The “Letter on White Ashes”, or hakkotsu no shō (白骨の章), is a letter written by Rennyo of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist sect to his followers, and has always been one of my favorite texts over the years. The term “white ashes” here refers to the Buddhist funerary tradition of cremation.
Rennyo wrote many letters to his followers, scattered all over medieval Japan. These letters were latter collected by followers into the gobunshō (ご文章). The Gobunsho is still studied and recited among Jodo Shinshu Buddhists even today. But the Letter on White Ashes is among the most famous and well-known. It is frequent read aloud during funerals.
I read this letter from time to time, and find it grounds me in what matters in life. The translation here is originally posted at the excellent Manitoba Buddhist Church, so all credit goes to them.
Letter on White Ashes
Now, if we look realistically at the nature of human life, we see that it is fleeting and unpredictable, illusive almost. Birth, life and death pass by in the twinkling of an eye. Thus we never hear of the human body lasting for ten thousand years.
And who today can keep the body young and healthy for even one hundred years? Yes, how quickly our lives slip away. Whether I am the first or someone else, whether today or tomorrow, our lives on earth do indeed one day come to an end. Life seems to vanish unseen like ground water, or to evaporate like the morning dew on the summer lawn.
Thus our bodies may be radiant with health in the morning, but by evening they may be white ashes. If the right causes and conditions prevail, our two eyes are closed forever, our breathing ceases and our bodies lose the glow of life. Our relatives in great numbers and with great wealth can assemble, but they are powerless to change our situation. Even the rites and rituals of grief and mourning change nothing. All we can do is prepare the body for cremation; all that is left is white ashes.
In view of these facts, does it not make sense to focus on the things we can change? We cannot control the passing away of both young and old alike, but each of us can take refuge in the Buddha of Infinite Life who promises to embrace, without exception, all beings who but recite his Holy Name – Namo Amida Buddha. This you can do here and now, freeing yourself of any worries concerning your future life.
With friendly reverence, I remain,
Namu Amida Butsu