Mourning My Mother

bleeding heart

Bleeding hearts from my parents’ garden

During this school-at-home time, Claire and I decided that our science will be to re-watch Cosmos, presented by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. She last saw it about six years ago. We watched the first episode, about the origin of the universe, and how we are star stuff.

Mom loved knowledge. She loved learning things. She was curious. She loved the natural world and science. We often talked about the mystery of what we were before we were born, and what happens after we die. What were we? How do we become conscious? As I listened to Neil describe the marvelous scale of time, I cried. Just steady tears, not big crying.

My teacher advised me to make a ritual, to follow the mourning practice of Zen Buddhist tradition (which is my practice). She recommended that I chant a sutra (doesn’t matter which one) every day for 7 days, and dedicate it each time to my mother, announcing her full name. Then to do this practice on the 14th, 21st, and 49th day of her death. I chose two: the Daihishin Darani, which is a Japanese chant to Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, and the Heart Sutra (below).

I don’t typically light candles in the house, nor do I burn incense; the scent overwhelms other family members. But then I realized I have the perfect ritual. My daily cup of coffee. Mom loved black coffee, as do I. So I make my pour-over coffee, paying attention to each detail. I talk to Mom as it brews. Once it’s ready, I sit down with coffee and my chant book. I take a sip. Then I say, “I dedicate this sutra to Mary Catherine Nicklas Petro” and begin. I choke on the words as my throat thickens. But I do it, and I don’t think overly much about it. It’s not necessary to think. It’s perhaps even detrimental. The process brings a wisp of peace.

I love you, Momma. I miss you.

MAHA PRAJNA PARAMITA HEART SUTRA

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, doing deep prajna paramita,
Clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions,
Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain,
O Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness,
emptiness is no other than form;
Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form;
Sensation, conception, discrimination,
awareness are likewise like this.
O Shariputra, all dharmas are forms of emptiness,
not born, not destroyed;
Not stained, not pure, without loss, without gain;
So in emptiness there is no form, no sensation,
conception, discrimination, awareness;
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind;
No color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomena;
No realm of sight . . . no realm of consciousness;
No ignorance and no end to ignorance . . .
No old age and death, and no end to old age and death;
No suffering, no cause of suffering, no extinguishing, no path;
No wisdom and no gain. No gain and thus
The bodhisattva lives prajna paramita
With no hindrance in the mind, no hindrance, therefore no fear,
Far beyond deluded thoughts, this is nirvana.
All past, present, and future Buddhas live prajna paramita,
And therefore attain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.
Therefore know, prajna paramita is
The great mantra, the vivid mantra,
The best mantra, the unsurpassable mantra;
It completely clears all pain — this is the truth, not a lie.
So set forth the Prajna Paramita Mantra,
Set forth this mantra and say:

Gate! Gate! Paragate! Parasamgate!
Bodhi svaha. Prajna Heart Sutra.

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