birth-and-death through any religious practice, due to the abundance of blind passion.
Since its basic intention is to effect the enlightenment of such an evil one, the evil person who is led to true entrusting by Other Power is the person who attains birth in the Pure Land. Thus, even the good person attains birth, how much more so the evil person!
There is a difference in compassion between the Path of Sages and the Path of Pure Land. The compassion in the Path of Sages is expressed through pity, sympathy, and care for all beings, but rare is it that one can help another as completely as one desires.
The compassion in the Path of Pure Land is to quickly attain Buddhahood, saying the nembutsu, and with the true heart of compassion and love save all beings completely as we desire.
In this life no matter how much pity and sympathy we may feel for others, it is impossible to help another as we truly wish; thus our compassion is inconsistent and limited. Only the saying of nembutsu manifests the complete and never ending compassion which is true, real, and sincere.
I, Shinran, have never even once uttered the nembutsu for the sake of my father and mother. The reason is that all beings have been fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, in the timeless process of birth-and-death. When I attain buddhahood in the next birth, each and everyone will be saved.”
I had read this many times after Johnny’s suicide - but sometime around Christmas/New Year’s after Jessie’s suicide, I read it again in my deepest moment of despair - despair kindled not just by the horror of her final months of suffering and her self-murder - but by my own sense of having failed to extricate her from the pit she was sinking into - even though I had extricated others who were afflicted, and brought into my world.
In reading this I saw that as a non-Buddha, I was limited by my own ignorance, my own endarkenment. As a Buddha I would have no such limitation - indeed I would have (as all Buddhas do) the “32 marks” of TRUE and COMPLETE enlightenment that only a full Buddha can have.
As a full Buddha, I would have no spacetime limitations, nor limitations of knowledge or wisdom - and thus would be able to act effectively on behalf of Jessie who I loved so much more than my own life.
And of course, not only Jessie - but all beings to whom I am karmically bound - including Johnny, my family, etc.
In spite of Shinran’s words above, and my commitment to find my beloved daugter and friend after I end this life and become a Buddha , I couldn’t help but wonder about Jessie’s fate since her death. It was, and it remained, a massive burden for me ever since she died, on top of all the other aspects of my grief.
Which brings me to her sister Jamie’s experience below, described in an email she sent from Sorrento, a year after Jessie’s death.
…The most amazing experience happened in sorrento.
it was the first night and i was thinking so much of jessica because we always talked about traveling abroad together, i was feeling quite sad.
Before dinner we were in the lobby of our hotel and there was a piano player, as soon as i sat down he played fields of gold, when this happened i felt chills throughout my whole body, i was speechless…it was amazing. then as soon as he finished that song he played over the rainbow…it was so emotionally overwhelming, but i knew jessica was with me an it made me feel so warm inside. i know she is with me every step of the way…
When Jamie told me about her experience of hearing Jessie sing to her for several minutes on the night of Nov 8 (exactly one year after Jessie’s death) it was hard for me not to be skeptical - even as I remained open-minded.
As poor deluded human beings we are subject to all kinds of fantastical thoughts, feelings and even experiences that are the product of a mind in deep distress - as Jamie’s mind was that night.
It was far more likely (so I thought) that this was the explanation for the phenomenon Jamie reported of her sister’s presence at her bedside, and her voice singing soft and low in her ear.
But this latest experience happened outside the boundaries of Jamie’s mind. Jamie has told me that Amanda was present, and witnessed the entire event. And - for the record - these are two very “normal” young women not given to either mysticism, nor psychedelics.
So here’s the billion dollar question: What are the statistical chances of her going to a small Italian town where few people even speak English, of her sitting down in the midst of many sad thoughts about her sisters absence, and the person playing piano immediately play the two songs from Jessie’s funeral service, in the same order they were played in during that terrible day of grieving.
The probability of that happening by chance is, it seems to me, essentially ZERO.
