49th Day in Kyoto
by Alex Halpern, Boulder, CO
The 49th day ceremony was conducted for Shibata Kanjuro XX by his family in Kyoto on December 10, 2013. My wife Carol and I were very fortunate to attend. In order to describe the ceremony for you first I have to clarify names and titles. The person we knew as Shibata Sensei was the twentieth in his family lineage. Now that he has passed away, he is referred to as “Sendai Sensei” which means the immediate past generation lineage holder. His son and heir now holds the title Shibata Kanjuro XXI and is referred to as “Sensei.”During the 49 day period, the home shrine was closed, and a memorial to Sendai Sensei was set up in the main room in the house. The memorial included the wooden box containing his ashes and bones, two framed photographs (one serious, one light-hearted), flowers, candles and offerings received from his friends and associates. There was also a place to offer incense in front of the box of remains. Gifts of incense, sake, food, money, and other things arrived in person and by mail from Sendai Sensei’s relatives, friends, and associates every day. Each morning, Sendai Sensei’s daughter Hiromi-san brought him a plate of breakfast.
The day of the ceremony was rather cold, and it rained a little in the morning. The ceremony was held at the nearby Chokodo Temple, led by the head priest, Inaba Ze-ho. The Chokodo Temple has been the family temple for hundreds of years. The ceremony was a family event attended by Sensei (Kanjuro Shibata XXI), his wife Hiromi-san, their son Munehiro and his family, and daughter Asako; Sendai Sensei’s other daughter, Shikami Hatsue and her three children (Keiji, Waka, and Aki); Sendai Sensei’s youngest brother and his first wife’s sister; and Sensei’s brother and two sisters, and their spouses. Everybody was dressed in formal black Western clothing.We sat in the meditation hall facing a very beautiful and ornate shrine. The box of remains and Sendai Sensei’s photograph were placed in front of the Buddha statute. There were also about eight wooden stakes, 6 or 7 feet in length, calligraphed with the names of the families and groups represented at the ceremony. In addition to the families, there was a stake for Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the Zenko Kyudojo, and the Oko Kyudojo.
Priest Ze-ho, dressed in splendid purple robes and a gold “jacket,” performed chants and prayers, occasionally striking a gong or small, hollow wooden object. After about 15 minutes, each of the participants individually rose, bowed, offered powdered incense to the shrine three times, and bowed again. At that time, in addition to incense, I was able to offer a kata (silk scarf) on behalf of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
The priest spoke briefly to the group and concluded this part of the ceremony. Sensei, Munehiro, and the priest removed the box containing the remains and spontaneously wrapped it in the Sakyong’s kata. They also picked up the name stakes and the large photograph of Sensei and led us all out of the meditation hall and across the front court yard of the temple to the family “tomb” area.The Chokodo temple is relatively small and exquisitely maintained. It is also quite ancient, dating back to the twelfth century. In the memorial area, there appeared to be only about 20 or so family tombs. We gathered in front of the Shibata family tomb, which the priest opened by removing a stone block at its base. Inside the tomb are the remains of the 19 preceding Kanjuro Shibatas as well as Sendai Sensei’s first wife. They opened the box of remains, and Munehiro presented it to each person to take out a bone fragment and put it in a white, cloth sack. Then all the remains were placed back in the box, which was closed, rewrapped in the kata, and pushed inside the tomb. The stone cover was replaced. We all offered incense a last time, and the ceremony was concluded.
Coming away from this very simple, dignified ceremony, I had a heightened sense of the depth of the tradition from which Sendai Sensei came, as well as the significance of the family relations. The Kanjuro Shibata family lineage in Kyoto goes back twenty generations to the sixteenth century. That feeling increased the gratitude and amazement that Sendai Sensei had brought so much to his students and friends in the West. I have great certainty that the work he started will be continued by his son and by us – his many students in North America, Europe, and beyond.
Alex Halpern has been a kyudo student and instructor since 1980. He practices at the Zenko Kyudojo in Boulder every Sunday morning.