In the 1960s, a rock band was formed taking the name of Grateful Dead. Its original name was Warlocks, but there was already a group by this name. Not to be confused with the other group, one of the original founders, Jerry Garcia, by chance while on a wild ride of drugs, came upon an Egyptian prayer, aptly named Grateful Dead. From there, the group is now known as the Grateful Dead.
But the term “grateful dead” has various folklore tales associated with this term. It is illustrated in many cultures throughout the world. As an Egyptian prayer, it is based on the principle of reciprocation, which is the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit. This prayer is a calling of blessings by others for the deceased person. Those who call the name help the deceased into a happy afterlife.
In other cultures, the tale tells of a traveler who comes across a corpse. He asks why this person had not been buried and the reply was that the deceased had debts and therefore an honored proper burial was denied. This traveler pays the debts, while in another version is that the traveler pays for the burial.
This traveler then goes on his way and acquires debts of his own. During his journey, this traveler meets another fellow traveler, who in turn helps him. However, there is a condition that comes with this help and it is to divide among others half of whatever he attains. The fellow traveler then reveals himself, and this fellow traveler is the grateful spirit of the deceased. Thus is the meaning of grateful dead.
As mentioned before, many cultures have a version of this tale. In Buddhism, there are some similarities to this tale. When a person passes, there is a monetary offering to the family. It is called “koden,” when translated means, “incense and sutra.” This word refers to the offering of incense and the chanting of sutras at the service. Money is given to the family of the deceased in order to help pay for the burning of incense and a minister’s chanting during the funeral service.
It is also an offering of condolence to the family of the deceased. Over time, the meaning of this monetary offering has changed. This offering can be used to defray some of the cost of the funeral or to pay debts owed by the deceased. It is also made to the family in remembrance of the deceased and a reminder to the deceased family that friends are always available to them in their time of grief. This offering is then reciprocated when the friend or family member passes, either of equal amount or what one can afford at the time.
To follow the concept of grateful dead is “omimai,” translated to mean “honorific sight-dance.” It is an “inquiry into a person’s health or condition.” When stricken with any mishap, we are limited in producing an income to pay our debts. It is a gift taken to a friend recovering from an illness or to a friend or group recovering from natural disasters or accident and so on. It may be used to aid in defraying some of the debts owed.
It is our “dana” of unselfish giving without asking for anything in return that we share. It is through this unselfish giving that we share with others in their struggles. These gifts or offerings may be reciprocated or repaid, if or when we find ourselves in difficulties.
Shinran Shonin was poor in wealth, yet he was rich in the Dharma. He freely offered the teachings to anyone whether rich or poor, educated or not, male or female, adult or child. Shinran expounded the Dharma to whoever wanted to hear, listen and learn. The only condition that Shinran Shonin asked is that we continue to listen, hear and learn. In return, we share with others.
Shinran Shonin never asked for a temple to be built in his honor or for any payment. From the time of Shinran Shonin to the present, it is the followers who feel the importance of continuing his teachings. We continue in hearing and listening. We give donations to the temple, so that we can continue to share the teachings to others, who also want to hear and learn of the teachings.
We are still able to hear the words and teachings and Shinran Shonin is repaying us through the words and teachings of his teachers. His deep entrusting in Namu Amida Butsu and reliance on the words of the Buddha can still be heard through the chanting of sutras and his writings.
Shinran Shonin is reciprocating his gratitude. It is his way of returning and sharing his appreciation and we continue to share ours with others and we are able to continue the search of our true self.
We share in our Namu Amida Butsu/Nembutsu in gratitude and thankfulness for being able to still hear the teachings. We are never abandoned in our time of need or joy and we are accepted just as we are.
We continue and try to live a life of Nembutsu. We are indebted to Shinran Shonin for his never ending entrusting in Namu Amida Butsu and the teachings. Perhaps it is our Namu Amida Butsu that is our grateful dead.