It’s impossible to explain this event without resorting to metaphysics of some sort - searching in the realm of spirit - entirely outside the realm of the physical that we can understand.
My own conclusion, which may be different than someone else’s who sees the world through a prism other than a Buddhist one, is this:
- Indeed Jessie went, immediately upon her death, to the world system we call “The Pure Land” ruled by the Buddha we call Amida - The Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life.
- Indeed, once she arrived there she immediately took her birth there as a Buddha herself, ending, finally, her own endless lifetimes as a non-Buddha - strapped, as we all are, to the terrible wheel of suffering rebirths that the Buddha of this world described so clearly to us.
- And yes, indeed, now as a Buddha, unbound by the constraints of space and time, she came back and engineered this little display for Jamie - and for us all - to tell us the following:
- She is now in a place of bliss and fulness - finally able to complete and sustain the very mission that defined her young life here on this planet - the work of ending suffering in some other realm in which she now sits as a full Buddha. Those of us who knew and loved her know that she was always motivated by such Buddhic impulses, even as she carried, as we all do, the state of existential darkness and ignorance that we suffer with as non-buddhas in this difficult world.
- That the mystery of Amida’s primal vow is greater than any set of evil circumstance that circumscribe our lives here, even as Master Shinran and Master Honen explained.
Here’s a reasonably cogent expression of this basic teaching, which Jessie embraced, and which (I believe) decisively determined her next birth after her death in this world.
“The main object of all sentient beings is “Ten mei kai go” which means to turn from illusion and attain Enlightenment. All Buddhist schools of thought embrace this same goal of Enlightenment but differ in their method of attainment.
In the schools that emphasize meditation man must meditate and purify his mind until it becomes pure as the Mind of the Buddha. In the school that considers practice and good works to be the primary task, man must accumulate merits through good deeds and bring them to perfection. In both of these methods man must increase his stock of merits by his own power until he reaches Buddhahood.
The Primal Vow of Amida, on the other hand, is primarily concerned not with those who have the capacity to meditate and practice but with those whose abilities are so finite and weak that they can never hope to attain Buddhahood. It was just for such beings that Amida, realizing the sad plight of man, made the forty-eight vows and especially the all compassionate eighteenth or Primal Vow.
However, His meditation and practice would have been indeed futile if the goodness, resulting from His compassionate work, did not somehow reach the hearts of all sentient beings. Amida, therefore, put the entire results of His labor of Love into the sacred Name - Namu Amida Butsu.
Thus, this Nembutsu is the embodiment of purity, truth, goodness, beauty, wisdom and peace; in other words it embodies all the highest values and qualities both conceivable and inconceivable, which Amida was able to perfect in His infinitely long period of meditation and practice.
To communicate with all sentient beings He grants this Name as a gift to all sentient beings, freely and equally. Sentient beings in every corner of the universe hear His Name and accept it with a simple, trusting heart - the heart of Faith. Amida’s heart and the hearts of all beings become one and identified. This fact is the true assurance of our salvation and rebirth into the Pure Land or Ojodo.
Why is it that a man who has Faith does not become enlightened in this life? The answer lies in the nature of man. He is still in his earthly body, subject to physical and mental limitations. So long as he is a relative and imperfect being, he can never become an absolute Buddha, perfect in every respect. It is, therefore, that the assurance of Buddhahood is given in this life and the actual attainment of Buddhahood is realized in the Pure Land. In the Creed we read, “We rely upon Amida Buddha with our whole heart for the Enlightenment in the life to come”.
The recitation of the Nembutsu - Namu Amida Butsu (I place my faith in Amida Buddha) is an outward verbal expression of thanksgiving and gratitude for salvation assured. This thanksgiving and gratitude for Amida’s Compassion becomes a vital spiritual force in the lives of all who follow the Nembutsu”.
