Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician
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Short, poetic, & philosophical
Senior School History Teacher
Coffinman, by Shinmon Aoki, is the memoir of a Shin Buddhist mortician. This short, albeit deeply philosophical, work is broken into three parts: “The Season of Sleet,” “What Dying Means,” and “The Light and Life.” The first two parts reflect on Aoki’s experiences preparing bodies for burial. Through these experiences, which are paired with beautiful poetry, he reveals threads of Buddhist beliefs, which are eventually woven together in a way that feels simultaneously fragmented and complete. Aoki seeks to share the beliefs of Shin Buddhism through the way in which people experience life and (possibly more importantly) death. The first two parts of the book read in a tone that is a combination of conversation and stream of consciousness, combined with occasional humor. What appears to be random vignettes of memory come together, sometimes subtly, to illustrate complex Buddhist philosophy and pose deeper questions about – not the value of life, but— the value of death. The reader’s experience is much like the philosophy Aoki communicates—simple yet contradictory, peaceful yet chaotic, resolved yet unsettled. Ultimately, the memoir leaves the impact of profound understanding and deep seeded questions that stir the heart and mind to seek more.
The focus of the book is on the Amida Buddha, or Buddha of Infinite Life, also known as Tathagata. The shifting titles may be confusing to the Western layperson, but appropriate for something so obscure and intangible. Aoki’s inclusion of Western philosophies, science, and religion, as a means of connecting common beliefs, is as spiritually gratifying as it is intellectually synthetic. Additionally, his use of literature and poetry to compliment the exposition of Shin Buddhism and Japanese culture guides the reader to clarity and reflection. Initially developing the concept of the Light as he experiences it in his work as the Coffinman, he delves into the complex analysis of Light as an expression of the Big Bang, quantum physics, God, Amida Buddha, and the by-product of death. Though the last part is a heavy read, and I almost felt tricked into it by the meandering tales of coffins and death at the fore, I willingly continued my fall into the intricate and holistic examination of the Shin Buddhist vision of the hereafter.
I plan to use this memoir with Grade 12 students in a course about world religions; it would also be appropriate for Grade 11, and possibly for a small and mature group of Grade 10 students. It is an excellent resource and discussion point to talk about basic elements of Buddhism, as well as introduce students to a different branch and school of Buddhism than they may be exposed to through introductory courses. The book begs discussion and should only be incorporated into a course if there is ample time for dialogue. As I read the book, I did not come up with a list of topics to teach—for the book does a good job of explaining the core concepts—but, rather, I found myself generating a list of questions to ask students. In one early section of the book, Aoki talks about different interpretations of a “beautiful death.” Of course this is something most people would hope for, though I had never contemplated the divergent ways this could be interpreted. He gives examples from suicide and self-isolation to hara-kari, all of which have been “beautiful deaths” for one or another. Beyond the religious revelations, the memoir introduces cultural norms which can only be looked at through the discussion of death and the divergent views attached to it by societies and times.