Grief, Impermanence, and Upāya

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 23, 2016

“To Whom Does Kisā Gotamī Speak?” Grief, Impermanence, and Upāya

Richard K. Payne
Institute of Buddhist Studies, at the Graduate Theological Union

This article develops a perspective on the nature of Buddhist pastoral care by considering the needs of the bereaved. Differentiating the interpretive frameworks of different audiences and understanding different contexts of interpersonal relations are necessary for effective pastoral care. A distinction between the goal of realizing impermanence and the goal of resolving mourning is heuristically useful in theorizing Buddhist pastoral care. The discussion also seeks to underscore the value of upāya as a positive moral injunction on teachers, indicating the need to properly match their audience and to employ the textual tradition responsibly.

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One thought on “Grief, Impermanence, and Upāya”

  1. In the Shin Buddhist tradition, a common reading at a funeral service is “On White Bones,” which focuses on the fleetingness of life in stark terms: “When we deeply consider the transiency of this world, [we realize that] what is altogether fleeting as our own span of life. . . . [As those gathered for a service come to see], when it [life] has vanished with the midnight smoke, nothing is left but white bones. This is indeed incredibly sad. . . . Because the impermanence of this world creates a condition of uncertainty for young and old alike, we should all immediately take to heart the most important matter, the afterlife, and, deeply entrusting ourselves to Amida Buddha, say the nenbutsu.” In Ibuse’s novel “Black Rain,” this reading is said to bring consolation to the mourners during the Hiroshima funeral services. As someone who worked in pastoral ministry, I would say that a focus on impermanence could awaken mourners to the lesson of the moment and move them to deepen their lives. Of course, the minister must discern who is in the audience and the appropriateness of moving her or his sermon in this direction.

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