The Larger Sutra of Amida Buddha, also called the Larger Pure Land Sutra, give the story of how King Dharmakara abandoned his throne and became a monk as he searched for enlightenment. As a monk he apprenticed himself to the Buddha of that day, and after much contemplation made 48 Sacred Vows for the sake of all sentient beings. The 18th of those 48 vows is the very heart of his work, and expresses his intention to make a way for all of us who are not capable of bootstrapping ourselves out of darkness into the enlightenment of all the Buddhas.
Here’s a brief bit of teaching again:
“According to the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (The Larger Sutra of Amida) spoken by Shakyamuni Buddha, Amida Buddha was known as Dharmakara Bodhisattva in the distant past.
It is said that during the time of Lokesvaraja Buddha, he was the king of a country and, having heard the Dharma taught by Lokesvaraja Buddha, he gave up his throne and seeked to learn the Dharma under Lokesvaraja Buddha.
It was during this time that he wished to set up his own Pureland to benefit other sentient beings, and under Lokesvaraja Buddha, set up his 48 Vows. Dharmakara Bodhisattva vowed that if his vows were not fulfilled, he would not gain enlightenment.
Amida Buddha’s 48 Vows are condensed into the 18th Vow, the Primal Vow that states, If I were to become a Buddha, and people, hearing my Name, have faith and joy and recite it for even ten times, but were not born into my Pureland, may I not gain enlightenment.
Dharmakara Bodhisattva established and fulfilled the special Vow to save all sentient beings and become Amida Buddha. While the other Buddhas help people who accumulate meritorious deeds, practice meditative activities, and perfect wisdom, Amida Buddha saves the being of blind foolishness and karmic evil through form (Primal Vow) and Name (Nembutsu).
That is the person who realizes himself as being truly human (ignorant and evil) and becomes his foolish self attains Buddhahood by virtue of Amida Buddha”.
The thing that I DO know about Jessie is that she went with me (and Jamie) to the Shin Buddhist Church of New York to hear Dr. Teitsu Unno discourse on the teaching of Shin Buddhism shortly after Johnny’s suicide. I bought her a copy of Dr. Unno’s book there, “Bits of Rubble Turn Into Gold”.
Maybe it was because she already had been studying this whole subject of enlightenment, consciousness, and the human predicament for several years, even though she was barely an adult - and maybe it was because we had talked so many times about the challenges of being in this world - and about our difficult journey on the path - and about endarkenment and enlightenment both.
For whatever reasons - when she read Unno’s book in the midst of her own life, shortly before her terrible last year of personal struggle began, she seemed to “get it” right away.
She understood, in her heart, our essential predicament - hers as well as everyone else’s. She recognized that ultimately she was not capable of transcending her karmic burden by her own efforts, despite her good intentions.
And so she did say the Nembutsu - Namu Amida Butsu - “I take refuge in Amida Buddha” - as an expression of her deciding to leave her enlightenment in the hands of “other power” rather than “self-power”.
And so, today, as I write this, I find myself in a place of sensing that indeed, the Primal Vow of Amida “took” in Jessie’s life - and that as a result, even the terrible darkness of her last days - the grief over her poisonous childhood programming that was triggered by her job experience - the (possible) poisoning of her brain by the very pharmaceutical drugs meant to help her - none of that terrible darkness was able to prevail against the infinite life and infinite light of Amida Buddha.
Rather, the mysterious power of the primal vow actually did prevail in her life after all - and she has crossed incalculable distances as a Buddha, returning to Jamie’s side in our world in that piano bar in Sorrento, to make it plain for any of us with eyes to see.
I close with the following from the Tannisho:
“When the thought of saying the nembutsu erupts from deep within, having entrusted ourselves to the inconceivable power of Amida’s vow which saves us, enabling us to be born in the Pure Land, we receive at that very moment the ultimate benefit of being grasped never to be abandoned.
Amida’s Primal Vow does not discriminate between the young and old, good and evil - true entrusting alone is essential. The reason is that the Vow is directed to the person burdened with the weight of karmic evil and burning with the flames of blind passion.
Thus, in entrusting ourselves to the Primal Vow, no other form of good is necessary, for there is no good that surpasses the nembutsu. And evil need not be feared, for there is no evil which can obstruct the working of Amida’s Primal Vow“.
As much as I have stuggled with gift/curse of some small measure of partial vision into the nature of things - this vision which has let me help one or two - but has also let me see something of the evil that led to the anguished last year of my beloved Jessie’s life - I find these words of Shinran to be entirely true.
There is no evil that can prevail against the mysterious power of the primal vow:
- not the evil of a sick mother’s hatred of her own flesh and blood
- not the evil of greedy capitalists who would lie about the side effects of their drugs
- not the evil of my ignorance of what to do and how to do it in the most important battle of my whole life, the battle to pull my daughter out of the pit of hell into which she was sinking
- and not even the evil of Jessie’s terrible delusions that, in the last horrific year of a wonderful life, seemed so real that she couldn’t stand to be alive anymore.
None of this evil was able to obstruct the working of Amida’s Primal Vow in Jessie’s life - simply because she understood what it meant to say Namu Amida Butsu - and she said it with sincerity - knowing little else about the teaching, except what she had read in one man’s book, and in our discussions.
In that moment of sincere utterance of Namu Amida Butsu she received the ultimate benefit of being grasped, never to be abandoned - and of having her birth in the Pure Land assured at the end of this, her last lifetime as a non-Buddha.
And so (in my opinion) as someone who was, in all her imperfection and (yes) immaturity, surely was one of the finest people I have ever known, someone truly committed to answering life’s call to her as a wounded healer willing to engage herself in the darkness of this planet - she now has gone ahead - and awaits us all - a Buddha at last.
And she came back to give us the gift of knowing that Buddhahood, and the Pure Land, await us all as well.
Here’s a postscript to my email of yesterday…
Today I had a chance to talk more to Jamie (she having caught up on her sleep) about her experience last week at the piano in Sorrento. What she told me was this:
As soon as the man began playing “Fields of Gold” both she and her friend Amanda were dumbstruck…and doubly so when he followed it up with “Over the Rainbow”. And even though they stayed at this hotel for 3 days, no one ever played the piano there again - so it wasn’t like this was a hired lounge player with some kind of standard repertoire.
The feeling she had while he was playing was the same feeling she had on the night of November 8 (anniversary of Jessie’s death) when she sensed Jessie by her side singing.
It was an unmistakeable feeling of transcendent bliss…the kind of feeling one would have in the presence of a full Buddha - because (as Buddha taught in the Larger Pure Land Sutra) every Buddha gives off this effulgence - this divine kind of energy - called, in Buddhist scriptures, a “buddhafield”.
So…in my view…and I don’t believe at all that this is a stretch - nor just the ramblings of a grief-stricken father…it seems that Jessie has now completed her endless journey through countless lifetimes of birth, suffering and death (basic dharma…or Buddha’s teaching) and taking birth in the Pure Land she now exists as one of innumerable Buddhas, able to traverse through spacetime at the speed of thought - and manifesting herself to her sister in creating these otherwise inexplicable experiences - replete with one of the defining marks of true Buddha-hood - the sensation of transcendent bliss that accompanies the presence of a Buddha.
The bottom line: this seems to me to be a more than reasonable level of empirical verification of what I have come to believe, since I first heard this dharma of “True Pure Land Buddhism”, otherwise known as Shin Buddhism, or Jodo Shinshu, in the aftermath of my brother’s death in the summer of 2002.
I’m not asking anyone else to believe it, but simply offering it as Buddha offered all his teachings - as a raft to take us from the near shore of endarkenment where we all are perched - to the far shore of full awakening, where we all will eventually meet once again.
These aren’t my ideas, and they aren’t ideas I came to willingly, of my own accord. Rather, they came into my field of awareness in the wake of utter heartbreak.
If you feel any of this would be useful, in any way, to anyone you know, you have my permission to forward it, with my email address.
My sincerest best wishes to all of you…